Bright Lights Film Journal

Where Do We Find Ourselves? John Cassavetes’ <em>Faces</em> Turns 40

“How can one be a maverick independent filmmaker, and be an attentive, loving husband and father?”

John Cassavetes’ highest artistic achievement grew out of his biggest professional setback. The story is now a familiar one: following his violent altercation with Stanley Kramer over the latter’s backhanded re-edit of his third film A Child Is Waiting (1963), Cassavetes found himself blacklisted as a studio director. Though he continued to act, he wanted to prove to himself and the Hollywood producers that betrayed him that he could make another great film on his own, as he had in his 1960 debut Shadows.

November 24, 2008 will mark the 40th anniversary of the New York premiere of that resulting homemade film, Faces. While in part a response to his bitter Hollywood experience, its timelessness lies in its depiction of how conflicted and unresolved Cassavetes was about the direction of his own life.

The film’s central male figure, Richard Forst (John Marley), is the embodiment of Cassavetes’ troubled consciousness. He is an arrogant, influential, middle-aged business executive who has achieved the American Dream: owner of a secluded home in the Hollywood Hills, married to a beautiful, caring woman, head of a large corporation, cultured, wealthy and all-powerful, able to make others laugh, cry, and succumb to his whims at will … yet for all this, he admits, “I’m just a mild success in a dull profession and I want to start over again.” After arguing with his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin), he leaves to meet a call-girl, Jeannie Rapp (Gena Rowlands). In response, Maria’s girlfriends take her to a nightclub and bring back home a young buck (Seymour Cassel) on a sort of sexual dare. Both Maria and Richard sleep with the respective young people they meet that night and return to each other in the morning, hating themselves and feeling more uncertain than ever about their marriage and their lives.

It would be easy to vilify Forst for his selfishness and tough-guy tactics, but Cassavetes is extremely sympathetic to his ambition, work ethic, charm, and competitive spirit — these were hallmarks of his own personality, after all. But Forst’s most Cassavetean trait is his midlife restlessness. His yearning for fulfillment and meaning is what keeps Faces from becoming some didactic Marxist critique of business values. As Ray Carney has identified in his pioneering work on Cassavetes, all of his films are deeply autobiographical. There are variations of Forst in all of Cassavetes’ work — Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Manny Victor in Opening Night, and Robert Harmon in Love Streams, to name three conspicuous examples. Like Cassavetes himself, they have all mastered the art of wheeling and dealing, talking a big game, and manipulating the actions of those with whom they work. But these men, in achieving success as business executives, nightclub owners, theatre directors, and authors, have all sacrificed crucial parts of themselves. Cassavetes included.

Gus’s return home to his young daughter crying in the driveway at the very end of his next film, Husbands, provides a glimpse of the toll Cassavetes’ production methods took on his own family. Not every part of Cassavetes’ process was the freewheeling 24/7 family-and-friends actors’ workshop that it is often romanticized to have been. The insular “men’s club” that Cassavetes’ film shoots often became — and certainly the darkness of the films themselves — suggests that he was far more troubled than any of the biographies and documentaries make him out to be. But the dark side of Cassavetes’ behavior that we can only speculate about is, of course, inseparable from the genius that he was.

In Richard Forst, one senses the guilt and frustration that Cassavetes no doubt harbored over the damage he was causing in his own personal life In the same way it is difficult for Forst, Chairman of the Board of Investment Finance, to make time to be caring and attentive at home. How can one be a maverick independent filmmaker and be an attentive, loving husband and father? It’s interesting to note how the Forsts are childless; more than just an indicator of marital emptiness, it’s as if Cassavetes could not fathom how someone in Forst’s position could have any time for fatherhood … and yet no filmmaker was more obsessed with work than he was, and he and his wife Gena had three children.

Just as Cassavetes had to be maniacally focused on his work and willing to lie, cheat, and bully to get his films made, Forst has to be aggressive, practical, and unfeeling in order to buy and sell aluminum and steel at a profit, to afford his home, command respect, intimidate, jockey for position, survive. His success is determined by how little he lets his guard down, how well he gauges and controls his own emotions.

In Faces, Cassavetes questions the quality of this success, x-raying his own ego in the process. Like many of Cassavetes’ male figures, Forst attends only to his own needs. Not once does Forst ask Maria about her day or express interest in Jeannie’s concerns, dreams, or thoughts. When Maria ventures an opinion, he laughs at or silences her. When Jeannie gives voice to her feelings, he turns her words into banter. It’s his needs that come first — he doesn’t have time for anyone else’s. This self-centeredness might spring from aspects of Cassavetes’ own life. He knew well that his bulldog persistence, his all-consuming vision, resulted in frequent insensitivity. (His frequent cameraman Michael Ferris once recalled seeing a note on his desk that read, “Sell Gena’s car for cash.”) When Forst thinks he’s giving of himself — complaining to Maria about the headaches at work he has to endure in order to pay the bills — he cannot see that he is not really giving himself to Maria at all. Significantly, Cassavetes’ identification with Forst as the self-serving husband is balanced by his compassion for his lonely wife Maria. He reserves the tightest close-up of the film for her after she and Forst turn away from each other, their fooling around in bed having turned sour. It’s worth considering how much Maria’s silent suffering might have resembled Gena’s private pain during their tumultuous marriage.

