Category Archives: Novels

Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part One

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD. I was quite out of sorts when I first published this, and there were many errors of grammar that lay extant until it was re-edited on March 27th, 2014. My apologies to anyone who had to deal with it beforehand.)

An example of a movie making small changes in certain details to a book that transform it into something entirely different. This post is an attempt at examining those changes, why I think the novel works so extraordinarily well, and trying to get at the crux of the movie, which may be a failure, but one which I find to be a fascinating, inscrutable, enigmatic one.

Laying a few cards on the table, I think Brian De Palma is a director whose movies are as distinct from others the way a rapturous, frightening dream is different from an unenthusiastic puppet show. He, along with David Lynch, is one of those men who I do not wish to imagine the movies without, any more than I want to imagine a world that never moved past oil portraits. He is, I think, falsely saddled with the reputation of a film-maker who hates women and likes to hurt them on-screen, when he does something entirely different. The taboo De Palma violates is not that of hurting or humiliating women in his movies, for there is no such taboo, it is a commonplace; the taboo he violates is that sympathetic women are hurt or killed, in circumstances that in other movies are usually the basis for heroic fantasy, but here the male hero is unable to prevent her suffering and death, such as Casualties of War or complicit in her suffering and death, such as Blow Out. Again and again, De Palma makes movies which have serious questions about what men expect in movies, the fantasies the movies feed, and each time he receives the same reward for his inquiries, one more variation on the review headline, “Another Sadistic Piece Of Garbage From Misogynist Brian De Palma”.

So, I don’t say cavalierly that I think the Black Dahlia feels like a movie of extraordinary contempt, contempt for the audience, contempt for what movies have become, contempt for the fantasies people have about movies themselves; it is not contempt that is easy or stupid, but one of extraordinary focus and design, of a brilliant craftsman, something akin to Sam Peckinpah in Straw Dogs, a man fulfilling certain fantasies for the audience, hating the audience for those fantasies, and asking, is this the best this vivid mess of images is capable of, fulfilling our cheap ideas of vengeance? Like Straw Dogs, I think it’s possible to consider The Black Dahlia brilliant, as well as a deeply disturbing and repellent movie at the same time.

I don’t think Black Dahlia has the same seamless build of Dogs, yet every shot demonstrates incredible skill, and its conception, including the crucial changes to the novel, has been well thought out, even if this conception is ultimately a failure. The movie takes the single story of the novel, and turns it into two stories, a superficial narrative on top about the chase for a serial killer, and another beneath: if the topmost story were more compelling, the movie would have been a greater box office success; if the secondary story were less subtle, and more obvious to viewers, it would have been praised as an avant-garde masterpiece – instead it received neither laurel. It’s a work of a genius, but I don’t think I like it, though it’s so full of bitterness, I think it would wear my dislike for a crown.

An initial note: it might be the most cynical movie De Palma has ever made, surpassing both Bonfire of the Vanities and Scarface. Scarface at least is quite clearly about an obvious villain, and that he is almost wholely evil may even be a comfort that the wickedness of the world lies entirely with thugs like these, not the petty sins of ordinary men and women. Bonfire is clearly a satire, and we expect any one to be treated cruelly in this form. Dahlia is something different, outwardly the tale of a heroic figure who, though flawed, is ultimately good, doing just work and finding sanctuary in the home of another victim. I say outwardly, because I think through the fiddling of a few details – with very specific intent, not out of clumsiness – De Palma has entirely changed the trajectory of Ellroy’s novel, of protagonists moving from damnation to salvation, to entirely the reverse. He condemns his characters, Lee Blanchard, Bucky Bleichert and Kay Lake, but his condemnation is not just limited to them, but the audience and their naive fantasies as well.

I preface what is a very lengthy analysis by saying it is entirely absent of abstract theoretical language; I find the best, most insightful analysis looks at narrative works in detail, and why their details are there, rather than grouping them from a distance as belonging to this or that category of ideas. Those with a taste for a more theory heavy look can find it with this John Demetry post, at Revolution To Revelation. I also offer a strong caveat: as a book, I think The Black Dahlia is direct in what it is about, while the movie, despite belonging to two genres that are expected to be forthright, the serial killer chase and film noir, is very ambiguous, and I present my hypotheses as tenuous possibilities. Perhaps the closest to come to some of them would be Keith Uhlich, in his piece “Ghost World” at Reverse Shot. If the director Brian De Palma is sincere in his answers in this invaluable interview conducted by Jeremy Smith, then some of these hypotheses are wrong. I start with a long, but necessary, look at the original novel.

THE NOVEL

The book is a story of redemption, of Dwight Bleichert, whose father is a member of the German Bund and Reich sympathizer, and a man who has betrayed his Japanese American friends, Sam Murakami and Hideo Ashida, in order to get a position with the LAPD. Importantly, he is something of a grotesque: he has buck teeth, the reason for his nickname, and which he has never had the money to fix. He joins up with Lee Blanchard, a cop, who he looks up to as a heroic ideal. When the police department holds a fight to publicize a bond issue, Bleichert betrays bookies and refuses to throw it; he loses anyway, and the payments are made, but this refusal is his first act toward redemption. He now has the money to put his senile father in a group home, taking glee in the fact that this racist man now has to sit together and eat with jews. Blanchard and Bleichert become friends, with Bleichert looking to Blanchard as an older, noble brother. He also starts to fall in love with Blanchard’s wife, Kay, a mysterious, brilliant woman.

The two partners become involved in the Betty Short murder case (named the Black Dahlia by a newspaper for her dark clothes, playing off the title of the contemporary film The Blue Dahlia), with both becoming obsessed with it. For Blanchard, the Black Dahlia is connected with his sister, kidnapped and killed at a young age, and resolving this investigation becomes a way of bringing justice where no justice was done in this earlier, unsolved mystery. For Bleichert, the obsession is erotic: he becomes infatuated not with the Black Dahlia as she lived, but the Black Dahlia as an image, apart from life. Bleichert wishes to somehow re-create this image in life, and his desire is fulfilled when he meets Madeleine Sprague, a woman who consciously re-makes herself into the image of the Dahlia, becoming her living twin*.

As the story progresses, Bleichert gets more and more erotically obsessed with the Dahlia and Madeleine; it also becomes clear that Blanchard is nothing like his heroic exterior, but is a deeply corrupt cop. The book develops into an examination of two illusions and the people who become these illusions, and surpass them. Bleichert ends up a better cop than Blanchard ever was. The Dahlia, who was a lousy actress who had sex as a desperate respite from loneliness, is surpassed by Madeleine, a woman who is a gifted mimic who revels in sex and her new image, that of the dead girl. The attraction of the Dahlia is also an intersection with the now ubiquitous culture of fame, fame exclusively through an image, rather than any achievement. Though Betty Short was entirely unknown as a performer or individual, the image of the Dahlia becomes known throughout Los Angeles, and it is the ubiquity of this image, that so many other men lust for this image, that makes Bleichert want it even more. This is something that plagues every well-known, beautiful actress: a woman who is not just beautiful, but a beauty ever present in the dreams of men, Liz Taylor or Scarlett Johansson. A line from Ellroy’s Dahlia sequel, The Big Nowhere, is apt: “Downtown came and went; the woman stayed.”

The bulk of the book are interviews by Bleichert and associates with those who knew the Dahlia, and are possible suspects. The Dahlia herself never appears as a character; we only get a distant sense of her through the words of others. In this context, Madeleine as the Dahlia creates an uncanny image: the woman is dead, yet here she is, more alive than ever. Whatever the complexities and detours of the plot, which causes Bleichert to move about among possible interviews, it holds together through his obsession with the Dahlia. Despite all the busy plotting, the focus always returns to this point.

A key sequence is when Blanchard disappears in Mexico. It is Bleichert’s search for his partner, his discovery of the body, which mirrors Bleichert’s own unresolved search for his missing sister. For it to properly mirror Bleichert’s search, Blanchard must be missing, he cannot die on-screen, and his body must be found. It serves as another point in Bleichert’s redemption, and his superceding of his flawed mentor.

The search for Blanchard and the discovery of the body is crucial to the book. It is given, rightly, a holy aspect. It’s the best piece of writing in The Black Dahlia, and possibly the best piece of writing in the entire quartet.

