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John Cassavetes: Five Films: The Criterion Collection

Unlike many artists, John Cassavetes didn't have to search for discomfort; he lived there. And not unhappily, either. Sure, his permanent residence in that psychological war zone meant an endless succession of fights, defeats, heartbreaks, hatreds, and depressions — but that's life, baby, and that, undoubtedly, thrilled him. The human experience is imperfect and unpredictable, and Cassavetes' films are a wild refutation of the precise craftsmanship, visual and scripted, that typically identify the medium's best work. They go places studio pictures could never go, arriving at strange, disorienting destinations that challenge a viewer's preconceived notions of film, following them outside the theater into the waiting sanctuary of reality. For one doesn't walk away from a Cassavetes film unscathed; the best ones live in and distort the consciousness forever. Harnessing the collective power of these works, The Criterion Collection, in John Cassavetes: Five Films, has assembled a six-part journey through the inimitable career of John Cassavetes that, 837 minutes later (not counting supplements), could very well change the way one views narrative filmmaking. To label them mere "films" feels improper — they play like symphonies, segmented not into acts, but movements, which is especially appropriate given the importance music plays in each. Scenes drag on sometimes interminably, ebbing and flowing as Cassavetes waits for his characters to cut through the bullshit and get to where they desperately need to go. Dialogue mutates from obscure to surreal as if the drugs just kicked in. But Cassavetes' characters, even when utterly blitzed on booze, are chiefly under the influence of love, an emotion as essential as air and potent enough to drive the most stable individual over the precipice of madness and into the mental abyss of a padded room. It could be argued that Cassavetes' characters belong there, but, if so, then so do we all, for between Shadows (1959) and Love Streams (1984), Cassavetes presided over more charged sequences and fewer false moments than perhaps any director in film history. This astonishing absence of fraudulence inspires Cassavetes' most ardent acolytes to view him as infallible, and to embrace the imprecision, the rough edges as the inevitable residue of wild genius. In the best works — Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz (not included in this set), and A Woman Under the Influence — the benefit of the doubt is easily granted, but with the grumpier and more rambling later works — represented here by Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night — the flab seems indicative of a lack of vitality, akin to watching, say, Michael Jordan in his Washington Wizards twilight. The breathtakingly natural sense of the craft is still there, but a step has been lost, and the minutes logged are simply too many to the point of indulgence. The Criterion Collection presents John Cassavetes: Five Films in, for Shadows and A Constant Forge, full-frame (1.33:1), and, for Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night in widescreen (1.66:1 and 1.85:1) transfers. Audio is all Dolby Digital 1.0. Extras include video interviews with Lelia Goldoni, Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Al Ruban, a French documentary titled "Cineastes de notre temps" (48 min.), "Making Faces" (42 min.), audio interviews with Cassavetes, biographical sketches, still galleries and theatrical trailers. Six digipaks with two paperboard slipcases.
—Clarence Beaks

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