Bright Lights Film Journal

John Cassavetes: The First Dogme Director?

“The major point of convergence between Cassavetes and the Dogme movement is an oppositional realist form that blurs the boundaries between being and performing.”

John Cassavetes’ cinema has recently recaptured the interest of academic scholarship. One could argue that this can be interpreted as a reaction to the hegemonic practices of the Hollywood industry that approaches filmmaking strictly with economic criteria and the shortage of North American directors that can reasonably be classified as auteurs. Despite the awakened interest in his films, Cassavetes is still understood through the paradigm of the radical individual who dared to express his discontent with Hollywood practices. While this has some truth, it does not place Cassavetes in a historical context; nor does it offer an understanding of formal issues and subversions that can be identified in his filmography. One of the main reasons for this limited approach to Cassavetes has to do with the tendency by critics to take the director’s words literally. To comprehend him historically, however, requires scepticism rather than blind acceptance. Equally important is to understand that his oppositional style can be read as a dialectical response to the history and transformation of forms and not simply as the unitary vision of a radical auteur. In this article, I intend to discuss Cassavetes in conjunction with Dogme 95; my aim is not just to identify his legacy, but to explore formal issues that can bring to the surface the modernist aspects of his films that have been neglected.

Dogme 95, the most radical movement in contemporary cinema, has been mainly associated with the Nouvelle Vague. One of the reasons for this is the exaggerated rejection of the French movement on the part of Von Trier and Vinterberg as a wave that succumbed to bourgeois values.1 This statement may inspire us to see Dogme as a response to the French auteurs of the 1960s. But while the formal aspects of Dogme share many similarities with the French New Wave, the main figure associated with Dogme is Cassavetes. Writings by Peter Schepelern,2 Jack Stevenson,3 and Claus Christensen4 have testified that Von Trier and Vinterberg were mainly influenced by Cassavetes in their writing of the rules of the Manifesto, something that can be brought to the surface by looking at Dogme’s oppositional realist style.

The major point of convergence between Cassavetes and the Dogme movement is an oppositional realist form that blurs the boundaries between being and performing. Whereas Cassavetes’ works have been mainly discussed by Ray Carney5 as “the real world” compared to Hollywood artificiality or as reflections of his personal life, what makes them more problematic are the meta-filmic effects created by his understanding of performance as an essential part of everyday life. This concept is manipulated in such a way to push the diegesis into its limits, creating a crisis of identity that blurs the boundaries between the actor as a character, as a demonstrator, and as an agent that carries extra-cinematic codes. The most obvious example is the scene in The Opening Night in which Myrtle (Gena Rowlands), a popular Broadway actress, sees her personal life intruding into the play she is performing. During a rehearsal, Myrtle (impersonating the main character, Virginia) collapses on stage after having been slapped by her partner, Marty, who is played by her former lover in real life, Maurice (Cassavetes). The producer of the play stands up and claps his hands, thinking that this is a moment of great acting. The whole notion of identity is turned upside down, taking into account that Cassavetes and Rowlands were partners in real life. Todd Berliner has brilliantly captured the intent of this formal ambiguity, arguing that Cassavetes exploits the complex relationships of the three realities (the reality of the play, the reality of the movie, and of the real world). Cassavetes understands this confusion as a means of narrative disruption that prevents the viewer from identifying whether the actors are in character or not.6

Such a refusal to distinguish between performance and real life is one of the common traits in the first Dogme films. In Festen (1998), Thomas Vinterberg explores the notion of public and private person through a series of revelations that occur during a stereotypical bourgeois family birthday party. Kristian Levring’s The King Is Alive (2000) develops the story of a group, rehearsing King Lear after having been trapped into a desert. They end up realizing that they can only make sense out of Shakespeare’s language by bringing it closer to real life and feelings. As the film progresses, the theatre play within the film overlaps with the life of the characters, obfuscating the realities of the rehearsed play and the film itself. However, the movie that radically challenges the reductionist simplifications between real life and performance is Von Trier’s Idioterne (1998, above). As a way of challenging middle-class values, a group of people pretend to have intellectual disabilities, performing idiotic happenings in public spaces. The narrative flow is interrupted often by interview sequences with the characters, conducted by Von Trier, that aim to clarify the past events. Again this device deprives the film of a clearly discernible narrative direction and heightens confusion, since it is hard to determine whether Von Trier is responding to the actors or the characters. According to Louise Hassing, who plays Suzanne in the film, Von Trier gave the impression that he addressed himself to the actors rather than the characters in the interview sequences,7 reinforcing the idea that Idioterne defies linear narrative conventions and reflects the process of its own making. In the most problematic scene of the film, the characters/actors come across some people who are truly mentally handicapped (the actors impersonating them are people with disabilities). Again the responses on the part of the characters (or the actors?) heighten the ethical dilemmas and do not facilitate the viewer’s immersion into the world of the narrative.

