More Than Meets The Mogwai

Monday, February 04, 2008

To Live and Die in Las Vegas: William Friedkin and "CSI" (Season 8, Episode 9: "Cockroaches")

It all starts with a slam-bang, high-octane pursuit, kinetically captured by Friedkin’s impulsive ferocity in a manner that doesn’t allow viewers to catch their collective breaths. I’m not a fan of “CSI”, so I couldn’t tell you if car chases are a staple of the series, but I’ll make the claim anyway that they seldom could have achieved the forward-probing intensity of the one present here. It never ceases to amaze me what they can now show on network television, as the close of the chase (before the opening credits) are that of a CGI-rendered body being bloodily splayed open on the scorching, hard asphalt. (It should be noted that this chase is entirely independent of the proper narrative, serving only to produce a corpse for the investigation.) So, in totality, it’s probably the most blatantly Friedkin touch in the entire episode, but this doesn’t denigrate it: it could easily stand alongside the celebrated ones in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985), and to a lesser extent, the automobile pursuits in JADE (1995) and his tele-film JAILBREAKERS (1994). At this point, they are the director’s specialty (especially when he tackles action) and the audience expects to be treated to a new interpretation whenever he’s behind the camera.

Surprisingly, as this is a reunion of sorts for the star and director of TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., William Petersen (as Grissom) is virtually given nothing to do but to gravely issue stern glances at Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan), the episode’s real focus. As in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., Petersen is the older mentor, a character we feel we can never pin down or thoroughly judge. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a cheat or warped in the same ways the character Richard Chance was, but there’s a degree to which Grissom takes on the status of a big brother with shoes too large to fill. John Pankow occupied that little-brother position in L.A., just as Dourdan represents that here.

A glitzy Las Vegas strip club, run by old-school mob lord Lou Gedda (a latter-day Charles Laughton-esque John Capodice), orchestrates a swindle of overcharging certain high profile patrons the wrong price for champagne after their nights of drunken debauchery with the club’s strippers. When they refuse to pay, it results in a pile-up of broken bones, sliced-up genitalia, and dead bodies. The only witness is a questionable rundown bum (played by an appropriately tattered Dennis Christopher, of BREAKING AWAY [Peter Yates, 1979] and FADE TO BLACK [Vernon Zimmerman, 1980]); I don’t want to stress his importance, but one of the key characteristics of programs like these is the familiar faces of yesteryear’s cinema that turn up from time to time; Christopher’s little more than a red herring, someone who pretends to know more than he does, but his presence is welcome anyway.

Crime Scene Investigator Brown -- who seemingly has had a problem with either drinking or drugs in the show’s history judging by a scene where he hesitates entering the seedy place -- prowls the club as just such a customer, hoping that the crooked powers-that-be may attempt some rough stuff on him. Of course, as Petersen’s Grissom describes, they’re much smarter than that, and they instead eventually take vengeance on Brown in a much more disturbing, earth-shattering way.

Drinking heavily and reveling with one of the attractive dancers (played by Rebecca Budig), Brown finds himself playing into their hand, enabling the underbelly of the unseen forces just enough rope to hang him with. When Brown questions why she works for such an organization, the dancer sticks up for her employees, stating that it’s mobsters like Gedda that built Vegas to be what it was in the first place. Self-deluded as she may be, she’s right, but it’s tough to ascertain if she’s completely aware of her pawn-like status in this private game between Brown and the mob when it’s exposed in a rigidly fatalistic reveal in the final seconds. Friedkin encapsulates this connection between Brown and the dancer by housing their evening spent together in an immaculately white “dream-room” of sorts, where words are reverberated back and a stack of condoms may temporarily take on the visage of a dagger. Friedkin also experiments with flash-frames once again, but instead of CRUISING’s hardcore gay porn inserts, they are inserts inside a sedate scene of a murder-to-be, or a murder-that-has-been.

As in much of Friedkin’s work, there are more questions asked in the end then there are answers, and he certainly knows how to stick the inquisitive dagger deep into the viewer, twisting his almost-consistently constant pessimistic worldview into a series of malleable thoughts and impressions. Tenuous connections that didn’t seem plausible or possible take on considerable meaning once all is said and done, and sinister implications or associations crop up. There’s a rousing finish here that prides itself in feeling fragmentary, and even though there’s supposedly a typical follow-up denouement to the case at the start of the next “CSI”, I doubt I’ll ever watch it. Friedkin challenges the program, and adapts it to suit his own sensibilities, and not the other way around, forcing the other creators, writers, and directors of the subsequent season to play catch-up.

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