Winter 2014

The Great Iconoclast

John Cassavetes’ work was emotionally raw and intentionally untidy—and continues to influence directors with its passion and purpose.


Cassavetes on Shadows

The task of directing a movie is, almost without exception, a job best suited to control freaks, perfectionists. John Cassavetes was the exception. Like all directors, he was a worrier, but the things he fretted about did not include many of the concerns that keep others of his profession awake at night—things like lighting, composition, narrative clarity, editing rhythm. For him, the devil was not in the technical details, but elsewhere: primarily in the minutiae of his actors’ performances, which he often shot in close-ups so tight that faces would go in and out of focus with the smallest movement of a lip, a nostril, an eyelash. What mattered to Cassavetes, in the 12 feature films he directed between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s, was the raw, unrefined emotion of the people he put on the screen. He was American film’s most dedicated imperfectionist.

Which is why it can feel a little strange to watch his deliberately messy work in the superb, pristine Blu-ray incarnations in the Criterion Collection’s new box, John Cassavetes: Five Films. On these discs, Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977) look (and sound) almost too good: their technical sheen seems profoundly un-Cassavetean. What the Blu-rays prove, though, is that these films, even at their most presentable, remain defiantly awkward and uncomfortable. No amount of digital restoration can scrub away their proud imperfections: the wobbly handheld camera work; the overexposed and underexposed shots; the abrupt cuts; the sequences that seem to go on forever; the eccentric framing in which the camera seems deliberately to obscure our view of some significant action, as if the characters are playing hide and seek with the audience. (In Cassavetes’ playhouse, every seat is behind a pillar.) The Criterion edition clarifies the movies’ flaws, and magnifies them. Here, they have a kind of majesty.

Cassavetes’ first film, Shadows, made in New York between 1957 and 1959 for just $40,000, is an acknowledged landmark of American independent film. But its value isn’t purely historical: it’s a very good movie—tense but loose-limbed, its grainy black-and-white images beautifully evocative of the night city. Over its final shot, of a Times Square storefront, a title reads, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation,” which is a nice dramatic coup. Like everything else in Cassavetes’ art, the statement is both true and false. The story was in fact developed out of scenes improvised by its principal actors, Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd, and Ben Carruthers, who were members of Cassavetes’ acting workshop. But they weren’t winging it when the cameras were rolling: by that time, their inventions had been distilled to a script. And, as Goldoni reveals in an interview on the Criterion disc, some of it was written by Cassavetes himself, most notably her great post-coital line, “I never knew it could be so awful.”

But the picture feels as if it were being made up as it goes along, and that’s a remarkable achievement. It’s appropriate to these characters, who are people in the process of figuring out who they are and who they want to be; two of them, Lelia and Ben, are light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. (The actors are in fact Caucasian.) Their temperaments are artistic: Hugh and Ben play musicians, and Lelia’s character, only 20 years old, has literary aspirations. These are Cassavetes’ people, moody, searching, unpredictable—people who can surprise him, and, of course, surprise the audience, too.

 Faces (1968)

After Shadows, Cassavetes spent a few years trying to export his revolutionary filmmaking style to Hollywood, with mostly unsatisfying results. He first took an acting gig as the star of a genuinely peculiar TV series called Staccato (later Johnny Staccato) in which he played a jazz pianist who solved the occasional mystery. He directed five of the series’ episodes, and they’re fascinating because although relatively conventional—and perfectly competent technically—you can feel him trying to push the boundaries. In the last show
Cassavetes directed, he stages a prison interrogation in a stark, cavernous, expressionistically lit theatrical space: the scene plays like Beckett. The series was cancelled not long after.

His next film, Too Late Blues (1961), was the real test case for his chances of making his kind of movie in the studio system. The script, an original by Cassavetes and a Staccato colleague named Richard Carr, is another story about musicians and their untidy love lives; there’s no plot to speak of, just a series of set pieces in which the characters reveal themselves through their behavior in loosely constructed social situations. It’s really not so different from Shadows, except for its superior production values, but it feels like another world. The professionalism of the filmmaking seems weirdly off-key with this shaggy, rambling material, like a Thelonious Monk composition played by a lounge pianist—a good one, but still. And although the lead actors imposed on Cassavetes by the studio, Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens, give terrific performances, they look wrong, somehow, their hair too perfect, and their clothes too well cut (by Edith Head, no less). In those days, Hollywood’s idea of “quality” was impregnable, and after one more frustrating studio job—A Child Is Waiting (1963)—Cassavetes gave up trying to storm the castle.

