Like the ancient Gods and Goddesses of his ancestral home, Greek-American film director John Cassavetes has become a somewhat mythic creature among film buffs. The Internet has been flooded with critical analyses of the Cassavetes oeuvre of groundbreaking works. The name John Cassavetes has become synonymous with independent cinema. Internet Movie Database calls the director “a pioneer of American cinema verite” and a few years ago, a photograph of John from his film Husbands was turned into a stamp honoring his contributions in American Cinema. In researching not only the critical responses to his films, but his background, and the movies themselves (with an emphasis on Faces), I’ve discovered a new appreciation for the man whose entire career was dedicated to analyzing breakdowns in man/woman communication and our undying need for love.
Educated at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, John Casavetes began his career as an actor although most critics, including Leonard Maltin, consider his early work to be too heavily influenced by the method actors such as Brando and Dean to be authentic. His father wasn’t initially thrilled by John’s aspirations to act but according to Cassavetes expert, Ray Carney, he advised John to work hard since he must portray human emotions truthfully and felt that portraying emotion was a noble thing. John auditioned for the Actor’s Studio but was denied acceptance and became a better actor as he went on, ultimately learning his craft by teaching others to help raise funds for future movies he wanted to direct. He fell in love with a photograph of Gena Rowlands and told others that she would become his wife although due to his jealous nature, it took awhile to convince Rowlands to agree but the two eventually married in 1954 and stayed married until his death in 1989.
Cassavetes felt that love was the primary emotion that impacted everything in life and he burst onto the filmmaking scene with Shadows in 1959, a film about interracial relationships that came out of classroom improvisation and conversations. The jazzy, informal feel of the film helped John find Hollywood work but after disagreements with studio executives and a notable fight with a prominent director, John realized that he couldn’t please himself and Hollywood at the same time. He wanted to make films his way—telling the kind of stories with which real people could identify. John made the process the mission, spending years with his wife Gena and friends such as Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara developing unflinching films about love and the complex dynamic of man/woman relationships. Peter Falk has always stated that John “didn’t have a copy- cat bone in his body,” and summed up his friend’s work as follows:
“Every Cassavetes film is always about the same thing. Somebody said ‘Man is God in ruins’ and John saw the ruins with a clarity that you and I could not tolerate.” (IMDb)
John’s cinematic influences were many, although surprisingly his favorite film director was Frank Capra. However his low-budget, honest, homemade work was the farthest thing from Capra’s sunny view of American life, although those who knew him best adamantly stress that John was not a pessimistic man. Leonard Maltin states that Cassavetes’ inexpensive, experimental “features were American counterparts to the films that were the product of France’s New Wave,” however, in my mind, I believe they have their strongest roots in the neorealist cinema that came out of Italy in World War II. Faces, which Maltin described as a “harrowing treatise on the disintegration of a marriage,” was the definitive Cassavetes film and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
John Cassavetes’ meticulously written screenplay for Faces had reached the two hundred fifty-page mark before the director had even reached the halfway point in the story he wanted to tell. Passionate about humanity and the honest, raw emotions he wanted to represent, Cassavetes decided that he and his friends would shoot all of it documentary style. Contrary to the popular belief that all of Cassavetes’ films were improvised on the spot, each work was scripted thoughtfully by John based on rehearsals and improvisations before the camera was brought in. John rewrote and questioned things throughout the film shoots and even famously reconsidered killing off the Chinese bookie character in his film named The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Faces began with only ten thousand dollars and the money quickly ran out. Cassavetes’ friends and wife remained loyal to their commitment to Faces while John went off to Hollywood and acted in Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen (which earned him an Academy Award nomination) in order to fund the film that ended with a two hundred thousand dollar budget. The finished product was released in 1968 and film critic Roger Ebert called it an astonishing achievement, arguing that to him, Cassavetes had crafted “a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly examines the way we really live.”
The unpredictably messy movies of John Cassavetes have been deemed embarrassing in some circles for their unflinching honesty and freewheeling style but the one constant is that each film managed to ask of its audiences deeper questions about life than typical movies of the 1960’s time period, as a Columbia University professor noted on the documentary A Constant Forge. Cassavetes didn’t consider his movies to be entertainment and said that he had a one-track mind dedicated to analyzing love and the lack of love in man/woman relationships.