Ove Christensen has been particularly emphatic that Idioterne is a movie about role-playing and being, and thus about identity and about film as a medium. As he observes, the question that logically arises is whether “being is a consequence of acting or does acting make a disguise of an individual’s character?”8 The latter comments can help us elucidate the association between Dogme and John Cassavetes. George Kouvaros’ study of Cassavetes’ filmography has grasped the crucial role of performance in his films as a means of undoing narrative and challenging the notion of stable identities. Contrary to Carney’s approach, Kouvaros conducts a dialectical study in form that attempts to comprehend Cassavetes historically and not simply as a maverick. His study reveals the connection between cinema and theatre space in the films of the father of the School of New York, arguing that the result is a constant interrogation of the representational potentials of the theatrical and the cinematic medium. Further, he suggests that for Cassavetes, theatre is not solely a means of examining the performative possibilities, but a physical space as well (e.g., the stage in Opening Night and Cosmo’s nightclub in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) that opens up a critical distance in the spectator’s relation to film.9 Kouvaros’ comments shed light on the modernist aspects of Cassavetes’ films as interested no simply in producing coherent storylines but questioning the medium itself and thus, potentially, changing it.

Not simply producing for a medium but negating its status as an established cultural institution is a concept that dates back to the modernist vision, which aimed not necessarily to engage the audience in the diegetic world but to transform its perception. We only have to recall Walter Benjamin’s writings on surrealism and his conclusion that despite the lack of concrete historical images, the surrealists have acknowledged more than anyone the importance of the transformation of perception and its political implications.10 Such an aspiration to change perception is apparent in the Dogme Manifesto, which states that “for Dogme 95 the movie is not an illusion.”11 If we turn our attention to the Dogme rules that can oppose established cinematic practices, we can identify some of the major Cassavetian practices. The hand-held camera, shooting on location, and the avoidance of extra-diegetic music12 are some of the most striking ones. All these techniques share the filmmaker’s interest in the cinematic medium not as a descriptive but as an investigatory tool.

For example, the close-ups in Faces are used in such ways that deny psychological depth and clear-cut conclusions with regard to the characters’ state of mind. This is particularly evident in a scene toward the end of A Woman Under the Influence (right). Mabel, having spent six months incarcerated in a clinic, returns home behaving in a strange manner that embarrasses the members of her family. Nick, in an emotionally loaded moment, explodes against her. The camera, instead of following his point-of-view shot, focuses with a close-up on Mabel’s father. Nick’s words can be heard, but their origin escapes the viewer. Ivone Marguiles has summed up this context arguing that Cassavetes’ employment of the zoom lens hovers between distance and engagement, creating abstractions that capture the director’s and the characters’ changing sensibilities.13 This can be understood as a preference for an avoidance of narrative closure in favour of narrative aperture, which is a seminal element of modernist aesthetics. One recalls Bertolt Brecht’s idea that in political art catharsis is replaced by contemplation, with the view to making the spectator participating in the construction of meaning instead of remaining a passive recipient.

This refusal of an imposed reified meaning is apparent in the films of John Cassavetes, and any hermeneutical approach solely based on secondary biographical material and discussions of Cassavetes’ intentions is of limited value in revealing the formal complexity of his works. For instance, a discussion of a film such as The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as a reflection of the director’s experiences with the production companies fails to answer crucial questions raised by formal choices such as the mixing of first- and third-person narration, the collision between pseudo cinema-verite and fiction, and the merging of Cosmo’s and Mr. Sophistication’s identity and its meta-filmic effect.

To connect these observations with Dogme, we return to Von Trier’s and Vinterberg’s manifesto statement that “my supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings.” This emphasis on character does not understand individuals and human relationships as fixed, but as subject to process. This is underscored in the preference for a gestural rather than a psychological portrayal of individuality as shown in Idioterne and Festen. The last scene in Von Trier’s film that shows Karen spassing in front of her family is emblematic, in the way that it problematises the notion of subjecthood. Primarily, we are surprised to see Karen performing “the idiot” in front of her relatives, judging from her past objections to her friends’ idiotic happenings. What makes this scene more emotionally intense and complicated, though, is the agitated camera movement that avoids establishing a clear origin of the shots. The camera alternates between Karen and her family, catching different gestures and reactions that are not necessarily predetermined by the script. This is something that has to do with the aesthetics of Dogme based on not letting the actors know whether they are in frame or not, allowing them to improvise and keep themselves in the strange condition of alternating between being characters in the movie and actors impersonating fictional characters. Von Trier has explained that the idea of a hand-held camera following the actors “allows them to concentrate on acting with each other and not acting toward a big monster of a camera.”14

