The master of improv gets his due courtesy of Criterion’s extras-laden box set
At first glance, the Criterion Collection’s massive eight-disc encasement of five John Cassavetes movies may look like a hodgepodge of the late director’s work. Why include The Killing of a Chinese Bookie but not Minnie and Moskowitz or Gloria? Is there some order here, or is this what could get licensed? Isn’t $124.95 a bit steep? Turns out that the movies contained herein — Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night — represent those titles over which Cassavetes had complete artistic control. How fitting that they be packaged together as one impeccable product, supplemented generously by audio commentary, numerous interviews with Cassavetes actors, producers, and crew, extended footage, still photos, a 68-page booklet of essays by and about the man, marketing artwork, and the mesmerizing three-hour-and-twenty-minute Charles Kiselyak documentary A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes. Get through all of this and you may well feel like Cassavetes is a close personal friend.
All would-be hipsters know Cassavetes is revered as the grandfather of modern indie cinema. With his five-and-dime budgets, his mix of amateur and professional actors and crew, his hand-held camera and grainy film stock, today’s pauper stylists may crib extensively from his movies. And they do. But what set Cassavetes apart, in addition to being the first, is that his movies are saturated in matters of the heart. Those coarse products of a bygone era aren’t rants against an unjust world, or empty exercises in style. They’re not even particularly antiestablishment. Lo and behold, they are all about love. It seems Cassavetes was foremost a humanist who lived to record our crazy, mad ways. He more than any filmmaker merged life and art into one, or rather redefined the artifice of movies to approximate life as it is lived.
There are fine observations about Cassavetes made throughout A Constant Forge. He learned to distrust the studios when he directed A Child Is Waiting for United Artists in 1963, then stood by helpless while producer Stanley Kramer recombined it. That was an early turning point for Cassavetes. He would avoid making movies from studio commissions, but he would act to pay for his directing habit. Even as an actor, he made interesting choices. It is a tribute to his versatility that his three Oscar nominations came for three very different jobs — as a supporting actor (The Dirty Dozen), writer (Faces), and director (A Woman Under the Influence).
In his 1959 debut film Shadows (right), virtually every scene follows two or more characters in some kind of elemental conflict. Long takes fully absorb the gritty gray reality of bohemian New York. To watch Shadows today is to rediscover the pleasure of seeing actors doing what moves them in the moment. Actors openly revered Cassavetes much as they do Robert Altman today. “When I started working with John, I said ‘it’s like a wind, a trade wind from the islands. I feel clean again,” said Ben Gazzara (Chinese Bookie, Opening Night). For the brave actor who doesn’t flinch at long takes and unflattering lights, Cassavetes was a gift. Many filmmakers pretend that artistic integrity trumps money, but Cassavetes was the true article. His actors well knew this. When he ran out of money during the making of Opening Night, he shut down production with no guarantees for rehiring. He was able to resume shooting three weeks later, and no one in his cast had since taken another job.
It took three years to get Faces (1968) made and into theaters. “It became more than a film. It became a way of life,” he said. But the critical enthusiasm for Faces confirmed the viability of his artistic philosophies, as his unrelenting close-ups probed middle aged marital folly for two hours. Gena Rowlands played a vulnerable prostitute, grizzled John Marley a burnt-out business man, Lynn Carlin a bored housewife, and Seymour Cassel an extroverted hustler, but none of them came anywhere near cliché. Cassavetes was here the most primatological of directors. How often he unmasks our animal yearnings, anger, and fear. How often his actors remind us that we are makeup-wearing, cocktail-swilling chimps.
Despite appearances, Cassavetes’ movies were arduously scripted and rehearsed. For him, freedom came not from disorder, murky intent, or abandoned technique. It came from reinventing expectations about how movies are supposed to look, and how movie actors are supposed to behave. And he trusted spontaneity. Shadows actor Lelia Goldoni revealingly describes a Cassavetes acting class as “a controlled free-for-all.”
Nowhere is Cassavetes’ facility for structure and freedom better evidenced than in A Woman Under the Influence, his 1974 chef-d’oeuvre. As a laboring class couple deeply in love, but unable to communicate that love successfully, Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk turn in gut churning, heartbreaking, expressively bold performances. Theirs is a fantastic, unequaled acting tango. One could overlook Falk’s quieter brilliance while staring in slack-jawed awe at Rowlands’ identity-deprived mad housewife. But while she combines childish impulses with grave self-destruction, he straddles violence, tenderness, and good intentions in one coiled mass of anxiety. The inspired presence of Katherine Cassavetes (mother of John) and Lady Rowlands (mother of Gena) further strips away the outer layer of separation between life and its reenactment on film. Woman is the perfect movie for Cassavetes’ methods. The fog of madness is well served by mean realism.
