Saturday, September 03, 2005

For all x, x ≠ love, you = Baby, I cannot give you x

Watching [name of movie revealed below] recently, I was reminded of my intemperate comments a while back about Bringing Up Baby, a movie which left me cold, so I went back just now and added a second thought or two, moderating the intemperance a bit (only a bit though).

So what movie was it that brought BuB to mind? Was it The Philadelphia Story, or maybe His Girl Friday? No and no (good guesses though). No, it was the only other movie I know of in which a character sings the song "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby" – not as a musical performance but rather for some extra-musical reason. In BuB Kate and Cary sing it in order to pacify/retrieve Baby the leopard; here nightclub owner Cosmo Vitelli, away from the club on the desperate errand of the film's title, phones to check in on how his somewhat erratic troupe of entertainers is faring in his absence. Unfortunately the bartender to whom he is speaking is little help – he doesn't even know the songs they sing, even after seven years in Cosmo's employ – so Cosmo sings the song in question to remind him which number it is (it doesn't help).

Yes, I refer here to John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with the inimitable Ben Gazzara in a tremendous performance. The Criterion Collection has several Cassavetes releases out, but this is the first one I've seen (I think the only other Cassavetes film I've seen at all is Gloria, which for some reason was remade recently with Sharon Stone, iirc). I will be checking the others out for sure, because KCB was really something. I'm not sure it's a great film, but wow, what a compelling time capsule. The CC release has two discs, one with the original 1976 version, which apparently bombed, and a 1978 reissue which is half an hour shorter. I watched the latter, and it's hard to imagine that the edit didn't improve the film substantially. It's bursting the seams of the narrative as it is – any more scenes with the performers, say, or his girlfriend's family (interesting as they were), would definitely overload it, resulting in the flabby mess the critics undoubtedly said the first one was. On the other hand, now I would like to go back and check the other one out (but it was due back at the library). Kudos to CC for giving us the different versions complete, rather than only the latter plus "deleted scenes."

Anyway, Gazzara is terrific as the reflective would-be big shot in over his head, who still manages, somehow, to hold his own (or so it seems ...). The atmosphere is pure '70's: besides the surreal dialogue (love those gangsters) and perversely ruminative pacing, there's lots of underlit scenes (in the nightclub and out), casual showgirl nudity, and intimate handheld shots. Of course if this is your idea of heaven, you're already way ahead of me. It's not mine, exactly, but I'm certainly looking forward to more. Although KCB is supposedly atypical (the blurb says that JC "engages film noir in his own inimitable style," which makes it sound like a one-off deal), I hear A Woman Under the Influence is pretty good.

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