I WOULDN'T BE the first person to suggest that John Cassavetes' work courts tedium and that tedium usually responds with swooning devotion. Scene after scene in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the maverick filmmaker's worthy but maddening 1976 character study, continues to play long after even the most patient will be itching for resolution.
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE
directed by John Cassavetes with Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel runs February 16-22 at Grand Illusion
A CONSTANT FORGE
directed by Charles Kiselyak runs February 15-18 at Little Theatre
This is, as Cassavetes cultists will tell you, the whole point. You can be bored and irritated by his films (make no mistake, Bookie is quite a chore), but you cannot be outside them. The story of a seedy strip-club owner (a masterfully intuitive Ben Gazzara) whose idea of himself is shattered when he's forced to perform a mob hit to pay off gambling debts, Bookie brims with lowlifes above whom you are not allowed to hover safely. Cassavetes has sunk so many layers beneath the accepted—and, some might say, tolerable—surface of cinematic reality that the picture forces an unsettling comradeship. Shorn of tidy melodrama, Gazzara's descent is infused with the sometimes deadening documentary rhythms of being alive. In this 139-minute original cut of Bookie, his harrowing fall rattles around inside your head like a remembered personal experience.
Running well over three hours, Charles Kiselyak's mammoth 2000 Cassavetes documentary has similar frustrations and rewards. A Constant Forge is too long, essentially shapeless, and blushing with pretense. Not content with innumerable testimonials to the iconoclastic Cassavetes' fierce, quick mind, Kiselyak includes preening title cards with quotes on Art and Life from Cavalcanti and T.S. Eliot, among others—as well as a few embarrassingly overwrought ruminations from Kiselyak himself ("He winked at Apollo and laughed at Dionysus while dancing on the flames of eternal life.").
For all the self-indulgence of both documentary and subject, Forge inspires admiration for Cassavetes and the thoughtful, vigorously original personalities with whom he surrounded himself—wife and muse Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, and Seymour Cassel (who is smilingly corrupt as a Bookie hood). You're enlivened by what characters they are and what characters they became for their friend, by the honorable zest this entire company of artists brought to life and work. The boisterous integrity captured here is uncommonly exhilarating.
"The picture says something to me," Cassavetes recalls of Bookie, "that we might sell anything mindlessly—even our own lives." Both that film and Forge remind us how Cassavetes never made that transaction himself.