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John Cassavetes – Five Films

A forerunner of independent cinema?

A cinema-verite artiste?

The American incarnation of the French New Wave? Of Dogme?

John Cassavetes was all these and more. He paved the way for the future of self-financed, self-distributed movies in America with Shadows in 1959. After that he never stopped thumbing his nose at the studios and their money-making ‘product,’ going on to direct a string of his own fiercely independent movies until his death in 1989.

He called his movies ‘free’ films. Free not just from studio interference, but also free in his approach and creativity. Cassavetes strived for an openness that removes the artifice between actor and audience. Characters aren’t story devices but human beings, as complex and fully felt as real people. They do some things well and some not so well; they can be tiresome and boring as well as smart and funny; at times you want be with them and times you don’t. His movies are about the inevitable pain of not succeeding yet still going on with the struggle. They’re about the actors creating people’s lives.

His technique was to use the script as a starting point and go with whatever happened during the filming. The huge amount of footage would sometimes take years in editing, and he’d be financing himself by acting in big money movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen. He frequently used hand-held cameras, letting the actors improvise on and on and on, then cutting to intense close-ups of their every twitch and nuance. It’s a wide open, go-for-broke style that’s unlike anything you’ll see from another director.

When this works it’s powerful and memorable. When it doesn’t, you’ll be pressing fast forward or want to give up on the film all together. And Cassavetes can put viewers through this several times in the same movie. Too often the actors are struggling in front of the camera. The mugging and hollering (particularly in Faces) is supposed to reveal some kind of truth, but it’s just unwatchable.

Stick with it. When his movies come together you’ll come away feeling spent, but exhilarated, and anticipating more: Like the sequence in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) where Peter Falk looks across the dinner table at his mentally ill wife (Gena Rowlands) with great love yet fears her inevitable breakdown at the same time. When the married couple at the end of Faces (1968) is so angry they can’t speak, yet they sit together in their stairway moving around like chess pieces trying to communicate. And the sequence in The Killing (1978) where Ben Gazzara, as a strip-club owner, rides in the back of a limousine with his bevy of dancers, knowing full well he’s a fifth rate Hugh Hefner, yet proud as a new papa to be with his girls.

The famous woman behind the man was his wife and creative muse Gena Rowlands. She’s in three of these films and her portrayal as a crazy housewife in A Woman Under the Influence received an Academy Award nomination, unheard of at that time for an independent film. It’s a showy, improvisational part that’s terrific to watch, but she’s even better in Opening Night (1977). Playing a drunken, middle-aged stage actress who’s terrified of getting older, she repeatedly sets the entire cast and crew into a rage as they go into rehearsal for their next play. She constantly behaves in appalling ways, making herself the center of everything , so everyone has to shift around their lives because of her mess. Cassavetes was alcoholic, and this great performance by Rowlands is puts his undisguised alter ego on the screen. Why, this movie asks, do people put up with such dreadful behavior? In the last sequence Cassavetes shows us the answer.

Film lovers need to stand up and give the brilliant folks of Criterion Collection another admiring salute for putting together this remarkable collection. Along with the usual commentaries and some telling interviews with Rowlands and Gazzara, there’s one cinéma-vérité French documentary of Cassavetes giving a tour of the studio in his home, and another three-hour documentary called A Constant Forge — a must for any current or future independent filmmakers who want to know what it takes to get it done.

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