Like a string instrument, The Spoils Before Dying relies on tension to make its music. (Is this a bad time to talk about the strings album? It’s a goldmine, Rock, everyone does one.) The joke lives in the tension between our preconceptions of a streetwise mystery and the absurdity unfolding onscreen. It lives in the tension between the preposterous tale, swollen with inaccuracies and generalities, and the keen intensity with which Michael Kenneth Williams inhabits his role. It lives in the tension between the moral Jonrosh is trying to express and the incompetence of his attempt.
When the film transcends that incompetence, the tension—between the petty vitriol Jonrosh is spitting and the majestic statement of artistic vision he delivers despite himself—crests and swells like a great piece of music. The Spoils Before Dying is easily the most beautiful, rousing vindictive diatribe and testament to misguided self-importance I’ve ever seen.
Here’s what Rock Banyon knows going into these last two episodes of the miniseries: Wilbur Stygamian, the murdered world-class scientist, specialized in rocketry. He had connections, high and low, in Los Angeles’ homosexual underground, and knew a great many secrets that men would kill to keep quiet. His friend Kenton Price spent his last moments sputtering out a name: Gerhart Moll. Wealthy, well-connected drug dealer Bebop Jones (Chris Parnell) warns Rock that whatever the scheme, ““Cops are merely the foundation of the pyramid. This goes way higher than that.”
Here’s what the audience knows about Eric Jonrosh going into these episodes: He’s an egotistical, self-indulgent, would-be Wellesian figure who spent half his life in exile and won’t shut up about it. He takes every opportunity to cadge a juicy contract or a lagniappe (“Contractually speaking, I was guaranteed wine. Not one glass or two glasses. The contract says ‘wine’!”) or to air a long-treasured grievance. He’s a hack who thinks he’s an auteur.
In “That’s Jazz,” Jonrosh so insistently jams authorial interruptions into the story of Rock Banyon, jazz cat in the hot seat, that they would obscure any actor less compelling than Lincoln Washington (Michael Kenneth Williams). In particular, the insertion of the cartoon short “That’s Jazz” breaks the mood of an unexpectedly potent episode. Starting as a child-friendly educational film defining the basic principles of jazz, it rapidly blossoms into chaos and fear, ending with the bright amorphous blob that represents the jazz musician terrorized by gray squares who hound him to quell their own fears—of pain and pleasure, of taking liberties with their minds, of artistic freedom. You dig? You dig.
This descent into a nightmare of repression is the first hint that there’s more than vanity at the core of Jonrosh’s artistic soul. It’s the first hint that Jonrosh has an artistic soul.
Like “That’s Jazz” (the episode, not the cartoon), “The Trip Trap” begins with the cage, not the lions. It opens with a double layer of framing devices, emphasizing the fictional and metafictional constraints penning in this miniseries. First Jonrosh gives his introduction, fondly lamenting his mid-filming lapse into illegal intoxicants, insanity, and “little murders” (and he doesn’t mean the Jules Feiffer play). Next, a public service announcement from 1950s’ TV detective Kenneth Bluntly (Jimmy Fallon) warns of the dangers of hallucinogens, “or lollipopping or scallywagging, as the kids call it.” Finally, the scene cuts to Rock, still held captive by Nazis in Stygamian’s secret room 52 floors below the Hollywood hills, about to be shot full of Dr. Caligarious’ (Kari Coleman) “special concoction of opiates, methyldrene, and just a scootch of cyanide.”
Then it’s a mad dash through Los Angeles, with the Nazis and the coppers at his heels, until Rock meets Gerhart Moll (Ted Levine) on the San Pedro docks near midnight on Saturday. (For those keeping track, that’s not quite a week since Biggs and Donwelly gave him three days to dig into the case. “I still have a few hours left!” pleads Rock, which is not how time works.)
