Ask any writer what's harder to write, a short story or a novel, and you might be surprised at how many would tell you the short story. Sure, novels get all the attention, and they take a certain amount of stamina to produce, but writing a short story takes very specific skills that many successful novelists lack. Fully realizing characters and telling a story from beginning to end in under 10,000 words is far more daunting a task than most novice writers realize until they try.
The short filmmaker faces many of the same difficulties that the short story writer must overcome in order to be successful. In fact I would say his job is compounded by the fact that not only must he have a story that accomplishes all that a short story does, he or she is also faced with the daunting task of accommodating the needs of the medium.
A good movie needs to be visually entertaining as well as intellectually challenging, and it must be very difficult to accomplish both in a piece that's only eighteen minutes long. Unlike the guy who's shooting a feature film, you can't linger over establishing shots or utilize any of the other cinematic techniques to set the mood or atmosphere that are commonplace in today's movies. Somehow or other you have to communicate all of that to the audience while the action of the movie takes place. It would be the equivalent of a writer somehow writing dialogue and descriptive passages simultaneously.
Bookie is a short movie from Persistence Of Vision Films that was directed by Tran Quoc Bao and completed in 2007. Set in Seattle, Washington in 1963, it focuses on the action that takes place in and around a seedy night club one evening. The club is owned by a local mobster, and aside from offering the standard music and booze, he also offers his clientele the services of an in-house bookie. On this night in particular the bookie is swamped as a championship boxing match is being fought.
The bookie of the title, played by Ken Quitugua, has obviously been doing his job taking bets for his boss Jackson (Lester Purry) for some time now, and has lasted this long by not rocking the boat. He might not like what he sees sometimes, but he knows better than to go against his boss. Bookies don't gamble after all, they know only too well how the odds can be stacked against you. Tonight all that is going to change as "Bookie" will decide that sometimes the risk outweighs the gamble, and there are some bets worth taking.
It's a woman, of course, that brings about this change of heart. Billie (Angela Adto) is a waitress in the bar; she is supposedly Jackson's girl and off limits if you know what's good for you. Still there's only so long that a man can stand on the sidelines, and when "Bookie" sees Billie being mistreated by Jackson he wants to help. He convinces her to bet on the upcoming fight, because it's a sure thing that the champ will win, and she can use her winnings to make a clean break from the bar.
When the champ goes down in the first round Billie accuses "Bookie" of setting her up for Jackson, because it's obvious that the boss either had the fight rigged or had known in advance what the result was going to be. Stung by her accusation that he would never do anything without Jackson's permission, and knowing it's the truth, he finally decides to take a chance. When he goes to collect the winnings for the one person who happened to place a winning bet he slips in a claim for Billie as well.
In the wrong hands this movie could have ended up a cliche with a very large C but director Bao and his actors have done a fine job in avoiding letting the movie descend to that level. Right from the start we see that "Bookie" isn't thrilled with what goes on around him when he attempts to interfere with a punishment beating two of the boss's enforcers are carrying out. Even when Jackson pulls him back into line, Ken Quitugua lets the camera see the shame and regret he feels because he gave in.
Throughout the movie, even as he's impassively taking bets for people, there's the impression that "Bookie" only needs the right push, and he will cross that line from safety into risk. In bits of conversation we hear him having with a customer, and his reaction to Jackson hitting Billie – where he begins to rise out of his seat but is stared down by the boss – we see his wish that he was something more than he is.
While the other characters are mainly there as for "Bookie" to play off, Angela Adto as Billie is able to bring a nice touch of reality to her part. While naturally cynical and bitter because of her treatment at the hands of Jackson, she manages to convey something that shows why "Bookie" is willing to risk everything for her. She has a wonderful moment near the end of the film, where she is able to communicate volumes about the true nature of her character with just a smile.
That's really what makes the movie Bookie work — director Tran Quoc Bao's ability to elicit those little moments from his actors and then utilize them to propel the story to its conclusion. There's not a wasted moment in the film with every scene communicating a piece of information that is essential to telling the story. Although the consequences of "Bookie's" actions are inevitable, Bao manages to create a nice measure of suspense, and include a couple of surprises along the way. All in all, what he is able to accomplish in eighteen minutes is remarkable.
As befits its film noir atmosphere, Bookie is shot in grainy black and white, and his use of shadow and light adds nicely to the gritty atmosphere of the movie. In fact everything from the sets to the live music being performed by the band in the night club all make contributions to creating the atmosphere that gives the movie the edginess needed to make it work.
Like a well written short story Bookie manages to convey a lot in a little time. Its pacing is perfect, and its timing elegant; you couldn't ask for more from a short movie.