" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

OLDFANGLED: CASSAVETES, YOU FASCINATING BASTARD


It doesn’t break any ground to recognize John Cassavetes as “the father of independent cinema” – a misleading title that shortchanges his real achievements. Like most geniuses, he got screwed over while he was alive and then was canonized and miscategorized after death.

Actually, independent cinema has been churned out since the medium was invented. At the beginning, it was ALL independent, wasn’t it? -- before the integration of production and distribution created the mainstream studios, which studiously crushed the competition. (A complete primer of off-center, innovative work can be found in Treasures from American Film Archives, More Treasures from American Film Archives, Treasures III and IV, Kino’s marvelous Avant-Garde and Avant-Garde 2 collections, and the dauntingly large 7-disc Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film.)

Cassavetes entered the scene an as actor; for better or worse, under the influence of the Method. The quest to delve into the self for meaning, to find and project authentic content as a performer, transformed the profession.

It was an improvisation Cassavetes came across while teaching the Method that led to his inspiration to make his first film, Shadows. To show you how well-received it was, it couldn’t get any U.S. distribution – it had to win the Critics award at the Venice Film Festival in order for European distributors to grab and show in the States – as an import!

The bedrock of his approach is to strip away all the trappings of “quality cinema” – the production values and internalized code of taste that kept mainstream movies the safe, bland product it was sculpted to be. It’s just the script, the characters, the actors in focus and up front, and it lives or dies on those values.

You can see Cassavetes’ discomfort with the dominant Hollywood paradigm in his performances. He is typically cast as the wise guy, a smartass, an outsider who knows that the system is rigged – at the end of the scale a duplicitous, untrustworthy cynic. His Academy Award-nominated performance as Franko in The Dirty Dozen, his doomed Johnny North in the awful The Killers remake, even his Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby are desperately tired, scratching at the walls, almost but not quite rolling their eyes at the gimcrackery around them.

When Cassavetes gets behind the camera, he relaxes. He wants something real, and by God he goes and gets it.

His cinema is one of obsessively curious observation. There are no pat answers, no denouements, no moments of cleansing catharsis in them. Cassavetes films are full of stutter-steps, blind alleys, agonizingly long takes. Watching takes patience, forbearance, but it pays off.

He only made 9 films the way he wanted: Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, Gloria and Love Streams.

Of Cassavetes’ 9 “personal” films, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is the most frustrating and revealing.

Its center, strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli, is in a way Cassavetes himself. He’s marvelously played by Ben Gazzara. He’s a little guy with big dreams. As the film opens, he pays off a loan shark the money he owes on his club, the Crazy Horse West, finally owning it outright.

It’s a shithole, frankly, a tawdry showplace that’s nominally enlivened by a stage show that’s a cruel parody of its namesake, the erotic Paris nightclub that features elaborate stage shows. Here, the handful of dancers trot out and intersperse flashes of breasts with jokes, punctuated by the damp, unenthused singing and musing of the show’s emcee, the portly, balding, top-hatted “Mr. Sophistication.”

But Cosmo loves it. It’s his dream, his love child, his creative offspring. He stands in the back of the room, everything fresh and alive in his eyes. Later that night, he takes out three of his dancers to celebrate – charmingly, bringing each a corsage like some smitten prom-goer.

But Cosmo blows it. He and the ladies go gambling. The same impulses that push him on undo him, and he finds himself in debt to the tune of $23,000 to some shady types. They have him by the balls, and the squeezing begins. Before you know it, they have pressured him into the title act.

Although the movie has the structure of a tight noir tragedy, this is Cassavetes, and the plot takes a back seat to the people involved. Digressive swoops give us insight into Cosmo, his workers, the “bad guys,” and any incidental characters that pop up along the way. Every character, no matter how brief his or her time on the screen, gets their moment, gets to define themselves.