Many, including Leonard Maltin and Ephraim Katz, have labeled Cassavetes self-indulgent. Demanding and austere, perhaps, but self-indulgent? Not once does he impose directorial flourishes of the kind we expect from Hitchcock, Fellini, or Spielberg. And he gave everything he had — money, script, crew, ideas, time, loyalty, ego, and energy — to his actors and their search for emotional honesty. They returned his graciousness with performances startling in their disregard of flattery. He shot in sequence, and actors weren’t asked to hit their marks. Instead, they rolled freely on while the crew did its best to keep up. As a result, those gross imperfections of camera and sound became scars of honor. “Nothing technical was going to get in the way,” summarizes Bo Harwood, sound recordist and composer for A Woman Under the Influence. Indeed — who wants to see Mabel’s breakdown in crisp detail?
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (right) is the least honored movie of the bunch. The tried conventions are here: unhurried actors playing to each other rather than the camera, the alienating urban landscape, and the sense of improvisation that doesn’t betray careful planning. But this exercise in revamped noir lacks the emotional penetration of the other films in this package. Chinese Bookie does offer a neat microcosm of Cassavetes in the movie business, with the central conflict between gangsters (i.e., studio money men) and the creative impresario of a strip joint, played with languid competence by Ben Gazzara. But the banality of the skeleton plot, ironically told a thousand times during the studio system, cannot be overcome by Cassavetes’ idiosyncrasies.
Ostensibly a study of aging, Opening Night (1977) lays bare a life dedicated to art. Myrtle Gordon (Rowlands again, blessedly) is a fortyish actress who witnesses the accidental death of a young fan. As Myrtle rehearses for a play about getting older, she finds her emotions log jammed by personal crisis. With no husband and no children, her identity is wholly consumed by her working life. When that fails her, what is left?
Opening Night traverses the same territory of female psychosis explored by Tennessee Williams (Sweet Bird of Youth) and Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve), but all similarities end there. Cassavetes played on ambiguity much more than those two sophisticated popularists. Was the young girl part of Myrtle’s imagination? Do the two of them, taken together with the older playwright (Joan Blondell), form Acts I, II, and III of a woman’s life? Cassavetes isn’t telling. He might see explanations as a didactic cop-out, or an underestimation of the audience. “You have to fight everyday to stop from censoring yourself,” he once said, “because in censoring yourself, you have no one else to blame.”
By all accounts, Cassavetes was a joyous, funny, impulsive man who loved good food and conversation. He detested most entertainment, and audiences could trust that his character studies wouldn’t lurch into plot-driven escapism. He was, and still is, a tonic against obscenely budgeted overproduced Disney rides doubling as movies. To watch Faces on its definitive DVD is to mingle with articulate, exciting people who still offer something wholly different. Gena Rowlands may be forgiven a moment of sentimentality when she spoke of the Cassavetes era as “a privileged little spot in time.” What she and others make clear, all these years later, is that Cassavetes’ experiments were very much worth making.
About the DVDs
This set features new high-definition digital transfers of Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night, plus a documentary by Charles Kiselyak titled A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes. Extras here are awesome. They include more than two hours of new video interviews with Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, Lelia Goldoni, Lynn Carlin, and Al Ruban; two versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie — Cassavetes’ original 135-minute cut and his subsequent 108-minute re-edit; Faces alternate opening — 17 minutes of footage revealing the most significant differences of the two version’s opening sequences; Cinéastes de notre temps (1968) — a 48-minute episode from the French television series, dedicated to Cassavetes; rare silent clips from the Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop, from which Shadows emerged; audio commentary on A Woman Under the Influence; a restoration demo for Shadows; an audio interview with Cassavetes by Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson; Lighting & Shooting the Film — a study of techniques and equipment used in Faces by Al Ruban; rare behind-the-scenes photos, publicity shots, and posters; biographical sketches of Cassavetes stock company; and a 68-page book featuring new essays on Cassavetes and the films by writers/critics Gary Giddins, Stuart Klawans, Kent Jones, Phillip Lopate, Dennis Lim, and director Charles Kiselyak, as well as reprinted writings by and interviews with Cassavetes, and tributes to the filmmaker by Martin Scorsese, Cassavetes’ secretary Elaine Kagan, and novelist Jonathan Lethem. Convinced?