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John Cassavetes: Five Films

The Criterion Collection

Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara,
John Marley, Seymour Cassel, John Cassavetes,
Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd,
Anthony Ray, Rupert Crosse, Lynn Carlin,
Fred Draper, Val Avery, Joan Blondell,
Paul Stewart, and Zohra Lampert

Written and directed by John Cassavetes


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Review by Clarence Beaks                    



"The great danger for an artist is to find himself comfortable. It's his duty to find the point of maximum discomfort, to search it out."

— Orson Welles


John Cassavetes didn't have to search that place out; 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 (which, sadly, is 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 The 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.

However, the mark of a master filmmaker is the degree to which one is willing to tolerate these indulgences, and Cassavetes engenders a goodwill granted only to the greats. Truth is a rare enough commodity in film, and if it requires a little viewer discomfort to arrive at it, then the pain is gladly endured. "This will bring the demons to the surface," pledged Antonin Artaud of his "Theater of Cruelty," and while Cassavetes' pictures boast special effects purely human in nature, they do occasionally feel like emotional "Grand Guignol," in which human beings' ugliest, most primal inclinations are dredged up to induce a transformative experience.

So, here are five ferociously alive films that steered the medium off of its staid course and onto the pitted terrain of the unsettled human psyche. Ponder them, embrace them, hate them, but watch them, and realize that cinematic storytelling is so much more than, as Julius Epstein desribed it, "Act I, get your guy up a tree; Act II, throw rocks at him; Act III, get your guy out of a tree." With John Cassavetes, the rocks can be fired at any moment. And they're just as likely to be aimed at the audience as at his characters.

 

"The Film You Have Just Seen Was an Improvisation"

So boasts a title at the end of Cassavetes' 1959 Shadows, and, if audiences hung around to see this message (walkouts were legion during the film's initial run), they were really being misled to a degree. Unfortunately, though maybe fortunately for his legend, this message sells short the filmmaker's scripting expertise. While absolutely solicitous of his actors' input, which might then be added to the screenplay, Shadows is as carefully written as any other film in the Cassavetes canon, barreling toward an contentious and ambiguous conclusion that, even today, sends the viewer back into the world in a daze.

It's difficult to pinpoint who the main character is in Shadows. In a traditional telling of the interracial romance aspect of the tale, the character of Tony (Anthony Ray, son of director Nicholas) probably would've been the protagonist, particularly in that era (Elia Kazan's Pinky represents the sole exception, but its unfriendly reception a decade earlier effectively scared off filmmakers from the black perspective of such a relationship, no matter how light-skinned they might be). As a portrait of rebelliousness, the unruly Ben (Ben Carruthers) would've served as the tumultuous center. Meanwhile, in a typical race drama, Hugh (Hugh Hurd), the struggling crooner ignominiously forced to introduce girls in a touring burlesque act, might have been the tragic lead. Cassavetes, however, is too interested in all of his youthful characters to train his focus on just one, rendering Shadows, more than any of his subsequent works, a fantasia on any number of themes irritating the national conscience as the country headed into the turbulent 1960s.

The most sympathetic character is Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the beautiful younger sister of Hugh and Ben who falls recklessly in love with the predatory, but relatively kind-hearted Tony. Though she clearly loves her brothers, Lelia is also nurturing an independent streak, which places her as much in harm (as an early encounter with a Times Square masher exemplifies) as it does in the arms of potential lovers. She's certainly not at a loss for the latter, and, eventually, she rather cruelly shuns the condescending courtship of an opportunistic white intellectual for a rendezvous with the more vital Tony, to whom she abruptly surrenders her innocence. Lelia might be in love with Tony, but their relationship is never allowed to flourish, as Hugh returns from his demeaning out-of-town engagement and enforces his will on his little sister.

