Film Review by May 8, 2015

It seems a bit unfair to just lump this in with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, but it is awfully inspired by those films. It’s out and out derivative, actually, but in an interesting way, and with a productive twist or two. As with, more than its more distinguished forebears, I find myself wanting to appreciate and admire the things that Fingers has to offer, at the same time that I find myself being put off by its manifold, quite aggressive offenses.

The narrative and its conflicts are fueled by a classical music/gangster binary. Jimmy, the protagonist played by the as-usual blistering Harvey Keitel, aspires to the one at the same time that he is rooted in and gets pulled back into the other. These stark, polarized alternatives are actually pretty schematic. But schematic is a frequent bi-product of self-conscious naturalism, and self-conscious naturalism can still be very instructive.

Also schematic is the conceit of the portable radio that keeps emitting all these thematically apt compositions. There’s a strain here, but credit should be given when and where it’s due; Fingers‘ musical components are both heartfelt and of real substance. Writer/director Toback has done his research, and implemented it quite meaningfully. For instance the use of compositions by J.S. Bach, and also the raptly committed and effective representation thereof, really render the way that Jimmy is being torn between sin and salvation, infernal environments and the possibility of the sacred.

(More Scorcese: Jimmy/Keitel is actually the Charlie and Johnny Boy characters from Mean Streets, all rolled up in one. That’s quite an undertaking, but it’s not an unworthy one. In fact, all concerned do quite well with and by it. Further, I wonder if Keitel’s convincing pretend piano playing might be partly based on the way that [Martin Scorcese buddy] Robbie Robertson plays the guitar.)

Seeking the sacred—I guess that’s where the women come in, and where the film’s naturalism becomes expressionistic. It’s also where a promising, pretty convincing piece falls permanently off the rails. Just like with From Morn Til Midnight or The Hairy Ape, this Tisa Farrow character appears, cracking open a window, as it were, suggesting the possibility of something better and brighter. She’s quite an exquisite presence actually, until it becomes clear that the main character and the writer/director and maybe the whole culture that they are so vividly and authoritatively portraying for us don’t know what to do with her. So, not knowing, and not coming up with anything new, they go with the tried and true. This means the usual misogynist trajectory: an untenable mix of lust and idealization from afar, followed by awkward engagement and obsessive pursuit, then, finally, misunderstanding, objectification, humiliation. It is at this point that characters like this, and lots of real live men beside, feel justified to talk hatefully about the bitches.

(Problem—Jimmy was listening to Bach when this Tisa/Carol character appears. He understood Bach, was on the brink of actually being initiated into Bach. So what did he need to be saved from? The situation is complicated/the film is something of a mess. We’re seeing the evil that men do, I guess.  In expressionism the woman offers a false hope of salvation, then either disappears or takes the blame for not actually being an angel. And in naturalism she is frequently reduced to being a mere reproductive organism, or simply a stimulus that ignites the male mechanism. A gal can’t win.)

Again, speaking of inspirations, we might compare this situation with Amy Robinson and her character in Mean Streets. And she produced the movie! All these filmmakers are caught in, are emblems of the brutality, the deep profanity—nothing sacred—that is also destroying their characters. By The Departed (2006; see the Madolyn/Vera Farmiga character), Scorcese has escaped from this vicious cycle, which only means that the objectification of female characters now gives way to the necessity of an emergency exit for the female characters. (And then there’s The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s the way of the world, isn’t it? “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…”)

Not so with Fingers, of course. This isn’t just misogyny, though. For one thing, at least for a while, there are real, actual affections. These aren’t just mean streets; they’re clearly someone’s neighbourhood, and there’s even, practically a sweetness at the film’s margins. Look at the exchange between Jimmy and the Jewish cop. The movie is a mess, but this Michael Gazzo/Jimmy’s dad character can’t be approved of nor summarily dismissed. Their relationship has something profound about it. In the end, though, the not-just-misogyny just brings us to a more regrettable, more comprehensive misanthropy.

As evidence, look how it all resolves. As with Taxi Driver, the protagonist’s quest, his attempt to rescue the imperiled feminine, fails. (Consider that film’s oft-mentioned similarity to The Searchers—what’s more confounding than when the individual that needs to be saved appears to have no interest in salvation?) That failure is contained in the introduction and distribution of the Jim Brown subplot, the entirety of which is quite wildly, even heroically ill advised and ill-conceived. As cringe-inducing as all this is, it does quite powerfully illustrate Jimmy’s ultimate powerlessness and basic unimportance.

The girl doesn’t care after all, and he’s not as tough as he’d thought he was, and then they kill his dad. Just as in Taxi Driver, the protagonist here reroutes his energies toward the cause of annihilation. That concluding confrontation is pretty powerful stuff, scaled down from and cut from the (exact) same cloth as the end of Travis Bickle’s warped journey. In that film Keitel played the dismissive hooligan. In this one he’s cure and disease both. (He shot the guy’s eyes out! The Searchers again, I presume.)

Here’s the thing, and it brings us to all sorts of celebrated, boundary breaking, ultimately destructive cinema. As Jimmy, Keitel really gives his all, and maybe sets himself up for no end of eventual career punishment by declaring himself willing to undergo practically any outlandish humiliation for the sake of the film. The prostate exam, for instance, or most of the scenes featuring young women, and all the aforementioned Jim Brown stuff. Milieu is one thing, and detailing social ills or even people’s sorrowful lives a very valid other. But actual infernos? This results in horror, or a self-preserving and disastrous desensitization. And in the end, this also results in nothing much, nothing at all being fixed. Good try, defeated by its worst impulses. A lot like life after all!