John Cassavetes: Five Films
April 27, 2005
John Cassavetes, ,
Starring: Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldini, Hugh Hurd, John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, Peter Falk, Fred Draper, Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Robert Phillips, John Cassavetes, Joan Blondell, ,
“Hollywood is not failing. It has failed.” John Cassavetes wrote these prophetic words in 1959 in an article entitled, “What’s Wrong with Hollywood” for Film Culture magazine. He goes on to list the symptoms of its decline: “The desperation, the criticisms, the foolish solutions, the wholesale cutting of studio staffs and salaries, the various new technical improvements, the ‘bigger picture’ and the ‘ultra-low-budget-picture’ have failed to put a stop to the decline.” What is so interesting about this quote is that Cassavetes could easily be talking about the current state of Hollywood, which has only gotten worse since he wrote those words.
John Cassavetes was an artist who believed that filmmaking’s salvation lay in “individual expression” and applied this belief to his own movies. He is often credited as the father of American independent cinema and to be sure without him there would be no Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch or John Sayles. For years, fans of Cassavetes’ movies have had to suffer with grainy copies and substandard transfers on DVD (or, quite often no availability at all). The folks at Criterion have answered their prayers with a fantastic box set with five of the man’s movies and Charles Kiselyak’s epic documentary.
The first DVD features Cassavetes’ directorial debut, Shadows (1959). It opens with a celebration of youthful rock ‘n’ roll as a roomful of twentysomethings live it up: drinking, dancing and yelling their heads off. This scene perfectly captures that wild time when one is young and anything seems possible. Ben (Carruthers) and his friends are young men who walk the streets of New York City with no real direction in life. He lives from one visceral experience to the next with the occasional gig as a jazz trumpeter. Hugh (Hurd) is Ben’s brother and a respectable musician torn between dealing with his own life and looking after his brother.
Shadows established Cassavetes’ stripped-down, straight-forward approach to filmmaking. It allowed situations to happen and the actors to perform naturally—almost like a documentary. With its black and white film stock and jazz score, one imagines it is how a film adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel might look and sound. It is a fascinating snapshot of the bohemian lifestyle in late ‘50s New York.
Faces (1968) is an unflinching portrayal of a disintegrating marriage between Richard (Marley), an abrasive businessman and his wife, Maria (Carlin). In an attempt to escape their collapsing marriage, they engage in extramarital affairs: Richard with a beautiful woman (Rowlands) and Maria with a young man (Cassel) she meets at a night club.
The film has a loose, improvisational feel as if you are witnessing real people and their problems, not actors in a movie. Scenes run longer than you’d expect and out of that comes an honesty and a truthfulness as Cassavetes tears down the artificiality of Hollywood movies. These characters may not be likeable but they are accurate depictions of deeply unhappy people trapped in failed relationships.
Arguably one of Cassavetes best films is A Woman Under the Influence (1974), which features a powerhouse performance by Gena Rowlands as a woman who is going crazy. The first time we meet her character she’s already in a frenzied state as she frantically sees her kids off with her mother. After they leave she starts talking to herself in way that sets the alarm bells off that something isn’t right with her. Initially, she is barely able to keep herself in check but as the film progresses, she gradually being to unravel, much to the dismay of her husband (Falk).
The film features incredibly real performances from the two leads. People who only know Falk from Columbo will be blown away by the range he shows in this movie. Rowlands is astonishing and it was a crime that she did not win the Oscar that year (she was nominated and won the Golden Globe). The two of them hold nothing back in this intense drama.
Inspired by an idea from Martin Scorsese, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) is Cassavetes’ take on the film noir. Cosmo Vitelli (Gazzara) is a night club owner who gets mixed up with a small-time gangster and is forced to commit film’s title or lose his establishment and way of life.
Cassavetes immerses us in Cosmo’s gritty world as he moves through darkened night clubs, noisy bars and the street, mixing it up with strippers, criminals and drunks. It’s a vivid world captured by a restless hand-held camera that had to influence the same kind of technique (and grungy underground world) that Wong Kar-Wai used in Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995). We really get inside Cosmo’s head and Gazzara delivers a brilliant, natural performance in a way that doesn’t look like he’s acting because he has become his character so effortlessly. There is a casual ease and looseness of an actor at the top of his game and a director giving him complete freedom.
Opening Night (1977) focuses on a group of actors putting on a play. The star is Myrtle Gordon (Rowlands), a Broadway actress who plays a character that cannot admit she is getting old. Her whole world is shaken to the core when she witnesses a young fan accidentally struck down and killed by a car. It makes her question her own mortality and beliefs system.
Cassavetes’ movie examines the motivation for stage actors. Why do they go out there night after night and put everything they have for everyone to see and to judge? The film suggests that it is an inherent desire to be loved. Opening Night also explores the nature of celebrity and how actors deal with rabid fans who reciprocate with their own obsessive love that is quite often overwhelming and scary.
Rounding out the set is Charles Kiselyak’s epic documentary on Cassavetes, entitled A Constant Forge (2000). Clocking in at over three hours, it is a detailed love letter to the man. There are interviews with collaborators (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk), admirers (John Sayles, Sean Penn) and family (Gena Rowlands). The documentary traces Cassavetes’ humble beginnings as a struggling actor with a desire to direct. It is a fascinating portrait of a tough, uncompromising artist who always fully immersed himself in his work.
The Shadows disc features an interview with one of the film’s stars, Lelia Goldini, who talks about how she met Cassavetes and her impressions of the man. She also covers the improv exercises that he would stage and how they developed into the movie. There is also an interview with Seymour Cassel who reminisces about how he met Cassavetes and how he got a job on the crew making Shadows. A real find is never-before-seen silent footage of rehearsals for the film in Cassavetes’ acting workshop. Also included is featurette examining the painstaking restoration process that transformed the original print into this new glorious version. Finally, there is an excellent behind-the-scenes still gallery and a trailer.
Faces features an alternate opening sequence that was originally screened in Toronto and rearranges the chronology of scenes. “Cineastes de Notre Temps” is a French TV program that interviewed Cassavetes in ’65 while he was making Faces and then again in ’68 after it had been screened. The first interview finds him in a playful mood as he jokes about making a musical of Crime and Punishment. In the second interview he claims that he’s the worst director but tries to create an environment that allows the actors to express themselves honestly. “Making Faces” is a 42-minute featurette with new interviews with Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel and editor/producer Al Ruban. Rowlands talks about how they financed the movie themselves so they’d have complete control while Cassel talks about how Cassavetes was his best friend and mentor. Finally, Ruban discusses the equipment he used to shoot the fil