Wednesday, October 6, 2010

John Cassavetes

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)

The release of the DVD boxed set John Cassavetes: Five Films was clearly one of last year’s main events for home viewing. The set includes Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, two versions of The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and a fascinating three and a half hour documentary, A Constant Forge, as well as a highly informative booklet and all the usual extras. The set actually excludes my own two favourite Cassavetes films, Husbands and Love Streams, both still unavailable on DVD (although Gloria is fairly readily available), but this only tells you that the set could have been even more stunning.

Left Me Reeling

I watched all five films and the documentary in quick succession, with few other movies in between (except new releases) and I’m barely exaggerating to say they left me reeling. Since then I’ve discovered a plethora of Cassavetes material on the web (see for example at and via the link from and it provides the feeling of a thriving subculture, a loosely but coherently linked group of global Cassavetes enthusiasts, outwardly (I hope for their sakes) normal but inwardly in an emotional and intellectual fever, their view of art and love and the world transformed by the director’s thrilling sensibility.

That sounds over the top, but my sole intention here is to persuade you, if you’ve never seen a Cassavetes film, to buy or borrow one of the movies (the five films in the set can all be purchased separately – they rarely show up on TV). I cannot promise that the initial experience will be easy. The films have often been called self-indulgent – the plotlines are generally either minimal or obscure, and the characters’ behaviour strikes many as weird and unrealistic. The films look roughly shot and edited. They don’t necessarily get any easier on a second viewing either. And that’s because the films work counter-intuitively – they look as though they should benefit from a more microscopic attention, and I’m not saying they don’t, but it’s as important to abstract your senses and to absorb their rhythms and jagged edges as you would a jazz recital.

At this point, for the completely uninitiated, I should insert a brief biographical note. John Cassavetes achieved a relatively high profile as an actor, playing Mia Farrow’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby and getting an Oscar nomination as one of The Dirty Dozen; he played the villain in The Fury and, much earlier, the lead in the TV show Johnny Staccato. He directed his first film Shadows in 1959, directed a couple of relatively conventional Hollywood features, then made the groundbreaking Faces in 1968. Seven more features followed (plus one more director-for-hire project, Big Trouble). Like Orson Welles, he often financed his films himself through the money he earned from acting. In A Constant Forge, he mentions how he bought his house in the 1950’s after the success of Johnny Staccato and thirty years later had as big a mortgage on it as when he started.

World Being Remade

An anecdote that speaks to Cassavetes’ view of things: on several occasions he showed his films to preview audiences and received good, even excellent reactions. Instead of being happy, he interpreted this enthusiasm as proof of his failure, the mark of an insufficiently challenging film. He then returned to the editing room, taking out the scenes that got the easiest reactions, obscuring narrative flow, basically rendering the films more difficult. And it worked – his final versions were never as well received as those preview versions.

It’s common now to regard the release version of a film merely as one of multiple possible versions, other iterations of which might show up on DVD or in subsequent reissues. But Cassavetes almost pioneered this view of things – hence the two versions of Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (one of them 45 minutes shorter than the other – contrary to the norm, the shorter version is his post-release reedit). This all potentially makes him sound merely perverse and temperamental. But his ease with renewing and shifting the boundaries of his films reflects the passion for discovery that permeates the work in other ways.

In one of the articles on the Senses of Cinema site (“The Cinematic Life of Emotions”) critic George Kouvaros talks about performance as a central concept in Cassavetes’ films, on both a formal and thematic level. He says: “In Cassavetes’ films there is a sense of a cinematic world continually being remade. Human figures, situations and emotions in his films are continually undergoing a kind of transformation.” At first sight this can seem chaotic, like an endless improvisation, forced into some rough shape only through the director’s hopeless subjectivity. No matter how many times you see the films, you can only rationalize their contents up to a point (Cassavetes loved talking about his characters and what they embodied, but I think his statements are best taken as counterpoints to the films than as genuine illuminations of them).

The Wonder Of Her

But this is the source of their wonderment. Kent Jones writes in an essay in the Criterion booklet: “When you look at a close-up in a film by almost anyone else, you’re looking at a representation of the idea of an emotion, no matter how detailed the acting. In Cassavetes, every blink, every shrug, every hesitation counts and drives the story forward...Human activity is to Cassavetes what color is to Vincent Minnelli and space is to Hitchcock. It’s at once his aesthetic and moral center of gravity, his canvas, and his most reliable tool.”

The documentary A Constant Forge is valuable in helping us understand the deliberation of Cassavetes’ approach to this. The interviewees talk of his immense vivacity on the set, of the way he immersed himself into every task, and also of his underappreciated technical skill – self-operating a handheld camera and maintaining focus through complicated scenes, or knowing exactly when and where to put the camera to capture a moment of spontaneous ecstasy. Peter Falk talks about how a modest direction from Cassavetes during Woman Under The Influence, simply that Falk should take a breath at a particular point, totally changed the actor’s engagement with the scene. Asked which directors he admired, Cassavetes once said he admired anyone who could make a film, and Kouvaros remarks that his “antipathy to Hollywood narrative may have been overplayed” (in his acting assignments though, Cassavetes was notoriously difficult to direct, yielding a string of anecdotes about unruly behaviour).

I must also mention how much Cassavetes’ accounts of his work talk about love as the driving force of human nature. His films have a consistent tenderness, and an alertness to the dreams and complexities of women. In a wonderful tumble of words, he criticizes Hollywood films for having “nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.” Even when Cassavetes’ characters remain obscure, we can see, if we’re generous, that they’re tapping some internal dream, and if you can engage with the films to the point that their dream becomes yours, it’s one of the most thrilling experiences in the cinema.

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