What's fascinating about the wrecking of this relationship, however, is that it's unclear who is to blame for its end. Upon initially meeting Tony, Hugh and his manager Rupert (Rupert Crosse) seem generally congenial toward the lad. The whole affair is actually undone by a grunt from Tony, which Hugh and Rupert read as derisive. And it may be. Who knows? The wonderful thing about Shadows is that Cassavetes' profound understanding of how humans behave is couched in a confessed lack of understanding as to why they act this way. This is a daring philosophy for a first film; one that would be suicidal without a demonstrable visual style or a distinguishable voice. Both were inchoate for Cassavetes on Shadows, but the frequent amateurishness, particularly on the technical end, is misleading. There was an honesty to the film that set it commendably apart.

Predictably, this newness stirred the cannibalizing appetite of Hollywood. Shoddy though the film occasionally appears, Cassavetes was no neophyte — he was directing rather conventionally for television at the time — and Hollywood knew it. But the studios were less turned on by the filmmaker's developing, sometimes inarticulate visual vocabulary than by the need to acquire and appropriate what might be the latest fashion. All they had to do was sand down the rough edges, like they did with those vibrant intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, and maybe a dollar or two could be squeezed out of this burgeoning maverick. In many ways, this was the self-preservation instinct kicking in, and their overtures did not go unreciprocated. But the marriage proved discordant, producing two bastard children — Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child is Waiting (1963) — that only reinforced Cassavetes' hatred for studio filmmaking (he had already declared that the system had "failed" prior to the release of Shadows). The machine was calibrated to corrupt and would not suffer the storm of invention that roiled within Cassavetes. This town, this art form, needed an enema.

 

"You're a Man Who Doesn't Say What You Mean Very Well."

That rebuke is spat out by the stunning Jeannie Rapp (Gena Rowlands), an unhappy young woman prone to entertaining unhappily married older men desperately in need of reasserting their manhood. She's just recently been escorted back to her modest one-story house by the sharp-eyed Richard Forst (John Marley) and his pudgy pal Freddie (Fred Draper), who doesn't like the fact that he's been outmaneuvered (again?) by his more desirable companion in competing for the affections of a beautiful and willing younger woman. So, Freddie, watching his pride get trampled by the dancing Richard and Jeannie, shatters the festive mood by demanding the woman's asking price.

The awful things men will say when their masculinity is threatened propels Cassavetes second independent feature, Faces (1968), into areas of supreme discomfort unprecedented for its time and rarely seen even today. Richard is bored in his marriage with Maria (Lynn Carlin), and the inference, based on this film's depiction of a seemingly eternal night, can be made that he steps out on her often. And it's not like Maria offers him much incentive to remain grounded, as suggested by her shallow, pouting refrain to his inquiry "What're you getting so huffy about?", which is "There's nothing on TV tonight." As for Jeannie, she's just constricted by her awkward age, 28, and the harsh reality of not being married. She craves a substantive relationship, but the only connection being offered is brilliantly visualized at one point by Cassavetes bracketing her in between two men at crotch level.

Emboldened by his brief tete a tete with Jeannie, and repulsed by his wife's complacency, so anathema to a brawlingly successful businessman like himself, Richard tells Maria he intends to divorce her and promptly lights out for his newfound paramour, who has subsequently found another prospective dance partner in the roly-poly Jim McCarthy (Val Avery). Meanwhile, Maria steps out for a ladies' night with her gal pals, during which they draw the interest of a strapping young buck named Chet (Seymour Cassel, who, once upon a time, could convincingly do "strapping"), with whom they act out their own feminine version of the jockeying for dominance evinced by the men earlier in the film.

Channeling his rage at the indignities suffered at the hands of the studios throughout the first half of the decade, Cassavetes unleashes a torrent of unrestrained emotion that overwhelms and exhausts the audience long before the closing credits roll. Like a boxer charging out in Round One throwing nothing but haymakers, the film gets winded early on, but it's too proud to go down for the count, holding on for dear life, and frequently jolting back to life to pummel the viewer viciously anew. The picture barges into one's mind like Richard and Freddie into Jeannie's house in the first reel, as Cassavetes challenges and destroys the unspoken discontentedness lurking beneath the bogus projection of "domestic bliss," mirroring the contentiousness that invigorated the director's marriage to his leading lady.

