Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Man's Gotta Have A Code

Miller's Crossing, possibly one of my favourite films, begins with a prohibition-era Italian gangster coming to see the head of the Irish mob, who runs the town, to ask whether or not the Irish will lift their protection of a bookie, whom the Italian believes is leaking information about fixed fights. As he explains the situation, Jonny Caspar, the Italian, in a piece of what we are never quite sure is transparent self-justification, describes the problem as a matter of ethics and the bookie's lack of them: fixed fights may be fine, but selling which fight is fixed - that places you beyond the pale, endangers the smooth running of the town by endangering what was previously a sure source of income. The reason we are never quite sure if the description of the issue as an ethical one is totally self-serving is that it looks like Caspar believes it: if you can fake sincerity, then you've got it made, but Caspar, forever looking for an opportunity to be slighted, clearly sincerely thinks the world owes him rather a lot. It is that that he has to think though: the reason that casting rules which benefit you as absolute moral precepts is always suspicious is precisely that they benefit you, and no more; you have to be entitled to the benefits.

That the justification is forever teetering on the edge of becoming an insult to everyone else's intelligence may be why Caspar also casts it in terms of a more general pursuit of rational self-interest, that if fixed fights get sold, then nothing is sacred anymore and everyone loses in the resulting chaos. That doesn't really work either, because although it's not a piece of such naked self-interest, its distance from Caspar himself seems to deprive it of that fierce sense of constantly being wronged, and so the combination of the instrumental with the moral becomes much more difficult to sustain. Regardless, Leo, the Irish boss, refuses to sell out the bookie, and Caspar huffily blusters that he was only doing Leo the courtesy of informing him in advance of the killing, thereby setting the stage for the gang warfare which the rest of the film is punctuated by.

Despite a couple of scenes where the police, under orders from one or other of the mobs, raid speakeasys, and a piece of gloriously self-possessed violence by Albert Finney as Leo in which he is indeed an artist with a Thompson, the film's real interest is in Gabriel Byrne's Tom, a lieutenant to Leo, who half-stumbles, half-glides through the mess of the gang war, all bone-dry, jaded wit and variously conflicted loyalties. Except that loyalties isn't quite the right word for it: they're more fickle than that. For example, he explains his temporary switch over to the other side to Leo as an elaborate double-cross, but his reasons for breaking with Leo were genuine and he only attempts to give this explanation once it is clear that he has broken with Leo forever. Likewise, he is once offered the opportunity to do something when it would be very risky for him not to, and then, later, when doing it is really quite gratuitous and destructive, he carefully engineers the chance to complete a now pointless task. About the only constants are a kind of (an enormously appealing, at least in a character in a film) bitter self-satisfaction, drink, and gambling (debts). As he says, wonderfully, to a lover, getting the response that she'd never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride, "if I'd known we were going to cast our feelings into words, I'd've memorised the Song of Solomon".

Tom is effectively a kind of cipher, a hyper-stylised version of a noir staple. When the lover tells him he's come to see her for the oldest reason there is, he replies that there are friendlier places to drink, and then does more than that anyway, just like he's supposed to. He doesn't really have any hinterland of commitment, just a smart word, a proud manner, various addictions and a handsomely lived-in face, and for the purposes of the film, itself a gloriously hyper-stylised tribute, that works. And it's for that reason that he's able to somehow extricate himself from the betraying his boss, in several different ways, and risking his life for nothing he hasn't already sold: the politics of the gang war eddy around him, and he swims through them, without ever quite being dragged under, because he has no reason to favour one current over another, knows how to let them carry him without taking him down with them. As someone says to him at one point, he sees all the angles: it's just that that's all he does, a kind of cold assessment without any real involvement. In that sense, the anarchy of the gang war does him no harm: although he loses things, we never quite sure why or how much he cared about them, and he just keeps doing what he always was, seeing the angles and world-wearily playing them, forever at a kind of distance.

Of course, if he wasn't outside politics, above commitment, with no vested interests, then he wouldn't be able to see all the angles. The fact that he is all surface means that being "back in the jungle", as Caspar puts it, is just another version of the game, another, although in general less productive, set of rules to work out and manipulate. Other people still have their commitments, and you just have to play them right. In this, and in his lack of a hinterland, he is like Heath Ledger's Joker: both exploit the way the predictability of other people by having no interests in particular to bind them to anything in particular. Neither, for example, really have a fixed past: just as the Joker re-tells, differently each time, the story of his grotesquely extended smile, Tom Regan is constantly correcting people, showing them that they've not got him quite right.

Where they differ, contra what Michael Wood said about The Dark Knight in the most recent LRB, is that Tom is not political at all, whereas the Joker's distinctly political aim is the end of politics, to make any rules at all an impossibility. Anton Chigurh, of No Country For Old Men, whom Wood compares with the Joker, is much more like Tom Regan than the crazed maniac who burns a pile of money: Chigurh, like Regan, is unreadable, a kind of force of nature, although of course a quite different sort of force of nature, but similarly quite uninterested in anyone else other than for his own quite private, in both sense, ends. The Joker would never flip a coin to decide whether he kills you or not: he would have you flip it to see who else he kills. Chaos is not a self-regarding aim; other people need to be involved. That's why Wood is also wrong about the film's labelling of the Joker as a terrorist: the Joker is in fact the archetypal terrorist, since he seeks the destruction of the basic, ordering, elements, of a social order. Or at least, that's what I argue in my article on the topic (I'm allowed to be pleased with myself, alright). In that sense, then, we should not be so cruel to the second of Johnny Caspar's attempts to give his self-interested requests a moral appeal: the problem with it is not the good it appeals to, since we do have a deep interest in the maintenance of social order, but rather the causal connection between the good and what Caspar wants to do; one bookie selling out your fix does not unleash a Hobbesian Sate of Nature, although a gang war may well do.


Chris Brooke said...

You need to read, if you haven't already, Steve Lenzner's (heavily Straussian) interpretation of Miller's Crossing:

Steven J. Lenzner, "A Cinematic Call for Self-Knowledge: An Interpretation of Miller's Crossing", Perspectives on Political Science, March, 2001.

Rob Jubb said...

I realise I don't actually know enough about Strauss to have any idea what a Straussian reading of Miller's Crossing would be like, and since Oxford doesn't seem to have 'Perspectives on Political Science', unless you tell me, I am unlikely to ever know.

Chris Brooke said...

Ah - I see - bugger. Alright: I've got an old printed MS of this essay, back in the days when it was a conference paper. Shall I pigeonpost it to you at Catz? It's great fun, and completely looney.

Rob Jubb said...

Yeah, that'd be great.

I finally got round to reading the Terrell Carver paper on Some Like It Hot yesterday. If it is anything like as crazy as that, it'll be great.