Bleichert searches for Blanchard’s body with a private detective he doesn’t trust, Milton Dolphine:

The burial ground was ten miles south of Ensenada, just off the coast road on a bluff overlooking the ocean. A big, burning cross marked the spot. Dolphine pulled up next to it and killed the engine. “It’s not what you think. The locals keep the damn thing lit up because they don’t know who’s buried there, and lots of them have got missing loved ones. It’s a ritual with them. They burn the crosses, and the Rurales tolerate it, like it’s some kind of panacea to keep the great unwashed gun-shy.”

Dolphine got out of the car, walked around and popped open the trunk. I followed, watching him remove a large earth spade. Flame glow illuminated the PI’s old Dodge coupe; I noticed a pile of fence pickets and rags next to the spare tire. Tucking the .38 into my waistband, I fashioned two torches out of them, wrapping the rags around the ends of the posts, then igniting them in the cross. Handing one to Dolphine, I said, “Walk ahead of me.”

We strode into the sand pit, outlaws holding fireballs on a stick. The softness made the going slow; torchlight let me pick out grave offerings–little bouquets and religious statues placed atop dunes here and there. Dolphine kept muttering how gringos got dumped on the far side; I felt bones cracking beneath my feet. We reached an especially high drift, and Dolphine waved his torch at a tattered American flag spread out on the sand.

A putrid smell rose from a big crater at our feet. “Dig,” I said. Dolphine went at it; I thought of ghosts–Betty Short and Laurie Blanchard–waiting for the shovel to hit bones. The first time it did I recited a psalm the old man had force-fed me; the second time, it was the “Our Fathers” that Danny Boylan used to chant before our sparring sessions. When Dolphine said, “Sailor. I can see his jumper,” I didn’t know if I wanted Lee alive and in grief or dead and nowhere–so I pushed Dolphine aside and shoveled myself.

My first blow sheared off the sailor’s skull, my second tore into the front of his tunic, pulling the torso free from the rest of the skeleton. The legs were in crumbled pieces; I shoveled past them into plain sand glinting with mica. Then it was maggot nests and entrails and a blood-mattted crinoline dress and sand and odd bones and nothing–and then it was sunburned pink skin and blond eyebrows covered with stitch scars that looked familiar. Then Lee was smiling like the Dahlia, with worms creeping out of his mouth and the holes where his eyes used to be.

Blanchard took on the quest for the killer of the Dahlia to somehow resolve the loss of his sister, but also to redeem himself for the corruption he engaged in for so long – but his own quest became corrupted. He discovered that Madeleine had a relationship with the Dahlia, and used this information to shake down her father for money. Bleichert takes up the quest now entirely on his own, but he does so with a purity that is another step in his penitence. Brutality and coercion are a common place in the LAPD of the novel’s time (perhaps not only of the novel’s time), but Bleichert breaks from these tactics, putting himself in opposition to one of the most brutal cops, Fritzie Vogel.

Eventually, Bleichert discovers that those behind the Dahlia’s murder are Madeleine’s mother, and the mother’s former boyfriend. The choice of these people for the killers is not arbitrary but vital. Bleichert, as said before, is something of a grotesque, marked by his buck teeth. The Spragues (Linscotts in the movie), Madeleine’s family, are divided between those who are marked by beauty and power, respectively, Madeleine and her father, Emmett, and those who are marked by their lack of beauty. There is Ramona Sprague, the mother, a fat, flaccid woman who was married for her money, Madeleine’s sister Martha, pudgy and marked by bad skin, and, most importantly, Georgie Tilden, her mother’s boyfriend: he was a good-looking man, a heroic veteran of the first World War, and Madeleine’s real father. Emmett, after discovering Madeleine’s paternity, cut up Georgie’s face, turning him into a grotesque, and causing him to lose his mind. So, Ramona and Georgie are like Bleichert in that they are in various ways physically marred, they don’t possess the beauty of Madeleine or the Dahlia. Georgie, obsessed with the image of Betty Short, wanted to sleep with her, just as Bleichert was obsessed with her. Ramona ends up killing this woman for her resemblance to Madeleine because among the men Madeleine sleeps with is Emmett: she hates Betty Short as a romantic rival and for her resemblance to a romantic rival. As grotesques, they are transfixed and envious of this beauty, and want to destroy it. That they disfigure her by cutting at her mouth, and that Bleichert’s disfigurement is in his mouth, I do not believe is trivial.

Bleichert does not kill any of those involved except Georgie; that he shows mercy is part of his path to redemption, and partly, I believe, because he sees some of the same harmful qualities in himself as in the killers. I stress the details of this ending, because, though it is very baroque, it is of a piece with what’s come before, with the obsessions of the hero and the killers converging. Bleichert discovers that Madeleine was behind the death of Blanchard, that she had him killed after he shook down her father for blackmail money; she has already passed through the book earlier while on this mission, in a disguise Bleichert does not unveil at the time, of a beautiful mexican woman.

The book ends with Bleichert redeemed. Kay has left for Massachusetts, leaving the house in Los Angeles bought with money from Blanchard’s corrupt activities, and the last sentences have Bleichert descending from the clouds in his flight to join her.

I mention some of the more prominent details of the book so as to make obvious the small changes the movie makes and why they make such a difference in why the movie does not work in ways the book does, but how the subject of the book and the movie are very different.

* A quote that applies to both Madeleine and the Dahlia is the following, from Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age: “She had the fatal gift of beauty, and that more fatal gift which does not always accompany mere beauty, the power of fascination, a power that may, indeed, exist without beauty.”

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR PART FIVE

Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

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A Last Note From Milan Kundera On Kafka

This post overlaps with, and serves as a complimentary fragment to the posts here and here. I quote so much from Milan Kundera because his investigations are so diligent, and his findings sound so truly. As always, this is from The Art of the Novel.

First, an anecdote:

In one of his books, my friend Josef Skvorecky tells this true story:

An engineer from Prague is invited to a professional conference in London. So he goes, takes part in the proceedings, and returns to Prague. Some hours after his return, sitting in his office, he picks up Rude Pravo – the official daily paper of the Party – and reads: A Czech engineer, attending a conference in London, has made a slanderous statement about his socialist homeland to the Western press and has decided to stay in the West.

Illegal emigration combined with a statement of that kind is no trifle. It would be worth twenty years in prison. Our engineer can’t believe his eyes. But there’s no doubt about it, the article refers to him. His secretary coming into his office, is shocked to see him: My God, she says, you’re back! I don’t understand – did you see what they wrote about you?

The engineer sees fear in his secretary’s eyes. What can he do? He rushes to the Rude Pravo office. He finds the editor responsible for the story. The editor apologizes; yes, it really is an awkward business, but he, the editor, has nothing to do with it, he got the text of the article direct from the Ministry of the Interior.

So the engineer goes off to the Ministry. There they say yes, of course, it’s all a mistake, but they, the Ministry, have nothing to do with it, they got the report on the engineer from the intelligence people at the London embassy. The engineer asks for a retraction. No, he’s told, they never retract, but nothing can happen to him, he has nothing to worry about.

But the engineer does worry. He soon realizes that all of a sudden he’s being closely watched, that his telephone is tapped, and that he’s being followed in the street. He sleeps poorly and has nightmares until, unable to bear the pressure any longer, he takes a lot of real risks to leave the country illegally. And so he actually becomes an émigré.

Then: a precise detailing of what might be meant by the “Kafkan”, and further notes on Kafka’s prophecies.

The story I’ve just told is one that would immediately call Kafkan…But what is the Kafkan?

Let’s try to describe some of its aspects:

One:

The engineer is confronted by a power that has the character of a boundless labyrinth. He can never get to the end of its interminable corridors and will never succeed in finding out who issued the fateful verdict. He is therefore in the same situation as Joseph K. before the Court, or the Land-Surveyor K. before the Castle. All three are in a world that is nothing but a single, huge labyrinthine institution they cannot escape and cannot understand.

Novelists before Kafka often exposed institutions as areas where conflicts between different personal and public interests were played out. In Kafka the institution is a mechanism that obeys its own laws; no one knows now who programmed those laws or when; they have nothing to do with human concerns an are thus unintelligible.

