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You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance

(SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

The Music of Chance’s bare plot is actually quite straightforward, yet also highly bizarre if taken at face value. Hence its undisguised invitation to interpret and analyse what it all means. Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) gives a ride to bloodied card player Jack Pozzi (James Spader), who tells him of a big game against a couple of old millionaires (Charles Durning’s Bill Flower and Joel Grey’s Willy Stone). On their last encounter, Pozzi beat the men, whose fortune came through a win on the lottery. Nashe, needing further funds to pursue his endless road trip, agrees to put up the $10,000 needed. However, when the game takes a turn and Pozzi loses, the two are left with little recourse but agreeing to build a wall for Flower and Stone in order to pay off their debt.

The Guardian’s Paul Laity has it that “Auster’s fiction has always explored the moments in which lives, thanks to chance and circumstance, take different directions”, and The Music of Chance, Auster’s seventh novel (published in 1990) debates both internally and explicitly such interpretations of the world, whether events are random or fated, coincidences or synchronicities, interconnected or unto themselves.

Nashe: It wasn’t the places I went that were important. It was the driving.

Its protagonists represent twin poles of perspective, but also contradictions therein. Nashe is the model of reserve and moderation in manner, yet his pendulum has swung to the opposite in terms of choices; we eventually learn that, left by his wife, he has abandoned his daughter with his sister to travel the road (of life) for a year (clocking up 97,000 miles on the car’s altimeter), ploughing through $200,000 inheritance from his father in the process. He exudes the air of one stoically pursuing existential answers, having a certain considered understanding or perspective on life, but when he offers information – the novel is less enigmatic, as this information is provided upfront – we are less sure that he isn’t simply fleeing, pursuing a path of self-perpetuating escapism and shirking responsibility. Nashe’s exactitude meets its opposite in his unfettered driving, and we have to ask, is he actually more at home in the rigid task of building the wall, his parameters constricted and coordinated? (The novel expounds that, once Jack is gone, “Jim becomes ‘crazy with loneliness,’ a prisoner in his ‘private hell’”. But this isn’t something we’re privy to in the film).

Existentially then, it could be that Nashe recognises the societal paradigm is a trap, his driving a conscious rejection of the same, but his language betrays a less high-minded philosophy: “When I was driving, nothing could hurt me anymore”. And yet, Patinkin’s delivery is that of a level, rehearsed near monotone, as if reason has been Nashe’s watchword. His involvement with Pozzi derives from his desire to sustain his lifestyle, his avoidance of the trap, which is something Jack is actively living already, because that is him. Haas lends Nashe a degree of ambiguity and inscrutability Auster does not. We assume he’s a fireman because he tells us so, although he later (lies to) tells Floyd (Chris Penn) he’s a travelling salesman. He also reveals a sure skill at games himself, trouncing Floyd at pool (at least, in the way Haas edits the sequence). It does appear that he’s an absent father, though, given the letters, and his desire to reach a phone in the closing scene suggests he may no longer be seeing a life free from pain as viable.

Pozzi likewise displays sides of a personality that seem at odds. He appears the consummate materialist, or at least, entirely caught up in the material, however ephemeral his grasping of its rewards is. He has no capacity to reflect, spinning stories that may or may not (and often aren’t) true, while existing on an inflation of event and ego that is the marked opposite to Nashe. He is thus quick to temper, be it insults or violence, and revels in libidinous pursuits (whether it’s Penthouse or a night with Samantha Mathis’ prostitute). But while poker is a game of chance, Jack is also, like many a player, intensely superstitious, seeing forces in the world around him affecting his fortune rather than attributing it to his own performance.

Nashe: You’re my lucky charm, asshole. As soon as you left the goddamn roof started to collapse.

There is, in this, a fundamental clash of ethic between them. This is the crucial measure that fuels their debate. Nashe professes to deal in facts, mocking Jack’s superstitious attitude of “refusing to look at how things really work”. And yet, Haas ascribes significance to Pozzi’s perspective, regardless of the “truth”; we cannot ignore the possibility that Jack is right. Albeit, the actual influence at play is up for debate; Jack’s game starts to fall apart when Nashe exits, before he steals the figurines of Flower and Stone. Yet Jack’s focus shifts retrospectively to this totem as the source of their woe, which Nashe proceeds to burn like a voodoo doll (to no avail): “You think it’s so strong it made you lose all our money”; “You’re out of your mind, I hope you realise that” replies Jack.

Pozzi: You tampered with the universe, my friend.

Despite his grounding in sensualism, hedonism, or because of it, Jack is more in touch with instinctual reasoning. He believes Nashe has tampered with the universe, that what he did was akin to committing a sin, “violating a fundamental law”, and there is a price to be paid for this. Nashe does not credit such interconnectivity, meaningful coincidence, and yet Haas’ narrative circularity tells us otherwise; in the last scene, Nashe is picked up, bloodied, just as he picked up Pozzi at the outset (in the novel, Auster fosters finality, with Nashe heading intentionally for the collision he swerves to avoid in the film). But Haas leaves open other interpretations of the outcome of the game; the way Flower and Stone joke together as they beat Jack in the card game has led to the suggestion the lessons they took may have taught them to win through collusion.

Pozzi: You don’t negotiate with madmen. Once you start to do that, your brain gets all fucked up.

