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Shops of Horror
Notes for a Visual History of the Reification of Emotion in a Capitalist Regime,
or (to put it more bluntly) ‘Fuck the Money’

Nicole Brenez

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for David E. James









  Modern society, which already in its infancy had pulled Pluto by the hair of his head from the bowels of the earth (Athenaeus), greets gold as its Holy Grail, as the glittering incarnation of its innermost principle of life.
- Karl Marx, Capital, Book I, Chapter 3 (1867)



Cinema History and the History of Ideas

Three low-budget auteur films. For John Cassavetes and Abel Ferrara, that’s nothing out of the ordinary. But for Lubitsch: a budget of less than $500,000, a film shot in twenty-eight days during November 1939.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is the adaptation of a play by Miklós László called Parfumerie (1937).

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976 & 1978) is an original screenplay by John Cassavetes (with a little help from Martin Scorsese).

Go Go Tales (2007) transposes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie to New York and simplifies it; Ferrara’s film is an undeclared but explicit remake, since several dialogue phrases are textually reprised from the Cassavetes.

The Shop Around the Corner takes, as its premise, the female fantasy of the Ideal Man – in order, finally, to describe the relations of force in the world of work.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie invents nightmarish narrative forms and deconstructs its narrative so as to liberate figurative possibilities linked to the female body.

Go Go Tales addresses – under the cover of a lighthearted reverie – the nightmare that human relations have become in a capitalist regime.

The Shop Around the Corner transforms human beings into servants of commodities.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie invents a hero who is indebted to death, in order to show how we can still (un)link the reification of human relations. The protagonist, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), gambles and effectively puts himself deeper in debt. At the end as at the start, this hero is symbolically dead; the film thus presents itself as an impossible parenthesis.

Go Go Tales depicts a world in which money rules without obstruction. In debt, the protagonist Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe) gambles to save himself. At the end, he suddenly finds the ticket he had never lost – thus, the film presents itself as a needlessly agonised dream.

The Shop Around the Corner slips in, at the heart of prestigious MGM, a veritable cinematic pamphlet on the question of the reification of emotion; it offers an analysis and a diagnostic on the invasion of the profit motive into human relations. At almost exactly the same moment, another German immigrant living in Hollywood writes:



1. T. W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘Two Worlds’ in Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Social Studies Association, 1944). [Translator’s note: I have slightly amended the official English translation to bring it closer to the French version quoted by Brenez.]

  Here in America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assets, income, position and prospects. The economic mask coincides completely with a man’s inner character. Everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth. He learns what he is through the vicissitudes of his economic existence within capitalism. He knows nothing else. (Theodor W. Adorno) (1)  


2. Nicole Brenez, Cosmic Cinema – The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: The Rebirth of Aesthetics (forthcoming).


In a Hollywood living through its most contestatory and inventive decade, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie describes the conditions of viability for an aesthetic and sentimental Utopia within the world of business. It offers itself as the last hippie film, and a platform for aesthetic propositions on the subject of cinematic reconstruction – an aspect which has yet to be fully analysed. (2)

In George Bush’s United States, cynically embarked upon a remarkably bloody phase of capitalism, and an American imperialism completely rampant since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Go Go Tales eliminates the human factor altogether, so as to preserve only its reification.





