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DVD Review: Chinese Coffee

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Watching the 2000 film Chinese Coffee, starring and directed by Al Pacino, I smiled because yet again a film proved to me the utter primacy of the written word over the moving image, even in an art form that would not exist without pictures.

The film is based upon a play written by Ira Lewis, who wrote the screenplay as well, and, given the superb and realistic dialogue uttered by the two main characters, Harry Levine (Pacino) and Jake Manheim (Jerry Orbach), the play seems likely to be a great one.

Yet, the filmic aspects of the movie are almost nil. Pacino’s direction is not awful, merely bad. In so many ways this film would have been much better had it followed the My Dinner With Andre route. Proof? I can still visualize the scene in the Louis Malle film where Andre tells Wally about being buried alive in the Polish woods. So what? Well, the scene was never filmed, merely described to the viewer via the words of Andre Gregory to Wallace Shawn.

Now, contrast that with the numerous pointless camera angles and even pointless flashbacks that add nothing to this film, and the difference is clear. Even worse is the sometimes frenetic use of cuts that Pacino employs whenever Harry and Jake speak. We do not need to see close-ups for every syllable. Long shots that captured their whole body, and even shots from behind, where tone and inflection could take primacy, would have been a welcome addition. Pacino should have relied more on cinematographer Frank Prinzi’s experience to dictate how the scenes would be filmed.

The film’s score, by Elmer Bernstein, is adequate — not too distracting nor too telegraphic. The low budget film also fails when it tries to show, in flashbacks, the younger pair of men, with Pacino sporting a bad wig and Orbach’s hair atrociously dyed. The scenes where Pacino’s Harry is supposed to be only 42 fail, as Pacino, then 60, is just far too old and dissipated, wig notwithstanding, to pull off the eighteen year age difference convincingly.

The tale is set in 1982, in Greenwich Village, with Harry, a failed novelist with two published but remaindered books, being fired from his job as a doorman at a chi-chi French restaurant. He heads over to the small apartment of his friend, Jake, a struggling media photographer who has left a rich wife to live on his own as a Bohemian after three decades as a photographer in strip joints and is an artistic sciolist.

Over the course of the 97 minute film the two old friends duel over the fact that Harry is owed $500 by Jake, that Harry wants to hear encouraging words from Jake regarding his latest autobiographical novel about their friendship, and the romantic entanglements of the two men —  Jake’s with his wife Mavis (Ellen McElduff) and Harry with his long-time live-in girlfriend, Joanna (Susan Floyd). Mavis is a socialite who pays Jake $100 to sleep with her, and Joanna is a struggling sculptor who left the abusive Harry and now lives with a rich boyfriend in a penthouse.

Of the two female lead characters, Joanna is the more nuanced, and played quite well by the winsome Floyd, who exudes compassion and real depth beyond the clichés of the struggling artist.

At first Jake hides the manuscript in his freezer and denies he’s read it, but it becomes clear that he’s read it and resents the fact that Harry seemingly so aptly nails his character, even down to his sayings and mannerisms. By film’s end he claims Harry has ‘stolen his life,’ and that he should have had first crack at writing about it, since he’s always wanted to be a writer, but has never followed up on two early short stories he had published. He claims the book is ill written, and then says it’s trashy, and was designed just to make Harry money.

Harry, who’s down to his last buck and a half, perks up when Jake tells him the manuscript could be Harry’s ticket to big money. Harry takes the claim of the book’s sales potential to equate with its literary merit.

There are many nuanced moments, and the interactions between Pacino and Orbach are, at times, sensational. Some critics claim that the dialogue is too stagy, but this is false, especially to anyone who’s ever known artiste types, especially the Greenwich Village variety. They are spot on, for to be an artiste, by definition, means one is always playing a part.

Case in point is the scene where, about forty minutes into the film, the first sign of Jake’s real reason to be angry over the manuscript surfaces. Harry says, re: compromise, "Once you start you inevitably turn to phlegm," and Jake rages that that was a favorite saying of his two years earlier, and that Harry has no right to appropriate his words.

The DVD is part of a four DVD collection called Pacino: An Actor’s Vision, put out by Twentieth Century Fox. Along with Chinese Coffee, the set includes a documentary called Babbleonia, in which Pacino talks with an acting professor, and two other Pacino helmed films, The Local Stigmatic (1990), and Looking For Richard (1996). The film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The film has a prologue and epilogue with Pacino, Orbach, and the acting professor in discourses, where Pacino admits his limits as a director. It also has an audio commentary by Pacino which is solid, but nothing spectacular. There are some long pauses in comment and sometimes Pacino rambles off topic and even mumbles. But one gets a good sense of what he, as an actor, and even director, was thinking during the making of the film. He does make some broad statements about the film and characters which simply are not supported by the screenplay; but I’ve heard worse commentaries.

In researching this 97 minute long film, I’ve found that a number of critics of this film state things such as Jake’s envy of Harry’s talent is the reason why he rips into the book. But this claim is given no evidence, even if it is repeated by Pacino in the film’s audio commentary, because we never get to see whether or not Harry has any real writing talent. Not an iota of his work is quoted onscreen — an error too many works of art miss.

What is clear is that Jake deeply resents Harry’s usage of his own life for his work, whether or not it’s well done. And since it’s rather obvious that, while Jake is a crabby old bastard and failure, Harry clearly has some mental problems. The idea that Harry is a truly talented writer is just one more dip into the tired genius = madness trope.

Even my wife, Jessica, tends to fall into the category of those who place Jake as the villain of the piece, writing, "Orbach is somewhat a slimeball, and he blames others for his problems. Ultimately he is jealous of Pacino’s having written a book based on their friendship that he believes can sell and make money."

Well, Jake does blame others for his problems, and she does get the part about him believing the book can make money, rather than assuming he thinks it’s good, but this hardly makes him a slimeball. It makes him human, which is a reason the film, and likely the play, succeeds. And, I do not agree that it is jealousy, which can imply that Orbach may resent Harry’s quality of writing, but merely he seems to be frustrated and lashing out. Jake also seems angered over the fact that Harry wrote about his personal life, advice Jake gave him but which he never expected Harry to take. It is that which throws Jake for a loop, not that Jake underestimated Harry’s writerly skill — a fact we have no basis, in the screenplay, to go on. Also, Harry and Jake will likely make up after the reel stops rolling, for both are creatures of habit. To presume, as other critics have, that the play is about the deterioration or end of a friendship is wrong.

Another assumption some critics make about Jake is that he is insecure, but that implies he does not know himself. Clearly he does, and it’s the fact that Harry knows him as well that bugs him. This is not evidence of insecurity, but evidence of feeling invaded.

Nonetheless, and despite its cinematic limitations, Chinese Coffee is proof that art house films need not be about effete individuals, for Harry and Jake are, if nothing else, vibrant and opinionated men who have simply outlived their utility in the world; or so it seems. This is clearly true for Jake, but whether or not it is for Harry is the crux of the film.

Would that more films were based upon works that proved themselves literarily, with realistically drawn characters, rather than works based upon video games, and American cinema might hearken back to its Golden Age in the 1970s, the period that saw the rise of Al Pacino and his generation of actors. Circularity can be a good thing, no?

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