Let’s get aesthetics out of the way, first. If a film about a drug boss starts with an anarchic proclamation, it needs- at a minimum- for that proclamation to be well-phrased. This will at least offset some of the political clichés surrounding drug prohibition, and might make it easier to repeat them without hurting the film on more substantive grounds. But if after engaging with the writing- “giant Fuck You to the system”, “fascists”, “real base of power lies with us”- one wonders WHY the film was even made, that question IS a relevant lens through which to view the film’s subject. I mean, just consider any other work on any other drug dealer: from the experts’ self-pillory in Mr. Untouchable, to the dread and ennui of Mean Streets, to the dum-dum brutality of American Gangster, the world’s mobsters are rarely presented as unequivocal heroes. In most cases, they aren’t allowed to have childhoods, nor to wax philosophical from home videos (although, in the coming decade, some will). They do not earn science degrees, and certainly were not nurtured by a loving family driven to exonerate them. In fact, if they were street-peddlers, their stories simply gain no traction at all, and cannot, on an individual basis, ever be the face of a grassroots political movement. That Ross Ulbricht, the incarcerated founder of darknet website Silk Road, gets to enjoy all of these things, and more, is a story far more interesting than Alex Winter’s Deep Web allows it to be. Indeed, one ought to ask why Ross Ulbricht is a cult figure for so many libertarians, if only because the answer sheds light on how awful the parsing of more important questions has become. The war on drugs, I’m afraid, attracts dupes and hypocrites on both sides, and by stripping his film of all artistic appeal, Alex Winter gives an inadvertent glimpse into how both sides conduct themselves. […]
Now, to be sure, I have never had much use for style guides. Yes, there was all the studying for the writing portion of the SAT, years ago, which required lots of rule-learning and — even worse — the application of said rules to poorly-written ‘answers’ that were anything but right. Yes, I’d been assigned the oft-banal Strunk & White’s Elements Of Style in college courses, and have, out of curiosity, perused a number of similar guides not only across form and genre (prose, poetry, non-fiction, sci-fi, grammar) but multiple languages, as well, just to see how the rest of the world, well, merely hypothesizes the sorts of things that are in fact real to me. For instance, I still recall reading Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy, and finding — even as a 10 year old with a desire to impart stories — the thing too restrictive for anyone but the worst writers, to whom issues of mechanics and advice re: ‘world-building’ might narrowly apply.
Thus, I was both intrigued and a little alarmed when I read the title of Steven Pinker’s new book. Now, don’t get me wrong. While admittedly a very good writer with MANY interesting ideas across the board, Steven Pinker is a thinking academic (as opposed an academic thinker!), first, and has not, in his occasional comments on the topic, shown any deeper understanding of the arts. Yes, he’s constructed some great arguments, and pointedly done away with scientific fraud within the clarion of a mere sentence or two, but that does not really lend itself to art criticism. This is because the wisdom (not ‘knowledge’) immanent to recognizing a great poem, or the odd assortment of skills and luck that goes into differentiating a good from bad metaphor is nigh-indefinable. In short, while true creativity might be easy to quantify, if one merely KNOWS how to evaluate the works, themselves, its source in most cases isn’t. This means that no intellect, personal background, type, or force of character guarantees success in this endeavor, and Pinker’s book, to its credit, does not pretend otherwise. […]
Though I’d been watching John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie quite regularly the past decade – had reared my second childhood upon it, as a fact – I only recently understood the import of a key anti-noir scene. As Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) breaks into a triad compound, he is not confronted by a benumbed gangster taunting him to shoot, but by an old man splashing water in a pool. It is as if he has regressed to adolescence, down to his childlike interest in the much younger woman bathing him. This much I’d already known, but this time, I realized Benny Wu’s (Soto Joe Hugh) mumbling wasn’t mere sound. “I’m real bad. Real bad,” Wu suddenly confesses to his killer. “I’m so sorry.” The triad is then shot dead, yet it is not so much the death that is tragic as is Cosmo’s inability to digest it: he was sent with a task, and is thus precluded from engaging with its largest moment. And how could it be otherwise? Time is money, the film suggests, whether it’s the time it takes Cosmo to get out of debt, the unconscious zeal with which he is once again indebted, or the fact that, as a private enterprise, criminality is as wasteful as any other – down to its paring away of “useless” self-indulgence, like pondering death and death’s dimensions. The triad knows he has wasted his life, but has been so pampered by hierarchy and habit that waste is the only logical outcome. Having lived transactionally, even his young lover shows no emotion and quietly slips out after he is killed, for she seems to understand this was but a business decision among a thousand other business decisions which may or may not erupt in mayhem.