The Shop Around the Corner transforms its spatial limitation (unity of place: the Matuschek shop) into a cinematic resource: passing from stage to screen, Lubitsch seeks not to enlarge and forever expand the space; on the contrary, he centres it entirely on body movements, gestures, mimes. The principal space, the shop, does not end up shrinking down to a place that demands to be ‘unfolded; the magnificent ending, via a progressive extinction of lights, suppresses all decorative space so as to entirely focalise on the emotion rising within two bodies destined to merge. Related places, also, are fixed on bodies and faces; far from contribting to an opening-out of space, they instead confirm its limits: the meeting café is reduced to a mere corner; the hospital in which the boss recovers and the heroine’s apartment are only a bed; even the street is denied a standard establishing shot. The apogee of this mania for limits is marked in the shot of the heroine’s face, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) imprisoned in the frame of post boxes that are empty twice over: empty of any letter and of any back, as if to materialise the constiuitive imprisonment and solitude that rules over the human community. Completely the opposite of a decorative diversification, this adjoining of places annexed to the shop allows a demonstration of the affective solitude that determines every space: Mr Matuschek recovering in his hospital bed, after a suicide attempt prompted by the revelation that his wife has a lover; in her bed, Klara is eaten up by the thought of her mysterious correspondant who seems not to have shown up for their meeting. Anonymous letters pass between the boss and Alfred Kralik (James Stewart); pseudonymous letters pass between Kralik and his colleague. In both cases, the hero does bedside duty for a love-sickness, and ends up filling in both the desire and the lack from which this person suffers. For all the characters, it seems, understanding, compassion and devotion take the form of James Stewart – figure of affective intelligence.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie organises a coming-and-going between the locus of figurative inventiveness, Cosmo’s Crazy Horse West (he seems to have no other home), and other places of Los Angeles, where everything leads to disastrous encounters, ruled by absurd laws, torn apart both spatially and temporally: we lose all sense of time (the cinema), or of space (the Bookie’s house, constructed from lighting and deceptive editing matches), or of family (the house of the ‘stepmother’ who challenges her son-in-law) ... finally including the relations between action and reaction (parking scene), his car which goes missing (the highway), his money which goes missing (the Mafia casino) ... In short, the only place where one can live, i.e. create, is in the Crazy Horse West, and Cosmo would prefer to die than no longer be able to live there. The Crazy Horse West furnishes a place where human relations can become beautiful – i.e., instead of folding into a Mafia logic of subjectification, they dissolve in total indetermination. Claustrophilia authorises the access to an oceanic dimension of feeling, which is doubtless why this place deserves its Crazy name.

Go Go Tales conjures a cosmic claustrophilia. Most of the film unfolds in Ray Ruby’s Paradise club, and the only other site (the illegal betting joint) - whose sliding door opens twice – is on the same block. The threat here is property, the transformation of the club into a cosmetics boutique – which is a kind of summary of Manhattan’s transformation, under Rudolph Giuliani, into a commercial centre. In Ruby’s small business, everbody – boss, workers, dancers, family, customers – thinks only of money, talks only of money, exists only because of money. But while that money floods in, in the form of authentic and counterfeit bills, extravagant bundles of lottery tickets that paper every wall, and pieces of furntiture that function as a kind of invisible anti-matter which fill apparently empty material, then all goes well – it’s Paradise.

The Ideal Man and the Subject of History

While Alfred Kralik would seem to be the central, driving character of The Shop Around the Corner, he is in fact constructed as a pure female fantasy, the ultimate Ideal Male for any young Tertiary Sector woman. Kralik comes into being in an impeccable dialectical movement: as an unknown correspondant, he is a romantic, cultivated, available, and above all truly insubstantial fellow; as a work colleague, he is a prosaic, materialistic, bothersome creature, above all pitifully unattractive, as Klara will point out to him in a surprisingly brutal fashion at the end of their journey. But, above all, it is he who will eventually accomplish the arduous task of synthesising these two antagonistic dimensions, and it is precisely there, not in his insubstantial version, that he will become the Ideal Male: Alfred Kralik is this being who is sufficiently practical to invent romantic set-ups designed to bring the dream down to earth. Just as Kralik works to satisfy other people’s desires, the film constructs its hero as he who has the power to respond to the most contradictory demands. In the style of the container which is rather irritating as a cigar box but quite ingenious as a candy box (according to who is wielding it), Kralik can handle all the quid pro quos because, in him, everything is true: at once pragmatist and dreamer, combative and tender, solipsistic and knightly, he is the perfect man posessing all virtues, both classical and modern. Psychoanalysts often say that men do not know how to really see women, that they fixate on a handful of feminine traits and then mentally elaborate the rest; one might imagine that the same goes for the way women see men. The Shop Around the Corner brilliantly assumes the task of reassuring us on this rather terrifying point: it is precisely because this man and woman understand absolutely nothing about each other that, ultimately, they are made for each other.

