Between Action and Retreat
A few years ago in Senses of Cinema there was a fascinating essay by Nicole Brenez, taken from her book, The Figure in General and The Body in Particular, where she aptly describes Ben Gazzara as a sponge, before launching into an analysis that leaves Gazzara behind for a theoretical take on form. Yet there is still much to say about Gazzara's sponginess. Isn't it apparent in an early Gazzara performance in Mario Monicelli's The Passionate Thief, where he absorbs Anna Magnani's digs, abuses and harangues? It's certainly central to the much later Tales of Ordinary Madness, where Serking's ex-wife hassles him constantly about his uselessness, where Susan Tyrell's slatternly pick-up drags him onto the floor for a hard-shag, and where Ornella Muti, 'the most beautiful girl in town', abuses herself in front of his eyes.
What we mean here by Gazzara's sponginess is, as we'll explore, the way he absorbs life. He is open to experience in a manner that is not so much to do with carpe diem, but something closer to a particular style that is half-way between action and retreat. It is evident even in one of his more active roles, Harry, in Husbands. Here Gazzara insists he and his two mates should take a flight to London after the funeral of his friend. If he's seizing the day this has little to do with any notion of ambition; it is more a case of generating something out of nothing, of creating action out of a state of inertia. It is Gazzara's answer to a crisis brought on, it seems, by his friend's death, his own collapsing marriage and the pointlessness of work that gives him plenty of status but little purpose.
This idea of something that is between action and retreat is surely what is going on in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with Gazzara a club-owner, Cosmo, in LA who is caught in a spiral leading to the killing of the title. Where action usually suggests propulsion and retreat the refusal to act, Gazzara appears to hold to a position that is neither one nor the other. Of course in killing the bookie he is propelled to act, but this action comes out of a willingness to let things drift as he never gets round to paying his debts, and must pay them by killing another. Hence the action. And yet this action isn't at all propulsive, based on goals or ambitions, but the actions very much of a cornered man. The killing itself is one of the most tentative in film - an act of reluctance but also a spongy action - Gazzara's absorbed the influences and demands of those around him and acts.
It is in this sense of an action that is somewhere between reluctance and acceptance that is on show in Tales of Ordinary Madness when Gazzara takes a job in a New Yorker style office. He is persuaded it might be a good idea and Gazzara's characters, because they usually lack principles, or more especially a priori fixed ideas about themselves, the way an actor like Robert Redford's characters are full of them, often drift into situations that are at odds with whatever their self happens to be. But if Gazzara often lacks principles, he nevertheless has good instincts, an instinct not to seize the day, but to allow the day to happen to him. Even in Husbands, Gazzara's decision to escape his life and family in New York and fly to London with a couple of friends comes from sponginess. At the beginning of the film he says "well I'm not going home. I'm going to get very drunk." This he announces immediately after questioning the way the funeral was handled, and the way his friend was perceived immediately after his death: "you don't talk about insurance at a time like that", he insists, as if wondering whether his own wife's reaction might be the same if he had died. Here we notice the social self and the instinct bifurcate: to follow his instincts Gazzara lets go of his social being. Firstly this is through a drinking binge in New York that lasts all night and into the next day; secondly, by taking off to London with his friends; and thirdly by staying in England while they return. There is the suggestion here that of the three husbands, it is Gazzara who reacts most strongly to the friend's death, but as in other Gazzara films this doesn't manifest itself so much in an action but in an absorbing reaction.
What is the difference between the propelled action and the absorbing reaction? If we think of a couple of Hollywood actors like Tom Cruise and Richard Gere, we see that the actors often have principles that are unthought through and the narrative that very process - the character arc from naivety to experience present in Cruise films like The Color of Money, The Firm and even Eyes Wide Shut. Sometimes it's the ego that needs a reality check - Gere in American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman - but in Gazzara's persona there is something so loose about his being that it is difficult for a narrative to harden around him. If Cruise is one of the biggest of Hollywood stars it resides in the persona and narrative becoming one, and with Cruise's drive propelling the film's momentum. He is eager and attentive and ripe for propulsion. But what can a film do with Gazzara? It can drift, it can constantly create wider and wider circles of experience around him. So in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie there are scenes bordering on the arbitrary: Gazzara 'interviewing' a girl who wants to become a dancer; dance sequences in the club that always seem to slip away from narrative thrust.
