While I’m catching up on my blog today, I thought I’d add an essay I wrote last semester on three films by one of my favourite directors, John Cassavetes, starring one of my favourite actors, Gena Rowlands. Written in the midst of production of my second short film for this year, it was a bit beyond me to fully structure these thoughts in the way I would have liked to, but I found this a very useful exercise in interrogating the work of one of avant-garde cinema’s true mavericks. Cassavetes is another filmmaker to keep in mind when gathering the courage to attempt what might be a beautiful failure or just an ugly disaster rather than something more achievable, and less extraordinary.
The films of John Cassavetes (1929 – 1989) eschew many of the stylistic, narrative and generic influences of cinematic tradition, which can be appreciated when pulling apart his vibrant and distinctive body of work as an independent filmmaker working outside the studio system. Cassavetes’ disruption of conventional approaches to genre, narrative and style can be found to varying degrees in three of his films chosen from the 12 in total he directed between 1956 and 1986: A Woman Under The Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977) and Gloria (1980). While the master narrative of Cassavetes’ films can be thought of as the revealing of the performative mask of identity that each of us wear in our daily lives, and the “style-less style” he pitted against the gloss of Hollywood can be observed in each of these films, Gloria represents Cassavetes’ decision at various points in his career to veer more towards accepted modes of style and narrative, even to the point of invoking, though once again disturbing, elements of genre. In order to examine these films it is helpful to make reference to Cassavetes own description of his cinematic project, and to how his films have been treated by critics and academics, both whom tended to ignore or deride Cassavetes’ work during his lifetime. It is important to consider the prolific body of work on Cassavetes and his films that has been created by the staunchly anti-commercial academic, Ray Carney, and also to examine critics who illustrate Cassavetes’ influence in more recent avant-garde film practice such as the Dogme ’95 movement.
Ray Carney has focused on Cassavetes’ work for much of his career, having written many books on this his favourite subject, which have been partly responsible for reviving academic interest in his films. Christos Tsiolkas refers to Carney’s righteous fury about the lack of recognition Cassavetes received in his lifetime in the online film journal Senses of Cinema: “a righteousness which can seem defensive and contemptuous of any accommodation to Hollywood” (Tsolkias 2001). As Carney indicates, Cassavetes films are problematic to the traditions of mainstream cinema, and film criticism, alike. A fruitful critique of Cassavetes’ films should not only investigate how the poetry of his visual metaphor or cinematographic virtuosity measure up against the work of other directors (or they will simply be found wanting), but should include an emphasis on the elements he chose to focus on as a director, mainly character and performance, and his motivations for achieving a “style-less style” (Carney 1985).
Cassavetes’ films are like most directors’ nightmares of what their film might turn out like if they let the actors take over – stylistic and formal elements are subservient to performance. An interview in Playboy magazine, conducted not long after the release of Husbands (1970), clearly shows Cassavetes’ antagonism towards cinematic processes beyond performance: “Aside from cameramen, everyone else on a set is the actor’s natural enemy, because they don’t give a damn about what they’re doing. You’ve got to go to war with people like that.” Whereas, as one of Cassavetes most frequently used actors Ben Gazzara has said, actors are given free reign: “John creates an atmosphere where an actor can do no wrong” (Playboy 1971).
Ray Carney goes to great length to justify Cassavetes’ choice not to focus upon certain stylistic decisions – including formal elements designed to enhance the emotional or symbolic meaning in the scene such as the lack of “mood-music orchestrations” (Carney 1985). Cassavetes re-shot his first movie Shadows, as he felt it to be too reliant on techniques employed to manipulate the film experience – camera angles, lighting, music, other than the actors’ performance. As can be seen in A Woman Under The Influence, Cassavetes chooses not to always follow conventions such as the building of a rhythm of shot-sizes from wide, through mid-shots and over-the-shoulder shots to close-ups. He doesn’t tend to utilise perspectives such as a low-angle to indicate a character’s dominance, or dramatic lighting to indicate the importance (higher key), mystery (silhouettes or profile lighting) or scariness (lighting from below) of his characters. It is also important, however, to keep in mind the budget constraints Cassavetes has as an independent filmmaker, and his lack of formal training as a film director, which would have played an important role in many of his stylistic decisions. When complimented on his optical techniques using hand-held camera in Shadows (1956), Cassavetes countered “You stupid bastard. I couldn’t afford a tripod.” (Playboy 1971). Angelos Koutsourakis makes a comparison between Cassavetes work and that of the Dogme ’95 movement, referring to the Dogme practices of shooting on location, using hand-held camera, and the avoidance of extra-diagetic music as stylistic choices inherited from Cassavetes (Koutsourakis 2009).