Jack’s paranoia about their deal also proves justified. Wherever Nashe’s meticulous reasoning comes into play, it’s ultimately confounded. Jack tells him making a deal is a bad idea, and he’s validated when Flower and Stone change the rules (food and drink is added on top of their debt). Jack insists “You’re wrong. It’s to keep people from leaving” about the fence surrounding the property, which indeed turns out to be the case (at very least, for them).

Flower: You see, numbers have souls, and you can’t help but get involved with them in a personal way.

This debate feeds into the signifiers of the antagonists too, Flower expressing his delight in the rule of numbers. This is the realm of precision of exactitude, and Flower and Stone give the impression they have tapped into a personal secret code. But they also refer to them with a degree of mysticism, almost cabbalistic or gematrian in character. It has been pointed out that Nashe is a vowel away from the name of A Beautiful Mind’s mathematician (one for whom the absolute and subjective blurred, not just in Ron Howard’s dreadful movie). The duo picked prime numbers from 3 to 31 for the winning ticket – and both were unified in agreement on it – while Flower was an accountant. They went from “rich to very rich to fabulously rich”.

And they are of the view “It’s as if God singled us out from other men”. They personify this reviewer’s observation regarding “the ‘Nash Bargaining Solution’ for coalitional or cooperative game strategy where two or more people can only get the most out of a game by cooperation and trust”.

Pozzi: What kind of bullshit poker players are you? Of course, you’ll take our marker. That’s the way it works.

But this cannot necessarily be taken as validating a perspective. We shouldn’t forget that Jack previously beat the duo, “The one time our luck has failed us”. One might even suggest he beat the devil(s), and for this a price must be paid. It may be the dice were loaded from the first, so neither Nashe nor Pozzi’s contrasting philosophies of life can withstand those acting as gods. Jack and Jim are under the illusion the game (of life) is a fair one, but it becomes evident Flower and Stone have no interest in observed etiquette (IOUs), while Flower’s veil slips quickly into aggression when Nashe attempts to broach reasonable terms (“I can’t stand these interruptions!”)

Pozzi: Guy wins the lottery. All of a sudden, he thinks he was chosen by God.

Flower and Stone aren’t old wealth, but they display an old-school embrace of it – their (old) black maid – and quickly take on the attitudes and airs of those with long-standing elite propriety. Elites with money that can do anything they want: own the police, change the rules, finance their own law enforcement, servants, slaves, prisons. And yet, they lack basic good taste, as evidenced by their fast-food meal.

Flower: Many of the figures represent Willy himself.

There is thus an interpretation that the pair are interlopers: upstart, jealous gods. And also narcissists, hence Stone’s insertion of himself on his world map, a diorama filling an entire room that he calls “The City of the World”. This is Haas and Auster’s clearest signal to see Flower and Stone as faux-Olympians, looking down on their domain and moving figures/ pawns/ lowly mortals into position. It’s a demiurgic impulse, exerting complete and impenetrable control on an artificial province (as symbolised by the fence). With it comes an absurd recursive self-regard, such that Stone wishes to build a model of their house and also a model of the room itself: “I’d have to be in it, of course, which means we’d have to build another City of the World”.

Flower: It will be a memorial to itself, gentlemen.

The wall itself embodies this. The duo are razing the old history – a fifteenth-century castle – and overwriting it, refashioning it to their own tendencies and delusions, shipping back the 10,000 stones from Europe, with which “we’re going to build a wall”. The wall is a symbol of the toil of man, of what he does with his life… and then he dies. It’s what Jack has always rejected and Jim has attempted to wean himself from, but it represents clear, tangible “fulfilment”, via the directed purpose and instruction of man. They wonder why Flower and Stone haven’t bothered to look at the wall – Calvin (M Emmet Walsh) insists they have – but why would they need to? Does God need to descend into his domain? It’s clear enough that Stone is building his miniature version in sequence with his labourers’ efforts.

Nashe: I’m onto you. You’re not going to get away with this.

Haas invites not only thematic but also narrative incertitude. It’s entirely clear that the theft of the Flower and Stone figurines – holding their winning ticket – would not have gone unnoticed, given the scrutiny Stone exerts over his miniature realm, yet no reprisals are enacted. Likewise, Jack’s drunken assault on the pair’s house. Is this because they have everything in hand, and the eventual outcome is set?

Nashe, rightly or wrongly, believes Calvin and his nephew Floyd have killed Jack; Haas leaves this obscure, but Nashe’s deduction, given the grandson is the same child seen waving at them from beyond the fence, is entirely plausible (the dream sequence in which, enraged, he slits the infant’s throat with a trowel, is a shocking exercise in explosive tension). Did Flower and Stone ever intend to “set them free”? Isn’t that an illusion anyway? In terms of the movie, it’s also plausible that Nashe increases speed the way he does, on the car trip home from their night out, because he believes Calvin and Floyd have a similar fate brewing for him (the “Seatbelt’s on your right” refrain from the opening also bears fruit, as his instruction is ignored). In the novel, he planned to go to the police after he paid off the debt; here, it’s wide open (one can read his wish to reach a phone in any number of ways).

The Music of Chance’s enigmatic quality may be a frustration or strength depending on your expectations, but in any event, it’s a case of express intent rather than omission. Haas, who made it his first feature after working in documentaries, has largely failed to make good on its promise, following the less than glowing notices of sophomore effort Angels and Insects. He hasn’t worked in the movie sphere for more than a decade now, favouring instead art installations. Perhaps he and Auster should wrest Mr. Vertigo back from Gilliam – whose light is not what it once was anyway – since collaboration, or cooperative game strategy, appeared to suit them.

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