[Paleopsych] CHE: An Inspired Collection Honors a Founder of the Indie Movement
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An Inspired Collection Honors a Founder of the Indie Movement
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.14
By DAVID STERRITT
After a 1974 press screening of A Woman Under the Influence, an
audience member asked the writer-director John Cassavetes if any parts
of the movie were scripted, not improvised. Cassavetes looked puzzled
for a second, then answered, "I guess if someone walked across a room
we didn't script every step. But yeah, I wrote the picture."
While the questioner's premise was wrong, the mistake was
understandable. "Cassavetes worked hard for [his] artless effects," as
the critic Stuart Klawans writes in an essay for John Cassavetes: Five
Films, a recently released boxed set of eight DVD's that stands out
even by the Criterion Collection's high standard. In a program-booklet
interview, Cassavetes acknowledges filming some scenes of Woman as
many as 12 to 14 times, and that's probably an understatement. Take
the great spaghetti-breakfast sequence, in which the title character,
Mabel Longhetti, serves a morning pasta meal to her husband's
working-class buddies, most of whom can't figure out what to make of
her ebullient quirkiness. Scholarship suggests that Cassavetes shot
parts of the scene about 40 times.
Cassavetes carefully crafted the freewheeling, rough-and-ready look of
his best movies to highlight the aspect of cinema he valued most:
acting. In turn, acting played a specific role in his technique -- the
generation of raw, unmodulated feelings, as mercurial and sometimes
inexplicable as those of life itself. "The emotion was improvisation.
The lines were written," he told a 1970 interviewer about Husbands.
Before his 1989 death from liver disease, Cassavetes was generally a
hard sell to critics and audiences. Ray Carney of Boston University,
the leading scholar on Cassavetes's life and work, has collated
scathing notices from high-powered reviewers. Parts of Faces (1968)
were "so dumb, so crudely conceived, and so badly performed," wrote
The New Yorker pundit Pauline Kael, while John Simon deemed Woman a
"muddle-headed, pretentious, and interminable" work.
Such attacks came frequently. But there were exceptions, and current
critics -- including smart ones like Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate in
the Criterion booklet -- are misleading when they suggest the reviews
were almost always bad. I wrote rapturously on Woman, about a mentally
unstable homemaker, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), about
a nightclub owner pressured into committing a crime, and no less a
Cassavetes skeptic than Kael deemed Shadows a "very fine experimental
... film" and granted that Faces had "the unified style of an
agonizing honesty." Woman even caught on with audiences, becoming the
only Cassavetes picture one might reasonably call a hit. Still, it's
unquestionable that Cassavetes was overlooked and undervalued as a
writer and director -- although not as an actor, with memorable movies
like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) among his
Born in 1929 to Greek-American parents, Cassavetes grew up in the New
York City area, attended Mohawk Valley Community College and Colgate
University and then the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He played
small stage and television roles until 1954, when he started to land
more-substantial parts and married actress Gena Rowlands, who remained
his loyal spouse and favorite star to the end of his life.
Increasingly successful, Cassavetes was also increasingly displeased
with what he saw as the simplistic, formulaic content of the stories
he was appearing in. His first filmmaking effort was sparked by a 1957
radio appearance promoting Martin Ritt's film Edge of the City. He
asked listeners to contribute money for a movie of his own that didn't
yet have a story, a cast, or even a subject. The result was Shadows
(1959), about African-American siblings caught up in racial tensions.
It is identified as "an improvisation" in the credits even though
Cassavetes disliked the first, spontaneously acted version so much
that he remade most of it from a script based on the improvisation.
After straining against TV's artistic limitations as the title
character of the short-lived Johnny Staccato series, about a
jazz-playing detective, Cassavetes made two unhappy efforts at
directing Hollywood movies in the early 1960s -- the jazzy Too Late
Blues (1961), cramped by a rushed shooting schedule and less music
than Cassavetes wanted, and A Child Is Waiting (1963), where he wanted
to portray mentally retarded children as creative and happy, the
opposite of producer Stanley Kramer's agenda.
He decided the only route to artistic independence lay in working
completely outside the studio system. That led to Faces, a drama about
a marriage on the rocks, and Cassavetes's emergence as the most
important founder of the modern independent-film movement. His passion
and precision paid great artistic dividends, but often made him a hard
director to work with, as even his strongest supporters have
acknowledged. Citing the filmmaker's wife and other sources, Carney
has reported Cassavetes's frequent indulgence in childish,
self-defeating words and behavior. A friend said that Cassavetes, when
directing, would live on scotch and cigarettes. He'd roll around the
floor giggling, or mock-wrestle with a colleague on a TV talk show.
Actors said the half-crazy antics sometimes loosened them up, but
other times simply struck them as weird and self-involved. Carney sees
the conduct as a defense against the potential humiliation Cassavetes
dreaded in all interactions he couldn't control or dominate.