Yet despite his maverick tendencies, certain basic stylistic and formal conventions are very much adhered to in the films of John Cassavetes. His actors perform roles in front of a film camera, to a script (his work is largely scripted, rather than improvised, as is sometimes assumed). His films are shot at locations or on sets that represent settings that are the real, often ordinary and domestic, places the middle-classes inhabit. His dialogue is either recorded on location, or post-synced to represent the way people converse in reality. Elements of mise-en-scene are not unfamiliar from what we find in conventional film drama, and don’t signal to us as an audience that we are watching an “art” film. The experimental nature of his work is to be found in the actors’ performance of their roles, the delivery of their lines, and the narratives that are constructed largely from the volatile motivations of these characters. Rather than following carefully orchestrated plot-points and essentialised character transformations, his narratives seem directed in a calculatedly haphazard fashion from one moment of conflict to another, exploring the performative extremes of personality. His films tend not to manipulate emotional response along a familiar arc, but prefer to veer off the path, and tear screaming around unexpected dramatic corners.
Cassavetes described his cinematic aims using the key terms “human”, “life” and “feeling” (Carney 1985). He was committed to developing original methods of directing his actors to push the boundaries of cinema, to get at what he saw as a new kind of truth in filmmaking. Yet the truth to be found in Cassavetes films is not in the realism of an exchange between his characters. It is the volatility and unpredictability of human nature, and the unreal nature of identity. Paradoxically, these truths about humanity are figured in an exaggerated and non-realistic fashion – the turbulence of human experience is externalised in a performative, and often unconvincing fashion. Yet this is a truth about experience that can’t be more eloquently purveyed. As can be seen particularly in A Woman Under The Influence, Cassavetes’ characters try to convince themselves of a course of action, with all the desperation bound up in not knowing what to do, before plunging off blindly in another direction. Koutsourakis refers to Cassavetes’ cinematic aim of discovering “truth” as finding a corollary in the Dogme ’95 movement, whose manifesto states a Dogme director’s “supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings” (Koutsourakis 2009).
Carney refers to the dominant mode of cinema as the “visionary/symbolic aesthetic”, which Cassavetes work contradicts (Carney 1994, p. 3). This cinematic mode which was dominant during Cassavetes working life as a director, which Carney differentiates Cassavetes from, does tend to essentialise and simplify story elements, editing out the boring or contradictory parts and the parts that are hard to understand. We can often be left with the reductive fundamentals, embellished with visual metaphor and sensory stimulus – rather than the cacophonous and conflicting disharmony of human stories, which can be found in A Woman Under The Influence, and Opening Night.
Given that Cassavetes chooses not to employ many of the stylistic techniques and narrative conventions found in mainstream cinema, many of his choices come down to performance and the messy, intricate narrative of each of his characters. In A Woman Under the Influence, Nick Longhetti (played by the charmingly wall-eyed Peter Falk) is torn between his natural instincts towards loving acceptance of his wife Mabel (performed captivatingly by Gena Rowlands) and her odd behaviour, and his terror and rage at how this behaviour conflicts with societal convention. He feels responsible as the man of the house for how she reflects upon him and the family, and vacillates between furiously blaming society on the one hand, and his wife on the other. Mabel represents a terrifying vulnerability, which is seized upon early in the film by a man who takes advantage of her in her drunken and emotionally turbulent state. Mabel’s vulnerability is Nick’s Achilles’ Heel, the chink in the armour of his masculinity.
To the family, to Nick’s workmates, and to their suburban society, Mabel represents a threat to the safety and comfort of their conventional middle-class lives. She is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, despite her own attempts to control her behaviour when she senses at times the extent to which she disturbs others. She attempts to adopt a more acceptable identity to please Nick, when she says, “Tell me what you want me to be. I can be anything”. Mabel operates on a much more sensitive and childlike emotional plane, which exposes the phoniness of everybody else around her, and thus cannot be tolerated. When Mabel feels like having fun, she will sing and dance, and beckon others to join her. When distraught she will walk the streets looking for a drink, and an escape.
In contrast Nick is constantly aware of himself, attempting to shut down his emotional responses, unsuccessfully. From society’s point of view it is Mabel who is crazy, but this is a very male-chauvinist stance, given that the facts show Nick’s behaviour to be even crazier. It is Nick who threatens to kill his wife and children, who drags his kids around at the beach and gets them drunk on the way home (teaching them to turn to alcohol in moments of despair). It is he who shakes his colleague’s safety rope in a fit of rage (fuelled by his embarrassment about Mabel) causing him to tumble down a rocky slope and be seriously injured. Aggression, rage, violence, acting-out and drunkenness are all acceptable male behaviours, Nick’s masculine rights as the head of the household. Mabel’s overly affectionate, gleeful, self-harming or otherwise eccentric behaviours are interpreted as intolerable female hysterics.
