Monday, April 9, 2012

Red Desert and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The most recent films I have seen at the YBCA are:

Red Desert starring Monica Vitti & Richard Harris; directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; Italian with subtitles; (1964)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie starring Ben Gazzara; directed by John Cassavetes; (1976)

The YBCA listing for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was incorrect. They advertised the 135 minute version of the film but screened the 108 minute version. I skipped the opening night of SF Indiefest to see Chinese Bookie but the even if the correct runtime was posted, it would not have affected my decision.

Red Desert was Antonioni's first color film and he certainly showed no hesitancy in using the spectrum of colors. With cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, Antonioni makes Red Desert a visually spectacular film. Contrasting vivid colors with the bleak industrial landscape of Ravenna, Italy, Red Desert is stunning to look at. Like an impossibly beautiful woman, Red Desert didn't so much appeal to me as rather awed me with its brillance. Three months later I can recall the scenes outside the polluted factory or of the young girl swimming in the clear ocean.

The story focuses on Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a young wife and mother who is off kilter mentally due to a car accident. Richard Harris (does he speak Italian?) plays Corrado Zeller, a businessman visiting Giuliana's husband's factory. In short order, Giuliana and Corrado begin an extramarital affair which is distinguished by their lack of passion.

The plot seems metaphorical. Giuliana may be attuned to the environment and her depression and ennui a reaction to the pollution spewing from the industrialization of the region. I took her behavior to be metaphorical for the environment. Beautiful but damaged, Giuliana is suffering an existential crisis which no one seems recognize. Slow paced but hypnotic, Red Desert was a little too "film school" for me but nonetheless a worthwhile viewing experience.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie also deals with the main character's existential crisis. Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) runs a strip club cum burlesque house. In debt to the mob for gambling markers, Vitelli is pressured into killing the titular oddsmaker to settle the bill. Led to believe the bookie is a low level target, Vitelli discovers he is the head of Chinese mafia. Completing the assignment despite heavy security and being wounded himself, Vitelli has to fend for himself against his handlers who never expected him to survive and would rather see him out of the way.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie spends a lot screen time showing the cheesy acts in Vitelli's club which drags the film to a halt. Apparently, the 135 minute version had even more club scenes. Vitelli is a performer just like the girls in his club except Vitelli is performing for a different audience inside and outside the club. Wanting to be a big man or perhaps, trying to convince everyone (including himself) that he is a big man, Vitelli sinks deeper into debt which leads to even bigger trouble. Vitelli's pride is on display and is his undoing. Not without skill and mettle, Vitelli doesn't know when to quit - at the club, at the poker table, etc. In other words, he is a loser; not a total loser but he has a fatal flaw which nets out to loser.

Ben Gazzara gives this big, broad performance as Vitelli. Complex and multi-faceted like the film, Gazzara shows more range than the few other films I have seen him in - The Strange One, Anatomy of a Murder, Road House... Gazzara best feature is that voice which you could cut copper pipe with. It's grating and harsh and easy to project false bravado even when his character really believes the bravado.

Like Red Desert, there was a lot to criticize in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie but there was also a lot to appreciate in the film. These two films did not impress me as much as their reputations (or their directors' reputations) but I'm glad I saw them anyway.

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