It is when Cassavetes’ male figures feel their manhood threatened that they engage in their most destructive behavior. What precipitates one of the most hurtful scenes in Faces, the moment Forst demands a divorce then stoically telephones Jeannie while standing in front of Maria, is his recollection of her telling him that his jokes were “not all that funny.” His peremptory behavior is meant to belittle, punish, and humiliate because he feels slighted. Nick Longhetti’s (Peter Falk) ego is also the cause of destruction in A Woman Under the Influence, where his decision to commit his wife Mabel (Rowlands) to an asylum is largely based on his inability to control her. Again, it is tempting to read autobiography into Nick’s and Forst’s guilt over backstabbing their respective wives and their efforts to make up for the nightmare scenarios they have visited on their families.

This is a slightly different understanding of Cassavetes than mainly associating him with his free-spirited, mostly female figures. One crucial difference (and one that Ray Carney makes about Mary Hatch in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) is that all of Cassavetes’ women — Lelia, Maria, Minnie, Mabel, Myrtle, Gloria, and Sarah — would be content and fulfilled if they had a loving, caring, stable home life. But domestic tranquility is not enough for Forst as much as it wasn’t for George Bailey and Cassavetes himself. All these men are plagued by unshakeable, inarticulable dreams that, while they remain unrealized, drive them to angry, destructive behavior. Forst’s slamming of the kitchen pantry door while looking for a cigarette echoes George Bailey’s frustration slamming his car door, about to throw the banister orb, or knocking his bridge model over in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Bailey, Forst feels hemmed in, compromised, unfulfilled. They are both yearning to transcend the mundanity of their own lives.

Forst has no guardian angel to save him from despair, but Cassavetes does offer him what Capra denies Bailey: a chance at the very freedom he longs for. But instead of venturing out into the difficult wilderness of what that would entail (such as following through on his threat to leave Maria, for example), Forst dabbles in the easy quasi-freedom of a one-night stand. What he discovers is that Jeannie Rapp’s bedroom is every bit as confining as his own.

Forst’s time alone in Jeannie’s home represents to some degree Cassavetes’ desire for independence, a safe haven away from the restrictive responsibilities of business and family life, a place where he can present himself as more sociable, witty, and gentlemanly than he really is. With Jeannie, whom he has known only for a few hours, he can leave all his unpleasant emotional baggage at the door. Under her nurturing attention, he even surprisingly gives voice to some very un-Forst-like concerns: “Eating meat disturbs me … can you imagine raising poor little chickens and steers and lambs to fill our tummies — now there’s a problem and nobody cares!”

But as soon as this window of intimacy opens, Forst closes it, pushing Jeannie away, telling her that “friends don’t get serious,” couching their interaction in jokes, dancing, singing, and clever wordplay. The morning after they sleep together, he evades Jeannie’s sincere attempts to engage with him. When she tells him he has a beautiful body, he laughs and makes a wisecrack while she looks calmly and lovingly at him. In trying to recapture the playfulness of the previous night, Jeannie tenderly asks, “Why do you hate me now?” The conversation quickly reverts to the inanity of repeating “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” suggesting that stopping to be serious, to open oneself is too heavy, too revealing, too threatening. It would kill the moment. Genuinely opening himself to Jeannie would mean becoming entangled in another set of expectations and responsibilities when what he wants is to feel free, unencumbered, open to the possibility of possibility itself, if only for a few hours.

This desire for escape is shared by the other elder businessmen in the film, Freddie (Fred Draper) and McCarthy (Val Avery), whom Forst is not so different from. When Forst asks Jeannie, “You think I’m one of those gross businessmen? You think I have a secretary pick up the phone and get me whatever I want?” he envisions himself apart from and above his boorish associates. But as we see earlier with Maria, Forst’s self-perception is clouded by ego — in the screening room scene that begins the film, he treats his secretaries in the same domineering way that he now claims to criticize.

Still, there is something fundamentally different about Forst. Freddie and McCarthy find satisfaction in carousing; they feel comfortable and have no qualms complaining about their lives and their wives to Jeannie. But Forst is not only more tactful in not mentioning Maria to Jeannie, he understands how discussing his wife would destroy the precious open-ended quality of their time together. More importantly, Forst simply cannot give voice to his private thoughts and feelings because he doesn’t understand them enough himself.

Forst and Jeannie’s final embrace — he singing and chuckling, she in tears — as they continue their “Peter Piper” singsong is an unspoken acknowledgement about the pain they both feel, recognize in each other, and can do nothing about. Neither can say how he or she really feels — whatever it is is inexpressible, unintelligible; it appears that the only course of action open to them lies in diversion, game playing, staying in a kind of meaninglessness perpetual motion in order to keep the void at bay. Again, imagining Forst as John (above, with Rowlands on the set of Faces) and Jeannie as Gena at this moment in particular lends Faces an added complexity and fascination.

Certainly there is something absurd about Forst coming home later that morning, cheerfully singing, “Oh Lord, I’m ready” on his way up the front steps. What in the world is Cassavetes saying here? That Forst thinks he can simply erase the previous night’s horrors by pretending they didn’t happen? Or that he has the resilience to not get bogged down by last night’s events, to brush them off and start anew with the rising sun? That he expects to cajole and charm his wife back into keeping their marriage alive?

The difficult ending of the film, with Richard and Maria silently smoking on the stairs, suggests that continually deflecting real feeling into canned witticisms, puns, and “charm” cannot last. But if this is true, what alternative is there? Jeannie’s way of life is every bit as unsustainable as Richard’s. She too is not built to last. How many more woe-is-me midlife confessions can Jeannie listen to and continue to care about? Cassavetes knew that being open, responsive, and giving like Jeannie is ultimately just as lonely and limiting as being as repressed and uncommunicative as Richard; both options are equally untenable, both equally doomed. Where we find ourselves between these two positions is what Cassavetes demanded that we ask of ourselves as much as he asked it of himself throughout the rest of his life in his subsequent films … films that would not exist had it not been for Faces.