Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Woman under the Influence

I’ve written in this space before about the great director John Cassavetes, but that was in 2005, so it wouldn’t seem like a sign of obsession to write about him again (you can find the previous article here). I recently rewatched his 1974 film A Woman under the Influence, for the first time in seven years, and it was as magnificent and overwhelming an experience as ever. There are plenty of directors whose work doesn’t feel like anyone else’s, but it often feels as if you make your way into their films by trekking down a very specific and often very long corridor, leaving behind the rooms and the furnishings you usually hang out among, just hoping the journey will be worth it and that the carpet isn’t toxic. Cassavetes, in comparison, seems to be waiting at the entrance to the corridor when you arrive, pulling you along, gabbing in your ear, stamping you with his infectious enthusiasm, and yet also being an almost instant pain in the ass, so that you can’t help thinking you might turn and run from him, if not that he’d catch you up and probably knock you down.

John Cassavetes

In that previous article, which I wrote not long after the release of the Criterion boxed set John Cassavetes: Five Films (still one of the most crucial items on my DVD shelves), I emphasized such matters as Cassavetes’ delight in behavior, in performance, in love as the driving force of human nature. It’s sometimes occurred to me that Cassavetes (who died in 1989) would likely have regarded my own largely peaceful, conflict-free relationship as a soulless surrender, a shutting-down of something elemental. Although I’m quite certain I wouldn’t be happy living my life in Cassavetes fashion, his view of the world, as you’re watching his films, is so persuasive that it’s hard to entirely bat the question away.

My own favourite is his late film Love Streams (not in the Criterion set, but apparently coming soon), but A Woman under the Influence (which is in the set) was his greatest success, at least as measured by popular interest and Oscar nominations; it was a key contribution to a time when debates about women’s equality and liberation were active and heated. It’s a portrait of Mabel Longhetti (played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ wife), who maintains a household and brings up three kids while her husband Nick (Peter Falk) works long hours in a blue-collar job. From the start of the film, it’s unclear whether Mabel is by some definition mentally ill, or just extremely quirky, and of course there’s no clear point where one merges into the other. Either way, her behavior becomes disruptive enough that the family sends her to a hospital for six months, but when she returns it’s unclear how much has actually changed (which thus reinforces the question of whether she was ever under the influence of anything that could be treated, other than perhaps life itself).

Essential impossibility

Writing a few years afterwards, James Monaco said: “it’s by far the best portrait we have of the essential impossibility of the housewife’s role, and it’s a logically harrowing narrative of the painful neurosis that is so often the only response to that dilemma.” The film wasn’t in any sense a feminist fantasy though: Monaco also cited Susan Schenker’s assessment that Cassavetes “has purposefully designed the film without giving Mabel the slightest chance to explain herself. She has no girlfriend, no sympathetic listener to talk to, and so the deck is neatly stacked against her.” Even this well-intentioned critique seems at heart though to be reaching a conclusion about Mabel’s condition, that it’s of a kind that could only benefit from sympathetic listening (which, written in the context of the 70’s, seems to herald a lifetime of analysis) and so must in some way need to be talked away. But this might merely be a twist on the age-old labeling of female expression as “hysteria,” or worse.

The film’s key scene, I think, comes shortly after Mabel arrives home, far more subdued at first than we’ve seen her before. Almost before she’s had any chance to settle, Nick drags her aside, and more or less pummels her back toward her old behavior, telling her “there’s nothing you can do wrong,” and “I just want you to be yourself,” and forcing her to drag up some of the weird sounds she used to make. It’s a deeply ambiguous moment. In some sense, it seems Nick realizes Mabel will never reach a workable equilibrium in this anaesthetized state, and for her own good pushes her toward fuller self-expression. But it’s also clear that for the most part, he likes her the way she is, and throughout the film he behaves in a way that seems calculated (knowingly or intuitively) to spark confrontations and outbursts, both with Mabel and with others. Perhaps he’s partly a liberating force, but he also insists oppressively on setting the terms of Mabel’s rehabilitation.

Everyday madness

But with the passage of time, it’s easier to see too how you might as well refer to the essential impossibility of Nick’s role – an ordinary if somewhat volatile man, eternally pushed and constrained by conflicting influences (in one of the extras on the disk, Rowlands and Falk recall how audiences booed his character, but that seems unlikely to happen now). The film ends on an extended scene of togetherness and marital syncopation, but it’s clear nothing has been resolved – the following day, Nick will go to work again, and the kids will go to school, and Mabel will have the same overwhelming question: how to make sense of her hours and days and years, to make them fully her own, while maintaining a functional interaction with the rest of the world.

Thirty years after it came out, the film seems startlingly radical and mysterious. Monaco’s comments about the essential impossibility of the housewife’s role, and Schenker’s about Mabel’s lack of opportunity to explain herself, would have to mean something very different in a world of revved-up distraction and connectivity, and the fact that there seems to be no chance of her looking for a job would surely have to be remarked on now. In some ways, we’re in an age that purports to prize personal expression (in matters of honesty about sexuality for instance), but in others – for example in the way we’re all meant to be consumed by electronic trivia and disposable media-fueled daily outrages – everything pushes us toward uniformity. Cassavetes might well have diagnosed such insularity as a form of collective madness, a systematic rejection of possibility, far more toxic to the soul than Mabel’s swooping into odd utterances and gestures and outbursts of wacky creativity and honesty.

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