Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fingers (1978)

Delayed Infant Death Syndrome

written and directed by James Toback
starring Harvey Keitel,
Tisa Farrow, Jim Brown, Michael V. Gazzo

Is Jimmy Angelelli the gangster that his washed-up loanshark father needs him to be? Perhaps. Jimmy's got a real flair for pistol-whipping deadbeat pizzeria owners and revenge-fucking the trophy sluts of rising Mafiosi over the debts they've refused to settle. And since Angelelli père is a tacky-as-plaid, yellow-suited old egg-dome who commands no respect on the street, Jimmy's flair is the only thing keeping his meager operation afloat. But we're introduced to Jimmy at his piano, grimacing in ecstasy over the soaring precision of his Bach runs — the fragile elegance of a perfect instant that could slip off its tightrope with a single wrong note and bring nothing less than Jimmy's potential as a human being crashing back to the gutter. Enforcer for a mobbed-up bookie by day, classical piano prodigy by night: Jimmy's like the soul of a Glenn Gould trapped inside Harvey Keitel's Charlie from Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. He's the sensitive Jewish artist (courtesy of his pianist mother) drawn to the life-affirming creative process but doomed by goombah heritage to a life that's predicated on destruction — both that of others and, eventually, his own. Jittery, compulsive mannerisms dominate whenever Jimmy's not playing: fiddling with his hair like a nervous girl on prom night, fidgeting childishly as his fingers dance their habitual dance over imaginary piano keys. He's stuck between identities in a stalled elevator of an existence that's as tortuous as his inflamed prostate — too reluctant a killer to make it in his father's world, too obsessive a pussyhound to commit to music and succeed in his mother's.

Clearly, director James Toback's got something he wants to say about the dualistic nature of men, of himself as an artist. He ties it all up in male rites of passage — bravado, dick envy, chasing skirt, straining under the weight of the father — and he filters it through the jukebox-scored Catholic anguish of Mean Streets, through the down-and-dirty pulp sensibility of the streets-of-New-York crime film. Toback's his own artist, though; a shameless exhibitionist in the best sense. He can't help but strip naked and parade his sexual obsessions in front of you, can't help but scrape his psyche and smear the fascination with other men's virility and the grandiose self-mythologizing bits all over the screen; his muse demands it. Fingers reads as if he'd scribbled some outré fetish or embarrassing personal anecdote on each page of Harvey Keitel's script. The actor dives hard into each fit of yearning, each clammy revelation of Jimmy's (a.k.a. Toback's) insecurities and quenchless libido, and he comes up with globs of guts clenched in each fist. It's a mesmerizing performance. The further Keitel digs into himself/his director/his character, the faster Toback's stripped-down dick-punch of a narrative races toward the brick wall of the inevitable: total annihilation, a blood-spattered snapshot of Jimmy's regression to the helplessness of infancy.

It's pussy, rather than Bach, that serves as Jimmy's muse — a fickle, ultimately self-serving muse that, by her very nature, diverts men from the path to self-realization and strands them in an energy-depleting bog of manufactured conflicts and capitulation to puerile shit-tests and mind games. Mere seconds after Jimmy's come down from his pianistic reverie in that first scene, he catches sight of the woman who's been listening to him from down on the street — the preternaturally aloof, ready-to-make blonde tease Carol (Tisa Farrow). Give Jimmy his due: he's got the surface moxie of a true-blue alpha male down cold. He struts boldly up to this inscrutable young thing with her fashionable high-heeled boots, her freckled Midwestern deadpan and her porn-starlet monotone. He stares her down, all rehearsed guinea charm that's pumped so full of timorous smart-boy deliberation that it's ready to burst. "You like all kinds of music," he says. "So do I."

But Toback handicaps Jimmy with a curious tic: wherever Jimmy goes, he feels compelled to take along his portable radio. (A tic that Spike Lee updated for the era of the ghetto-blaster and grafted onto Do the Right Thing's Radio Raheem.) Jimmy clings to his radio like a security blanket, blaring the doo-wop tunes of his (probably) romanticized youth to mask the queasy silences that result whenever he manages to gain a woman's attention and his patter runs dry. Jimmy offers up just a flicker of doubt: he stops in his tracks as Carol turns to meet his solicitous gaze and, from that point, no matter what he says, the jig is up, the writing's on the wall, his ego's fate is sealed. She assents to a ride in his convertible to see what this would-be cocksmith with the constant soundtrack is all about, but he only confirms his relinquishment of the upper hand. "You're shaking," Carol coolly informs him after he's sweated so much energy trying to read her mind and impress her with his knowledge of Bach and The Drifters that he ends up rear-ending someone. God bless him: he actually hits her with "what are you thinking?" and it's enough to make any man in the audience want to dive under a table. (It's the same petitioning for validation masked as sincere pensée that I'd lay on girls in the winter of my misguided, mom-encouraged belief that girls gave a shit about sensitivity or my obsessive familiarity with '80s post-punk — or whatever else I thought would set my swinging dick apart from the rest.)