Cosmo, all at once boss, director, set designer, manager, friend, lover, artist, soldier, action man, gambler, alcoholic, idealist, megalomaniac, loser and dandy, is subject to no determinism, whether social or affective. He can ‘be everything’. Symmetrically, his employees are at once his friends, lovers, slaves, daughters, bodyguards, instruments, puppets, fetishes and trinkets. In Cosmo, Cassavetes invents a presence who cannot be contained in any one identity or relational model. Cosmo explodes the question of identity in order to reach the level of style, true elegance. He is driven only by the prospect of offering the best possible show to his customers – that is, the most elegant, most stylish show. For Cosmo, for Mr Sophistication, for the girls, there is only a single goal, a single horizon: to seduce, to give pleasure, to enchant. Cosmo puts all his energy into producing the ephemeral, the provisional, the risky: a strange and tawdry show where women’s bodies, however naked, retain their independence, mystery and singularity.

Cosmo leads the life of a free man besieged by money; Ray does not exist, he is merely an existence structured by the lure of monetary gain, he is a fiduciary case. Employees, accountant, banker, owner, bookie ... every character around him incarnates a functional relation to money, and they circulate in order to bring alive these real and fake bills – except for Ray himself who, in this ceaseless circlation of real and virtual money (the money you don’t have, but dream of), constitutes a faulty, provisional crossroads. Seductive as he may be, Ray is only the figure of an error in monetary circulation, a kind of crazy little squirrel disguised as a ‘charismatic impresario’ (according to the press kit). No one needs him to dance; he defends no show, only a lease.

High Life, Low Life, Real Style

Within the job market, as shop employees, Kralik and Klara cannot stand one another; beyond this world, in the compensatory universe they have created, they love each other passionately. Is it possible to express any more clearly that the economic world deprives people of love, of joy, of their own lives? But Lubitsch does not hesitate to clarify the proposition still further: the film describes in detail the successful invasion of the private by the public. Apparently, the split between the two realms is total: the obligatory division of the real and the ideal, the divorce between work life and intimate life, made explicit by the boss when he says: ‘What you do after work doesn’t concern me’. But human relations are entirely defined by social status, as is clear from the little errand boy who, once he becomes a salesman, terrorises his replacement; minds somatise and become confused with tasks, such as when the sick boss suffers from no longer seeing his customers. In this world, the only imaginable collective celebration consists – desolately – of selling a lot of objects and making a lot of money. If it were only a matter of professional conditioning, the critique would be slight; but, very concretely, in this world of work, model staff find themselves rewarded within five minutes, saleswomen are amazed that their colleagues do not sexually harrass them, older workers who have to support a family have to be happy living in a single room ... and I am far from enumerating all the ways in which Lubitsch signifies economic violence. The story of The Shop is not outdated; rather, in relation to contemporary America, it corresponds to a particular past: in the era of the great American shopping centres that industrialise consumption, the lovely little Hungarian shop front carries the nostalgic scent of a small, artisanal business, where the time in which staff speak to each other is not yet accounted for. The Shop tells the tale of the passage from human commerce to wholesale commodification. For the deepest critique – making The Shop a true masterpiece – lies in the way that the market relation invades and finally replaces the lovers’ discourse: Kralik transforms a declaration of love into an ode to a pigskin wallet and, symmetrically, at the film’s end, Klara verifies that her fiancé is not knock-kneed – just like verifying, before buying a music box, whether it is a wise thing to do. One understands better why, right in the middle of a flirting scene with Kralik, suddenly Klara totally changes her behaviour upon seeing her aunt enter, just as her boss does each time that he switches his interlocuter, passing instantly from anger to servility. As touching as they may be, these characters play out their entire story and live out their emotions entirely within a circulation of social commands. Actor, salesman, plagiarist, falsifier, merchant of himself as an object, in love with others as so many fancy accessories: this is industrious twentieth century man.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie begins from the contrary proposition: spectacle does not enter into any relation with falsification, and does not furnish a metaphor for alienation within social relations. Rather, it contains the last treasure, i.e., the possibility that one can still create something beautiful in a world of money. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie celebrates spectacle as the complex fabric of a little machine of love, freedom and fantasy – unmanageable, uncontrollable, unmemorisable (the barman who has seen the Crazy Horse West show for ten years straight is incapable of recognising even one song), a pure expenditure of energy, desire and narcissistic claims lacking any guarantee that they will ever function properly. The Crazy Horse West show inverts and destroys, on corrosive contact with its experimental force, the miserable modes of worldly regulation that seek its demise. At the Crazy Horse West, boss, staff, nobody has any money, but they all work together, dissolving their wage claims as they sing in a shared melancholy – this is the ‘high life’ of those who possess nothing beyond their own ethical values. The Crazy Horse West troupe is an experimental tribe which allows us to envisage differently our relations to emotions, bodies, ourselves – even the very fact of our shared history.






