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John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes

Articles - Directing

John Cassavetes once said, “This picture,
this picture—I don’t give a fuck what anybody says.   If
you don’t have time to see it, don’t.   If you don’t
like it, don’t. If it doesn’t give you an answer, fuck you. I didn’t
make it for you anyway.” (Sight and Sound)

Exactly who, then, did Cassavetes make films for?
Beginning with Shadows in 1957, through Love Streams in
1984, the maverick director usually worked so far outside even
the Hollywood fringe that his films were barely seen, and most
are just now coming out on video. His two early groundbreaking
experiments, Shadows (1960) and Faces (1968), are
only available through a Japanese distributor. Cassavetes, who
died in 1989 at the age of 59, wouldn’t have given a damn.

He made eight independent and three Hollywood-backed
movies in twenty-seven years. He worked with a muscular troupe
of actors that seemed to age as we watched them: Seymour Cassel,
Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes’ wife, the luminous Gena
Rowlands. He usually shot in simple locations—often his own
California homeand—was indifferent to technical details.
The lighting was harsh, the sound annoying, the editing, jarring.
His interior sets are chock full of polished, reflective surfaces.
Spotlights and household lamps glare into his lens; the rooms and
streets where his people moved seemed to breathe with presence.

Cassavetes directed the studio-backed movies (Too
Late Blues
, A Child Is Waiting, Gloria) without
final cut, and acted in others (The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s
), to finance his art. And, like the work of most artists
who exist outside the mainstream, he wanted to meet his audience
only on his own terms. Many of his films—as difficult as
an abstract canvas—are flush with a primitive intensity
that makes them, at times, an ordeal to sit through.

Watching a Cassavetes film, you feel like a witness
to a familial intervention, or to an all-night orgy of dysfunctional
louts. His characters—over-the-hill, alcoholic, depressed,
and desperate—seem to be stabbing at life, trying to find
a part of it that still breathes so they can kill it, His camera
is never more than an arm’s length away from these cocktailhour
dysfunctionals, pummeling them until they give in and tell us the
truth. It is the viewer that has them on the ropes. “I hate entertainment,” Cassavetes
said in the documentary, I’m Almost Not Crazy, which was
made during the shooting of his last film, Love Streams. “A
movie tries to pacify people. I love motion, change, and I hate
answers—because answers stop change.”

Cassavetes, the screenwriter, refused to spoon-feed
happy endings to the viewer. There was never a third act that dovetailed
into a climax, or a conflict that was neatly resolved. Instead,
his movies are pure conflict: drinkers and dreamers, losers and
near-winners, in a tug-of-war with themselves. Cassavetes demanded
that his audience ask questions of themselves.

The Kenyon Review once called him “the
Jackson Pollack of cinema”, and the description fits. His movies
are splattered with messy, spontaneous bursts of emotion that
feel like real life, with embarrassment, tedium, pain and humiliation
right alongside exhilaration.

A Woman Under The Influence (1974),
clocking in at 155 minutes and starring Gena conflict   Rowlands
as a wife going nuts and Peter Falk as her bewildered husband,
is a film you keep threatening to turn off if something doesn’t “happen” soon.
And then something does. Rowlands embarrasses herself in front
of her husband’s co-workers in a breakfast scene, and then one
of them sings a beautiful aria from Aida, right at the
table. The moment—it feels unscripted—takes your
breath away.

Not surprisingly, Cassavetes was unsatisfied with
his most accessible film, Gloria (1980), a studio production.
But Gena Rowlands’ sly, tough performance, and the edgy, underworld
atmosphere, much of it shot in bright daylight, make it a constant
delight. The opening credits play over the vibrant work of painter
Romare Bearden, and the music, by Bill Conti, is cool jazz, underscoring
the improvisational feel of many of the scenes.

The director was drawn to the desultory hipness
of jazz musicians. Their music was the perfect compliment to his
rambling, jumpcutting style. “The jazz musician doesn’t deal with
structured life. He just wants that night … like a kid,” he said
in an interview in Sight and Sound. An end title on Shadows refers
to the film as “an improvisation”. It features a soundtrack by
Charles Mingus.

The film began as an idea in an improvisational
actors’ workshop that Cassavetes helped to establish in the ’50s.
Working with a 16mm camera and a few character descriptions, the
director and his actors hit the streets, museums, and walk-up apartments
of New York City. The result was a film about racial prejudice,
with characters drifting in and out of conversations about love,
art, and lack of success. Much of the film was shot at night, and
the young director’s camera, close and breathless, electrifies
every scene. It now stands as a crude but forceful antecedent to
the “twentysomething” movies Hollywood pumps out like play dough

Cassavetes had no intention of distributing the
film. When it got picked up, he wanted to re-record the audio (which,
like Faces, sounds as if it was recorded from inside a suitcase).
But then a London reviewer said it was the most authentic sound
he’d ever heard. So Cassavetes left it alone.

“All I’m interested in is love,” he said on
the set of Love Streams (1984). “I need for the characters
to analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other.” In Love
and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976),
Cassavetes’ protagonists believe they can advance through life
untouched by love. Love Streams‘ hermetic writer is forced
to take care of his sister, who is fleeing from a wrecked marriage.
Bookie’s strip-club owner reluctantly performs a hit for the
mob to clear a large gambling debt. Both men (Cassavetes plays
the writer, Gazzara the club owner) are wounded and weary. They
keep trying to escape to the margins, but life, love, and Cassavetes’
camera push them into the center. He never allows his characters
to hide.

One of Cassavetes’ most indelible issues/12/images occurs
at night in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, when Cosmo
Vitelli (Gazzara), who has just brazenly offed the bookie and several
of his young hired guns, flees down a driveway that seems to sizzle
with light. There are no Shadows, no dark corners to escape
to; Cosmo doesn’t even try to hide. All he can do is to will himself

Cassavetes’ vision, as derided and dismissed as
it was by critics and the public, was relentless. Even early in
his career, when he had to carry his own film cans from city to
city to set up screenings, he never retreated from the demands
he placed on himself. He and his actors bravely risked exposure
with every film. If at times his characters were obnoxious or their
actions repetitive, you could not deny the courage it took to film
them, the risks the director took in laying bare their torment.
In that respect, John Cassavetes was the most naked of artists.

A Cassavetes Filmography

Shadows (1959)
Too Late Blues (1962)
A Child Is Waiting (1963)
Faces (1968)
Husbands (1970)
Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Opening Night (1978)
Gloria (1980)
Love Streams (1984)

If you’re interested in learning more about Jolin
Cassavetes, I would highly recommend a book called “The Films of
John Cassavetes,” by Ray Carney. Cambridge University Press, 1994—Ed.

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