This week, the enterprising Shooting Gallery film series unearths an overlooked gem. Croupier, an ambitious, compulsively absorbing movie, functions on a variety of levels: as a thriller, a love story, a behind-the-scenes expose of casino gambling, a brain-teaser interweaving life and art, a morality tale, and an existential fable.
Croupier is billed as “A Mike Hodges and Paul Mayersberg Film,” in a generously shared director/writer co-credit harking back to the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collaborative billing for their British classics Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Director Hodges scored with his first feature, Get Carter, a tough, seamy 1971 gangster picture starring Michael Caine, who also appeared in Hodges’ follow-up movie, the little-seen comedy Pulp (1972), about a paperback writer who becomes involved with eccentric mobsters and Hollywood exiles. Both themes—crime and writing—return in Croupier’s screenplay by Mayersberg, best known for scripting The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. (Mayersberg also directed three features, none of which were distributed in this country.)
Shot in 1997, Croupier failed to find an English distributor; two years later, it briefly ran in a few British fringe cinemas. Reviewers heralded it as a small masterpiece, and, luckily for American moviegoers, the Shooting Gallery has rescued it from obscurity for inclusion in its collection of neglected films.
Trim, swarthy Clive Owen, in a knockout performance that blends James Mason’s intelligence, Dirk Bogarde’s cool underplaying, and Rupert Everett’s matinee-idol self-assurance, stars as Jack Manfred, a floundering would-be writer sharing a London basement flat with his adoring department-store-detective girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee). Raised in Sun City, Bophuthatswana, by a con-man father and trained as a croupier, Jack previously rejected the casino world but now returns to it out of financial necessity and as a means of gathering material for his first novel.
Calling himself Jake, Jack takes a job at the Golden Lion Casino and agrees to abide by strictures, including: No gambling or fraternizing with customers. He knows that in gaming, as in life, some prove luckier than others, but in the end everyone loses. Aloof and superior in this house of addiction, he’s the only person at the table who risks nothing, admitting, “I’m hooked on watching people lose.” But the long nights at the tables gradually take their toll on Jack. He lowers his guard and allows two more women to enter his life: Bella (Kate Hardie), a disenchanted but sympathetic fellow croupier, and Jani (Alex Kingston), an enigmatic South African adventuress. Increasingly, the two worlds that Jack/Jake struggles to keep separate start melting together.
In several ways, Croupier echoes and updates Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Pickpocket. In both films, the protagonists use their nimble hands to take advantage of their victims—and function as off-screen narrators of their own stories. (Events in Jake’s life are absorbed into Jack’s novel and, at times, we can’t be sure if we’re witnessing accurate or fanciful versions of his casino experiences. Several patches of mannered dialogue appear to stem from a self-conscious first novel rather than actual events.) Hodges juggles the film’s layers with extraordinary economy and symbolically exploits settings to underscore his themes. Cleverly, the cramped, subsidewalk quarters Jack shares with Marion contrast with, yet ironically parallel, the mirrored casino’s deceptively infinite false vistas.
In addition to Owen’s creation of what should have been a star-making turn, the remainder of the cast delivers intriguingly individualistic performances. McKee’s Marion, whom Jack regards as his “conscience,” is a lovely, loyal, rather conventional woman who chooses not to see his dark side. (Reading the first draft of his novel, she complains, “There’s no hope in it.” To which he replies, “It’s the truth.”) Hardie’s been-there-done-that Bella shares Jack’s pessimism, and she engages in a jaw-droppingly direct confrontation scene with Marion. Kingston’s sultry/homely appearance (she looks rather like Annette Bening dipped in alum) adds mystery to her duplicitous role.
Croupier opens with shots of a spinning roulette wheel, the ideal metaphor for its dark vision of a world in which everybody hopes and nobody wins. Too bad the film’s unjust fate verifies its thesis. If you decide to see it—and anyone seriously interested in movies should—allow time for post-screening analysis with your companions. You’ll probably go through several cups of coffee while debating whether the death of a central character was accidental or intentional, who masterminded an attempted casino heist, and other ambiguities of one of the rare contemporary movies that not only respect but challenge the viewer’s intelligence.
Genghis Blues was recently praised in these pages as part of our coverage of Filmfest DC. Now, Roko Belic’s Oscar-nominated documentary has opened theatrically, and I want to add my endorsement.
To put it mildly, ethnomusicology usually isn’t my scene. I can think of several thousand more satisfying ways of spending time than listening to a chant of harvest praise utilizing a two-and-a-half-note scale and accompanied by instruments constructed of gourds and tree bark. But Genghis Blues is concerned with much more than esoteric sounds. It’s about the successful and touching melding of seemingly antipodal worlds achieved through artistic expression.
Genghis Blues’ protagonist is blind blues singer-guitarist Paul Pena, the San Francisco-based son of West African immigrants. While scanning his shortwave radio one day in 1984, Pena, who has performed with John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters, made a startling discovery: Radio Moscow was broadcasting a program of throat-singing, an art form indigenous to Tuva, a remote Asian republic north of Mongolia. (Throat-singing involves the simultaneous production of several vocal tones and sounds like a cross between a frog pond at midnight and partially clogged plumbing.) By studying recordings and translating the language, in Braille, from English to Russian, and then from Russian to Tuvan, Pena taught himself to perform in one of several traditional styles of throat singing.
Following a 1993 Bay Area concert by Kongar-ol Ondar, the Pavarotti of throat-singing, Pena astonished the Tuvan artist with his own chordal vocalizing. This encounter resulted in an invitation for Pena to compete in Tuva’s 1995 National Throat-Singing Symposium and Competition. Genghis Blues documents the events of that journey. Accompanied by a recording engineer, a Pacifica Radio world-music maven, and filmmaker Roko Belic and his brother Adrian, Pena made the arduous trek to a remote land where, despite health problems and a limited command of the language, he won the hearts of a land that he could hear but not see.
Tightly cut to 88 minutes from 150 hours of video, Genghis Blues zooms along thanks to Belic’s resourceful editing, which weaves the footage of a three-camera shoot into a feature filled with lively visual rhythms. One leaves the movie with the paradoxical feeling that, as technology shrinks the world, what it reveals makes the planet seem larger and richer than we could have imagined. CP