Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1979).
I watched the 1979 film Saint Jack on Amazon’s ad-supported streaming service, Freevee. Because the commercials often lurched on midsentence, I concluded that Freevee doesn’t pay people to insert the breaks between scenes. The deduction was sound, but being human, i.e., desperate for meaning, I nevertheless read intention into the placement of some of the ads. At the end of the movie, for example, when the main character must choose between collaborating with an occupying power or forgoing a fat check, Freevee broke to a spot for a skin serum by Vichy Laboratories. Unfortunately, the synergy didn’t last. The next commercial featured the socially conscious rapper Common, of the too-resonant baritone, shilling T-Mobile from a barber chair—a rich text, to be sure, but one without much relevance to Saint Jack, which is set in Singapore in the late sixties.
Based on Paul Theroux’s novel of the same name, the film is the director Peter Bogdanovich’s Vietnam movie as well as his Casablanca, a wartime melodrama about a raffish American trying to make a buck on the periphery of the conflict. A lot happens to Jack Flowers—he falls in love, finds a kindred spirit (platonic), fulfills his dream of running a brothel, runs afoul of local gangsters, goes into business with the U.S. military, witnesses the death of a friend, and gets roped in to a smear operation by the CIA—but the film’s tone and pacing belie its density of event. Saint Jack is laid-back, even chill. Applied to heavy material, this attitude usually produces a comedy, but Saint Jack, while full of funny moments, achieves something serious: the sublime.
Retrospectives of Bogdanovich’s career tend to describe it as his “loosest” film, a departure to the now for the director, whose interest in the visual style and genre tropes of Hollywood’s studio era, as opposed to those of the French New Wave, had distinguished him from his New Hollywood contemporaries. Shot on location by the minimalist cinematographer Robert Muller, with Cassavetes’s regular Ben Gazzara as Jack Flowers, and local non-actors , including prostitutes and madams, filling out the supporting cast, Saint Jack definitely looks like a gritty seventies flick. It brings to mind the Golden Era in other ways, however. Besides the shadow of Casablanca, there’s the film’s breezy script. Snappy dialogue could have upset Saint Jack’s lo-fi equilibrium, but fortunately we’re in Gazzara’s capable hands. As our weary yet amiable hero, a stoic drinker who takes all vicissitudes in stride, he gets the lion’s share of the script’s great lines—the trick is that he delivers these naturally, never “making a meal,” as film people say. He rarely gives the sense that Flowers is inventing a joke or a bon mot on the fly; usually, Jack seems to be repeating himself (it’s all the more to Gazzara’s credit that Jack never actually does). On the one hand, this chestnut effect is satisfying because it’s realistic: for Jack, clever patter isn’t an end in itself but a tool, like his warm smile or his impeccable manners, that he deploys to make bread. On the other, Jack is a wise man. He repeats himself because that’s what gurus do.
Saint Jack is not an ironic title. Flowers, improbably, is full of grace. When the gangsters arrive to shut down his bordello, he offers himself up at the front door to give his employees time to escape. The gangsters tattoo obscenities on his arms and deposit him in a ditch. Back at the brothel, which is now destroyed, he has a drink and a laugh and then goes straight to a tattoo parlor to get his new ink covered up. The tattooist asks him what he wants. Jack scans the room’s posters for two seconds before asking the man to garland his arms. What’s remarkable about Jack isn’t that he accepts his fate but that he accepts it immediately, without pitying himself or weighing his options. I was reminded of wu wei, the Taoist ideal of effortless action, which is something like a flow state that encompasses all one’s activity and not merely a discrete task like writing a movie review or playing a tennis match. Jack’s wu wei gets thrown into dramatic relief in the final act, when, for the first time, he agonizes over a decision.
The critic Vincent Canby praised Saint Jack’s “low key” approach, but he wasn’t a fan of its lightly demarcated timeline, complaining that “either the movie’s editor or Mr. Bogdanovich … hasn’t found a simple way to indicate the passage of time. One result is that the narrative, which is primarily what movies like this are all about, sometimes becomes hopelessly muddled in trivial confusions.” I suspect that Mr. Canby was distracted. While Saint Jack is episodic, it proceeds chronologically, and while each jump forward occurs without ceremony, without the slow dissolve or new haircut for which Canby pined, the plot is nevertheless precise, propelled by ensuant disasters and anchored by the annual return of an accountant (Denholm Elliott), a decent and ingenuous Englishman (so different from the sarcastic, patrician variety on the local scene) with whom Flowers forms an odd-couple attachment. More to the point, the relaxed temporality is deliberate. It helps create what the kids call “a whole vibe.” Jack, who never forgets a face or a name, is always surprised by how long it has been since he last saw someone. “I don’t know where it went.” To a red-light expatriate in an equatorial city where the path of the sun barely changes, one day feels much like the last.
Repetition may be humanity’s oldest portal to the spiritual. It’s cheaper and easier to come by than psychedelics. It does for Saint Jack what it does for meditation, penance, or ritual: establishes strange rhythms that evoke a contemplative mood. It also makes an argument. Compare the trio of British cynics who represent their colonial remnant to the three ebullient American GIs whom Jack runs into on the street. Their dispositions are different, but they’re after the same thing: booze and sex.
As a procurer of local women for foreign men, Jack is an agent of the ravening West. How, then, is he also a saint?
To transcend life’s cruel terms—want, pain, incoherence—one must first accept them. This paradox is a tenet of every religion that venerates saints, including the syncresis underlying Saint Jack. The disreputable Flowers manages to live an exemplary life by hitching his dignity to his sense of humor and his sense of decency. He can’t be fulfilled, but he can drink. He can’t attain wealth, but he can be his own man. He can’t bring peace, but he can obstruct those who would prolong war. He can’t save a dying friend, but he can see to his funeral. He can’t end the exploitation of women, but he can broker sex tourism in an upstanding way. Why does the last sentence sound funny? For several reasons, but the relevant one is the mismatch of ambition: the aim is modest, but the degree of difficulty is high—think about what it would take to be a virtuous pimp! Saint Jack says it’s possible. This is its extraordinary claim: that you can be good no matter where you find yourself, that rendering unto Caesar needn’t mean forking over your soul. Is this true? I doubt it, but I’m a man of my time. I believe science. I think correct thoughts. Here are a few more of them. The soul is something we tend to sell piecemeal, and pimping would cost Flowers more of his than Saint Jack admits. Its depiction of the trade is rosier than hagiography demands. This sentimentality reflects some boring old junk like chauvinism and orientalism but also a faith in the ethical potential of unbridled libertinism, peculiar to the seventies, that’s worth refurbishing, however hazardous it seems. Saint Jack’s condemnation of the war hasn’t aged a day. Certain complicities take your whole soul, that’s true.
Liam Sherwin Murray is at work on his first novel. His story “Supportive Husband” appears in our new Fall issue, no. 245.
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