It took him half a decade to get Faces (1968) onto the screen and into theaters, and in that time his quasi-improvisatory Shadows style had become more extreme—more abrasive, less concerned with traditional narrative rhythm, more indifferent to the expectations of the movie audience. Compared with Faces, Shadows is positively classical. Faces, his last black-and-white picture, is about as ragged a film as Cassavetes would ever make, the camera prowling through the living rooms and bedrooms of middle-class Southern Californians in search of the dirtiest of their dirty little secrets and taking its sweet time finding them. The title, though vague, is apt: the film consists largely of gigantic close-ups, a blur of pores. The audiences at the time didn’t know quite what had hit them, and that was clearly Cassavetes’ intention. He wanted to startle us by showing what other movies didn’t, and in a way that, he hoped, would reduce the distance between the people on the screen and the people in the seats. Faces, even more than Shadows, is a manifesto.

 Shadows (1959)

The late 1960s were a good time for defiant gestures, and Faces became a festival favorite and an art-house hit; it even picked up three Oscar nominations, one of them for Cassavetes’ screenplay. Most important, its success was a kind of validation of the director’s unorthodox approach to filmmaking. After Faces, he knew he could make movies his own way and find some sort of audience. And for the next 15 years, that’s exactly what he did, departing from the risky, high-wire style of Shadows and Faces only in his very last film, Big Trouble (1986), a studio comedy he agreed to direct as a favor to its star, Peter Falk. He would occasionally attempt to bend an established genre to his directorial will—romantic comedy in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), the gangster film in Gloria (1980)—but the genres constrain him a little, like Bobby Darin’s suits in Too Late Blues.

Mostly, though, he worked the way he had in Faces, pushing his actors to make surprising discoveries about their characters, keeping the cameras rolling until they did, and then putting it all up on screen with as little obvious “art” as he could get away with; he shot enormous amounts of footage, and disliked editing. Husbands (1970), the film he made next, is in that style, almost to a fault; there’s an “extended edition” now available on DVD, and at 142 minutes it feels perilously extended indeed. And Love Streams (1984), the last of his truly personal films, is a sort of apotheosis of the Cassavetes method, a serene refinement of his emotionally turbulent technique: it ends with a storm, the director and star in long shot, looking through a rain-streaked window at the muddy world outside. (This lovely picture is, sadly, now available only on a Region 2 DVD, manufactured in Spain; look for Corrientes de Amor.)

 A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

The three remaining films in the Criterion set are Cassavetes at his purest. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is a wrenching family drama in which his wife and frequent leading lady Gena Rowlands plays an emotionally disturbed housewife; her husband doesn’t know what to do. That’s about all the story there is, and after a succession of high-intensity scenes the movie leaves it suggestively unresolved. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) is a sort of shaggy-dog film noir, in which a strip-club impresario, played by Ben Gazzara, commits a murder to satisfy his gambling debts to the mob and winds up—as is usually the case in Cassavetes’ films—in a bigger mess than he was trying to get himself out of. The box set includes both the original 135-minute version of the film and the director’s drastic re-edit from a couple of years later, with nearly half an hour cut. In either version, it’s a mighty peculiar film, with a dreamy, distracted style that gives the whole enterprise a strange kind of lyricism.

Opening Night (1977) is perhaps Cassavetes’ most revealing film, because it’s set in the milieu in which he’s most at home: the theater. Gena Rowlands plays an aging alcoholic actress struggling to learn her part before a Broadway opening, and doing more acting out than acting. The question, as always with Cassavetes, is how much of yourself is in the role you play, and how much of the role becomes, little by little, yourself. At the climax of Opening Night, Rowlands goes on stage blind drunk and, with the collaboration of her fellow actor in the scene, played by Cassavetes, throws the play away, improvising lines and wild bits of business and turning the sober drama into raw, raucous comedy. The first-night theatergoers don't quite know what they're seeing, but they know it's something, they sense it's something real. That's all John Cassavetes ever wanted.

DVD Classics

A look at the careers of historically significant directors or genres through new DVD releases.

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