Now, it would be wrong to blanch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie of its totalizing “point”, yet there is so much else moving in and out of the film’s outskirts that reducing it to aphorism is even worse. John Cassavetes plays with subterfuge, tension, winding trails that lead to dead ends and dead ends that fraction into avenues, down to the film’s enigmatic title. I mean, who is the ‘Chinese bookie’, if not – as Mort (Seymour Cassel) suggests then denies – triad boss Benny Wu? Yet the triad is too powerful to be a mere bookmaker and has almost certainly engaged in murder, himself. If anything, the film’s ‘bookie’ is both concept and adumbration, and it is telling that critics, who panned the film upon its release, never bothered to analyze its inner mythos. “They’re very resentful,” an Italian gangster says of the triads, “because they don’t know whether they’re Chinese-American, or American-Chinese…” Of course, the gangsters are shown to be correct – Wu has failed to cultivate a meaningful life-purpose – but the irony is that their words are just as applicable to themselves. They are Italians forced to cede ground to an Other, and, not having much except some ground to cede, their identities thus turn. Yes, the triads are one such fulcrum, but Cosmo Vittelli quickly becomes another. A killer far more capable and efficient than the gangsters (another of the film’s enigmas, though still in-character and believable), he is also the owner of a burlesque club, LA’s Crazy Horse West, that Mort genuinely likes and respects for ‘deeper’ reasons he cannot verbalize. But, business is as ever, and Mort is all too willing to prey upon Cosmo’s weakness for gambling. After Cosmo racks up yet another debt, Mort has no issue with sending him to what he expects to be his death, thus taking over his club, despite the fact that Cosmo is as close to being ‘a great artist’ as a guy like Mort can ever hope to come across. “He was the heaviest cat on the West Coast, Cosmo,” Mort says of the triad. “You did what we couldn’t do.” In this way, Mort conflates one kind of respect – the grudging respect between talented, artful killers – with a respect for Art itself, thus putting the two at parity merely because they are both masculine drives, yet failing to understand where and why the two diverge. […]
In the last few decades, the term forever war has come to denote an unpleasant fact for imperial ambition- namely, that superpowers have ceased to exist, dislodged by regional actors limited to their own spheres of influence, while influence itself grows narrower and more abstract. Thirty years after America failed to take Vietnam, it would fail for much the same reason in Afghanistan and Iraq: lately, empire cannot explain its purpose even to itself, much less to its victims, whose soft power must be recruited to win modern wars. But while there is no way to hide material losses in combat, the world’s gradual abandonment of violence will, ironically, do more to expand the concept of ‘forever war’ than the usufructs of empire ever could. That’s because the forever war abroad- wasteful, belligerent, transparent in intent yet maddeningly plausible to the median dolt- is being transformed into a cultural war of attrition at home, through the same loss of purpose. I mean, what is America’s legitimating function anyway? It can’t be to lead the world on climate change. It’s certainly NOT to teach others how to mitigate a global pandemic at a time when infectious diseases are slated to redouble. It has terrible health outcomes, bad infrastructure, political gridlock, and- with crisis after unresolved crisis- doesn’t even pretend to care about the working class. Put another way, America has scrambled its own legitimation story, even though the rest of the world has not believed this story for some time now. And so, America has lost its wars and is in the process of losing the most important one, as faith in democracy collapses at home and authoritarian doldrums envelop abroad. No one, it’s been said, saw this coming, but isn’t that the point? If civic engagement is cratered- that is, if the legitimation story gets rejected- this is less a failure of voters than of the choices they are bullied into. Now that Donald Trump is gone, voter turnout is poised to collapse once more, albeit for Democrats, at first, now that the media must settle for huffing Joe Biden’s farts as the radical right preps from the paddocks it’s been exiled into. Yet the question of why this is and what makes it so predictable is rarely covered, despite it being ‘the’ political question of our time, and thus needs to be understood before any other question gets adjudicated. […]