Typical of a Cassavetes film, there's a lot of laughing in Faces, but one often feels that the characters laugh to keep from screaming, though they do plenty of that, too. The dialed-up volume seems often a compensation for physical confrontation, particularly for the men. True, Richard and Jim do scuffle, but it's the kind of tentative wrestling match engaged in by two people who really don't want to fight and are kind of embarrassed to have taken their disagreement to such an extreme. This awkwardness obviously reflects the personality of the director, who abhorred violence (outside of a good stinging slap) and would continue to stage combat in the same halting manner throughout his career.

Besides, the literal blows that are landed bruise far less indelibly than the figurative beating inflicted by the words of each character. If it seems there is no end to conflict in Faces, or in any other Cassavetes film, it's due to the director's detesting of tranquil moments; the minute his characters reach an understanding, someone has to go and say something completely indecorous. With this film, Cassavetes embraces and, in a perverse way, celebrates the contradictory impulse that develops when two people spend entirely too much time with each other. Rather than be the wedge that drives them apart, it could very well be the vital element that sustains their marriage. By the end of the film, the viewer is as worn out as his characters, both of whom have cheated on each other, and while closure is denied, silence, at least, is allowed, and, in that, one might hear the faint murmur of reconciliation.

 

"Don't Worry About Me. I'm a Grown-Up. I'll Be Fine."

Another great thing about Cassavetes' personalities is the layers of deceit shoveled on by his confused characters. The above line from his masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence (1974), serves, on the surface, as an allayment from Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) to his worried children, who're being subjected to the horrific experience of watching their mother, Mabel (Gena Rowlands), struggle with her sanity. But it's also a canny bit of self-delusion indulged in by Nick to place himself on steadier ground as he tries vainly to tether his loopy wife to reality. Or is it? The thing is, Nick isn't that smart; some might prefer to sugarcoat that assessment and say he's too impulsive or stubborn, but the sheer level and frequency of idiocy committed by Nick throughout the film's wearying 147-minute running time is damning. This is a guy who, after being forced to miss a planned night alone with his wife due to work, shows up the following morning with his entire municipal work force, consisting of something like ten men, and cheerfully expects Mabel to cook spaghetti for everyone as if there's nothing in the world she'd rather do. Later in the film, when Mabel is returning from a six-month stay in a sanitarium, he invites a vast throng of friends and acquaintances to welcome her back knowing full well that her mental state is fragile.

So, yes, Nick is a deeply stupid individual. They exist. But Cassavetes, even while acknowledging and depicting this ever so flagrantly, still refuses to look down on the man, and it's this bestowal of dignity and respect that makes him such a singular filmmaker. The film's title may refer to Mabel, and the performance given by Rowlands may rank as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the 1970s, but this really is Nick's movie. And this is important because, while viewers may rightfully consider themselves more refined and educated than Nick, they'd be liars to admit that they haven't behaved as foolishly as him before.

This connection humanizes his unthinkable plight, giving the audience a fighting interest in liberating Mabel from her despair. Without it, there's no conceivable way this film, which boasts the most threadbare narrative of Cassavetes' career, would ever hold together. That spaghetti dinner sequence, which drags on interminably, should be offensive in its self-indulgence, but that length is necessary to evoke the same unease one feels when pestered by a persistent vagrant on a city street. And Nick's betrayal of Mabel (i.e., his decision to have her committed), which results in her spectacular breakdown, needs ballast lest the film spin completely out of control along with Rowlands. Luckily, no one in the past 50 years has excelled at playing stupid as brilliantly as Peter Falk, and his performance here represents the bravest work of his career. That anguish in his face as he clings to Rowlands just before she breaks away to threaten the doctor attempting to inject her with a sedative is the highest level of truth to which any actor could ever aspire.