Similarly, Cassavetes’ filming is structured in such a way that the camera follows the actors and not the other way around. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (right), after Cosmo has committed the murder, a chasing scene that follows provides us with unclear and jerky images, followed by close-ups of him in the bus. Kouvaros argues that this disorientation of the actor with regard to the camera’s focus in Cassavetes films aims at capturing actions, gestures and movements not predetermined by the script.15 In a tense scene in Faces, we see Eddie getting angry at being neglected, while Richard and Jeannie seem to enjoy a romantic moment. The camera is unstable and interjects moments of Richard and Jeannie with close-ups of Freddie being irritated. In an interview given after the release of Faces, Cassavetes, when asked if the movie was improvised, said that the emotions were, but not the script.16 In many respects, this cinematographic style understands the film less as an organic form of art than as something that is subject to process, open to many different representational possibilities and interpretations. Sylvie Pierre and Jean-Louis Comolli discuss how Cassavetes exploits material from “the real life,” though the difference, as they explain, is that “the real life” is what happens in front of the camera. “Cassavetes and his friends do not use cinema as a way of reproducing actions, gestures, faces, or ideas, but as a way of producing them.”17 It is in this manner that Cassavetes understands reality to be the reality of fiction and not a photographic imitation of actions.

It is thus legitimate to say that Cassavetes’ films are about the cinematic apparatus itself and, by extension, about an alternative type of representation that reconciles cinematic theory and practice. This is in accord with the Dogme movement, in which the penchant for changing the way we perceive the medium stems from a theoretical idea, namely the Manifesto, which aspires to promote a new understanding of cinema. Hence, in both Idioterne and Festen this desire for a renewal of cinematic perception is something that is elaborated in the subject matter itself. This is made poignantly clear in the refusal to make binary distinctions between performance and existence. At the same time, the ability to perform, to be somebody else in a persuasive manner, does not necessarily lead to a radical change in attitudes. Indicative of this is the problematic finale of Idioterne, in which none of the members of the group, apart from Karen, dares to bring their performative happenings into their private lives. On the other hand, Karen’s decision to perform the idiot in front of her relatives seems to be something more than mere provocation. It is a desire for a different mode of living, which gained after she perceives performance to be something inseparable from life. We only have to compare this attitude with Myrtle in The Opening Night and her aspiration to bring life into a clichéd Broadway play. Refusing to perform the lines clearly and with feeling, as the writer suggests to her, Myrtle merges the reality of the play with the reality of her personal life, employing improvisation without obeying to the script. This suggests that Cassavetes and Dogme share the same ambition, namely to bring cinema back to life by changing our understanding and our perception of the medium as something more than a means of articulating a discernible diegetic world.

  1. In the Dogme manifesto, Von Trier and Vinterberg assert claim that “the auteur concept was bourgeois romanticism from the very start and thereby . . . false!” Cf. Dogme Manifesto. []
  2. Cf. Peter Schepelern, “Ten Years of Dogme,” in FILM #Dogme, April 2005. []
  3. Cf. Jack Stevenson, Dogme Uncut: Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and the Gang that Took on Hollywood (London, Santa Monica: Turnaround, 2003), pp. 26-27. []
  4. Cf. Claus Christensen, “The Celebration of Rules: Aspects of Dogme on the Celebration,” in P.O.V. 10. []
  5. Cf. Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 21. []
  6. Cf. Todd Berliner, “Hollywood Movie Dialogue and the ‘Real Realism’ of John Cassavetes,” in Film Quarterly 52, no. 3, pp. 2-16, here pp. 11-12. []
  7. Cf. Jan Oxholm and Jakob Isak Nielsen, “The Ultimate Dogme film. An Inteview with Jens Albinus and Louise Hassing on Dogme 2- The Idiots,” in P.O.V. 10. []
  8. Ove Christensen, “Spastic Aesthetics: The Idiots,” in P.O.V. 10. []
  9. Cf. George Kouvaros, Where Does It Happen? John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp. 134-135. []
  10. Cf. Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in The New Left Review 108, 1978, pp. 46-56, here, p. 56. []
  11. Cf. Dogme Manifesto. []
  12. Cassavetes avoids the use of extra-diegetic music in his first films such as Shadows, Faces, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, whereas in his later ones such as The Opening Night and A Woman Under the Influence, he is using it but in an austere manner. []
  13. Cf. Ivone Marguiles, “John Cassavetes: Amateur Director,” in John Lewis (ed.), The New American Cinema (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1998), pp. 275-306, here pp. 298-299. []
  14. Von Trier quoted in Jan Simons, Playing the Waves: Lars Von Trier’s Game Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007), p. 42. []
  15. Cf. Kouvaros, p. 31. []
  16. Cf. Ray Carney (ed.), Cassavetes on Cassavetes (London: Faber, 2001), p. 161. []
  17. Sylvie Pierre and Jean- Louis Comolli, “Two Faces of Faces,” in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du Cinema Vol. 2., 1960-1968 (London: Routledge, 1986), pp.  324-327, here p. 326. []