Two:

In Chapter Five of The Castle, the village Mayor explains in detail to K. the long history of his file. Briefly: Years earlier, a proposal to engage a land-surveyor came down to the village from the Castle. The Mayor wrote a negative response (there was no need for any land-surveyor), but his reply went astray to the wrong office, and so after an intricate series of bureaucratic misunderstandings, stretching over many years, the job offer was inadvertently sent to K., at the very moment when all the offices involved were in the process of canceling the old obsolete proposal. After a long journey, K. thus arrived in the village by mistake. Still more: Given that for him there is no possible world other than the Castle and its village, his entire existence is a mistake.

In the Kafkan world, the file takes on the role of a Platonic idea. It represents a true reality, whereas man’s physical existence is only a shadow cast on the screen of illusion. Indeed, both the Land-Surveyor K. and the Prague engineer are but the shadows of their file cards; and they are even much less than that: they are the shadows of a mistake in the file, shadows without even the right to exist as shadows.

Three:

Raskolnikov cannot bear the weight of his guilt, and to find peace he consents to his punishment of his own free will. It’s the well-known situation where the offense seeks the punishment.

In Kafka the logic is reversed. The person punished does not know the reason for the punishment. The absurdity of the punishment is so unbearable that to find peace the accursed needs to find justification for his penalty: the punishment seeks the offense.

Four:

The tale of the Prague engineer is in the nature of a funny story, a joke: it provokes laughter.

Two gentlemen, perfectly ordinary fellows (not “inspectors” as in the French translation), surprise Joseph K. in bed one morning, tell him he is under arrest, and eat up his breakfast. K. is a well-disciplined civil servant: instead of throwing the men out of his flat, he stands in his nightshirt and gives a lengthy self-defense. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.

In speaking of the microsocial practices that generate the Kafkan, I mean not only the family but alo the organization in which Kafka spent all his adult life: the office.

In the bureaucratic world of the functionary, first, there is no initiative, no invention, no freedom of action; thee are only orders and rules: it is the world of obedience.

Second, the functionary performs a small part of a large administrative activity whose aim and horizons he cannot see: it is the world where actions have become mechanical and people do not know the meaning of what they do.

Third, the functionary deals only with unknown persons and with files: it is the world of the abstract.

To place a novel in this world of obedience, of the mechanical, and of the abstract, where the only human adventure is to move from one office to another, seems to run counter to the very essence of epic poetry. Thus the question: How has Kafka managed to transform such gray, antipoetical material into fascinating novels?

The answer can be found in a letter he wrote to Milena: “The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.” The sentence contains one of Kafka’s greatest secrets. He saw what no one else could see: not only the enormous importance of the bureaucratic phenomenon for man, for his condition and for his future, but also (even more surprisingly) the poetic potential contained in the phantasmic nature of offices.

But what does it mean to say the office belongs to the realm of the fantastic?

The Prague engineer would understand: a mistake in his file projected him to London; so he wandered around Prague, a veritable phantom, seeking his lost body, while the offices he visited seemed to him a boundless labyrinth from some unknown mythology.

The quality of the fantastic that he perceived in the bureaucratic world allowed Kafka to do what had seemed unimaginable before: he transformed the profoundly antipoetic material of a highly bureaucratized society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never before seen.

By expanding a bureaucratic setting to the gigantic dimensions of a universe, Kafka unwittingly succeeded in creating an image that fascinates us by its resemblance to a society he never knew, that of today’s Prague [Art of the Novel was published in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed, Czechoslovakia still existed, and Prague was behind the iron curtain].

A totalitarian state is in fact a single, immense administration: since all work in it is for the state, everyone of every occupation has become an employee. A worker is no longer a worker, a judge no longer a judge, a shopkeeper no longer a shopkeeper, a priest no longer a priest; they are all functionaries of the State. “I belong to the Court,” the priest says to Joseph K. in the Cathedral. In Kafka, the lawyers, too, work for the Court. A citizen in today’s Prague does not find that surprising. He would get no better legal defense than K. did. His lawyers don’t work for defendants either, but for the Court.

In a cycle of one hundred quatrains that sound the gravest and most complex depths with an almost childlike simplicity, the great Czech poet [Jan Skacel] writes:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it.

For the poet, then, writing means breaking through a wall behind which something immutable (“the poem”) lies hidden in darkness. That’s why (because of this surprising and sudden unveiling) “the poem” strikes us first as a dazzlement.

Kafka made no prophecies. All he did was see what was “behind.” He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing. He did not intend to unmask a social system. He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of History.

The hypnotic eye of power, the desperate search for one’s own offense, exclusion and the anguish of being excluded, the condemnation to conformism, the phantasmic nature of reality and the magical reality of the file, the perpetual rape of private life, etc. – all these experiments that History has performed on man in its immense test tubes, Kafka performed (some years earlier) in his novels.

The convergence of the real world of totalitarian states with Kafka’s “poem” will always be somewhat uncanny, and it will always bear witness that the poet’s act, in its very essence, is incalculable; and paradoxical: the enormous social, political, and “prophetic” import of Kafka’s novels lies precisely in their “nonengagement,” that is to say, in their total autonomy from all political programs, ideological concepts, and futurological prognoses.

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Milan Kundera on Kafka’s Prophecies

Again, from the essential The Art of the Novel.

Mystifications and legends aside, there is no significant trace anywhere of Franz Kafka’s political interests; in that sense, he is different from all his Prague friends, from Max Brod, Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch, and from all the avant-gardes that, claiming to know the direction of History, indulged in conjuring up the face of the future.

So how is it that not their works but those of their solitary, introverted companion, immersed in his own life and his art, are recognized today as a sociopolitical prophecy, and are for that very reason banned in a large part of the world?

The famous letter Kafka write and never sent to his father demonstrates that it was from the family, from the relationship between the child and the deified power of the parents, that Kafka drew his knowledge of the technique of culpabilization, which became a major theme of his fiction. In “The Judgement,” a short story intimately bound up with the author’s family experience, the father accuses the son and commands him to drown himself. The son accepts his fictitious guilt and throws himself into the river as docilely as, in a later work, his successor Joseph K., indicted by a mysterious organization, goes to be slaughtered. The similarity between the two accusations, the two culpabilizations, and the two executions reveals the link, in Kafka’s work, between the family’s private “totalitarianism” and that in his great social visions.

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to be entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State, just as a child has no right to keep a secret from his father or his mother. In their propaganda, totalitarian societies project an idyllic smile; they want to be seen as “one big family.”

It’s often said that Kafka’s novels express a passionate desire for community and human contact, that the rootless being who is K. has only one goal: to overcome the curse of solitude. Now, this is not only a cliché, a reductive interpretation, it is a misinterpretation.

The Land-Surveyor K. is not in the least pursuing people and their warmth, he is not trying to become “a man among men: like Sartre’s Orestes; he wants acceptance not from a community but from an institution. To have it, he must pay dearly: he must renounce his solitude. And this is his hell: he is never alone, the two assistants sent by the Castle follow him always. When he first makes love with Frieda, the two men are there, sitting on the café counter over the lovers, and from then on they are never absent from their bed.

Not the curse of solitude but the violation of solitude is Kafka’s obsession!

Lyrical souls who like to preach the abolition of secrets and the transparency of private life do not realize the nature of the process they are unleashing. The starting point of totalitarianism resembles the beginning of The Trial: you’ll be taken unawares in your bed. They’ll come just as your father and mother used to.

People often wonder whether Kafka’s novels are projections of the author’s most personal and private conflicts or descriptions of an objective “social machine.”

The Kafkan is not restricted to either the private or the public domain; it encompasses both. The public is the mirror of the private; the private reflects the public.

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Milan Kundera on Kafka’s Horror of the Comic

Fragments from the essential The Art of the Novel.

On the horror of the comic:

When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.

Philip Roth’s imagined film version of The Castle: Groucho Marx plays the Land-Surveyor K., with Chico and Harpo as the two assistants. Yes, Roth is quite right: The comic is inseparable from the very essence of the Kafkan…[A] joke is only a joke if you’re outside the bowl; by contrast, the Kafkan takes us inside, into the guts of a joke, into the horror of the comic

In the world of the Kafkan, the comic is not a counterpoint to the tragic (the tragi-comic) as in Shakespeare; it’s not there to make the tragic more bearable by lightening the tone; it doesn’t accompany the tragic, not at all, it destroys in the egg and thus deprives the victims of the only consolation they could hope for: the consolation to be found in the (real or supposed) grandeur of tragedy.

