Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Strategic exercises

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2000)

The day after the final episode of Survivor, I was ten minutes late for a meeting at the office. But it didn’t make any difference because when I came in they were still arguing over the final tribal council. And I didn’t need any help getting up to speed. “Kelly blew it,” I declared, heading for the cookies. “She never even mentioned that she won five straight immunity challenges. However you think the game should have been played, no one could match that. Why was she relying on all that touchy feely stuff?” This sparked a new round of discussion, which I could reproduce here more or less line by line, regardless that the (I assume) important stuff we went on to discuss at the meeting has pretty much faded away already.

Kelly blew it

Well, like everyone said, the show was a phenomenon. I work mainly with accountants and lawyers, and Survivor was as hot a topic in that environment as anywhere else. Maybe more so, because we white-collar types love talking about strategy and tactics, and Survivor lent itself quite magically to those kinds of discussions. Richard certainly got some lucky breaks on the way to victory, but he always maximized his opportunities (even though I really do think Kelly blew it). And in the subsequent days, scanning my regular sites on the web, I read several analyses of Survivor which were barely distinguishable – whether in tone or content or seriousness of intent – from the op-eds on the Bush vs. Gore race.

Mike Hodges’ latest film Croupier isn’t as big a phenomenon as Survivor of course (although the veteran Hodges is shaping up as quite a survivor himself), but it’s doing pretty well in its own way. Initially scheduled for the most minimal possible release, the film refuses to quit and has worked its way up to a box-office gross in excess of $4 million. The audience for the Saturday matinee I attended at the Cumberland was the largest I’ve seen in a while. It’s always a bit of a mystery why some movies take off like that. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s that Croupier’s cool-headed, articulate artistry appeals to that same strategic bent.

A strategic artist

It’s written by Paul Mayersberg, who wrote The Man who fell to Earth and the unjustly forgotten Eureka and whom I think of as a very strategic kind of artist – working within complex investigative structures that treat time as flexibly as space, casting truth and identity as malleable and unstable. Croupier is about an aspiring author called Jack Manfred who takes a job as a croupier or dealer in a London casino. The film tracks his analytical fascination with the milieu and the people in it, particularly various women – all of which he transcribes into a thinly disguised fiction.

Voice-overs from the novel in progress accompany the action, and it’s these voice-overs that carry the bulk of the film’s thematic ambition, spinning off a dizzying array of one-liners on the metaphorical possibility of the croupier, and of the gambler he might otherwise have become. The gambler is a familiar subject in movies, but the croupier occupies a lonelier and (this film suggests) more ambiguous territory. Forbidden to interact with customers or to intervene in the game, he’s trained to be as impassive as possible, but also to observe the players minutely. Actor Clive Owen’s dead-eyed, controlled performance conveys this internal tension quite well (although perhaps not quite in the Brando or Bogart-like style that the ads suggest).

Jack’s uncertain bearings are unmistakable – a problematic relationship both with his father and his girlfriend, a failed career as a writer, hints of trauma at every turn (most explicitly when he takes excessive relish in beating up a cheat who accosts him outside the casino, and shortly afterwards shakes off the last of that aggression through violent sex with a co-worker). His self-mythologizing is shot through with insecurity, but Jack tends to identify the role of the croupier with an idealistic detached certainty, confusing his own disillusionment with a privileged sense of realism. The gambler, on the other hand, seems to embody all the errors and self-deceptions of mankind: gambling, says Jack, is about not facing reality, ignoring the odds.

This all generates a subtly obsessive quality that’s always entertaining, and effective in evoking the smell of the casino. But the film (at least judged on a first viewing) never goes much beyond simply reiterating its basic ideas. Exchanges like “You’re an enigma you are”/”Not an enigma, just a contradiction” seem trite, and there are an awful lot of them in Croupier.

Master of the game

In the final scene, Jack refers to himself as “master of the game…(who’s) acquired the power to make you lose,” but events seem at least as much to confirm his impotence. In finding a specific place for each of its major characters within the resolution, the film suggests that it might best be viewed as a therapy or psychoanalysis, the object being to tuck all Jack’s loose ends away and regain functionality. But nothing about Croupier is quite that easy to summarize.

I would certainly much rather watch Croupier again than something like The Tao of Steve, another highly-praised movie in which the moderate air of intelligence just makes the contrivances particularly annoying. And at least Croupier doesn’t try to be cute. But even though you could probably discuss it for hours afterwards, I wonder whether those discussions would amount to much more than the post mortem on Survivor. It’s fun to figure out how the pieces fit together, and how the final tribal council is played out. But it’s not worth delaying the meeting for more than ten minutes on that account, whereas real art might force us to cancel it altogether.

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