Can we go so far as to say that Gazzara's a great actor of textures and shades, a great actor of milieux? Many actors of course close down milieu. When we think of Cruise again in contrast to Gazzara, we can see how Cruise's persona closes down the milieu in a twofold way. In the first instance we can think of the close-up. There might be as many close-ups of Gazzara in his films as there are of Cruise in his. How often do we see those open Gazzara pores, and the lubricious, slightly shiny skin, and is there a more intensely magnified close-up than the one in the diner in Opening Night where Gazzara pep talks Gena Rowlands' actress? However, in Cruise the close-up isn't absorbent, it is agitative, determined. Thus we can see how Gazzara's face absorbs milieux, Cruise's that the milieu will be a means to an end.
The second instance lies in how Cruise and Gazzara interact with others in completely different ways. In Cruise interaction is usually egotistically based or functional - the way he chases the girl or information. There is often a sense of colliding with, creating a kinetic charge over other human beings. Whether this be getting the girl in Top Gun, or determining to find the truth in The Firm, Cruise's being is based on task accomplishment. (It is what Kubrick seemed to be trying to break down in Eyes Wide Shut as he conspicuously cast Cruise and his own wife in the lead roles, and worked not with Cruise's move towards achievement, but towards an epistemology of paranoia.) In Gazzara's films, interaction rarely has any purpose, but instead contingent possibilities, as we see Gazzara often ending up in places he wouldn't expect to find himself - as in Susan Tyrell's bath in Tales of Ordinary Madness, as she makes him a juicy steak, or in The Girl from Trieste, where Gazzara is a writer in the Italian town of the title who allows himself to become fascinated by, again, Ornella Muti's crazy beauty.
What happens here is that the milieu keeps opening up possibilities, so that the degree to which Gazzara remains unmotivated helps create space for the milieu to assert itself. This is what we mean by Gazzara's sponginess. He absorbs space rather than dictates it, and it is a lack of drive that even has a literal resonance: Gazzara usually walks, gets taxis, or lifts. We notice he is almost never himself seen behind a wheel in his key films. Thus when Brenez interestingly talks about what she calls editage, we needn't share her rarefied and theoretical perspective, necessarily, but instead see it as the combination of an actor's being, and the demands that being places upon the aesthetic options and techniques available to the filmmaker. Hence a certain editing style that would suit Cruise - one that can incorporate cross-cutting, quick lateral tracks and adrenalinised music; and how often do we see Cruise in cars, planes and on motorbikes? - would serve little purpose in a Gazzara film. (No matter if Cruise is himself in fact chauffered around in Eyes Wide Shut and Collateral.) We may often hear how an actor controls a film's production, but this is usually couched in manipulative or economic terms. This is the idea that an actor wants his character to become more sympathetic, say, so that reputedly Robert Redford left The Verdict after two days because he wanted the script changed to conform to his perceived personality, or Leonardo di Caprio becoming a ladies man in The Beach when in the book the character remains womanless throughout. But what is rarely addressed, it seems, is technique in relation to being. Is this what critics usually mean when they talk about miscasting?
One of the most common critical comments offered of Gazzara is that, as Time Out puts it, of his role in Saint Jack, he "simply plays himself". But it is perhaps fairer to say the direction accommodates the performance, the way Bertrand Tavernier once talked about accommodating Philippe Noiret's body in The Clockmaker of St Paul. But this is perhaps more common and unconscious than we might suppose. Thus Gazzara's casting in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie immediately forces upon Cassavetes certain expectations if he is willing to work from the actor at all.
What are these expectations? Again we return to this idea of sponginess, to this notion of Gazzara as someone who absorbs other people's chaos, their energy, their despair, even their happiness. When Gazzara takes a few girls with him on the casino boat early in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, he seems not so much the guy aggrandizing himself with the presence of beautifully made-up women, but more to be accommodating the woman's desire to dress beautifully by taking them somewhere they can look great.
Hence another word that comes to mind when thinking of Gazzara - accomodation. The degree to which he manages to create space for others. As Muti's Cass says in Tales of Ordinary Madness, "you're the only man I've ever met who wasn't in a rush." If we can talk about Cruise's editage - the idea that he demands a certain type of editing technique to be in tandem with his adrenaline driven persona ("no actor since Burt Lancaster has been quite so insistent as Cruise on an athletic presence", The Independent once proposed) - then can we talk of Gazzara chiefly in relation to mise-en-scene? It is often a casual insult to say an actor's performance is made in the editing suite, but we can look beyond the clich and think in terms of acting styles. If Gazzara's a spongy, accommodating presence then a director needs to maximize the space given over to that effect; just as the driven performer needs the space closed down.
