VHS or Bust #2: The Music of Chance

The next installment in Gregory Hess’ examination of forgotten flicks of the VHS generation – all of which are available for rent at Facets!

I’ve never been to film school, but I imagine that when students today first get their caffeinated hands on DV-cams and MacBooks, their professors encourage them to make their work inherently “cinematic” – that is, to give their films some reason to exist as films, as opposed to existing in some other medium. History tells us, however, that wonderful films can be made out of inherently un-cinematic premises. Hitchcock did it twice (Lifeboat, Rope) and so did Louis Malle (My Dinner with Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street). While The Music of Chance, adapted from the novel by Paul Auster, doesn’t quite go to the extremes that these films do, many of its more “cinematic” moments feel strangely perfunctory, and most of its best scenes employ a still camera, allowing the actors in the frame to do the heavy lifting.

Fittingly, The Music of Chance fades in with strains of opera, which emanate from the car stereo of Jim Nash (Mandy Patinkin) as he drives his bright red BMW alone down a country road. He spots a man in tattered clothes, bruised and dirty, and offers him a ride. Jack Pozzi (James Spader) is a card player who says he was ambushed at a card game and had to escape. We learn that Jim is a former firefighter and family man who has taken to driving his car endlessly across the country. He’s got money, and Pozzi has a scheme to beat a pair of rich old card players, which Jim agrees to bankroll. Is Pozzi setting up a con? We don’t know, and for a time the film sustains this strange tension, though soon enough we learn that the film has more on its mind than a high-stakes game of cards.

Things pick up steam when we arrive at the mansion of Flower and Stone, the players Pozzi is hoping to swindle. Filthy rich, they regale the two with stories of their working days, finally telling of the day they won the lottery. The stage is set, and when the game begins, chance starts playing some downright ugly music, and things quickly turn uncomfortable for Jim and Jack. Flower and Stone win the game, and Nash and Pozzi lose big. They cannot pay their debt, and Flower and Stone will accept no IOU. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Jim and Jack are forced to repay their debt in the rich men’s service, and that this too carries with it some hefty metaphorical connotations.

It’s a pressure cooker of a film, and tiny decisions carry the weight of huge dramas. Director Philip Haas leaves us to the whims of chance, cyclically building and releasing new tensions without giving up any clues about what might be around the next bend. It’s unquestionably dense, saturated with metaphor and crucial detail, but if you can vibrate on its wavelength, you may find it a peculiarly magnetic and vibrant song.

The Music of Chance is pretty minimalist, but it’s hard to pin down whether the film is so oddly spare as a deliberate choice, or because the director doesn’t have any ideas about the script. My guess is the former, as Auster’s writing style is similarly cryptic and heavy. Auster is aptly named; the minimalism and austerity of his prose is choking to some, lush and precise to others. Haas approaches scenes with the coldness of an autopsy technician, and the themes here do not help to lighten the mood.

There’s a lot of duality in the film; very few things exist without an inverse component. Jim and Jack, Flower and Stone (played by Charles Durning and Joel Grey, one fat and one lean), even the real world and Flower’s “City of the World“ – a model of Flower’s life built in miniature in a room of their mansion. The two sides of the coin, the yang and the yin, the winner and the loser. The implication is that chance is running the show, and that by chance’s whim men will be saved or condemned. Flower and Stone are on top, which they attribute to a flash of epiphany when choosing their lottery numbers that fateful day. Pozzi and Nash give themselves over to chance, risking themselves and accepting what it brings (though Nash a bit more readily than Pozzi), and we see what a pitiless, cutthroat, soul-crushing thing that can be.

A prolific author, Auster has also worked sporadically in film. Two years after The Music of Chance (which he also appears in, briefly) he worked with Wayne Wang on the set of Smoke, enjoying it so much that Auster himself directed an impromptu sequel/companion piece, Blue in the Face, with the same cast directly after shooting ended. His most recent film, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, was generally poorly received, and his other directorial piece, Lulu on the Bridge, is more miss than hit. His films are not always up to the task of his prose. Auster’s written a series of men like Jim Nash: sad sacks, beaten down by life, adrift in the world, finding redemption by unlikely means.

Patinkin and Spader are both excellent, and it’s a real loss for film lovers that both have retreated to roles on television in recent years. Spader’s Pozzi makes quips you could never get away with in a film today (on homophobia and wife-beating, for instance), yet eventually we root for him anyway. Both men are voyagers, desperate in different ways. Each has multiple opportunities to deliver long, dazzling monologues, and Patinkin even gets to sing, briefly, as he often does now in concert on Broadway and elsewhere. (Mandy, have you met Baz Luhrmann, or Rob Marshall? Film musicals could use you, too.)

The film ends on yet another high stakes roll of the dice, this one capable of taking Nash’s life. We now know enough about him that the choice doesn’t shock us, but rather feels like the ultimate expression of his grief and agony – an attempt to extract himself from a situation brought on by chance with yet another gamble. When the smoke clears, Auster seems to instruct us that, even when we aren’t taking chances, we are. And if you play long enough, the house will take you, every time. So it’s best to know when to cash in your chips and go home.

One of my all-time favorite Amazon customer reviews, wherein The Music of Chance is found by no less an authority than “Mataka” to be a Freemasonic allegory.

The Water Engine (1992). A made-for TV adaptation of David Mamet’s play, starring his rogue’s gallery of company players (Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, John Mahoney and others.) Directed by Steven Schacter, with script by Mamet.

(emcflat at hotmail dot com)

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