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Cosmo Vitelli owns the Crazy Horse West, a strip joint in California. He's laconic, a Korean War vet, and a gambler. When we meet him, he's making his last payment on a gambling debt. Then, he promptly loses $23,000 playing poker at an illegal local casino. The guys he owes this time aren't so friendly, pressuring him for immediate payment. Then they suggest that he kill a Chinese bookie to wipe off the debt. Vitelli and the film move back and forth between the double-crossing, murderous insincerity of the gamblers and the friendships, sweetness, and even love among Vitelli, the dancers, a dancer's mother, and the club's singer, Mr. Sophistication. Written by
Ben Gazzara was unhappy with the role initially, unable to find a way to connect to Cosmo Vitelli. That changed when shooting a scene, Cassavetes spoke to Gazzara about the gangsters in the film as a metaphor for the people who are constantly trying to steal or ruin people's dreams. Cassavetes started to cry and Gazzara saw that playing Cosmo was representing John Cassavetes and the movie was a metaphor for the director's struggles for his own dreams. See more »
My mother was very funny. Had a great sense of humor. Yeah, that's right. She was so funny, she ran off with this big, fat butcher.
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One of the most stimulating relaxations I know is simply floating on water. The good thing in living a short walk from the beach is that I get to do this every other day of nearly half the year. It's great at dusk, whereby the sea is not some abstract volume but the specific sensation of upfloat, and the early moon is that rock over there from me. Tangible moments of world, encompassing what the Chinese call the tao.
No film even compares to the feeling, certainly no piffle Koyannisqatsi. But a few filmmakers come close to this totality as something felt. Cinema is nothing in a large sense, that is until a certain point where it becomes a most powerful tool for enlightenment. Cassavetes is one of those guys, and knows just how to use it.
So I revisited this after many years as part of my Cassavetes series, this time watching the extended version. The shorter one may be tighter, more focused, but I'll always opt for a longer stay in his world.
The film is the perfect summer night movie, one to watch with the distant sound of motor noise flowing through open windows. Cassavetes loves the night, the neon signs, the sound of traffic, the hubbub of the nightclub, the brushing of people in close spaces. The film is full of extremely memorable spaces, years later I could recall Cosmo standing in the entrance of his club, the backalley where he's beaten up, the empty highway, the phonebooth in the middle of nowhere, running from the Chinaman's house.
Here, Cassavetes stretches two things. The existential noir where desire, not even so much for poker money, the desire it seems to look comfortable in front of people, summons the noir darkness. Usually in a noir, from that point we get some hallucinative fooling with the narration, here completely merged with the flow of things. The murky proposal for the kill in the cramped car, nothing telegraphed. The subtle menace and helplessness around the gangsters. The foreshadowing bang of the flat tire. The inescapable framing where he was the stooge of fate all along.
And a more gentle self-reference, where Cosmo, standing for Cassavetes, gambles with money-people and loses. These mafia executives want from him a straightforward movie that ends with a killing, the simplest stuff, which he grudgingly delivers. The starkest contrast from the fancy, lively improvisation going on in his club, that both reflects and ribs at Cassavetes' own stuff. He does it his way of course, with fumbling, confusion and uncertainty. And still succeeds. Only The Long Goodbye rivals it in the crime sweepstakes of the 70s, no doubt inspired by this.
Here, because of the adoption of genre with its clear horizon, the tethers are easier than previous Cassavetes films. Oh there is the anxiety, but that is part and parcel of the greater life. More than any of his films though, it achieves that sublime floating sense that encompasses a concrete totality.
His camera excites me like no one else's. Antonioni adopts the transcendent position. Tarkovsky the one of flowing mind. Cassavetes adopts the position of tentative coming-into-being, his visual space has a thick and viscous quality, it has time, it has a tangible and floating gravity, all things coming to be and vanishing again in a cosmic vitality.
Cosmo, a man of cosmic vitality. All through the gangster stuff, Cosmo keeps worrying about the show and the club. Because the show and the atmosphere around his club are of the soul of this man, the images and living space worth living fordreamy and spontaneous, scented air, a little sloppy because it is re-discovered each night. But that is as much a role, the entrepreneur, as that of the killer, the gambler, the suave playboy, masks for the night. Not the original face.
Deep down I get the sense of a weary joy that runs deeper than happiness, a mono no aware.
Something to meditate upon.
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