Continuing on with that moment, so charged that the image strobes (the effect is partially caused by the bright overhead light, and duplicated in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but one would like to think it's the unintentional natural convergence of the actors' intensity), Mabel is so far gone that the character appears to have taken Rowlands with her. Indeed, Cassavetes nearly called "Cut" on the moment, remarkable considering the lengths to which he'd go to elicit authenticity from his actors. For Rowlands, it's not so much a performance as a possession that is frightening to behold and far more convincing than the very real one her character suffers in Opening Night. Though already established as a great talent, she immediately ascended to godhood as Mabel. Like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, there is no template for a performance like this. Watch that spasm on her face as she reacts to Falk's impassioned "I don't know you." Most people live their whole lives without achieving such emotional nakedness. Though there were, and, in some misguided cases, still are challenges to the legitimacy of Cassavetes' technique, Rowlands' Mabel Longhetti shuts them all down.

A work of unmitigated genius, A Woman Under the Influence is very hard to take; it's not a film one often yearns to revisit. But as a humanist statement, it is strangely affirming. It has to be. How else can one account for being so profoundly moved by Bo Harwood's zippy kazoo symphony as the closing credits roll? Only someone who really meant it would dare something so completely insane.

 

"It's Style, Not Class."

Style is all well and good provided one has the means to flaunt it, which two-bit nightclub manager Cosmo Vitelli woefully lacks. Cassavetes is savaging masculine vanity once again in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976); it's what leads Cosmo to stupidly gamble his way into a $23,000 debt while trying to impress his coterie of dancers, whom he's tagged along to impress his fellow players. The depth of insecurity exposed by Cosmo's actions is hilarious, but, unlike Cassavetes' other losers, there's not much empathy aroused for his travails, despite a probingly intense turn by Ben Gazarra. This is probably because the film is an overt excursion into a particular genre, film noir, and centered on a character that Cassavetes despises, which is probably why he recycled the highly personal trope of the nightclub performer reduced to introducing dancers utilized previously in Shadows; he needed something he could emotionally connect to.

It's telling that, after the film flopped during its initial release, Cassavetes (who lived to tinker) went back to his movie and slashed away a half-hour for a re-release two years later. The result might've been marginally more accessible, but it robbed the film of the characteristic texture that made it a Cassavetes film, and, thus, interesting. In the longer version, Cosmo's limp manhood is wickedly paralleled by Mr. Sophistication's listless cabaret act, which drags on and on waiting for a bolt of inspiration or a glimmer of acceptance that is clearly not forthcoming. It may be painful to sit through, but, thematically, it props the film up a little. While disappointing for a Cassavetes picture, it's still worth watching; the execution of the title act is peculiarly poignant, and it's nice to recall a time when Gazzara didn't exclusively phone it in for a paycheck. Also, Bo Harwood again contributes a unique score, this one a synth-heavy contrast to A Woman Under the Influence's mostly acoustic track. But, like its protagonist, it's mostly obsessed with style, and Cassavetes' plumbing of the human condition just isn't as interesting when his analytic mind is trained on an archetype.

 

"I'm Getting Old. What Do We Do About That?"

There would be three more films (as well as She's So Lovely, which was being prepped at the time of his death), but Opening Night (1977) feels an awful lot like a swan song. Cleverly using the oft-dramatized struggle of an actress moving out of her leading-lady prime into "grandmother" roles as a vehicle to study the ravages of aging, Cassavetes is back on turf that he knows fully. The film also returns Rowlands to the foreground, this time as Myrtle Gordon, whose handling of the aforementioned dilemma requires a steady intake of straight J&B whiskey with a chaser of self-delusion.

It makes perfect sense that Myrtle should agonizing so, since the play she's appearing in, unsubtly titled A Second Woman, is flatly about getting old, featuring an apartment set with two blown-up pictures of an old woman's craggy visage. In other words, she probably should've known what she was getting into. But vanity does blind, and it's not until Myrtle witnesses the accidental death of a rabid 17-year-old fan that she starts going mad. Believing she's now haunted by the young girl, who was an aspiring actress herself, Myrtle slowly begins to self-destruct, which threatens to upend the production, which is trying out in New Haven for a looming New York City run. This is, of course, a huge concern for the play's director, Manny Victor (Gazzara), as well as the Lillian Hellman-esque writer, Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell), who recommends Myrtle to a medium who might help extract or appease the spirit of the girl. This, however, only enrages the deceased diva, and Myrtle suddenly finds herself helplessly battering herself against walls and door jambs.