3. Go Go Tales, draft script (2002) by Simone Lageoles and Abel Ferrara. Note that the script for the finished film is credited solely to Ferrara.



4. Douglas Buck, Fuck the Noise: Filmmaking, At Any Cost, (1995). Thanks to Brad Stevens for bringing this film to my attention. (Buck has recently directed the Sisters remake starring Chloë Sevigny and Lou Doillon.)



Go Go Tales takes up its storyline where the second-last scene of Chinese Bookie left off: with the mutiny of the unpaid dancers. But Ferrara inverts Cassavetes’ counter-world and, linking with Lubitsch’s shop, his Paradise offers a faithful summary of the capitalist world. At Ray Ruby’s Paradise, one girl gets her money from the boss during the show itself, another makes love while negotiating her back pay, still another dances in order to pay for the studies of her husband who, embodying the inflation in the corruption of human relations, becomes her customer without even realising it ... Prostitution has become the norm, human beings no longer exist, and what constitutes an event is no longer the singular entry of bodies and faces under red and white lights as on the Crazy Horse West stage, but the appearance of cash bills and lottery tickets, and the way in which these objects insinuate themslves into or onto costumes, walls, shirts, minds. The superb slow-motion shots do not insist on the grace of the dancers but the bills that the spectators slip onto their bodies. ‘DARLENE: impossibly beautiful dancer, working the early shift, grinds it out under hot flashing lights. Her body in perfect sync to the pulsating music.’ (3) When this sumptuous character enters during the film’s preamble, it is as the Golden Calf. But, in twenty-first century Manhattan, after Scorsese’s Casino and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (both 1995), the ‘fetish character of the commodity’ no longer requires any explanation: if there is no longer any show apart from money and the way it circulates, bodies and minds have to be satisfied to reduce themselves to nothing but transparent vectors, good conductors – except for the temporary mental lapse on the part of poor Ruby Ray. Again in 1995, Ferrara declared to Douglas Buck: ‘Every dollar has a certain nervousness attached to it’. (4) Go Go Tales acts out the concreteness of money and the inconsistency of men.

and Distraction

Just as Cosmo offers a self-portrait of the filmmaker as experimental dandy, and the Crazy Horse West a metaphor of cinema as a little laboratory for the mise en scène of affects, Ray Ruby can be taken as the director who stagemanages distraction (in, of course, both senses of the term), the Paradise as a chaotic bricolage where a moment of absurd, childish joy can be born (the monologue of Ray’s brother Johnny [Matthew Modine], his residue of idealism, as he dreams of directing for the stage), the prostitutes as screenwriters, and their customers as producers. At a certain hour, the Paradise changes, moreover, into a rehearsal stage for amateur actors, the bodyguard becomes a poor Brando reciting the great tirade from Julius Caesar, and Ray turns into ... Cosmo Vitelli:



5. Lageoles and Ferrara draft.

  Quality of life, what about the quality of our life? Freedom of expression, creativity, passion. Love for each other. I’m not looking for a fucking tan or a condo in Miami, that’s nothing more than a coffin for the living. I’m alive and I’m not gonna hide it. (5)  


  Henceforth everything is false, even the spectacle. Hope comes from the lowest of the lower depths: the script that dancer/whore/screenwriter Debbie sells to her customer/producer Stanley is called A Gun for Stephanie – a nod to A Gun for Jennifer, the title of a modest little gore film made by Todd Morris and Deborah Twiss in 1996, a liberating anarchist grenade which really needs, right now, an even more liberating and destructive remake.  

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© Nicole Brenez and Rouge October 2007. Translation from the French © Adrian Martin 2007. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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