Wednesday, August 7, 2013


In 1959, John Cassavetes was convinced Hollywood had failed. Whether it was coincidence or a reaction to the decline in American movies (and I for one never really think of the last half of the 1950s as an especially great period for film), that same year saw an influx in electric, albeit largely international, cinema: In France, Truffaut, Chabrol, Resnais, and Bresson released The 400 Blows, Les Cousins, Hiroshima mon Amour and Pickpocket respectively, (Godard was right behind them with Breathless) India saw Ray conclude his Apu trilogy with The World of Apu, and Japan got another Ozu masterpiece with Floating Weeds. 

In America, however, the best films of the year were probably Some Like it Hot, Rio Bravo, and North By Northwest. But they all came from directors who were definitely aging: Billy Wilder was 53, Hawks was 63, and Hitchcock was 60 (and of the other well known American movies of that year, Ben Hur, Anatomy of a Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank, all the directors were at least in their 50s). 

With such an amazing array of innovative foreign films that year, America would have been a little outdone were it not for Cassavetes. Not only did he realize Hollywood was fading, but he knew that "without individual create expression, we are left with a medium of irrelevant fantasies that can add nothing but slim diversions to an already diversified world." I recently embarked on a mini Cassavetes watching spree, and the first I saw was, naturally, Shadows, his 1959 response to his fear about Hollwood's downward spiral (and let's not forget that before Shadows, he was an actor, so he knew the business well). He wanted to make a movie that demonstrated the possibilities of the medium to show people. He wasn't concerned with technical style because for him cinema was still something very communal, something not just for the director but a piece of art that reached out to an audience. "Audiences go to the cinema to see people," Cassavetes wrote in 1961. "They only empathize with people, and not with technical virtuosity." Hence, for Cassavetes, a film's greatest asset was a really talented actor. 

But going into Shadows, he wasn't entirely aware of this. For him, the fun of making a movie was using interesting lenses and setting up artful compositions through trees and windows. The focus was more on making the picture have an aesthetic appeal than becoming fully invested in the actors. This was sort of the trial and error version of the movie, and Cassavetes ended up reshooting it to focus more on his actors. I would be curious to see how the original played (apparently, Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney discovered a complete print of it in 2004, though I assume its availability is limited to an exclusive few), because afterwards Cassavetes' love of actors didn't cease and he never tried to be labeled as any kind of stylist. 

The reshoot of the film also raises an important point about the extent to which the film was an improvisation. Many believe it, and much of Cassavetes' work, was largely extemporized, yet that's not the case. Garry Giddins, in his essay for Criterion, notes that Shadows had an inverse scripted/improvised process: most films begin with a some concrete material and then allow the actors to wander from the source once production begins. Cassavetes, on the other hand, allowed his actors free range during the film's initial shoot, and after a poor reception, went back and carefully scripted several scenes for the final version. Personally, careful writing seems far more interesting than improvisation, especially when it's done in such a way as to appear improvised. It is easier to respect the filmmaker, and even be in awe of him, when he has written something that seems too alive to have come from the page. A great recent example of this is Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, which was meticulously written despite the liberated and natural flow of the scenes.  This seems precisely the appeal of Cassavetes. It was not the way movies needed to be made (he admired people who made "unrealistic" films, like Capra, Lubitsch, precisely because he himself was unable to), but in 1959 there seemed to be a calling for a cinematic vision of this sort. Shadows may not be a great film, but regardless of its individual merits and weaknesses, it accomplished everything it needed to give the American cinema some much needed energy in that landmark year for movies.

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Criterion is about to release the John Cassavetes five film collection on blu ray, but I couldn't wait for that, so I just settled for the DVD set, which my brother kindly lent me. The set contains Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night. I didn't see the most famous of the five, A Woman Under the Influence, because the disc was missing, but the other four were plenty to get a taste of Cassavetes. He has a great quote where he says:

"Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are... In this country, people die at 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe younger... My responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21... The films are a roadmap through emotional and intellectual terrain that provides a solution on how to save pain.”

If this was Cassavetes main goal, and it to me it certainly seems to be, then it was a job well done for him. Particularly, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night struck me as prime examples of his responsibility reaching fulfillment. In a way they're companion pieces, depicting old pros, one a male owner of a night club, the other an aging stage actress, in times of crisis. Here we see Cassavetes as a craftsman, creating real plots for his characters to base their actions around, yet he ultimately is invested in the actors. The club owner (Ben Gazarra) and the actress (Gena Rowlands) often come across as puzzle boxes, yet we never fail to see deep inside them, and thus feel for them. Cassavetes is a master at creating nearly unfathomable tensions inside his characters that lead to moments of astonishing disbelief, or pain, or beauty. We see this in Chinese Bookie during Gazarra's stunning address to his customers while his performers solve a backstage problem, and in Opening Night during an actual backstage setback, when Rowlands seems too drunk to appear on stage for the show's premiere. I wouldn't say Cassavetes is intentionally leading up to these crucial moments because that would be selling him short. In a way that would be following the Hollywood structural formula he was so weary of. Instead I think it's something more natural, a result of the the characters' experience on screen, sort of a default that they fall upon. 

Cassavetes is generally seen as one of the few filmmakers whose style was so distinct that you could recognize his work without knowing what it was. It's definitely true, even though his mark is often hard to pinpoint. Yes, he takes his time, lets scenes play out like they would in real life, and yet there's something almost inexplicable about how his movies play, especially considering that on paper, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night are kind of typical. Chinese Bookie is a noir, or a postnoir, and it has all the requisite ingredients and scenes of a 1940s gangster flick. It's pretty straightforward, with no strange tricks up its sleeve. And Opening Night is a theater drama in the vein of All About Eve, and yet you see it and it feels shockingly new considering how familiar all the elements are. My response to this would be that the languid, often meandering pace of these films is chiefly to serve the purpose of developing the central character. We realize it really isn't just about getting past 21, but, as Cassavetes said, to get a solution for saving pain. The only way he can really go about doing this is to let the viewer recognize it in the characters, and letting the pacing and the story ultimately serve their development lets him achieve this. Whether pain is actually saved, well, he leaves that up to the people who watch his movies.

Now I'm meandering, and I just got a hold of A Woman Under the Influence. I think I'll go watch it.

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