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Poor Alonzo Quijada

From The Curtain by Milan Kundera:

Poor Alonzo Quijada meant to elevate himself into the legendary figure of a knight-errant. Instead, for all of literary history, Cervantes succeeded in doing just the opposite: he cast a legendary figure down: into the world of prose. “Prose”: the word signifies not only a nonversified language; it also signifies the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life. So to say that the novel is the art of prose is not to state the obvious; the word defines the deep sense of that art. Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth. But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are perpetual concern – hurting teeth, missing teeth. “You must know, Sancho, that no diamond is so precious as a tooth.”

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Carlito’s Way: Pool Room Scene Part Four

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE CARLITO’S WAY, AS WELL AS SOME IMAGES OF VIOLENCE AND GORE

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR

Now Brigante is in the bathroom, with a gun and an empty clip, his enemies outside, possibly the scene that’s most important in the movie, and serves as the basis for the movie’s poster art.

The essence of the scene and its aftermath are in the original novel:

“Maricones! I`m all reloaded. Come on in,” I shouted.

Zilch I had reloaded. I was out of bullets. Everything got quiet. Could hear a rat piss on cotton. I’m streched out on piss and cold tiles.

I yelled again, “Mother fuckers, get ready. we all gonna die here, ’cause I’m comin’ out. Se va’ joder to’el mundo!”

Bang. They blew the lights out, then a stampede of feet makin’ for the outside door. All clear. I felt a sting across my back like I’d been whipped. The bulls will be here, make your move. I crawled out on all fours. Wait awhile. Guajiro brought a bundle with him. Ain’t gonna do him no good. Lit a match. Inner suit pocket. Okay. Let’s go. Seventeen big ones. This is typical. Guajiro goes down to close a deal – wham, he gets offed. Ain’t no more racketeers, just a bunch of muggers rippin’ each othe off. I don’t need this. The street is too hot (esta que chilla!). Time to get off, Carlito, while you still upright.

A digression: many of the best lines in the novel even if not used in their original context, were brought into the movie – I’m sorry that “could hear a rat piss on cotton” wasn’t one of them.

So, the central quality of the scene is that Brigante is out of bullets and now must use only his voice to intimidate those outside that he’s somehow reloaded the gun, and will kill them when he goes back outside.

The draft screenplay sticks close to the original novel:

IN THE BATHROOM,

Carlito kills the light and scrambles across the floor, into a stall.

A few more SHOTS are fired in the general direction of the bathroom, but nobody seems about ready to charge into the darkened room.

Carlito flips open the gun he got from the Dominican and dumps the spent shell casings, which PING across the tile floor.

CARLITO
(shouting)
You little shits! You little fuckin’ shits! I’m reloaded, come on in and get me!

He looks down at the gun. The cylinder is still empty. He flips it shut as noisily as possible and closes his eyes.

CARLITO
Come on, you little fucks!

OUT IN THE MAIN ROOM,

the remaining Dominicans, who have taken cover, look at each other, wide-eyed, and now they really do look like kids. None of them seems particularly eager to charge the bathroom.

IN THE BATHROOM,

Carlito touches his back, comes up with blood on his hand.

CARLITO

You don’t wanna come in, mother fuckers? Then I’m comin’ out! Get ready. ’cause you all gonna die here!

IN THE MAIN ROOM,

the Dominicans are scared shitless. Quisqueya turns, aims his gun at the single light and —

BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG!

He shatters the light, sending the room into blackness. Under cover of the dark, they all race out the door and out through the barber shop.

The final movie reduces these elements and moves the focus entirely on Brigante. The bathroom starts off with an overhead shot of Brigante, as he looks desperately, futilely, up, as if for a deliverance.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

He is as vulnerable now as when he was at the pool table, but now he holds even fewer cards and is entirely at a dead end. What makes this the most important scene in the movie is that it embodies exactly what Brigante’s condition is throughout the movie – a man who no longer wants to be a tough guy, who must assume a tough guy pose that he no longer believes or likes in order to survive, and that his life depends on people continuing to believe this pose. The pool room sequence is a precursor of what happens in the Grand Central shoot-out sequence, where he will once again fall into trouble by doing a favour, will use his extraordinary skills to extract himself, but the next time he won’t be able to escape the place his choices have brought him to, because the next time, Pachanga and Benny Blanco will no longer believe he’s still a gangster.

He knows he’s in trouble. Takes the clip out, and just the way he holds it and the gun, expresses “now what do I do?”

Puts the empty clip back in, flips the light, then does the re-load.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

His lines are entirely uninterrupted by the re-load or touching his wound actions as they are in the script. All the actions lie with him, his opponents don’t shoot a light or move. Their fear is shown by not moving.

From now on, all of Brigante’s dialogue is transcribed from the movie:

CARLITO

I’M RE-LOADED! OKAY! COME IN HERE, MOTHERFUCKERS! COME ON, I’M WAITING FOR YOU!

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Brigante says his lines with his face entirely in shadow, and it`s only when he shifts into the light that we see he’s very scared, and that it’s taking every thing he has to put on this act. He looks up briefly like he’s making a silent prayer, then continues:

CARLITO

OKAY! YOU AIN’T COMIN’ IN?

We see the first man from the pool table, lying on the floor, with his sunglasses now off. His earlier appearance now seems as much a pose as Carlito’s, someone who’s now very frail and scared.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

CARLITO (v.o.)

THEN I’M COMIN’ OUT! YOU UP AGAINST IT NOW, MOTHERFUCKERS! I’M GONNA BLOW YOUR FUCKIN BRAINS OUT!

Then, we return to Brigante up against the wall, shouting, not out the door, but upwards, entirely acting, hoping this will work. He now delivers the classic lines.

CARLITO

YOU THINK YOU’RE BIG-TIME!? YOU’RE GONNA FUCKIN DIE, BIG-TIME!

CARLITO

YOU READY!? HERE COME THE PAIN!

Despite the bravado in these lines, and Brigante throwing open the door like he’s an invading army, he moves with the gun hesitantly, jerkily, knowing that if anyone out there has a piece, he’s a dead man.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

From the draft:

Carlito edges out the door, waving his empty weapon here and there frantically.

Only when he’s a few feet out does he relax. The two pool players stay still.

The draft script:

CARLITO
(softly)

Oh, Jesus. Jesus Christ. Fuckin’ look at you! You said they were friends, God damn you, there ain’t no friends in this shit business!

A SOUND from the street startles him. He looks up, realizing he’s still not safe here. He starts to get up, then turns back to Guajiro, reluctantly.

He reaches into Guajiro’s inside jacket pocket and pulls out the wad of bills.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

In the movie, Brigante leaves the bathroom, and we get a wide shot of the wreckage of the place.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito and Guajiro, who were in separate spaces after Guajiro left for the bar area, are now connected in one fluid camera movement, from the cousin’s corpse to the cousin giving blessing.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Added: Brigante making the sign of the cross over Guajiro. No “god damn you”, which would be a desecration. The money is not taken from the body, which would be a desecration, but from the counter. It is perhaps this strong Christian context – Brigante saying “Jesus. Oh Jesus Christ,” to giving the sign of the cross over his cousin’s body – which makes me see the layout of Guajiro’s body in a Christian context as well, that of Michelangelo’s Pietà.

The next shot is, again, with the length of the bar on the side, showing the small distance needed to travel that made the difference between life and death. Carlito stares at that, then turns to look at the distance between the bar and the bathroom, but there’s no point in dwelling on calculations of how things might have come out different: his cousin is dead, and the cops are on the way.

CARLITO (cont’d)

Adios, primo.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito opens the door, and walks into a brilliant white light; he’s been delivered, this time.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

A small, succinct gesture caps this sequence. Carlito wipes the handle of the gun, and tosses it away, all in one seamless movement. The assurance and calm say that he has done this many times before. Though he very much wants to leave it, he’s still very good at the criminal life, which is why he’ll believe he’ll always have the gifts to survive traps like this one, an illusion that’ll finally get him killed.

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR

Images and screenplay copyright Universal Pictures.

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Carlito’s Way: Pool Room Scene Part Three

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE CARLITO’S WAY, AS WELL AS SOME IMAGES OF VIOLENCE AND GORE

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR

The juke music cuts out, and we get Patrick Doyle’s score come in, heard from now on, of course, at the same volume throughout the room.

Magic time.

Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way - first shot in the pool game - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/MedicalThunderousKob

QUISQUEYA

YOUR BOSS IS DEAD AND SO ARE YOU!

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

From now on until the knifeman is killed, we get on the soundtrack at the same volume level, wherever we are in the room, the horrible sound of Guajiro’s scream.

One down, one to go.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

But it might be too late.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Okay, we have the gun. We might just pull this off.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

It`s too late.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Brigante, convicted assassin, hits the knifeman, who is doing something Brigante might have done in the past, from a room’s distance away.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Despite all the action contained in these previous shots, the camera is almost entirely still, which is crucial, because the energy needs to be held before it goes higher as Carlito and Quisqueya go after each other, building up to the close-up of Quisqueya, shot. Here the camera moves, as Quisqueya and Brigante come closer and closer together.

A zoom for the surprise effect and to stand out in all this movement; the knifeman’s still alive. Brigante is a man of great skill, but he’s getting old, and this shot from a room away was a little off.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Brigante stays focused too long on Quisqueya’s death, looking the other way from the downed assassin:

Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way - assassin hits Carlito - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/SamePastelBedlingtonterrier

Caught by surprise:

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

This time the knifeman definitely gets it, but Brigante is getting old, since he’s lost count of the number of bullets left.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way - split screen of the pool hall shootout - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/CautiousBouncyDoctorfish

An attempt to divide the action of the scene between the perspectives of Carlito and Quisqueya during this whole sequence in a split screen. Inevitably, things are a little out of sync at the beginning, with the assassin crossing over in the sunglasses before he does so at Quisqueya’s location, Quisqueya’s face lit up by the bathroom light slowed down so that Carlito’s shot is in sync with the knifeman getting hit, Carlito slowed down so that his shot takes place when Quisqueya is killed, and both the shots of the knifeman and Brigante have to be held entirely still for the thing to work. Even with these limitations, this might be helpful as an additional guide for the plotting of the action.

This whole sequence, with the knifeman instead carrying a gun is all in one short passage in the novel. Brigante, as stated, has a gun from the outset:

That’s what saved me. When Guajiro’s hands went up, I turned right. The shooter bust out the bathroom door and shot Guajiro in the neck, behind the ear. Guajiro spun around draggin’ Quisqueya with him. They got between me and the shooter, who kept shootin’. That’s all I needed. I threw myself backwards and pulled my piece out. I fired at the pool table to my left first. I musta blown it up ’cause splinters was flyin’. Somebody screamed for his mother. I’m rollin’ all over the floor. The shooter, a little fucker, got clear of Guajiro and Quisqueya. I think he’d gone through his five shots (he had a snub nose) because he just stood there. I blew his chest out with two or three quick shots, then still firin’, I scrambled over him into the bathroom.

My back burned as I crawled into a stall. They kept shootin’, but there was no light in the john and they wasn’t about to charge into the dark.

The draft script retains more than a few details of the book, while adding much of the material that, I think, makes the scene so successful. There is no knifeman in the sunglasses or “trick shot”, just a simple cue stick smack. More men are still in the room after the knifeman and the first pool table opponent go down, so you can’t have the duel between Quisqueya and Brigante. In the movie, there’s no diversion from the action by shifting to the women leaving the room. They’ve either left the room, unnoticed, under a pre-arranged signal, or they leave unseen and unheard in the turmoil. The distraction of the shot-up pool table in both the book and draft, is gone in the movie.

AT THE BAR,

Quisqueya still has Guajiro’s hands in his, and it’s getting a little odd. Guajiro looks down at them.

QUISQUEYA
You got the cash with you?

GUAJIRO
Yeah, Hey, come on, what news?

Guajiro tries to pull his hands free, but Quisqueya’s fingers lock around his wrists, hard.

QUISQUEYA
Your boss is dead. So are you.

Everything happens at once. The door to the bathroom flies open —

— Carlito WHAPS the pool cue across the face of the Dominican next to him, stripping him of his gun as they both hit the floor —

— the KNIFE MAN who was hiding in the bathroom flies up behind Guajiro and cuts him twice, once in the back, once across the throat —

— the Girls SCREAM and bolt from the room —

— and Carlito FIRES, SLAMMING a shot into the Knife Man before he can turn, sending him flying against the wall.

Carlito scrambles across the floor, along the length of the pool table, keeping it between himself and —

— the other two Dominicans. He’d positioned them on the other side of the pool table, but they’re moving now, their guns out. Carlito FIRES four shots at them as he crabwalks for the bathroom.

Huge chunks of splintered pool table fly up, somebody SCREAMS and goes down, and a SHOT ZIPS across Carlito’s back, grazing him, cutting a line through his jacket. He reacts to it but continues on, diving over the body of the Knife Man and into the bathroom.

Continued…

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR

Images and screenplay copyright Universal Pictures.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Carlito’s Way: Pool Room Scene Part Two

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE CARLITO’S WAY, AS WELL AS SOME IMAGES OF VIOLENCE AND GORE

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR

The two men in the pool area are given a stronger visual impression than in the book or draft script, with the second man getting the gun and lighter that were left all with the first player in the draft. One has a cap, sunglasses, a more overtly tough attitude, the other long hair, a vest, also tough, but slightly more relaxed. Rather than there be a central focus on one player among three as we have in the script, the movie evenly divides the focus between the two players.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

A cut to the conversation between Guajiro and Quisqueya; in the script, nothing specific is heard. The framing is partly along the length of the bar, but not the full length as in later shots.

Transcribed from the movie:

QUISQUEYA
You don’t mind if I count it?

GUAJIRO
Ah, it’s all there.

QUISQUEYA
I’ll count it anyway.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito sits down, already knowing something is deeply wrong, and starts looking for a way out. He looks over at the bar, and we get the first shot establishing his distance from his cousin, with the length of the bar between them. Quisqueya catches Carlito’s stare, and his suspicion, gives a look back, and Carlito starts looking for another way out.

Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way - Carlito looks at Quisqueya, Quisqueya looks back - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/JoyousClutteredAsianwaterbuffalo

AT THE POOL TABLE,

the game resumes. One of the Dominican’s Girlfriends smiles at Carlito. He smiles back. Her boyfriend doesn’t like it, and puts his arm around her possessively.

Carlito’s eyes are darting around the room, taking in everything. He looks across the way, to a small door that probably leads to a bathroom. The door is just slightly ajar, the light on inside.

CARLITO
You got a bathroom here?

The Dominican shoots a look across the room, to the semi-closed door.

DOMINICAN 1
Yeah, but it don’t work.

In the draft, Brigante, though alert, is far more casual, simply asking about the bathroom after the girl’s flirtation. Where in the script he gets a sense of something wrong only after seeing the vested man’s gun, in the movie he is already looking for ways out.

Carlito finds the Dominican’s response odd. He takes out a cigarette and a pack of matches. He looks over at Guajiro and Quisqueya, who are huddled at the bar, deep in conversation.

He looks back at the Dominican Kid, who avoids his gaze. Carlito thinks. He slips his pack of matches back into his pocket, unnoticed.

CARLITO
(To the Dominican Kid)
Got a match?

DOMINICAN 1
Sure, man.

The Kid pushes back his jacket to reach into his pocket for matches. As he does, Carlito notices the glint of the butt end of a gun tucked into his belt.

One of the three Dominicans playing pool wanders over to the jukebox, drops a dime in, and picks a song.

The girl’s flirtation is an excuse; the moment the pool player is distracted by her, he moves toward the bathroom to deal with whoever is hiding there, but is stopped.

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Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

A quick cut to the bathroom door, again establishing its own separate space, apart from the bar and pool table area, with the sharp line of light.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

The music is now made a lot louder (transcribed from the movie, in the script Quisqueya does not signal directly that he wants the volume up):

QUISQUEYA
Turn it up, man! I love that song!

The song is “El Watusi”, by Ray Barretto. It can be found in the usual place.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

which Carlito reads in one way only – they’re getting ready to kill Brigante and his cousin, with the song as covering noise. This is pushed later in the script, after Carlito has already asked for a light.