While Gena Rowland’s Mabel is a fairly convincing (and utterly compelling) portrayal of a woman whose emotional distress has stunted her social behaviour and pushed her almost to psychosis, Nick is harder to understand as the foolish husband who is beyond knowing what to do, or how to react. His inner conflict is plausible, but the manner in which it is externalised is hard to fathom. One minute he strikes Mabel in front of the children, trying to contain her eccentricities, another he is shaking Mabel, telling her to be herself, drawing out her nutty behaviour, just at the moment she is trying so hard to conform to societal expectations, in order to avoid being committed again. Peter Falk is given free reign to let these conflicting forces play out in the scene, thus Cassavetes is using performance to highlight these aspects of his character, which might have been handled through the use of visual or auditory symbolic cues by other directors. But there are moments of expressional truth to be found that are unlike those in the work of any other director, in the way that Mabel’s face crumples as she’s caught in the midst of Nick’s barrage of confusing signals, or in the way Nick drags his young daughter forcibly across the sand at their “day at the beach” he has bizarrely concocted to distract his children from their mother’s committal to a psychiatric institution.
People often refer to Cassavetes’ body of work as an “actor’s cinema”. This is true in many senses – firstly the director himself was an accomplished actor, from a theatre background who later became a well-known actor in films and TV series (largely as a means of financing his own work as a director). The performances of actors in his films are also the primary communicators of meaning (however fragmented this meaning may be) as opposed to other formal elements. His cast members do not merely perform monumental symbolic actions of figure expression, but occupy their screen time with myriad actions of a more minute nature. For example, you would be unlikely to see a character in a Cassavetes film do something as simple as ride off into the sunset on his motorbike. He would be more likely to ride off on his motorbike in the middle of a conversation, get caught in traffic, make faces at girls in a limousine, veer off the road to stop for a packet of cigarettes, find he has no money, plead with an old lady for some change, end up in an argument with her, and so on. Cassavetes would also be likely to choose the take where the actor dropped his bike, his performative mask slipped, and a genuine smile or grimace emerged from underneath. In fact, what advances a Cassavetes film are not so much plot points, but moments of conflict interspersed with elements of an actor’s “business”, the things that occupy her while she is busy expressing herself. Smoking cigarettes, drinking copious glasses of whiskey and having an argument would be enough to propel many a scene, if not an entire movie.
The influence of Cassavetes’ community of actor friends and colleagues, and his family of actors (given his marriage to Gena Rowlands) is clear. Speaking in Playboy of casting for Minnie and Moscowitz (1971) Cassavetes said, ”As the casting may indicate, I believe totally in nepotism”. When asked why this was the case, he replied in true Cassavetes clownish trouble-making style, “Because it impresses the hell out of my family and friends”. A Woman Under The Influence, Opening Night and Gloria, all feature Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, in a starring role. Rowlands face is his most expressive performative surface, which catches the dynamic, shifting moments of truth he was determined throughout his career to capture. Gena Rowlands is watchable in the way that Al Pacino is watchable – you don’t even care what she does before the camera, you are bound to be transfixed – though in these three films Cassavetes gives her more to explore as a performer than most actors (and especially actresses) would enjoy in a lifetime in film.
It is easy to imagine (though unfair to assume) how life might have imitated art in the Cassavetes’ household, how the performative qualities of their acting lives may have impacted on a scene played around the Cassavetes dinner table, and how art might have imitated life in return. While Cassavetes’ characters appear unconvincing at times with their vamping and extremes of expression, they would all make more sense if they were scripted as actors themselves (as is the case in Opening Night), who are naturally more prone to externalising or performing versions of their emotional interiors. This “theatrical” quality in his characters means they are likely to express an abstraction of the way they are feeling, rather than something more direct. The surface characters show to each other, and to the audience, is not just the standard modification of underlying emotion that any person makes when negotiating a social situation, but it has been given an extra theatrical twist. Cassavetes characters endlessly play games with each other, though they may not be conscious of this in what they believe to be their sincerest moments. An audience who expects any of the usual styles of cinematic performance – from melodrama through to realism – will naturally be put off guard by Cassavetes’ decisions in this regard. The viewer must watch several of his films to begin to understand this new language of performance, to start to get the hang of a Cassavetes’ character, and feel at ease with the unpredictability and lack of inherent, stable, meaning in his narratives. Cassavetes’ narratives do contain plenty of meaning, but they do not hold the totalising meaning of other narratives, instead they involve a multiplicity of fractured meanings for each character, which themselves are always to be seen as in flux.
