This Song is How I Win

love, always (heavy spoilers for Uncut Gems)

This essay contains heavy spoilers for Uncut Gems.

The true ending of Uncut Gems is not when Howard Ratner gets shot in the face. It’s not when the bodyguards loot his store or when the mistress rides off in a limo with the 1.2 million dollars or when the wife calls the police with vague but growing concern or when we zoom through Howard’s bullet hole and the inside of his body sparkles and gleams, just like the black opal from the opening of the movie. These moments matter to the narrative, to be sure, but they do not anchor the film to its core meaning with any confidence or finality. In fact, the final narrative stroke of the Safdie brothers’ indie box office smash happens during the film’s closing credits.

I watched Uncut Gems in a hundred-year-old single-screen movie theater in the middle of Seattle. After two-hours of glorious, delightful cinematic assault, both relief and loss washed over me as the screen, mercifully, faded to black. I ran my hand through my hair; I was exhausted and somehow dehydrated, even though I’d been drinking water the entire movie. Credits rolled— DIRECTED BY JOSH AND BENNY SAFDIE— and the synth of Gigi D’Agostino’s “L’Amour Toujours” began to swell. I burst into choppy, hysterical laughter. This song, I muttered to myself as my two friends side-eyed me from their seats. I can’t believe this is the song.

Prior to Uncut Gems, I had limited engagement with Gigi D’Agostino’s work, but the week I saw the film I had serendipitously been listening to Dynoro’s remix of “In My Mind,” which samples L’Amour Toujours, on repeat during my uphill trek through Capitol Hill for work. House music suits struggle, major or minor, real or perceived. In time with the beat, you chip away towards your goal; you escalate, seduce, pursue, run your victory lap. This was true in 1999, too, when the original L’Amour Toujours topped charts in Europe, South America and Asia. The music video is just D’Agostino DJing at a bunch of different raves. Bodies leap beneath technicolor light in stadiums and old warehouses as D’Agostino pumps his fists in the air from the stage. L’Amour Toujours was meant for these venues, friends and strangers crushed together, sweating and hopeful, scanning the room for someone to kiss or dance with. Ultimately, L’Amour Toujours is a love song, infectious and earnest and, in my experience, impossible to turn off. The lyrics are a step below superficial— one could argue they barely make sense. I still believe in your eyes, the high-pitched artificial voice croons over the bass, pulsing and relentless. What does this mean to still believe in your eyes? I don’t know what it means, but you want to bet who does know? Howard Ratner.

Trying to make sense of the politics of Uncut Gems is not unlike trying to follow the dialogue of Uncut Gems. Stylistically, linguistically and thematically, the film pummels, because the Safdie brothers designed it this way. Individual lines of dialogue are often impossible to parse, the lights in Howard’s store are unforgivably bright as they reflect off every surface, and the messaging around modern Jewish identity is murky at best. What is the film trying to say about the power dynamics between white American Jews and Jews in Ethiopia? About race relations between white and Black people in America today? About Zionism, assimilation, antisemitism or Jewish masculinity? My peers and I go around and around on this, but of at least one thing we can be certain: the Safdie brothers fucking worship Howard.

When initially given the script, Adam Sandler was taken aback by said-adoration. “They loved him,” Sandler reported to the New Yorker. “On the front page [of the script], it says In Howard We Trust.” In an interview with Slate, Benny Safdie acknowledges their inspiration for Howard’s constant hustle: “I think for us, one of the main things was because a lot of the times you’ll see a character on screen as a Jewish person, and you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re kind of nebbish, or they’re a little bit weak’… it was very important to make Howard a strong guy who doesn’t back down.” Such analysis is thoughtful, and perhaps generally complimentary, but it does not exactly reflect their love. In another part of the interview, Benny describes Jewish stereotypes are Howard’s “superpower,” and describes the film as “a parable” about “the ill effects of overcompensation.” But parables are lessons, not love letters. Maybe I’d have called Uncut Gems a parable, too, without that closing song.

Howard’s flaws do not necessarily endear: He cheats on his wife, endangers his family, steals from his lenders, exploits the Ethiopian Jews who secure him the black opal, and lies constantly, seemingly all to contribute to the drama of his own experience. In the previously-linked Jewish Currents round-table discussion, editor Nathan Goldman remarks that Howard’s suffering is too self-inflicted to feel inherently Jewish, that he does not “suffer as a part of a lineage of suffering,” though the Safdie brothers try to make this claim, somewhat offhandedly, in their interview with Slate. It’s well-documented that the brothers’ father was a Sephardic Jew who worked in the Diamond District; an earlier Safdie production, Daddy Longlegs, drew heavily from their strange childhoods with a father who often left the boys to “[spend] days at home alone, locked in a small bedroom, with a pile of comic books and basketball cards.” “The mood shifted unpredictably from playful nostalgia to menace and back again, or nearly back again,” writes Kelefa Sanneh of the film in their New Yorker profile. “Once you’ve seen a character chopping up a sleeping pill to keep his children in bed longer, it’s difficult to view him as a well-meaning guy trying his best.”

Like L’Amour Toujours, Uncut Gems is a love song. When the credits roll, we are meant to hear L’Amour Toujours sung in Howard’s voice. I still believe in your eyes. He is singing to Julia, perhaps— I just don’t care what you’ve done in your life— or maybe Deenah. Baby, I’ll always be here by your side. One could argue he’s singing to Demany or Kevin Garnett. Don’t leave me waiting too long, please come by. The black opal, money, winning. There is no choice, I belong to your life. The Safdie brothers kill Howard and give him an ultimately generous gift: the man dies a winner. He is their romantic figure, their hero, their wild dreamer who for one brief moment is granted full access to the capitalist heaven he spent his life chasing. Because I will live to love you someday/You’ll be my baby and we’ll fly away/And I’ll fly with you.

Uncut Gems is not a parable. Howard cannot be neatly linked to one specific Jewish archetype for a reason, just as the Safdie brothers do not explicitly condemn Howard’s actions for a reason. Rather, the Safdie brothers resist actively politicizing Howard because to them, their unconditional love renders him singular. He is much more to the Safdie brothers than a symbol of Jewish assimilationism and white privilege; he is a real person, a lovable fuck-up, perhaps even “a well-meaning guy who is trying his best.” It is up to us, the audience, to politicize Howard. The Safdie brothers offer no firm answers— just their dazzling, blinding love.