Carlito is now looking even more urgently for some way, any way to get out. Where the script gives us the business about almost lighting a cigarette, then pretending to get matches from the second man to see if he has a gun, in the movie Brigante is already almost certain that he sees the man’s gun when he bends slightly to rack.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

The camera then follows to a close focus on the balls on the table – Brigante’s point of attention.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Brigante has started putting his plan together to use the pool shot to get the gun. He goes up to the vested man, asks for a light, sees the gun – okay, it’s confirmed, if he can set up this pool shot, then get this gun, they might have a fighting chance.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

(a wide shot that, again, establishes how far Carlito will have to travel to get to Guajiro)

Back to the draft:

ACROSS THE ROOM,

Quisqueya laughs hard, at something GUAJIRO says. He takes Guajiro’s hands in his, a friendly, funny gesture.

QUISQUEYA

Hey, how’s your boss?

GUAJIRO

He’s good, man.

AT THE POOL TABLE,

Carlito sneaks a look over to the bathroom door again. There is a shaft of light coming under the bathroom door, just a sliver, but it’s enough so Carlito can see shadows moving inside, a pair of feet. Waiting.

Carlito looks away, stiffening, mind racing. He shoots another look over to the jukebox. The Second Dominican reaches behind it and adjusts something, turning up the volume.

Loud. Like to cover something.

AT THE BAR,

Quisqueya still has Guajiro’s hands in his.

QUISQUEYA

You didn’t hear the news, man?

GUAJIRO

What news?

AT THE POOL TABLE,

beads of sweat have popped out on Carlito’s forehead. Making a decision —

–he steps forward and cuts in front of one of the Dominicans, who is about to shoot.

CARLITO

Hey, you guys wanna see a trick shot?

In the movie, both the “You wanna a cold beer, mano?” and the “trick shot” action start almost at the same time, whereas in the script, the bar action starts earlier, with the hand-holding beginning before the trick shot. So, in the movie, we have two different unknowns unfolding parallel for the viewer – why is there no beer in the freezer? what is Brigante going to do with the trick shot? – along with the mystery that’s already started, of what’s behind the bathroom door – a mystery that can be started earlier since it doesn’t have a build that could go too long – it’s just a simple static recurring element – a bathroom door open by a fraction.

To turn back to the novel, the long tense build-up in the movie and script is only a few lines long.

“Tienes el dinero, hermanito?” asks Quisqueya, his hands holdin’ Guajiro’s shoulders.

“Tienes el material?” is Guajiro’s answer.

“Como no, hermanito,” says Quisqueya, his head back laughin’ but his hands still on Guajiro.

I’m hawkin’ the three guys at the pool table, but all I see is cue sticks. Never no mind, I’m stayin’ with Dan Wesson, nickel-plated.

“Como no, hermanito,” says Guajiro as he grabs Quisqueya’s wrists.

The hand-holding in the script, shoulder-holding in the novel is of course turned into the much better “cold beer” business.

The camera is now low, pointing upwards, following Brigante as he sets up the trick shot. It’s the most motion we’ve had at this point, with almost everything else static set-ups. Quisqueya’s plan is staying still in place, Brigante is rapidly improvising something, his mind going at breakneck speed to get out of this. The camera shoots him from a low angle because though he is very vulnerable right now, he is not weak, he is a top sachem in this game, there are very good reasons for it, and we’re about to see the reasons why in a moment.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Just as Carlito tried to move out of his space earlier, now Guajiro does as well, before he`s pulled back.

Again, the wide shot with the length of the bar.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Transcribed:

GUAJIRO (v.o.)
Oh, Quisqueya, man, you gotta check this out.

GUAJIRO
Carlito’s doin’ one of his trick shots, man.

QUISQUEYA
Guajiro. I ain’t done countin yet.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Now, Quisqueya sets up the routine that will kill Guajiro. We move away from the two shot from along the length of the bar to closer angles.

QUISQUEYA
You want a cold beer, hermano?

QUISQUEYA
Help yourself.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

We got back to the trick shot set-up. Where before Brigante moved clockwise, the camera now follows him as he moves in a counter clockwise motion – this allows for a steady build-up of energy, that you wouldn’t have with the camera cutting back to the same clockwise movement.

Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way - clockwise and counterclockwise pool table - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/ShoddyHealthyIggypops

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito`s concentration is not on the trick shot, but on the other elements, his cousin and Quisqueya.

QUISQUEYA
So, how’s your boss?

GUAJIRO
He’s good, man. I saw him this morning.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

The three spaces before were cut off from each other, but now the bathroom door starts to appear in shots at the end of the bar, behind Guajiro.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

A slow zoom here on Carlito that conveys the sense of building momentum – everything is coming together over here in this intricate plan, now it`s just waiting for the release. Again, Carlito looks over to where Quisqueya is, and again, we have a sense of the separation between the three spaces falling. Before we had shots along the length of the bar, now we follow Carlito’s point of view from the table to Quisqueya with a slow pan over to the bar.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Quisqueya, in turn, now makes a nod to the man behind the door.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Looks in the direction of Carlito, the other separate space, with the bathroom door in background, clearly in view.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

The distance.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Back to Quisqueya.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

QUSIQUEYA
So you didn’t hear the news?

GUAJIRO
What news?

GUAJIRO
Yo, there’s no beer down here, man.

QUISQUEYA
Sure, way down in the bottom.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Back to the trick shot set-up, back to clockwise motion.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

The pool player is in place.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Brigante is ready to go.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

A downward angle on Guajiro.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

The boundaries are about to fall between the three spaces. The assassin is now in a shot at the end of the bar.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

GUAJIRO
Come on, Quisqueya. Huh, bro, what news?

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Quisqueya sees the assassin. Turns back to Guajiro.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

A type of framing that happens again and again in De Palma movies. The protagonist does not see what the audience clearly sees in the background, and must helplessly watch while the action unfolds. This happens both in Blow Out after the car goes into the river and in Casualties of War after the VC attack.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Now, with one famous shot, all three spaces – bathroom, pool table, bar – fall away in the mirrored lenses.

Continued…

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR

Images and screenplay copyright Universal Pictures.

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Carlito’s Way: Pool Room Scene Part One

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE CARLITO’S WAY, AS WELL AS SOME IMAGES OF VIOLENCE AND GORE

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR

An attempt to think through the structure of one of the best movie action scenes ever staged – the pool room shoot-out in Carlito’s Way, looking at what takes place in the scene itself, but also how it’s laid out in the novel on which it’s based, After Hours by Edwin Torres, as well as the draft screenplay by David Koepp.

First, Carlito’s Way mirrors Brian De Palma’s earlier movie Scarface, and this scene has a function similar to that of the infamous chainsaw sequence in that film – it establishes details of the character very succinctly, without dialogue, almost entirely through action. The Scarface chainsaw scene conveys Tony Montana’s cunning (telling his friends to wait, then storm the apartment if he’s not out at an appointed time), tenacity (able to endure the possibility that he will be killed with a chainsaw without giving anything away), and temper (killing a man out in the street in broad daylight for what he’s done). Carlito Brigante is a man of different qualities – a repentant man, someone of quickness, agility, alertness, adeptness, who is both from a rough, violent background, but also now alienated and uncomfortable with it. There is a life that he is very good at, but he also knows that it is a life of young, ruthless men; he is no longer young and has lost his desire to be ruthless. His later, fatal, mistake is that he can be in this life but not fully share the malevolence to survive it. It is a mistake similar to that of David Kleinfeld, who thinks you can step into and out of the gangster’s life, rather than seeing how it engulfs you, and that you must always be on your guard, always have the readiness and skills to kill. Brigante thinks he can step back and forth between the repentant and unrepentant life – that he can both humiliate a fellow gangster like Benny Blanco, but also show him mercy – as no gangster would – and this is a grave error.

The dialogue in the Rolando Rivas meet scene right before the car ride to the dealer’s place is this:

ROLANDO
You serious?

CARLITO
I’m serious. That’s right. I’m out. I quit.

ROLANDO
So, mi monina Carlito Brigante got religon?

CARLITO
That’s right. I’m studying to be a priest.

Brigante’s quote is not completely facetious – he’s trying to lead a better, repentant life.

Back to the scene. In the book, Brigante is not this noble figure. He is not roped along to go into this drug deal, but goes because he needs money. Importantly, Guajiro is not his cousin, but a veteran of many years street experience, not some fresh faced kid. The tone of the book is something like that of a Chester Himes novel or Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, while in the movie the action has a fantastic quality, closer to that of the train station sequence in De Palma’s The Untouchables, but still credible – gunfights are more elegantly choreographed than in real life, but guns run out bullets, and good people die. The book and movie still share much, such as details of setting.

