Lost Exegesis (The Moth) — Part 2
You can find Part 1 of the essay here. Usually, the essay is spoiler-free until we get to the “Looking Glass” portion after an intertextual intermission. In this case our selected cultural artifacts are all much more interesting in how they function prophetically, so here’s your advance notice of spoilers from here on out.
SAWYER: Ah, damn. Didn’t I tell you? Word from the valley is Saint Jack got himself buried in a cave-in.
Let’s start with Saint Jack, a movie directed by Peter Bogdanovich based on the novel by Paul Theroux. Now, Paul Theroux, we should point out, isn’t just a novelist, he’s also justly known as a great travel writer, thanks to his travels to Africa, Singapore, and Japan. He’s earned the enmity of several governments, largely for bringing to light certain aspects of their countries which they’d preferred to keep covered up.
That said, I think the movie is much more celebrated than the book, so that’s what we’ll be attending to. It was shot in several months entirely on location in Singapore, under the pretense of being a standard rom-com (“Jack of Hearts”) as opposed to an adaptation of Saint Jack. After it was released, the movie was banned in Singapore for decades. So it’s got that, at least, in common with the book.
(What is it about “covering” things up? Come to think of it, Jack covers for Charlie at the end of The Moth, lying that Charlie has the flu to make his withdrawal more socially acceptable.)
The film is possibly some of the best work by Bogdanovich and lead actor Ben Gazzara, who plays the titular Jack Flowers. Jack Flowers is an American expat living in Singapore in the 70s. He makes his living by running a brothel, which also supports his drinking. Jack makes it work because he does not judge the people in his life. It’s not like he’s in a position to without being a hypocrite, but then we see all kinds of hypocrites in Jack’s line of work. He doesn’t use force or intimidation or privilege to navigate the world – no, he looks at everyone as deserving of his attention and respect and warmth, and even when he’s proven wrong he does little more than walk away. So Jack is a “saint” in this rather spiritual respect, in how he manages his relationships, not in terms of his “sins.” He’s a saint, but he’s no saint.
The movie meanders for quite a while, basically a series of vignettes featuring Jack interacting with his clients, workers, and other people, but it’s got a couple of pivotal moments. The first is when the local mob takes down Jack’s place of business, wrecking his establishment and dispersing his people, while marking his arms with tattoos comprised of various epithets and obscenities. This is actually about the halfway point of the movie. Jack goes to another tattooist to put down more tattoos that effectively integrate the Asian hieroglyphs into pictures of flowers.…