Obviously this isn't to say Gazzara's work can be reduced to this spongy accommodation, nor that he's been able to manipulate the films he's made the way a superstar like Cruise can manipulate his. But this isn't the point. What we're interested in here is how Gazzara sits in the mind's eye, what images we conjure up when thinking of this curiously laid back presence. Just as Harry Dean Stanton, for example, appeared in numerous film without having much say in the final work, and yet nevertheless in Paris, Texas and Repo Mansuggested a persona that didn't come from nowhere but seemed a distillation of all his work up until then, can we not say the same of Gazzara in his late seventies to early eighties films, in works like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Saint Jack and Tales of Ordinary Madness? What then is going on in these films, what sort of ethos can we see at play?
In both The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Tales of Ordinary Madness, Gazzara has scenes where he stands up in front of an audience. But the scenes function not as public performances but as 'audacious' explorations of the personal in a public forum. In Tales of Ordinary Madness, Gazzara's Charles Serking talks about the importance of style, and in The Killing of the Chinese Bookie mortality. What he does in each instance is not monopolize the space and consequently the public's thoughts (as Cruise does inMagnolia), but forces upon those listening, a notion of themselves as if in acknowledgement of a basic absence in himself - in Tales of Ordinary Madness he is drunk, in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, he is dying.
What is so central to Gazzara is what critics have called an inebriated cinema, a filmmaking style for which Cassavates and Ferrara are known, and of course Gazzara's one of the most Cassavetian of actors. Gazzara's inebriation, however, is of a specific kind. It is a type of drunkenness towards death, deflation, acceptance. When Joseph Roth said all he wanted was for people to give him enough money for alcohol and to let him be, to let himself quietly and unobtrusively drink himself to death, we might think, if less categorically, of Gazzara. He lacks that do not go gently into the good night element of the alcoholic raging, an element we find in Cassavetes' drinking bouts in his own Love Streams and also Paul Mazursky's The Tempest. For Cassavetes, alcohol serves to generate an event: he is drinking to work up a certain kind of heat. In Gazzara drink serves to keep a man at room temperature.
Drunkenness in Gazzara's films signifies tenderness, not hedonism or violence. When he returns to the flop-house early on in Tales of Ordinary Madness, all he wants is to be left alone with his six pack. In Saint Jack, getting drunk is just part of life, part of the necessity of survival - it doesn't take Gazzara to a higher place, it allows him to remain in the place he's at. When a character in Saint Jack asks him what he does, he replies "I drink." Even in Husbands, where Gazzara's at his most raucous, there is a pensive tenderness to his drinking, as near the film's conclusion he sings, dances and hugs his friends and the women he's picked up as they all hang out in his hotel room.
We can say that Gazzara's a great actor of prosaic alcoholism, of a drunkenness that is almost philosophical - philosophical in the sense that it asks of the drunk merely to accept the world as it is, and not as he might wish it to be. This isn't the agitative alcoholism often found in Cassavetes, or perhaps also in Abel Ferrara's work, in Dangerous Game, in The Funeral, in Blackout, but a spongy alcoholism. Gazzara soaks up alcohol as he soaks up the world. Alcohol, in fact, allows him to soak up the world.
Can we now go further and say that out of this spongy state Gazzara may be vague to the details of the world in which he lives, but specific to its emotional resonances? When the beautiful, masochistic Cass in Tales of Ordinary Madness mutilates herself with a huge safety pin, Gazzara's response is not an action - he doesn't immediately try and stop her hurting herself - he instead absorbs the pain, comprehending its emotional logic. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie we shouldn't think of Cosmo murdering the bookie as an act of violence but as an act of self-realization: when the Chinese bookie looks up and realizes he's about to die, Gazzara seems more in tune with his victim's emotional state than with the adrenaline driven necessity to get his man and get out of the situation. It is as if a man who knows he will die (Gazzara) takes out a man who will die even sooner, but who will be killed by a man sympathetic - even at one with - the man he's about to kill. In each instance - in Cass's self-mutilation; in the Chinese bookie's demise - we notice how Gazzara responds in an emotionally similar way to very different events, to the self-mutilation of a woman in whose company he happens to be in, and a murder by his own hands of a man he doesn't even know. This is what we mean by Gazzara's feeling for emotional nuances, and this ties in with Gazzara's take on drink. Just as acts of violence aren't readily differentiated, so, by the same token, drink fails to differentiate either. Drink isn't the aforementioned egoistic demand - the hard-drinking, hell-raising, womanizing drunk - it is a quietist alcoholism, alcohol with a low-key spiritual dimension.
