When the world gets to be too much for me, I pull out one of my video collections and escape for a couple of days. I have Angels In America, all of The Sopranos, Rome, Lonesome Dove, and a ton of Bergman. Most of the time they'll do, but, when things get really rough, I turn to my John Cassavetes Criterion Collection.
More than any other director, John Cassavetes portrays people at their limits, bound up, boxed in by their marriages, their friends, their sex, their race, their age, the limits of their talent, and any other cage or corner Cassavetes can cram them into. And they usually don’t get out. They find their salvations, if they find them, inside their cages. Even if a Cassavetes character appears to escape, we can’t be sure. When Cassavetes and Peter Falk leave Ben Gazzara in London at the end of Husbands (1970), it doesn’t feel like Gazzara has slipped out of his cage. It feels like his friends have left him on the battlefield to die.
Although it doesn’t include Husbands, the Criterion Collection’s boxed set of five Cassavetes films provides an easy, though expensive, way to acquire a taste for Cassavetes. The set has Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) and the 2000 documentary, A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes. Or you can watch most of Cassavetes’ films and the documentary individually on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Cassavetes was, arguably, the father of American independent film. His first film, Shadows, was made at about the time French directors were creating the New Wave. It's a beat film. Cassavetes, like the French, subordinated plot to the mise-en-scène. His films weren’t about the narrative. The story was often beside the point; just something to hang the film on. To Cassavetes and the French auteurs, film was synthesized experience, and the story was just an occasion for that synthesis. The French bought the rights to dime store novels for their plots. Cassavetes invented situations. His films have beginnings and ends, but they are, like direct cinema and cinema verite documentaries, essentially situational and episodic. The end of each episode and the way it’s resolved are determined, not by the requirements of a plot, but by the inner workings of the episode itself. Affairs end. Men go home to their wives. Women who have nervous breakdowns come home to their families when they get out of the hospital. They put their kids to bed, clean up the dishes and go to bed with their husbands. Strip joint owners who get mixed up with the mob get killed. And the play must go on.
To the cinema verité style and structure, Cassavetes added improvisation. He worked out scenes in collaboration with his actors instead of forcing his view of the scenes on them. Cassavetes’ approach to directing let his actors bring their own life experiences to situations and allowed him to add their sense of what is authentic and what is not to his own. The tension between rigid direction and improvisation, between conformity and self-expression, is a recurring subtext in Cassavetes’ films, from Shadows to his Pirandellian masterpiece, Opening Night.
Cassavetes' first film, Shadows, features Lelia, a young, black artist, cornered by race, gender and family. She’s the kid sister of Hugh, a singer who can’t sing, and Ben, a horn player who never plays for us. Hugh and his agent, the only person who can stand the way Hugh sings, tour second-rate clubs in the Midwest. Ben listens to jazz from the corners of rooms; cruises New York City bars and cafes with his friends, trying to get laid. Lelia hangs out with Ben and his crew, and with artists and intellectuals, older guys who know things Ben and his friends don’t know. She falls for a good-looking white boy, who dumps her when he meets brother Hugh, because, unlike Lelia and Ben, Hugh is obviously black. Lelia ends up on a dance floor in the arms of a middle-class black man she meets at a party, the kind of man Lelia and her brothers think of as a square but others might call solid. Cassavetes leaves her there, moves on to watch Hugh go off on another road trip, and to watch Ben and his pals get beaten into unconsciousness in the men’s room of a bar when they try to pick up the wrong women. Cassavetes crammed that action and the feeling of the beat Fifties into one black-and-white box in 1959. It was ten years later before he was able to make his next independent film, Faces, a portrait of a marriage on the rocks.
Faces was Cassavetes’ film for the Sixties, and the first Cassavetes and Rowlands collaboration. It was the beginning of a body of work that eventually exhausted the themes Cassavetes took up in Shadows: women on the edge, the way families and friends tie us up but make us strong, the life and death struggle to be authentic and spontaneous instead of phony. Faces is Cassavetes' least successful film, although it's his most accessible and appreciated effort. It's his least filmic and most photographic film. In Faces, an L.A. executive leaves his wife for a prostitute, played by Rowlands. His wife, Lynn Carlin, tries to commit suicide after a one-night stand with Seymour Cassel, a hipster she picks up in a club. The executive goes home to his wife and, in a scene that breaks the static, monotonous repetition of faces that dominates the film, chases the hipster out of the house. In addition to Rowlands, Carlin and Cassel, the cast of Faces included Fred Draper, Val Avery and Elizabeth Deering, actors Cassavetes worked with for the next ten years. Faces was Rowland’s first shot at portraying a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Her second shot came six years later in A Woman Under the Influence.
