This episode did a whole lot of things well in the context of being “just another bounty” episode. It starts off with portraying the cowboy threesome actually succeed in capturing their bounty and actually getting paid for it. They were completely slick about it too, foiling an attempted hijack by their quarry in a very cool manner, better executed than the hijacking attempt itself. But this episode is also an exploration of character, particularly Spike, and is an attempt to make him more sympathetic, for being such a hard-boiled bounty hunter.
Blind Stella is an easy play for sympathy, and Spike is moved predictably by her (and Rocco’s plight). We know Spike will care this much because we knew he cared for Katerina way back in “Asteroid Blues” and if he could’ve saved her from Asimov, he would’ve. Stella, is actually a solid reference on a character played by Ida Lupino named Mary, the sister of a suspected killer in the Noir Film On Dangerous Ground (1952). When I watched this film I found it interesting how Cowboy Bebop this time didn’t subvert the source material the same way “Asteroid Blues” did Desperado. My theory has to do with Spike.
Someone else would have to talk about the many interesting landscapes and design considerations in Cowboy Bebop. Here in Venus, Stella’s house is a wreck of a space shuttle. It’s fully explored and it’s amazing.
We’ve seen Spike be slick and sympathetic (Asteroid Blues), comedic in apathy (Stray Dog Strut), ruthless (Gateway Shuffle), and haunted (Ballad of Fallen Angels). Here he is shown to go from annoyed and uncaring to be one of the angels. Rocco Bennaro is the kind of goofy, small-time gangster that I imagine cowboys subsist on. Rocco latches onto Spike like some needy puppy, asking him to teach him martial arts.
This allows Spike to do a little demonstration and reference Bruce Lee a little more:
[Rocco comes at Spike with a knife and Spike sends Rocco to the ground]
- Rocco: How did you do that?
- Spike: You’re tense, I’m calm. You apply excessive force; I control that force through fluid motion. That means relaxing the whole body so it can react instantly without resistance—no, without thought. Do you see now? It means becoming like clear water.
- Rocco: Water.
- Spike: Right. Water can take any form. It drifts without effort one moment, then pounds down in a torrent the very next.
The above exchange is straight out of Bruce Lee’s The Tao of Jeet Kune Do.
Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.
Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching) chapter 8 uses a water analogy to describe the highest level of human virtue. Chuang Tzu chapter 7 explains “The mind of the ultimate man functions like a mirror. It neither sends off nor welcomes; it responds but does not retain.”
But just like the hard-boiled noir story “Waltz for Venus” references, its sentimentality is bound along with grimness. Rocco Bennaro was able to be like water in a triumphant moment. But he can only ask Spike to acknowledge it as he lays dying after being shot from behind. “Master, you see it? I was fluid like water [dub]”
Spike has to tell Stella the sad news, though he tries to make it better by using the proceeds of what Rocco stole to perform surgery on her eyes. It’s interesting how she said she didn’t mind being blind. I also once said I didn’t mind being a virgin. Now she can see, we know that there can be no romantic subplot between her and Spike, because there is Julia, and deliciously, there is Faye.
I am no expert on Film Noir, mostly familiar with it via various parodies in sketch comedies and sitcoms I’ve seen from when I was still very young. It would seem that this film is a masterpiece of the genre, by one of its finest auteurs:
[Nick’s] decade was the 1950’s. You can look at and appreciate the output of Hitchcock or Billy Wilder or anyone from Sam Fuller to Douglas Sirk, but the ’50s were Nick Ray’s. No other director working in Hollywood was able to place America on the screen like Ray did. Our postwar fears, the veneer of happiness when disenchantment lurks barely beneath the surface, the basic decency we all struggle to maintain and the mistakes we’re doomed to make – these subjects fascinated Ray and they reveal themselves in the subtext of all his best efforts.
The above paragraph is from an essay by clydefro from Noir of the Week, who continues ably in talking about the film:
[…]a quintessential Nicholas Ray film, one that allows for playing within the margins while still doing so at his own rhythms. It’s structured into two entirely different story segments and comes complete with a bold score by Bernard Herrmann that disorients as much as it thrills. The film’s top-billed lead, Ida Lupino, doesn’t appear until over half an hour has passed, and that initial portion has no determinate structure or plot. Lean yet unhurried at just under 82 minutes, the film noir doesn’t always adhere to convention, doesn’t worry itself with backstory, and can’t be bothered to explain much. And we should be thankful.
Similarly, Stella doesn’t show up until just before the eyecatch. Similarly, Rocco dies as Stella’s brother Danny does. The degree of pathos and sentimentality is very high, but as I mentioned there is a grimness to it that I appreciate. Rocco’s last thoughts went to Spike: “If we had met earlier, would we have been friends?” Perhaps, but I can’t say so with confidence. Spike won’t do you wrong though, and he does fulfill his promise: Stella regains her eyesight. The resolution however, lends less to hope, but more to an acceptance of the iniquities and unfairness of existence. Perhaps one can manufacture joy out of all this. Cowboy Bebop won’t promise this at all, but certainly does know how to make music out of it.