Me, like a chump, right away I’m doing favors. This guy, Guajiro, asked me to ride shotgun on a coke deal on 100th Street, West Side. As a rule I don’t trust Cubans, but Guajiro grew up with the Barrio crowd, one of the boys, so I went along with him. Light backup. Just a favor. We pulled east on Broadway into the block. Skank street. Backroom of a barber shop, color it dingy, like the greasy, nappy-headed Dominicans around the miniature pool table. There was four of them. Right away I checked out the windows with bars, a bathroom door, and one bulb overhead. Didn’t go for it nohow. Shows to go you, when a man of “tabla” like Guajiro got to score behind a scene like this. Them’s the conditions we face in these hard times.

One small crucial change in detail – the windows in the movie’s pool room are gone. We move from the open air of the block party, the meeting at the bodega, the car ride, outside the barber shop, the smaller space of the barber shop, then the claustrophobia of the pool room, where there’s no outside light. The pool room and bathroom are studio sets, where the previous are location shots. The light palette is reduced, there’s a proper sense of restriction and immobility. The color theme in the pool room is red, for obvious reasons – though it’s not as dominant as it could be. This is not a room bathed in red light, but a background of red brick and wood. There is a very, very strong background signal of things about to go wrong, but it is a background signal.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

A small detail – there are three men visible in the movie, four in the book. A smaller, but more important one – the smoke rising from the ashtrays on the counter and the pool table, that we see from the beginning, that rises during the deal, and continues to rise in the violent aftermath, after three men are gone. A stream of water keeps rippling, even after all those in the surrounding village have passed away.

Right back to where things continue in the book, with the meeting of Guajiro and the dealer, Quisqueya.

“Hola Quisqueya,” says Guajiro.

Big, gap-toothed smile of surprise, like we wasn’t clocked before we came in the door, comes up from the pool table.

“Guajiro, mi hermano,” Quisqueya says loud, with both arms extended. They embraced like they just come back from a war. Mi parna, mi hermano, mi socio, etc. Meanwhile the other three guys never took their eyes off the table. So.

When I get a message like that, my aerial goes up. Could hear the chalk dust landin’ on the floor. A .357 Dan Wesson Magnum in an elastic band around my crotch said, Ready, Jack.

An important, and, I think, essential change. In the book, Brigante carries a gun. In the script and movie, he is without one. This makes character sense, since he is now a repentant man, trying to leave that life behind, but also is incredibly effective in demonstrating his skills at getting out of a situation like this. Another: Brigante’s narration drops out the moment we are in the pool room, then comes back when the shooting’s over. His mind, the moment it hits the pool room is working intuitively, tactically, like a preyed on animal – he doesn’t have time to describe or convey anything to the reader. This is another effective difference – the novel, by having Brigante do this scene in first-person makes him come across as a tale-teller, rather than the spare piece of lethal work he needs to be here.

From the draft:

The back room of the barber shop is a small, dingy place, one bulb, barred windows painted black, with a door to a bathroom. THREE DOMINICANS, eighteen or nineteen years old, good-looking, expensively dressed, are playing pool with TWO NEIGHBOURHOOD GIRLS, a little younger, sexy.

CARLITO and GUAJIRO come in. Carlito looks around at the dingy surroundings and smiles to himself, like a professional sizing up minor leaguers.

They all look up. Guajiro turns to QUISQUEYA, also Dominican, a ltitle older than the other three.

GUAJIRO

Hola Quisqueya!

QUISQUEYA

Quajiro, hermanito!

They meet and embrace, all smiles — until Quisqueya’s eyes fall on Carlito. He regards him suspiciously. (The scene is in Spanish, which is subtitled.)

QUISQUEYA (cont’d)

Who’s this?

GUAJIRO
(proudly)

My cousin, Carlito Brigante. You heard of Carlito, right?

Quisqueya looks at the other Dominicans and they shake their heads.

QUISQUEYA

What you need him for?

Carlito smiles and shows he has no weapon.

CARLITO
Esta bien, okay? Todo bien. Just came along for the ride.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

In the final script, Brigante is given a better line (“Tranquilo, Tranquilo”), but more importantly for this part of the scene, Quisqueya stays entirely out of the shot until after Brigante’s line, with us simply hearing his voice as the characters address him. This is his place, he controls it, those at the pool table are in his command, Carlito and Guajiro are his potential victims, and what takes place next is entirely because of his decisions. When we finally see him, his look is appropriately menacing, a role played to a T by the excellent late actor Rick Aviles.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Also note – in the script, as in the novel, there are still four visible men in the scene (Quisqueya and the two at the table), instead of three in the final movie.

We go back to the draft script.

GUAJIRO
Come on, you know Carlito, man. He used to be partners with Rolando Rivas. Just got outta Lewisburg.

Now their eyes light up with recognition.

QUISQUEYA
Oh, Carlito! Yeah, sure, I heard of you, man! You used to run skag with Rolando, right?

CARLITO
Yeah, little bit.

DOMINICAN 1
“Little bit!” “Little bit” – thass a good one! Joo guys were the fockin’ kings, man!

It is here in the movie that Carlito sees the bathroom door with the light on, a telltale movement in the door, and knows already that something is wrong. He takes off his sunglasses – he’ll need to be able to see everything in the room very clearly for what happens next. His move echos Rolando’s removing his sunglasses a few scenes back:

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

ROLANDO

Everyone is dead. But you knew all this.

CARLITO

No, I didn’t know that.

Rolando takes off his sunglasses and stares at Carlito.

ROLANDO

Let’s speak the truth between us. (etc.)

Carlito makes the gesture of his hands out of his coat and into the pockets of his pants – perhaps in another time and place, he would have had a gun, or a knife hidden somewhere, but this is now just a nervous gesture. He is trying for the straight and narrow path now, and he is weaponless.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way - takes off sunglasses - URL if gif doesn't load: http://gfycat.com/PositiveUnacceptableIndianhare

We now go from a group shot with Quisqueya to the side, shot from behind, his face at angle, his expression barely visible,

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

QUISQUEYA
Hermanos, take care of Carlito.

creating a suitable impact for the jump to the deep close-up,

QUISQUEYA (CONT’D)
We gotta do some business.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

which re-states his menace and power – he is a fearsome figure, this is his place, with both Carlito and his cousin in the palm of his fist.

Significantly, it is after this close-up that the movie establishes two very distinct spaces, the pool table area, and the end of the bar. The third space, the bathroom, has already been established with the shot of the lit up door. Brigante knows that it’s crucial for he and Guajiro to be in the same space, and when Guajiro walks away with Quisqueya, he knows it is a mistake.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

Quisqueya and Guajiro walk away. An important detail: light from the bathroom is not diffuse, but a straight angled line to the bar. This entire scene, I believe, is given far greater christian overtones than in the book or draft script, and the bathroom light is almost like a mystic sign pointing to where death will fall.

Carlito's Way Pool Room Scene

From now on, there will be an emphasis on the division of the two spaces. Music will be heard louder in the pool room than at the bar. Also, the distance from the pool table to the end of the bar will be made clear in shot after shot. Guajiro and Quisqueya will be shot always along the length of the bar, until the “wanna a cold beer, hermano?” business starts. Throughout the scene, we are shown the pool table from the distance at the end of the bar. Both Guajiro and Carlito try to leave their respective space. First Carlito will attempt to move from the pool table space to see what’s in the bathroom, then Guajiro will try to move from the bar space to the pool table; had they been able to do so, both might have left the room alive – but in both cases they are stopped.

Continued…

PART ONE PART TWO PART THREE PART FOUR

Images and screenplay copyright Universal Pictures.

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American Psycho Part Four: Last Thoughts

(though none of the book’s explicit sections are quoted here, some of the language will be very offensive to some)

Intro
I. Patrick Bateman
II. Timothy Price
III. Blackmail: Paul Owen, the Fisher Account, Evelyn, the cab driver, etc.
IV. A few last thoughts: Robert Hall, tanning, etc.

A few quick last notes.

Robert Hall

A character from the past who I think was in a relationship with Bateman while they were at university. Before he goes to a meal with Bethany, a woman he knew from the same time, we have this quick reference:

God, I’m thinking to myself as I walk into Vanities, only fifteen minutes late, I hope she hasn’t ended up with Robert Hall, that dumb asshole.

