Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Imagistic Genealogy of the Chinese Bookie

Spending time the past few days on cult/exploitation DVD review sites (and the like) I've started to notice some very interesting resemblances among film stills. For seasoned cultists, associations and lineages probably come easily enough (like being able to say about a given musical scene, "Yeah, that's 1998 acid ambientcore from St. Louis, but all the interesting stuff in that scene was really over by late 1996 ..."). For yours truly, it's exciting to connect the dots between films, to look at a given film's aesthetic and try to determine it's simultaneously socio-cultural and imagistic origins--what films might we label a work's ancestors, its friends & neighbors? Its enemies?

It's not a matter of a mere concept, but a sense of concrete common palettes & tropes--like genres predicated on visuals & tones rather than mostly narratives & themes. (Obviously, genre works in both ways, so there's still going to be narrative & thematic overlap.)

What has intrigued me specifically is seeing what I guess I'd call a mostly NYC-based lineage that had a limb in the underground, the (s)exploitation/grindhouse film, the taut action/gore film, and the independent movement--all of which are marked by low budgets, of course. Starting in the 1960s (with Radley Metzger and things like The Dirty Girls, as well as with the New American Cinema & Andy Warhol), there become an interesting gray area wherein the highbrow serious art cinema and and the lowbrow sex-and-violence film met whenever both ends of the shoestring (budget) got tied together. A lot of cheap, disingenuously "artsy" (trippy, "elliptical") works were made for audiences around this time--Metzger for instance started out by acquiring, distributing, even re-editing European films (some of which were legitimate "art movies") into titillating features for the raincoat crowd. Doris Wishman got her start in this scene.

By the 1970s, more of the film were in color, and we start to get a more standardized palette for this loose family tree of films and "film styles." Along with all manner of flesh tones and perhaps neon lights, our dominant colors are reds, browns, black, and white. Our most familiar settings are apartments (such as one for a gangster's mistress; and quiet and still on the soundtrack) and NYC streets (loud and cacophonous), and in-between, bars and stripclubs. Common totems: the handgun, the glass of alcohol (be it wine or bourbon...), cigarettes, doors and stairways, breasts (of course), glaring lights (inside & out), and the image-concept of the film theater or the stage. The framing seems to have a particular commonality, as well: no swift, baroque movements and angles like in Italian gialli, and perhaps lacking even the energy of Russ Meyer or the Roger Corman stable: instead a straightforwardness in which the intensity of the images sometimes crystallizes into an overwhelming composition whose impact may go beyond the mere brief moments we see it on the screen (as Cassavetes & Ferrara, two who have done masterly work in this loose idiom, do with close-ups as well as with images of performers & strippers).
The navel of this universe is, of course, Times Square. Pre-Giuliani. And the great obituary of this place is Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant ('92) ...

Even films which exist largely outside of this aesthetic genus may still refer to it: Bette Gordon's Variety (1983) has a lead character who works at a Times Square porn theater box office; Travis Bickle of course takes Cybill Shepherd to a porno in Taxi Driver (1976) and of course has the bloody grindhouse shootout in the stairway and threshhold at the climax; Allan Moyle's dear-to-my-heart Times Square ('81) has its two underage heroines singing and dancing (clothed) in a strip club. This set of colors-objects-conventions more or less declined in the 1980s. If the 1960s saw the birth of a movement, and the 1980s its expiration, then its "peak" would presumably be the 1970s. Cue John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie ('76), an unassailable masterpiece. It's obvious enough to see, and to say, that Cassavetes "borrowed" or "worked within" generic elements. But what bears emphasis is how acutely Cassavetes captured some of the definite "look" of a scene, even if relocating it physically and diegetically to Los Angeles, in order to ground his material with something to play off of. He wasn't engaging in meta-games, but chose to really dig deep into the look and feel of his figures and his decor, his compositions. I tend to dislike the phrase "transcending the genre," for a number of reasons, one of which is that many films which elicit this claim are standing above the genre to begin with--but Cassavetes' film "transcends the genre" precisely because it works from the bottom "up," breaking out of the emotional, moral, or psychological formulations that the exploitation film, the action film, or even the standard (yes) independent art film would map out and follow.

At any rate, let me put forth my hypothesis--and stress finally that this is a hypothesis, not a "finding" or even really an assertion--through some images, several of which are from films I have never seen:

Stairways & Doorways (from One Side to Another):
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1) (2)
Deadly Weapons (Doris Wishman, 1973) (1)
Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979) (1)
Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981) (1)
Pasties & a G-String on Stage:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1)
The Gore Gore Girls (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1972) (1) (2)
The Ultimate Degenerate (Michael Findlay, 1969) (1) (2)
Field of Red:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1)
Deadly Weapons (1)
Driller Killer (1)


aaron w graham said...
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aaron w graham said...

Wonderful post, Zach. It's something that I'm going to be mulling over for the next couple of days, that's for sure.

For someone that has only been to NYC a couple of times, it's these films you mention, the stills you link to (especially the ones with the deeply saturated reds) that conjure up the most expressive images of the city for me, even though they're from a long-gone era.

Coincidentally, I was listening to my LP of the TIMES SQUARE soundtrack just this weekend. It's been too long since I've seen it last.

David Lowery said...

I like how the first two categories are almost inclusive of each other. One of the things that I love the most about that period of filmmaking is the quality of color - especially the reds and other deep warmish hues - produced by what must have been a pretty fast, inexpensive film stock.

Maya said...

"[W]hat films might we label a work's ancestors, its friends & neighbors? Its enemies?"

What a great question, Zach!! My mind is going to enjoy coming up with answers to that one!!

Coincidentally enough, I too have been caught up this last week in writing up a series of essays on adaptations between genres and the connections between adaptations.

Julio Cortazar's short story "Blow-up" comes to mind, its transformation into Antonioni's London-based film of the same title, which morphed into Dario Argento's version with the same actor, and the whole time I'm thinking, "Why didn't they film this in Paris as originally written?" And why the shift from a perverse solicitation to murder?

I commend your exercise in tracking the genealogy of "Chinese Bookie"!!

Zach Campbell said...

Aaron: Trini Alvarado should have been a star. I have yet to track down her other work, but I'm definitely going to do it some day.

Maya/Michael--though I didn't really go into any sort of 'imagistic genealogy,' I did write a little about Blow-Up (the Antonioni, not the Cortazar) and its cinematic offspring here and here, if you're interested.

Phil said...

Incidentally, Cortazar has been my major literary discovery of 2006 thus far, and his work is linked to film in more ways than one. A recent Senses of Cinema piece tried to show how much his work has influenced cinema; but then again cinema strongly informs his own work as well. His superb short story "We Love Glenda So Much", for instance, tackles the extremes of cinephilia in a memorable way...

Zach Campbell said...

OK, I have to read Cortazar now. I'll put him on my ever-growing list.