It's a funky little variation on All About Eve that should play more preposterously than it does, but Cassavetes' mischievousness gives it a knowingly campy kick. In fact, it's all overwrought to the point of self-parody, playing shamelessly to the filmmaker's fans while happily alienating everyone else. The smoking and drinking, ubiquitous elements in all of his works, are particularly heightened here, building to Myrtle's fall-down-drunk opening-night performance that she somehow manages to pull off, which pays off with a stagehand's admiring confession, "I've seen a lot of drunks in my day, but I never seen anybody as drunk as you and still be able to walk. You're fantastic!"

The final, off-script improv that closes the play and the film is a little too cutesy, and feels like Cassavetes' congratulating himself on detonating the facile trappings of conventional melodrama. But, as was so often the case in his career, one allows him the indulgence; it's a hard-won victory lap fought for, financed by, and only possible with the moxie of John Cassavetes.

 

"Watching People Takes Time"

So does watching the 200-min. A Constant Forge, which is an appropriately elongated celebration of the life and work of John Cassavetes. Directed by Charles Kiselyak, the film is narrated by Lenny Citrano as the voice of Cassavetes, which is distracting only for the first half-hour or so, and features very insightful interviews from collaborators and admirers alike. As expected, there's plenty of Rowlands, Gazzara, Falk, and Cassel, but one is also grateful for the always-keen insight of writers Ray Carney and Annette Insdorf. Also, in a startling turn of events, Peter Bogdanovich actually fires off a few valuable observations about the director's work (including the above-quoted excerpt), leaving the more tedious statements to Jon Voight, who, without a trace of irony, makes a case for Cassavetes' presidential potential. Though produced in 2000, the excerpts are culled almost exclusively from the films included here, which is a bit limiting. Again, Minnie and Moskowitz is dearly missed.

As for the set itself, The Criterion Collection has done terrific restoration jobs on all of the films, starting with the 16mm Shadows, which looks probably as good as it's ever going to in the full-frame transfer here (1.33:1). Faces is an intentionally gritty film, but its dark, lamp-lit interiors are sharp in an excellent widescreen transfer (1.66:1). The other three films all look phenomenal in their widescreen transfers (1.85:1), though A Woman Under the Influence is a revelation, as the cinematography, credited to Mitchell Breit, but bearing the notable mark of "additional photographer" Caleb Deschanel," has never looked this splendid. The audio on all films is Dolby Digital 1.0, and is fine across the board.

Extras on each disc, while plentiful, sometimes feel redundant, considering all of the detail included in A Constant Forge (however, the interview footage was conducted exclusively for this Criterion release). Shadows has conversations with Lelia Goldoni (11 min.) and Seymour Cassel (4 min.), but the real thrill is in watching the too-brief rehearsal reel from Cassavetes and Burt Lane's acting workshop. There's also a restoration demonstration, a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer.

Faces is a two-disc set, and boasts some impressive special features, including the alternate seventeen-minute opening for the film, which includes a sequence at the bar deleted from the final cut. Also on board is "Cineastes de notre temps" (48 min), a French documentary from 1968 that features interviews with Cassavetes pre- and post-release, "Making Faces" (42 min.), and "Lighting and Shooting the Film" which diagrams, through text and footage, how Al Ruban pulled off the picture's original look.

A Woman Under the Influence gets only one disc, but it is the only film with an audio commentary, which is provided by Mike Ferris and Bo Harwood. Also included is a video conversation with Rowlands and Falk (17 min.), an audio interview with Cassavetes, a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie gets the two-disc treatment, mostly because the 1978 theatrical re-release is included. There's also interviews with Gazzara and Ruban (18 min.) and an audio interview with Cassavetes, and a stills gallery. Meanwhile, Opening Night has a video conversation between Rowlands and Gazzara (22 min.), an interview with Ruban (7 min.), an audio interview with Cassavets and theatrical trailers. Finally, A Constant Forge has a series of biographical sketches of Cassavetes many bit players and a poster gallery.

— Clarence Beaks



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