"Mockingbird" appropriately spits forth from Jimmy's radio as he barges into Carol's trendy little white-bricked artist's loft after she's exited his ride without so much as telling him her name. So far, so good — he's reading her signals and rising to her juvenile challenge in ballsy emulation of that ladies'-man image he's been shooting for his whole life. It's the fantasy he's always had of his gangster father with the revolving door of balloon-tittied goomars; it's what he's picked up from eagle-eyeing the apparent confidence of other men — and it's right in line with the precepts of what we now call "game": fake it 'til you make it, mimic all the female-approved behavioral signposts of macho-man self-assurance until they seep into your pores and you've become what you're impersonating.

Our Jimmy can't keep it up, though. He takes her at face value when she pretends to resist his physical escalation and, within moments, he's holding her wrists as if wedding vows were tickling his tongue. "All you have to do is believe in me," he begs. The deflating of her sexual interest punctuates his crucial misstep like a wet fart during a church recital and she shuts down on him, leaving him to the knife in his pride while she retreats with her hairbrush and her coy-minx narcissism. In Peter Biskind's '70s tell-all Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Peter Bogdanovich discussed his affair with a Lolita-like Cybill Shepherd during the making of The Last Picture Show. He recalled her casually tearing the petals off a flower like some destructive, doe-eyed Venus who hardly noticed all the stricken mortals and crushed egos in her wake. Carol is the evil twin of that flip innocence: a ball-buster of the utmost calculation who knows full well the torture she's putting Jimmy through, who relishes the hints of instability that he gives off as her denial of release keeps him wobbling on the precipice of some pell-mell lashing-out.

Jimmy needs what a man of certainty would simply want. He needs the conquest of Carol in order to call himself a man, in order to flesh out his half-baked sense of self — the self that neither his criminal father nor his withdrawn, piano-virtuoso-turned-nutcase of a mother were able to nourish. "I fuckin' need you to want me," he whines to Carol before glomming onto her breast like she's the last mother figure on earth. (And, of course, for Toback's purposes — diagramming the nosedive of his protagonist — she is.)

Toback leaves Jimmy's actual mother sketched in pencil, a flashback to a bad dream you'd have already shaken but for the unspeakable tragedy forecast in her mute shriek of a glare. Madness may as well have settled onto her from the mucky air of concert halls; Toback never tells us what it is that's pushed her to catatonia in a mental health facility. (Indeed, we can't imagine what brought her and Jimmy's father together in the first place.) Jimmy confides in her that he's bombed his audition with the same kingmaker who'd launched her on the classical circuit years before — surely, he's come home for a little of Mom's cooking and some words of reassurance; commiseration between tortured souls. He's his father's son now, though; her greatest mistake made flesh. She pushes him away, echoing the impulse she must have had all those years ago in the delivery room. She shrinks from the sight of him as if he'd peeled back his face to reveal the lizard-eyed progeny of her fateful dance with the devil, and the psychic tear in the narrative is too great to be repaired; the filicidal die is cast. Again, Jimmy needs something from a woman — the original woman — and again, he's brutally rejected. He'll disappoint Carol the surrogate mother, as well — by humping her to a premature climax, then throwing a tantrum as she drifts out the door unsatisfied. Naturally, he orders her to rip out her diaphragm: the guy wants nothing more than to crawl back into the womb and he'll brook no obstruction.

He hadn't counted on Dreems, though — the strapping black oak tree played by real-life Toback pal and football hall-of-famer Jim Brown. Jimmy follows Carol into Dreems' club like a strip of toilet paper that's stuck to her shoe, and the moment Dreems strolls into frame, Carol floats toward her Mandingo master like a glaze-eyed Bride of Dracula — Jimmy ceases to exist. Toback's pyretic Jewish-boy sexual masochism leaves no stone unturned in its salivating at the feet of the ebony stud. Not only does pussy collect under Dreems' storm cloud of pimp magnetism like barnacles on the hull of some unmoorable, indifferent ship, but Dreems hits every note in the symphony of expected black male existence — hustler, athlete, ladies' man, gangster, wildlife exhibit, sexual bogeyman to thrill-seeking whites — and he conflates them all into a single deafening clang that loops itself inside Jimmy's head.