Along the way, we keep seeing Cosmo in shifting perspective. Is he a competent businessman? A killer? A clown? Right away, the conventions of the genre break down. The stolen car given to Cosmo to take him to the hit blows a tire on the freeway. Cosmo flees, and calls a cab. While waiting, he calls his club and checks on the show, quizzing the staff and berating them when they don’t even know where in his scenario the action is.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” says Cosmo’s victim, off camera before he pulls the trigger. “I’ve been a bad person.” It’s as if Cosmo’s killing himself, or at least the part he thought was safe, the part that would last. Later, when the killing’s contractors come after him to silence him, he seems unsurprised, resigned. Unimpressed by the danger. Indifferent.

Cosmo takes a bullet, but there’s no heroic end for him. Things slowly unravel, and he marches on, schmoozing with the help backstage, starting the show, lingering outside on the sidewalk waiting to greet the customers and hustle them inside, even as he quizzically dips his hand into his jacket to feel the blood dampening and spreading there.

There the filmmaker stands, too, seemingly unashamed of his rickety product, dying or not dying of his wounds, obdurate to anything that stands between himself and the fulfillment of his dreams, however crass and untidy.

Friday, April 17, 2009

CULTURAMA: DENVER'S DIRTY DOZEN

Poor Denver. It wants respect! Always has. Yet the happy gloss of its Chamber of Commerce brochures looks like an Easter dress on a $20 hooker – unconvincing.
Visitors are being inundated with facts, figures and suggestions on where to go, what to do and how to fill the coffers of the local merchants. Exhibits, tours, and special events cram the calendar.
The city has long suffered from the most immense inferiority complex in American history, constantly checking the shine on its shoes and the crease in its pants.
But there is a dark side to the Queen city of the Plains. What our apologists fail to understand is that the sleazy, small-time life of Denver is its true, emblematic life. Those of us who know the town can tell you where the real action, danger and excitement is. Unsurprisingly, most of it is near Colfax.
So, strap on. Take money, pain relievers, methods of self-defense, and your Spanglish dictionary.

1. COLFAX VIA THE 15 BUS

See www.rtd-derver.com for schedule and map

Get oriented. The longest commercial street in America, Colfax Avenue sprouts up at the base of the foothills and stretches, straight as a string, practically out to Kansas. The 15 (you must take the local, not the express) covers only East Colfax, but that’s by far the sleaziest part. For a $2, you can ride all day, and watch the dregs of humanity at play. Want to witness drug deals? Want to have a crazy person explained his or her Unified Field Theory to you? Get propositioned in the back? It’s all possible, and they hose it out later.

Runner-up: Hanging out under the Speer Boulevard bridges

2. LAKESIDE AMUSEMENT PARK
4601 Sheridan Blvd.
(303) 477-1621
www.lakesideamusementpark.com

These 100-year-old pleasure grounds are legendary, primarily as a place where scary, dilapidated rides are operated by drug-addled teenagers. Always the cheap alternative to Elitch’s, its state of neglect is inspiring, in a creepy way – and the Art Deco touches are still in place.

3. TWISTED SOL

1405 Ogden St.
(303) 832-1311
www.twistedsol.com

There are any number of talented inkers in town, but Twisted Sol is right down the street from the Ogden Theater and close to many of Capitol Hill’s skankiest hangouts. If the experience exhausts you, you can check into the Royal Host Motel nearby. Check for hourly rates.

4. DIAMOND LIL’S ADULT EMPORIUM

1215 20th St.
(303) 295-2160

At 20th and Lawrence, this long-standing bastion of porn is truly a descent into the Inferno. The pawed-over mags, the dusty blow-up pals and ridiculous sexual aids, the desperate women who entertain in the back – Kerouac could walk in here and not know it’s another century. Abandon hope all ye who enter here – and NO BROWSING!