Along with the nine films he acknowledged as truly his own, from
Shadows to Love Streams (1984), the inauguration of the indie scene is
Cassavetes's most important legacy. Many young filmmakers have
followed his lead. Steven Soderbergh stresses deeply personal
screenwriting and the primacy of acting as a vehicle for cinematic
creativity, especially in Full Frontal (2002) and the idiosyncratic
Schizopolis (1996). Sean Penn's films as writer and director
-- particularly The Indian Runner (1991), about two brothers with
incompatible outlooks on life, and The Crossing Guard (1995), about a
businessman consumed by grief and vengefulness -- are Cassavetes-like
to their bones. Consider David Morse's deeply felt performance in the
former and Jack Nicholson's in the latter, and the pictures' reliance
on words and gestures rooted more in fleeting emotion than in dry
Cassavetes's most noteworthy artistic heir is Martin Scorsese, who
briefly worked for him as a sound editor on Minnie and Moskowitz
(1971) and enjoys quoting his words of wisdom, some of which are
included in "My Mentor," an article in the Criterion booklet. Scorsese
showed a rough cut of his early feature Boxcar Bertha (1972) to
Cassavetes and listened breathlessly as the master unexpectedly said,
"Marty, you've just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit."
Then he added, "It's a good movie, but don't get hooked into that
[commercial] stuff -- just try to do something personal." Scorsese
took the advice seriously, as many of his subsequent films have shown
with their individualistic themes and offbeat approaches to mood,
atmosphere, and performance.
Ironically, one subsequent filmmaker who has not appeared to learn
from Cassavetes's style is Nick Cassavetes, his son. Even such movies
as Unhook the Stars (1996) and The Notebook (2004), which star the
prodigiously gifted Rowlands (his mother), and She's So Lovely (1997),
made from a screenplay by his father, have a cautious, stilted quality
that flies in the face of everything John Cassavetes stood for as an
artist. The younger Cassavetes said he tweaked the She's So Lovely
screenplay by taking out the parts he didn't understand -- which are,
I suspect, exactly the elements that might have made the movie sing if
John Cassavetes had directed in his own intuitive, free-flowing
I don't buy Criterion's promotional claim that Cassavetes can now be
called "an audience's director," since the challenges he poses for his
viewers -- mercurial shifts of feeling, out-of-the-blue plot twists,
characters hard to understand because they don't understand themselves
-- are leagues away from the neatly tied, emotionally safe packages
Hollywood has trained us to expect. Watching his movies requires the
same degrees of attention, empathy, and compassion that Cassavetes put
Criterion's boxed set allows audiences to take on those challenges
more easily than ever before. Providing the original 135-minute
version of Bookie is a major service in itself, and pairing it with
the later 108-minute cut -- which Cassavetes also regarded as
authentically his own -- is downright inspired. Equally exciting are
definitive DVD transfers of Shadows, Faces, Woman, and Opening Night
(1977), not to mention rarities like an alternative opening for Faces,
silent clips of the Shadows improv group, a 2000 documentary on his
work, and plenty more.
My only quarrel with the set is its accompanying booklet, whose
commentators take a repetitive "here's the really important thing"
approach in which worthwhile interpretation often gives way to
self-congratulatory connoisseurship. Kent Jones is on the right track
when he admonishes some Cassavetes sympathizers for reducing his films
to a simple "actor's cinema" aesthetic; but it's a flat-out fact that
Cassavetes counted performance as a prime conveyor -- probably the
prime conveyor -- of emotional truths on film. Calling that "hogwash"
is, well, hogwash.
In one of our many conversations, I asked Cassavetes if he wielded a
strong hand on the set -- if he directed his movies a lot.
"I can't say I don't do it," he answered, "but I never do it well. ...
Actors don't need direction, they need attention. I'll step in as a
director -- I'm laden with an ego, like everyone else -- but whenever
I have to open my mouth, I know I'm probably wrong. ... I'm a sucker
for actors. ... I like them." What he liked them for most were the
moods and emotions they were willing to reveal and explore. "It's one
of the surest bets in town that people have feelings," he told me. "If
you don't believe that, you haven't experienced anything in life."
Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg once dubbed his friend and
colleague Jack Kerouac "the great rememberer," referring to Kerouac's
knack for keeping a mental hold on every event in which he saw
significance, however small or ephemeral. I'd call Cassavetes, who had
much in common with the Beat sensibility, "the great experiencer." He
fought like crazy to capture the experiences that grabbed him -- those
he'd had, those he'd witnessed, those he'd dreamed up in his raging
imagination -- and the lukewarm receptions he received were among the
hardest of those experiences to swallow. But those notwithstanding, he
never stopped fighting, feeling, and filming until failing health
forced him to.
In a 1980 interview, I suggested that Opening Night, a drama about
three generations of theater people, may have failed to find
distribution three years earlier because it was ahead of its time, and
perhaps he should put it on the market again. "Those fucking
distributors," he said with a grim smile. "They had their chance. If
any museum wants a copy of that film, I'll give it to 'em, for free.
Any university that wants a copy, I'll give it to 'em, for free. But
those distributors can offer me anything they want, and 'fuck 'em' is
what I say. They had their chance, and it's too goddamn late."
It took almost a decade for him to change his mind, but he allowed the
New York Film Festival to show Opening Night at Lincoln Center in
1988, after which it made its way to theaters at last. I'm a little
surprised he allowed that to happen even at the tail end of his life.
But Cassavetes knew what he wanted -- and on celluloid, at least, he
usually got it.
David Sterritt, film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, is a
film professor on the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and
at Columbia University, and the author, most recently, of Screening
the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility (Southern Illinois
University Press, 2004).
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