Toback shoots a prelude to a Dreems orgy that fascinates as a shrink's-couch airing of the ultimate Jewish-male racial/sexual fixation: black dick as a battering ram against "repressive" Christian mores — the same fixation that flows through everything from porn's prototyping of blacks-on-blondes to the promotion of hip-hop as the preeminent cultural expression of our post-rock (a.k.a. post-white) modern era. It's not the two button-nosed shiksas trembling on the brink of a reverse-Oreo threesome that's got Toback playing pocket pool behind the camera — it's his buddy Jim Brown directing the girls to tongue his nipples then smacking their heads together in a burst of pique when they fail to get it on with each other. "Don't you ever cross me," Dreems warns in a moment that spikes Toback's fiction with reminders of Brown's real-life history of domestic violence accusations. Sure, Dreems knows a cuckold when he sees one, but Jim Brown knows what bitches like Carol do to men.

Dreems isn't threatened in the least by Jimmy's presence — he's amused by the chump flowers his chichi bottom bitch tears the petals from in his absence; he's amused by simps who sniff hungrily at other men's throwaways and march determinedly toward their own belittlement. Jimmy keeps showing the hand he first tipped the minute he came through the door — he sizes up Dreems, sizes up the way Carol watches Dreems, and he elicits nothing more than a smirk from the former boxer with his half-assed one-two combination and his scrappy kid's pretense to the cocksureness of grown men. Dreems toys with Jimmy, cat-like — first patronizing him, then seducing him, really, with the assurance of his attractiveness, of his worth as a man, that Carol's been withholding. It's a classic subtle dominance move: first establishing himself as the alpha male in the room, then nullifying his competitor's threat by undermining his expectations of direct confrontation and instead playing to his weaknesses. Dreems invites Jimmy to his orgy, and it's to help the dude get his thing together as much as it is to feed his own exhibitionism. Jimmy's on a rescue mission, though — to understand why his surrogate mom can't wean herself from brute masculinity, to try to pull her from the burning wreck of her self-destructive, sanity-threatening desires before she, too, goes up in flames. It's as if, by deepening the humiliation of watching Carol embrace his worst nightmare, Jimmy can somehow crack the code of his past and reclaim womankind for needy beta males everywhere.

"You don't even understand her ass," Dreems tells Jimmy while masking the hint of sympathy in his frustrated tone. Jimmy's busy hoisting street pussy onto pedestals when street pussy like Carol prefers to be taken by the hair and dragged naked through the filthiest sewers a man can conjure up. Dreems and Carol understand the contract that human biology has drawn up for them: to be dominated is the key component of a woman's psychology; to dominate, the key component of a man's. Fail to understand this — as Jimmy does by placing the Ming vase of his self-worth in Carol's reckless hands — and you fail to understand the driving principle behind male-female relations, which is to say, the propagation of life itself. Attempt to defy it and, like Jimmy, you spit in the very face of nature. The gods then must smite you, must levy a fine for your hubristic transgressions by leaving you stewing in the swamp of your own frustration and sexlessness — a warning to others who might likewise harbor delusions of imperviousness to the universal order.

Charge Angelelli, Sr. with dereliction of his fatherly duty. "They're all hoo-ers," he insists to Jimmy before stumbling over himself to introduce the nude centerfold-posing trollop he's decided to marry. She waits about four seconds after he leaves to hit on Jimmy, and it casts all the old man's tough talk and nuggets of guido wisdom into bold relief. Just look at his mess of a son: clearly, Dad never imparted the value of the alpha-male imperative to Jimmy. Clearly, he never taught Jimmy to invest in his own betterment above all else; to temper his expectations of the opposite sex by accepting women's chromosomal commitment to solipsism, illogic and vindictiveness. He never told Jimmy that, when wielded responsibly, a man's unabashed embrace of masculinity can right the tilted ship of male-female congress and bring one as close as possible to a life devoid of groveling, devoid of ritual self-abasement at the society-made altar of the almighty vertical smile.

"I shoulda strangled you in your crib," Jimmy's dad seethes in the face of Jimmy's inability to walk the walk that he never mastered. Instead, Daddy Loanshark saddled his kid with allegiance to a false idol and set him adrift on the merciless waters of feminine prerogative without so much as a compass. Mission accomplished, all the same.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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