Given the fate of The Maltese Falcon’s Capt. Jacobi, it’s surprising Capt. Moll doesn’t stagger in with a knife already in him—but it’s not surprising for long, because Moll is Jonrosh’s mouthpiece, spieling off his great thesis in one long exposition dump:
“Hitler hated modern art. He called it degenerate art. He organized an exhibition in ’37. Dadaists, Cubists, surrealists, Bauhaus, he lumped them all in together in one building, paraded the German people before them to persuade them that this is what had happened to their once mighty culture. He blamed the Jews, the artists, the painters, the writers, the homosexuals, and yes, even the jazz musicians, for the downfall of Germany. Anyone not in step with Nazi cultural values was either exiled or destroyed. Hitler forged his own culture out of repression and fear. He wanted to rid the world of those he called ‘degenerate.’ He burned their art, he sold it, he slashed it to bits, all of it, all of it save one strange sculpture, which he kept hidden in his secret bunker.
“Why, why was this sculpture saved, this piece of degenerate art? The question plagued the young rocket scientist who worked for the Reich at the time. He was Jewish and a homosexual and he loved jazz music. So in many ways, he was like the sculpture. But he knew about rockets. He was useful. What use, then, was the sculpture?”
There’s so much wrong with this premise and this sequence, factually and narratively. It’s overwritten, making subtext into text. The accompanying montage fails to match the art displayed to the schools of art Moll names, once again revealing Jonrosh’s ignorance. Hitler’s movement destroyed works of art, but not remotely “all of it, all of it”; it’s the author’s jejune fancy that only a single piece of sculpture would survive the purges—and even if it did, how did young Stygamian see it, stashed in Hitler’s bunker?
The frisson between its plodding stupidity and its emotional resonance—the exquisite tension between the contemptible spleen of calling people Nazis and fascists because they reject your paltry attempts at art and the dignity of pronouncing an artist’s right to freedom of expression, freedom from censorship, freedom from intimidation—is exhilarating.
Jonrosh undermines his own central point when he appears in the film as J. Edgar Hoover, playing him (poorly) as a cartoonish villain, a secret Nazi who calls himself “the boogeyman” and brays “Hitler was right!,” a caricature who breaks down into squawks and twitches of frustration at the slightest defiance before drawing a comically large gun (a nod to the large-scale gun from Hitchcock’s Spellbound) on Rock Banyon, then letting two coppers he’s never seen before do the shooting for him. Jonrosh’s (perhaps delusional) belief that powerful forces conspire to suppress his genius shifts the film from a sweeping rebuke of oppression everywhere to a personal vendetta against the F.B.I. director, deflating the drama—and what deflates the story-within-a-story breathes life into the comedy it really is.
Perhaps Jonrosh is delusional, perhaps not. “If Tennessee Williams had written was was really on his mind, he would have been thrown out of the country, as was I,” he proclaims in his introduction to the final chapter, and his perpetual lambasting of his contemporaries—Williams, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal—as cowards seems less vainglorious in light of Moll’s discourse on the fascist domination of art and artists.
“I was exiled from my own country,” he continues in a sing-song cadence, “I financed my movies with my own money, and I went broke doing both.” His tone suggests even he is weary of his jeremiad, but he cannot let it drop—and it turns out, he’s right not to. As facile as the plotting, characterization, and dialogue is, The Spoils Before Dying has a core of gleaming truth that even Jonrosh’s swelter of narcissism cannot entirely obscure.
Rock Banyon makes his own stand for artistic vision—inconveniently, in the middle of a gunfight. If there’s one message at the heart of The Spoils Before Dying, it’s that true vision is inconvenient. He refuses to make the strings album Alistair has arranged for him; it ain’t his bag. He’s an artist, and he only answers to his own conscience. The last several days (not to harp on it, but more than three, Rock, it’s been much more than three days) have shown him it’s vital to stay true to himself, to defy those who would control or shape his art. “I am a jazz musician and music is my truth! It’s the highest vibration. It’s freedom.”