When it comes to narrative, performance and character, Koutsourakis observes, “the major point of convergence between Cassavetes and the Dogme movement is an oppositional realist form that blurs the boundaries between being and performing.” Opening Night is key in terms of this blurring of performance and real life. In the film, Cassavetes and his wife Rowlands play ex-lovers, Myrtle and Maurice, who themselves perform roles as partners in a play within the film. These layers of confusion between life and performance drive Myrtle towards an identity crisis, which threatens her sanity. When Myrtle and Maurice are on stage together, playing a heated scene as the bitter, drunken couple Virginia and Marty, Marty/Maurice/Cassavetes strikes Virginia/Myrtle/Rowlands, and the audience is left uncomfortably unsure as to what part of this scene is performance, and what is not. Further to this, the audience is left to wonder what part of reality is not in some sense performance, a central concern of Cassavetes, most strikingly observed in this scene.
At the end of A Woman Under the Influence, Nick and Mabel have a terrific fight. In his rage Nick hits Mabel, she and the children run from him around the house, in fear, as he threatens to kill them all. In the final minutes however, Nick and Mabel come together, resolve their dispute and tuck the children lovingly into bed, telling each other they’ve gotten through the night, and that everything is okay. This neat suturing of a raw dramatic wound is simultaneously stupendously unbelievable, utterly truthful, and possibly a comment on the saccharine trend towards neat resolution to be found in much mainstream cinema. In the most immediate sense you cannot believe that these two could make up their huge differences so easily. Considering this again, though perhaps in reality the scene would not play out in such a heightened dramatic performative state, this is indeed an insight into the eye of the storm in many a troubled relationship, the moments of denial and blind optimism that can sustain a damaged familial dynamic. And finally, this almost throw-away “happy” ending seeks to protest the finality and resolution of most cinematic endings, whether they be “happy” or “sad”, which either way tend to contradict the reality of human experience. The narrative of our lives is constantly being told, and re-told. An event that occurred in the past may hold a certain meaning at that moment, then feel resolved by events experienced later in life, only to be thrown open again by subsequent events and changes in ourselves. We are constantly telling ourselves that we live and learn. The truth is that our experiences do pile on top of each other, shedding light on what has gone before, but the meaning we extract from this shifts and changes over time, as do our emotions, motivations and perspectives. The Cassavetes narrative echoes this fluxional experience, rather than simplifying elements from a story to support a particular meaning, frozen in time.
Within the mainstream of film we are taught that our films must be reducible to a basic theme, an arguable statement that may considered in the positive and negative throughout, but comes to a firm resolution by the end, either way. Thus film is a way of manufacturing seemingly complex character explorations that are in fact neat, simplistic understandings about life, ideally presented in an entertaining, ideally hair-raising, but ultimately re-asssuring manner. Films must be adequately resolved, and no messy inconclusive scenes will be tolerated, as they will leave the audience ultimately unsatisfied. Given this approach to film, it is true that Cassavetes films are often unsatisfying. Koutsourakis recalls Bertolt Brecht’s similar rejection of dramatic catharsis, as a political decision designed to leave space for an audience to participate rather than passively consume a more digestible dramatic outcome (Koutsourakis 2009).
In A Woman Under The Influence, Gloria, and Opening Night, a more open-minded audience can appreciate this rejection of conventional narrative standards that is in itself a political act designed to challenge the commerciality of the studio tradition. Though perhaps Cassavetes aims could be considered to be more spiritual or philosophical than political, or at least that his discernable filmic ideology would extend beyond the immediate social and political concerns of the day. It is clear that the director equates living (in terms of both existence itself, and the potential one has to maximise one’s life experience) with a more truthfully chaotic experience. In Gloria, Gloria Swenson makes the dangerous (and ultimately fatal) decision to leave her comfort zone to save a small boy from a mafia revenge killing, but lives and loves more in her final days than she ever could whilst comfortably ensconced in her apartment. In A Woman Under The Influence, Nick Longhetti chooses middle-class convention over Mabel and her troubling freedom of expression, to the detriment of his young family. In Opening Night, Myrtle disturbs everyone around her as her personality disintegrates into a psychotic fear of aging, as she attempts to preserve her illusion of youth, before ultimately confronting and conquering her inner demons – only to take the stage (to perform her life) once more.