Runners-up: Shotgun Willie’s, P.T.’s, Kitty’s Adult Emporiums, Dandy Dan’s

5. FREAKY’S GIFT SHOPPE

Many locations: visit www.freakys.com

Hey! Mayor Hickenlooper has basically declared pot smoking legal during the DNC, so load up and light up, kids! Freaky’s is by far the friendliest, most laid-back of Denver head shops (ahem, we mean tobacco-smoking paraphernalia dispensaries). Plus, they have black-light posters so that you can Recreate ’68 in your basement or garage.

Runner-up: Heads of State

6. HANK’S BILLIARDS

5250 W. 38th Ave.
(303) 424-1822

Remember when playing pool was cool for about five minutes? POSERS! Now they’re gone, and you have the pool halls to yourselves again. Of course, most of the old-school joints are out of business now, too. Hank’s, nee Family Fun Center, nee Paradise Billiards, could be the oldest billiards place left in the area.

Runners-up: Table Steaks, any dive with a bar table

7. DENVER DINER

740 W. Colfax Ave.
(303) 825-5443

Where do you go when you can’t go home? This 24-hour eatery has gone through many incarnations, but it’s still the place to get eggs and pancakes at 4 a.m. any number of novels could be inspired just by sitting and ear-flopping the conversations in the next booth.

8. THE ORIGINAL CHUBBY’S

1231 W. 38th Ave.
(303) 455-9311

The Holy Grail of Denver-style Mexican food. (Let the fighting begin.) This modest establishment has a take-out window: The End. No tables, no chairs – most people eat it sitting on their cars in the gravel lot out back. But what you get is fresh, hot, tasty, spicy and cheap – love on a paper plate! The colon-puckering green chile is guaranteed to relieve even the worst hangover.

Runners-up: Las Delicias, Benny’s, El Noa Noa, Pete’s Satire, Taco de Mexico, Senor Pepe’s, Taqueria Patzcuaro, Senor Burrito’s, Tosh’s Hacienda

9. EDGEWATER INN

5302 W. 25th Ave.
(303) 237-3524

I know, I know – Denver has terrible pizza. It’s the altitude. Still, you can’t go wrong in this happy hut of homers. Besides being a cozy refuge for diehard Broncos fans, the thin-crust, tangy pie they serve goes well with the house drink – a large, chilled, cheap glass schooner of Coors or Coors Light on tap! It almost makes the beer taste good.

Runners-up: Bonnie Brae Tavern, Famous Pizza, Pietra’s

10. LION’S LAIR

2022 E. Colfax Ave.
(303) 320-9200

Not ruined yet. This classic dive, the black walls of which are encrusted with weirdness, has hosted more incredible bands than any other alternative venue in town. The cramped space in the place makes it possible to get poked in the ear by a guitar, or catch an errant drumstick as it flies over the bar. The Lair has survived many attempts at gentrification – let’s hope they never take down or clean the garish striped awning that marks it.

11. THE SQUIRE LOUNGE

1800 E. Colfax Ave.
(303) 333-9106

Please get a tetanus shot before entering this most hallowed of shitholes. Your life is not worth a farthing there, you can probably get whatever you need in the bathroom . . . and they sell alcohol as well! Their comedy nights are the perfect training ground for young stand-ups, who face the homeless, the completely faced, and those who want to hear a band instead. Bathrooms are the worst in town!

Runners-up: Too many to list, but noted are Don’s Mixed Drinks, Stadium Inn, Lancer Lounge, Hangar Bar

12. DHMC EMERGENCY ROOM

777 Bannock St.
(303) 436-6000
www.denverhealth.org

Did you like “E.R.”? “St. Elsewhere”? “Chicago Hope”? This is the NC-17 version.
The Denver Health Medical Center is an A-1 institution, but its old nickname, “The Knife and Gun Club” is well-deserved. The victims and perpetrators of mayhem all across town usually wind up here, clogging the corridors with their cries and stench. If you end up in line for treatment, bring a book.

Oh, I could go on for days. Just be sure to look down the side streets, and amble down the alleys. You’ll find the real Denver there.