During the meal:

She smiles, pleased with herself, and still looking down, admits, with incomparable clarity, “Well, yes, I have a boyfriend and–”

“Who?”

“What?” She looks up.

“Who is he? What’s his name?”

“Robert Hall. Why?”

We expect him to say, Robert Hall, back from when we were at school? But instead we have a long period of him both pretending not to know who Hall was, and being very angry that she’s going to marry him.

“With Salomon Brothers?”

“No, he’s a chef.”

“With Salomon Brothers?”

“Patrick, he’s a chef. And co-owner of a restaurant.”

“Does it matter?”

“No, really, which one?” I ask, then under my breath, “I want to cross it out of my Zagat guide.”

“Its called Dorsia,” she says, then, “Patrick, are you okay?”

Yes, my brain does explode and my stomach bursts open inwardly – a spastic, acidic, gastric reaction; stars and planets, whole galaxies made up entirely of little white chef hats, race over the film of my vision. I choke out another question.

“Why Robert Hall?” I ask. “Why him?”

“I want to have children.”

“With Robert Hall?” I ask, incredulous. “You might as well do it with Captain Lou Albano, for Christ sakes. I just don’t get you. Bethany.”

She touches her napkin, looking down and then out onto the sidewalk, where waiters are setting up tables for dinner. I watch them too. “Why do I sense hostility on your part, Patrick?” she asks softly, then sips her wine.

“Maybe because I’m hostile,” I spit out. “Maybe because you sense this.”

“Jesus, Patrick,” she says, searching my face, genuinely upset. “I thought you and Robert were friends.”

Now, for some strange reason he pretends not to know who Hall was.

I pause, doubtful. “Were we?”

“Yes, Patrick, you were.”

“Robert Hall, Robert Hall, Robert Hall,” I mutter to myself, trying to remember. “Scholarship student? President of our senior class?” I think about it a second longer, then add, “Weak chin?”

“No, Patrick,” she says. “The other Robert Hall.”

“I’m confusing him with the other Robert Hall?” I ask.

“Yes, Patrick,” she says, exasperated.

Inwardly cringing, I close my eyes and sigh. “Robert Hall. Not the one whose parents own half of, like, Washington? Not the one who was” – I gulp – “captain of the crew team? Six feet?”

“Yes,” she says. “That Robert Hall.”

Then the punchline.

“Yes? But what?” She seems prepared to wait for an answer.

“But he was a fag,” I blurt out.

“No, he was not, Patrick,” she says, clearly offended.

I’m positive he was a fag.” I start nodding my head.

Why are you so positive?” she asks, not amused.

Well, he can’t tell her the real reason, so he makes up a few things which are very funny, though there may be a partial truth there.

“Because he used to let frat guys – not the ones in my house – like, you know, gang bang him at parties and tie him up and stuff. At least, you know, that’s what I’ve heard,” I say sincerely, and then, more humiliated than I have ever been in my entire life, I confess,Listen, Bethany, he offered me a… you know, a blow job once. In the, um, civics section of the library.

“Oh my god,” she gasps, disgusted. “Where’s the check?”

“Didn’t Robert Hall get kicked out for doing his thesis on Babar? Or something like Babar?” I ask. “Babar the elephant? The, oh Jesus, French elephant?”

After:

I try to smile. “Robert Hall’s not a fag–”

“I can assure you of that,” she says a tad too smugly. How can anyone get indignant over Robert Hall? Instead of saying “Oh yeah, you dumb sorry bitch” I say soothingly, “I’m sure you can,” then, “Tell me about him. I want to know how things stand with the two of you,” and then, smiling, furious, full of rage, I apologize. “I’m sorry.”

Later, right before he fantasises a brutal murder of her, this is what he says, this is what is so important for him, that makes him so angry.

“I said, what in the fuck are you doing with Robert Hall?” I whisper.

“What did you say?” As if in slow motion, like in a movie, she turns around.

I wait until she’s seen the nail gun and the gloved hands to scream, “What the fuck are you doing with Robert Hall?”

Tanning

Bateman constantly tans. I don’t think this is purely cosmetic. It’s to hide signs of his illness.

“Actually, where do you go, Bateman?” Van Patten asks. “For a tan.”

“Yeah, Bateman. Where do you go?” McDermott seems genuinely intrigued.

“Read my lips,” I say, “a tanning salon,” then irritably, “like everyone else.”

Bateman, though he has such a deep and constant tan that everyone notices, does not want to stand out.

At a meal with Bethany, there’s something that makes him very upset.

“Gosh, Patrick,” she says, looking at every part of my face.

“What?” I panic, immediately touching my hair. “Too much mousse? You don’t like the Kingsmen?”

“No.” She laughs. “I just don’t remember you being so tan back at school.

At dinner with Sean, the meeting ends like this:

Damien. You’re Damien,” I think I hear Sean mutter.

“What did you say?” I ask, looking up. “I didn’t hear you.”

Nice tan,” he sighs. “I said nice tan.”

I believe Sean knows that his brother is ill and continuing to have sex without telling anyone.

Hardbodies

A desirable woman is always referred to as a “hardbody”. It’s a strange label, that the quality most coveted in a woman is the hard firmness of a man.

Pierce and Pierce

The company Bateman works for. The play on words may have to do with murder. But it’s also two men’s names paired up.

Cigars

There are at least rhree references to cigars that I think are intended as obvious phallic jokes.

At the start of the meal with Bethany, we have:

“Didn’t you smoke at Harvard?” is the first thing she says.

Cigars,” I say. “Only cigars.”

“Oh,” she says.

But I quit that,” I lie, breathing in hard, squeezing my hands together.

After he has tortured Bethany close to death, we have:

Later, when she briefly regains consciousness, I put on a porkpie hat I was given by one of my girlfriends freshman year at Harvard.

“Remember this?” I shout, towering over her. “And look at this!” I scream triumphantly, holding up a cigar. “I still smoke cigars. Ha. See? A cigar.”

Towards the end of the break-up dinner with Evelyn.

“Tell me, Patrick, where are you going?”

I’ve placed a cigar on the table. She’s too upset to even comment. “I’m just leaving,” I say simply.

In the last scene, Price, who is sick with AIDS has this gesture:

“I just don’t get how someone, anyone, can appear that way yet be involved in such total shit,” Price says, ignoring Craig, averting his eyes from Farrell. He takes out a cigar and studies it sadly. To me it still looks like there’s a smudge on Price’s forehead.

Price looks sadly at this, since he can’t have sex with his illness.

The Book Tries To Tell Us What Kind of Book It Is

There are two moments which may be the book hinting at its double meaning.

A dinner with Evelyn, where he mentions a photo that has two captions.

“All I can think about is this poster I saw in the subway station the other night before I killed those two black kids – a photo of a baby calf, its head turned toward the camera, its eyes caught wide and staring by the flash, and its body seemed like it was boxed into some kind of crate, and in big, black letters below the photo it read, ‘Question: Why Can’t This Veal Calf Walk?’ Then, ‘Answer: Because It Only Has Two Legs.’ But then I saw another one, the same exact photo, the same exact calf, yet beneath it, this one read, ‘Stay Out of Publishing.’ “

A description of a conversation in the last scene could apply to the strange events of the book.

The conversation follows its own rolling accord – no real structure or topic or internal logic or feeling; except, of course, for its own hidden, conspiratorial one.

The Movie Version

I have seen the movie of this book only once, and have a poor memory of it. I don’t remember if it hinted at this subtext – if it even exists. I don’t see how a movie version could convey it, without letting the veil completely fall. We would see the actions in the book, the world as Bateman wants to see it, and then in the last ten minutes, just like in Fight Club we would see various in-between scenes giving a true sense of what took place – Carruthers and Bateman hooking up, Denton and Bateman hooking up, Evelyn explicitly blackmailing Timothy, Bateman having sex with Owen then blackmailing him over it, the romance with Robert Hall, the wanted poster downtown which says that Bateman has AIDS, the women he tortured and killed, still alive and well.

Intro
I. Patrick Bateman>
II. Timothy Price
III. Blackmail: Paul Owen, the Fisher Account, Evelyn, the cab driver, etc.
IV. A few last thoughts: Robert Hall, tanning, etc.

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