In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel Longhetti is finally committed to a mental institution by her husband and the family doctor, as her eccentric behaviour proves too much for one suburban family to handle. The family convince themselves loudly of the merits of this decision, despite the fact that it becomes clear that the only real results of these actions have been to cause deep trauma to a mother and her children at their separation. People in Cassavetes’ films don’t make the right decisions. They don’t embark on a journey of self-discovery, whereby various events and truth-tellers they encounter on the way help them to resolve an internal imbalance and learn to be better people. This is a fantasy – it happens in (other people’s) movies, it doesn’t happen in real life. In real life people do learn, but they don’t always learn the right lesson – and if they do, their experiences may cut both ways, giving them emotional baggage to carry into their emotional scenario. The sour-tasting flipside of a freshly baked Hollywood home-truth, could in reality be damaging emotional trauma.
The closest any of these three films come to a particular film genre, other than the broad category of drama, is Gloria. But Gloria is a gangster movie that defies as much as replicates elements of this genre. The film is set in a big mean city (New York City) and contains shoot-outs, moral conflicts, suited henchmen and their mob bosses, and (particularly unusually for a Cassavetes film) a stunt involving a motor vehicle, like many a gangster movie. But the film’s protagonist contradicts genre through the basic elements of her femininity, and classically feminine motivations. The plot advances with Gloria’s attempts to protect a small child against a city rife with mobsters on the look out for the boy Phil. At the beginning of the film she reluctantly helps him make his narrow escape, as the rest of his family are murdered by the mafia, in revenge for his father’s informing to the F.B.I. As the film progresses, she becomes increasingly attached to Phil, who evokes maternal instincts she has previously buried, in favour of pursuing a comfortable retirement on her own terms, without responsibilities to anyone but her cat. She ultimately sacrifices her own life to defend this innocent Puerto-Rican boy who has been caught in the crossfire, in contradiction to the pursuit of status and power to be found at the heart of most gangster anti-heroes. Rather than being pulled into the mafia’s influence despite any tendencies towards a moral existence, Gloria betrays the mobsters, shooting the guys she refers to on a first-name basis, and ignoring the advice of her uncle.
Gloria parodies the gangster tough-guy, whilst simultaneously turning this character on its head. She is a force to be reckoned with, can wolf whistle a taxi down from a hundred yards, shoot a carful of mobsters dead at point blank range, and tells anyone who bothers her to “take a walk”. But her tough-guy act backfires, when she tests Phil’s commitment to her, giving him a tough-love ultimatum to follow her inside a bar, or go his own way. Phil goes his own way, and Gloria is forced by her conscience and her growing affection for him, to search for him desperately, getting embroiled in another gun-battle and chase-sequence for her pains. Phil makes pathetic attempts to wrestle the power back from Gloria early in the piece, citing the patriarchal legacy handed-down to him from his father before he was murdered (“I am the man! I am the man!”), which only heaps more contempt onto this classic gangster motif of masculinity.
Finally the bizarre fairy-tale ending of Gloria defies the gangster genre, once again rejecting any traditional resolution. Gloria has been (presumably) killed by her ex-lover’s henchmen, in a final attempt to save Phil’s life through negotiation. Given her failure, Phil should be left alone to mourn her in the cemetery in Pittsburg, but instead a dream-like sequence ensues where Gloria returns in the disguise of an old woman, to sweep him up in her arms in emotionally accented slow-motion (a rare use of such an effect by Cassavetes). The viewer can’t help but be confused as to whether this fairytale ending indicates the whole film has been a fairytale, or if it is just a tragically hopeful hallucination on the part of Phil. If the latter, it is a darkly ironic way to finish the film, that takes away the dignity of the image of a boy left alone in a cemetery, surrounded by death. Either way, it feels reckless, even throwaway, and you certainly would not expect to see such an ending in any conventional gangster movie.
In Opening Night, Gloria, and A Woman Under The Influence, Cassavetes chose to favour character and performance as his primary focuses, largely letting these elements dictate narrative, and relegating other stylistic elements to a secondary role. Out of these three films Gloria is the closest to the trend of mainstream cinema, giving us a clue as to how his experiments in performance might have influenced broader cinematic tradition – whereas Opening Night and A Woman Under The Influence are much closer to his vision of a style-less style, and a more pure focus on explorations into character and performance, that have influenced avant-garde filmmakers ever since.
Carney, R 1994, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Carney, R 1985, American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California
Koutsourakis, A C 2009, John Cassavetes: The First Dogme Director?, in Bright Lights Film Journal, accessed 10th May 2009, from http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/63/63cassavetes.html
Playboy Interview: John Cassavetes 1971, Playboy Magazine, July, p. 55
Tsiolkas, C 2001, Meet John Cassavetes, in Senses of Cinema, accessed 10th May 2009, from http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/books/01/16/cassavetes_meet.html