There is something almost unbearably edgy about the young Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. It’s as if somebody has jammed a 220v wire into her brain. It takes her about two minutes to convince me she’s the most troubled woman I’ll ever see. Her relationship with Peter Falk is tense. There is an acceptance of violence against women in the film I find deeply disturbing. And yet, A Woman Under the Influence is about the kind of people I know well. Working class people. Never enough living space. Not much education and culture. Sometimes not enough money. They fight at the dinner table. But there is redemption in the physicality of these Cassavetes’ characters, in their muscle. It’s a punch, a roundhouse right, that brings Rowlands down to earth and restores her to her family. To her kids. To the dirty dishes that, when all is said and done, have to be taken from the table to the sink. In A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes shows us a family coming together, closing the doors on the outside world and making what they can of their lives. A Woman Under the Influence added Lady Rowlands and Katherine Cassavetes to Cassavetes’ troop of actors.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the fourth film in the Criterion set, is Cassavetes’ film noir classic. It’s the darkest of Cassavetes’ films, not just visually – most of it was filmed at night with available light — but emotionally as well. It’s Cassavetes’ most bitter film. When the mob decides to kill him for his club, escape is never an option for Cosmo Vitelli. He has no real family or friends. The most important thing in his life is a third-rate floor show he created for his tawdry strip joint. Vitelli, played by Ben Gazzara, gets shot in the gut while he’s trying to murder a Chinese bookie to pay off a debt to the mob. He manages to kill most of the mob, but he ends up bleeding to death, slowly, while he paces the sidewalk outside his club.
Opening Night is Cassavetes' last film. Gena Rowlands stars as an aging actress, struggling with her age, her relationship with her co-star, played by Cassavetes, the demands of her director, the limits of the script, and the death of a young fan who gets hit by a car while she’s watching Rowlands leave the theater. Rowlands is haunted by the girl’s ghost. On the verge of breaking down, Rowlands murders the girl’s ghost and her own youth. Playing a scene with Cassavetes, she saves the show and her career with an improvised performance on opening night. The film is a triumph for Cassavetes. As the writer and director of Opening Night, he can do what he was never able to do in the real world. He can direct the play’s audience and their reaction to him and his wife.
The audience loves them, of course .
I guess I do, too. The easy explanation for that is to say I like melancholy moods, dark streets, and the rain. I like redemption. I like to see the old order brought down and to see chaos reign. I like reluctant heroes and the kind of women who work retail. And there’s plenty of that in Cassavetes. But it’s more than that.
Cassavetes knew that it’s not what you see, but what you remember that counts. It’s the way films live in our memories that matters. And he gave us a lot to remember. He gave us close-ups, and he gave us enough time with his characters to get to know them well.
I remember Ben Carruthers in Shadows, walking down the street in a coat that’s too light for New York City in the wintertime; Seymour Cassel fleeing down the hill in Faces; Gena Rowlands dancing, Peter Falk climbing a hill with his crew, Katherine Cassavetes guarding the stairs to keep Rowlands away from the kids in A Woman Under the Influence; Ben Gazzara in the dark, getting his orders from the mob, and Gazzara in the light, standing in the spotlight with Mr. Sophistication and his strippers in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I remember Rowlands, beating her youth to death in a hotel room, crawling toward her dressing room, putting her dukes up when she’s improvising with Cassavetes in Opening Night. And I remember John Cassavetes, laughing and bounding around the stage in Opening Night, while the audience laughs out loud and applauds.
When I watch Cassavetes’ films I feel I’m in the presence of myths.
Can I name the myths? Can I say who Cassavetes’ characters remind me of, who the major and minor deities are in Cassavetes’ pantheon? Who is that with the wound that will not heal? Who is that, chasing the suitor from his house? Who is that, leading his men out to work? Who is that, leading the women out to dance? Can I name them? Not a chance. It was Cassavetes’ achievement to create a pantheon of characters who suggest mythic figures without names. I could no more name them than the Greeks, gathered around the hearth to listen to the poet spin his yarns, could say who Achilles and Odysseus reminded them of.