Of course this low-key spiritual dimension is most conspicuously present in the very title of Saint Jack. An adaptation of Paul Theroux's book that clearly owes something to Graham Greene and his tradition of hard-drinking spiritual escapees, Gazzara's spirituality has little to do with God and guilt, though; it is much more tangible than that. It is about being and defeat. The way drink allows one to exist without propelling oneself into existence. Sure Gazzara's Jack, like Cosmo and Serking, are open to living, and often very engaged with other human beings, but he doesn't propel himself forward socially with drink, or use it intermittently to deal with shock events in his life. Hence when his brothel is destroyed by Singapore gangsters, and when it looks as if his lover's going to take off with another man, Jack just accepts it as part of existence. He doesn't start drinking especially heavily or retreat into a spiritual drunkenness as we might expect from a Greene character. Gazzara's is a state of calm - and as if he's found a relative resting place between the social and the spiritual.
This may help account for Gazzara's curious indifference, even disrespect for funerals in his films. In Husbands, Saint Jack and Tales of Ordinary Madness, Gazzara seems almost to see funerals as disrespectful in themselves. Shouldn't the mourning process be about a feeling of loss over the ritual burying of a physical presence? In Husbands, Gazzara questions the whole funeral process, and at one stage harangues a woman's singing at the dead man's wake because she's not expressing enough feeling. In Tales of Ordinary Madness, Gazzara acts sacrilegiously as the nuns present at Cass's funeral are horrified when Serking gives the corpse a big kiss. In Saint Jack, when one of Jack's friends dies, Jack doesn't stand outside with the mourners at the grave, but stays inside, as if less interested in burying the corpse than remembering the friend.
Gazzara's sponginess refuses to see people as social beings that come and go - with the funeral; the final farewell of etat civil, of the social persona. It sees people instead as the emotional nuances mentioned earlier, so that any notion of death is irrelevant next to their emotional presence. This absorption that can soak up alcohol and people allows beings to come to him, people like Cass and Tyrell's man-eater in Tales of Ordinary Madness, the dancers and the aging MC in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the Singapore hookers and ex-pat diplomats in Saint Jack. If it was once said of Cassavetes he should have been paid just for living, for his ability to exist in the moment, and for having the sort of energy level that could constantly generate heat, Gazzara should maybe be paid for the way he can generate calm, a low-level energy, yet a curiously significant karma.
Thus while Cassavetes as an actor conforms to the American fascination with conflict in much of his work, Gazzara suggests in some ways the opposite: a sort of ongoing internal conflict that can accommodate un-aggressively the internal conflicts of others. There is a line from Tales of Ordinary Madness where, after Cass puts the huge safety pin through her cheeks, Serking tells her not to do it - it hurts him to see her hurt herself.
Some have suggested Gazzara's never fulfilled his promise. David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary says "his movies have not fulfilled the promise of stored-up hostility..." This is the sort of hostility hinted at in his slippery portrayal in Anatomy of a Murder. Pauline Kael talked in her Tales of Ordinary Madness review about how it's only "once in a while the highly accomplished Ben Gazzara gets a film role that he's itching to play..." (New Yorker ) David Shipman, in The Great Movies Stars: The International Years, reckons "to date that promise has been largely unfulfilled." But this idea of promise was chiefly premised, it seems, on early films like The Strange One and Anatomy of a Murder, an oleaginous baddie type Gazzara would often play when on auto-pilot on TV, or in Italian films like The Professor, or American crowd-pleasers such as Roadhouse. Some films in recent years have worked with the latter persona amusingly, like The Big Lebowski; Buffalo 66 and Dogville, however, have been more inclined to draw on the angle we've been exploring.
Maybe it is this Gazzara who could have been successful superficially, but the persona wouldn't have come close to the spongy accommodation that makes Gazzara occasionally so fascinating - the Gazzara who knows how to feel another's pain without alleviating it, who drinks but does not expect a change to come from imbibing alcohol, who can receive abuse without feeling obliged to respond to it, and who can murder without feeling a physical anger in the process if committing the crime. This is the Gazzara of maybe no more than half a dozen film - of Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Saint Jack, Tales of Ordinary Madness, perhaps Opening Night, They All Laughed and The Girl from Trieste - but there is an original mode at work here, one worth searching out in a mini-oeuvre of a certain kind of truth.
© Tony McKibbin