‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ and the Legacy of Independent Cinema

Ben Gazarra in ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’

I’m only happy when I’m angry, when I’m sad, when I can play the fool, when I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself. “ ~ ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’

When I think of independent cinema, the first person who comes to mind is John Cassavetes. A legendary filmmaker with a devoted following, Cassavetes is well-known in cinema studies for having pioneered a movement. Contemporary independent filmmakers from Sean Baker to the Safdie Brothers have been inspired by Cassavetes, and as the accessibility of mobile camera equipment has given rise to a plethora of alternative content on the Internet, it’s clear that these filmmakers of tomorrow, too, will owe a debt of gratitude to Cassavetes.

But what is independent cinema, exactly, and how has it changed over the years?

For Cassavetes, independent cinema was ultimate freedom to make any film he wanted. In order to do that, he would finance his own projects from the money he made as a successful television actor. He often casted a group of regulars (friend Ben Gazzara, wife Gena Rowlands) in his films, and he would shoot many of them on location in his house.

More than that, though, independent cinema was an attitude. It was a clear rejection of Hollywood conventions in favor a European art film sensibility. To quote Cassavetes, independent cinema was the antithesis to the Hollywood blockbuster: “I’ve never seen an exploding helicopter. I’ve never seen anybody go and blow somebody’s head off. So why should I make films about them?”

Instead, independent cinema for Cassavetes was the cinema of human nature and all of its complexities. He prioritized small character observations over storyline, and if there was a plot, it wasn’t the main purpose of the picture. Here’s how he once described his cinematic intentions: “The camera isn’t content to just follow the characters’ words and actions. I focus in on specific gestures and mannerisms. It’s from focusing on these little things, the moods, silences, pauses, or anxious moments, that the form arises.”

Even though Cassavetes released his first feature Shadows in the late 1950s, he’s often mentioned when critics consider the impact of the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when American filmmakers en masse began to reject Hollywood conventions. This is when visionary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Alan J. Pakula and Hal Ashby came on the scene to redefine American cinema for a mainstream audience. It’s the decade Quentin Tarantino once called the true “golden age” of American filmmaking, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

There are some important differences between Cassavetes and the more famous New Hollywood filmmakers. Unlike Cassavetes, some of the New Hollywood filmmakers didn’t self-finance their films, and those who may have at one point didn’t necessarily follow that path for every picture. Still, the style and intentions are similar. New Hollywood films value the ambiguity of human nature over Hollywood’s need for closure, feature complex antiheroes you might not root for but are compelled to observe, and often showcase a filmmaker’s symbolic stylistic choices.

Many New Hollywood films, like Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), are genre revisions. Others, like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), are intense character studies. What they all have in common, besides being brilliant, is that they would be completely unrecognizable next to any film from Hollywood’s Studio System era, but not necessarily next to any film that has been released since. That is to say, New Hollywood reset the rulebook for how films could be made in America, and since then, the vast majority of filmmakers have been following in that path.

All of this comes back to Cassavetes, who did it before anyone else. I recently watched The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) for the first time and am fascinated by it. It’s not Cassavetes’ most accomplished film, nor is it the one critics and fans often single out, but that’s why it’s so interesting to study.

The Criterion Collection restored two versions of the film, one released in 1976 and one in 1978. The one most people have seen is from 1978 and much shorter at 108 minutes. This is the version lead actor Ben Gazzara prefers. The other version, initially released in 1976, is 135 minutes. This is the version Cassavetes pulled from theaters after only a week.

Right away, you have an intriguing alternate history of a film that could have been. Neither of the versions received much acclaim at the time, but for decades until Criterion decided to release both versions in the Cassavetes box set for people to compare, we only got to see the 1978 version. How is it that a filmmaker who embodied creative freedom wound up with two versions of the same film?

The restoration of both versions by Criterion in the 2000s raises many questions about the authenticity of a film, whether or not there is such a thing as the “right” version, and if so, who gets to decide?

Filmmakers are often at odds with this. Martin Scorsese has famously rejected the concept of a “Director’s Cut” version, claiming that the film released at the time is the final and only version that should exist. Others would disagree, such as Scorsese’s friend Francis Ford Coppola, who released Apocalypse Now Redux in 2001, which was re-edited to include 49 minutes of additional material that wasn’t in the initial 1979 version.

Then you have filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, who famously had his acclaimed miniseries Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Fanny and Alexander (1982) edited down for shorter film versions, as well as someone like Ridley Scott, who appears to release a new Director’s Cut for every film with his name on it.

It’s exhausting, frankly, to keep up and wonder where to start. If someone is new to Bergman’s work, for example, do they avoid watching the film versions of his masterpieces because Criterion makes the miniseries available, or do they watch the film versions first to get a sense of what most critics and moviegoers in the US were responding to at the time? In a perfect world, perhaps they’d watch both, but who has the time, and even if you did, surely you’d want to watch them in an order that offers the greatest possible experience.

The problem is, there is no “right” answer here because there is no “right” version, and any cinematic experience is ultimately tainted by this. Try as we might, we will always come up short.

As Scorsese put it, there’s the version that’s released, and there’s no telling how satisfied a filmmaker will be with it. We movie lovers are lucky that most films only have one version. Most filmmakers, as conflicted as they might be, leave the extra footage they have on the cutting room floor.

Every now and then, though, there are filmmakers who clash with producers and have their visions stolen from them. There are filmmakers who, years later, present re-edited versions of films because they think the cut footage might add something. Sadly, there are the filmmakers who use the “Director’s Cut” label as a marketing ploy to make more money. And finally, there are filmmakers like Cassavetes who have complete control and still can’t settle on a final cut.

This can be frustrating but it’s also what makes cinema so fascinating. We’d like to think that the best films come to us perfectly presented, the result of an auteur having complete control over his or her vision. In reality, films come to us after a series of compromises, from which directors, actors and studio executives all have conflicting agendas. Knowledge of this calls into question the legitimacy of the auteur theory, while simultaneously reaffirms it as we all sit back in awe of the many filmmakers who are still able to churn out deeply personal works of art in spite of the compromises they must make.

If there isn’t a “right” answer, there is one that makes the most sense from a historical perspective, and that’s to watch the version that everyone else did first. Only then can you understand the film within the context of time and appreciate why it matters, or wonder what might have been if the filmmaker went a different way.

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