The last episode suggests the fictional author Eric Jonrosh has some chops, though it’s still littered with missteps. As they pore over the compromising negatives of “actors, politicians, novelists, Olympic gold medalists, the police commissioner,” Rock says, “They were blackmailing Stygamian and his friends.” Delores responds, “But why kill Stygamian? Why not blackmail him?” Jonrosh clearly lost the trail of his own plot somewhere along the line. (But, hey, if Raymond Chandler could lose track in The Big Sleep, anyone can drop the ball.)
He ties up a few red herrings, including Deleon’s pursuit of the missing cigarette case, and pulls off a tidy twist that is the film’s only legitimate plotting and a satisfying reveal. The wisecracking cops seem to have killed Rock, but they’ve actually pulled the big blow-off on J. Edgar Hoover, shooting Rock full of blanks to fake his death. Now he can disappear to Actual Mexico City with Delores, who loves him, though she doesn’t know “how or which or when or where or when it happened,” and whom he loves back.
Case closed, cats and kittens, alligators and crocodiles, prestigious swingophiles, and fans of Miles. No one comes looking for a dead man. Case closed, you dig?
Who expected a happy ending—not a smart alec ending, not an absurdist ending, but a simple happy ending—from this mishmash of mystery tropes? In a nod to Sunset Boulevard (and especially to the film’s original prologue), The Spoils Before Dying opens with Rock Banyon’s voice narrating over the sight of his own body lying on a morgue gurney. Rock’s death seemed inescapable; as he tells Fresno Foxglove, “The world always kills the artists.” But he escapes the inescapable, and Michael Kenneth Williams’ open, guileless smile when he reaches Delores in Actual Mexico City made me giddy with delight.
It’s impossible to single out every actor who deserves praise, because that’s all of them. From the warm twinkle in Ted Levine’s eye, even in the gloom of the phony docks, to the perfectly timed patter Marc Evan Johnson and Steve Tom create between Kermit Biggs and Chip Donwelly, the chumps who turn out to be champions, the casting and performances are a huge element in the solid foundation that gives substance to the fluff. Will Ferrell in particular is judiciously used, bookending each episode with an unhinged rant, appearing for a scant few minutes in the final episode as the young, strident Eric Jonrosh, then gazing in silent dignity once his long-banned creation concludes.
The banal, sloppy detective yarn he defends as his greatest work truly is great, in its petty way. It’s a choleric paean to artistic integrity, and the tension between its idealistic heart and its shallow spleen makes beautiful music. I raise my glass to him and his fictional potboiler. Jonrosh, you magnificent bastard, I didn’t read your book.
“Enjoy the mess,” Jonrosh chuckles as he introduces “The Trip Trap”; “Enjoy the dance,” Dr. Caligarious’ henchman (Chris Mulkey) taunts Rock as the Nazi doctor slips him the poisoned dose. Like the Delores DeWinter’s ballet Rock imagines in his drug-addled haze, The Spoils Before Dying is a mess, and it’s also a dance—a joyous dance on the line between intensity and inanity.
- “What if someone is using you? Like, like, like a pair of pants, like an old pair of pants, but not just any pants, the kind of pants you use when you paint your house, you know, so you don’t get paint on your regular pants that you wear to work or to church or something like that? Don’t you see, you’re the pants!”
- Terms now in my search history: saxophone case hidden compartment. They do have a little compartment (not hidden, exactly) to store straps or small items, but judging by photographs, no one would overlook that compartment in even the most cursory search.
- “Wait, wait, wait, wait a minute, wait a minute, how are we the pants?”
- “Most men wouldn’t have survived that fall. Maybe it was the booze and pills, but I made it.”
- HEY PRESTO, the sculpture also has a hidden compartment! Fiddle with Delores, Rock, see if she has one.
- “Well, maybe, maybe I’m the pants. I don’t know. Look, can we forget the pants?”
- The inclusion of “tennis stars” on the list of powerful secret Nazi collaborators—senators, generals, industrialists, Errol Flynn, J. Edgar Hoover—feels like a personal swipe against some particular tennis celebrity who’s slighted Eric Jonrosh. We know he’s given to singling out the targets of his grudges even today… Darren.
- “No, no, keep the pants. The pants analogy should be played out to the end.”