Some consider his films to be hardest on the masculine characters since he portrays men in often ugly ways—the wasted by-product of bottled up emotions, fake public expressions and phony personae and Cassavetes exposed their weaknesses vividly. He was just as critical, but gentler, to the women in his films and, as Gena Rowlands said, John had an innate understanding and love for women and hated the one-dimensional Hollywood roles being offered to actresses (like his wife) that he admired. On film, John illustrated that he realized their need to always try to be perfect and understood that men discover earlier that they can’t be perfect (Rowlands thinks this could be attributed to men being socially accepted to play sports), yet women continually strive for perfection. Man or woman, John Cassavetes considered all individuals to be jewels to be celebrated with passion and compassion, however he never let himself forget that we’re all just a bit crazy, and in his films, spontaneous crazy dialogue bursts out of seemingly everyday characters often. Cassavetes admirer Sean Penn noticed that every three to four minutes in his films, a sort of light bulb would go off in the heads of the characters and they must awaken from their sleepwalk, turning in yet another direction. Critic Adrian Martin shared a similar take in a Senses of Cinema article which also quotes from Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassvetes: The Adventure of Insecurity, when he says that the characters “’can go through dozens upon dozens of incremental, zig-zagging swerves of expression’ without ever really trying to reconstruct, demonstrate and interpret that second-to-second action.”
Adrian Martin explained that, “Cassavetes’ films open to us slowly, like flowers, gradually revealing their emotional and physical terrains. Each of his films is a distinct, strange planet with its own secret rules and hidden lines of force.” When one puts together the puzzle pieces of dialogue, gesture and facial expression that these nearly bipolar characters possess onscreen, it can take a long while after the film has ended in order to fully understand what has been shown and time is a recurring factor both in the lives of the characters and for those watching a Cassavetes film. The films, according to Effie Rassos in Senses of Cinema, lead to “problematizing the divide between the film and viewer.” The end result of this break-down, Rassos explains, “is a filmic and spectatorial practice marked by crisis and anxiety, one that is continual and never resolved, a crisis that may force a reconsideration of the everyday itself.” Often a second viewing is necessary, especially in Faces to fully appreciate the subtle nuances and textures of each scene. Rassos discusses a theory developed by George Kouvaros when she says that the cinema of Cassavetes is filled with seemingly uncomfortable moments of dead time. However, instead of dead time, “these moments… are in fact charged and dynamic, whereby the notion of performance is opened up to include both character and actor, film and life.” Time in his films has been the subject of many critical analyses and the temporality constructed by Cassavetes in Faces, to George Kouvaros, “is the one that directly animates the performances within the film.”
While A Woman Under the Influence has been named a national treasure and inducted into the Library of Congress’ Film Registry, Faces has always been, to me, the strongest and most quintessential work of Cassavetes. Faces begins with a post-modern device. John Marley, who received an award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, portrays a wealthy business executive named Dickie who enters a film screening—the film is said to be controversial and the men screening it seem nervous. The lights go out, the film comes on and it’s Faces—the Cassavetes film has begun. Later, Dickie and Freddie, (a coworker) and friend go to a prostitute’s home. Jeanie, the prostitue, played by Gena Rowlands, is a woman who does not believe in friendship. The three dance around the room boisterously from alcohol consumed earlier until suddenly, Freddie gets jealous of Jeanie’s attention to Dickie and asks Jeanie to name her price. The mood changes; Jeanie is offended by Freddie and the men leave.
Once Dickie arrives home, he and his wife Maria (played by newcomer Lynn Carlin, whom John met when she was a secretary for Screen Gems Entertainment) joke about sex, Freddie, and gender issues. Again, in a typically spontaneous Casssavetes moment that comes out of nowhere, Dickie announces that he wants a divorce from his equally repressed wife and telephones Jeanie to make a date, as Maria stares on in shock. The two early spontaneous outbursts of Freddie with the prostitute and Dickie with Maria are what Cassavetes is most known for including in his films. In Effie Rassos’ article, she discusses Pamela Robertson Wojcik’s argument that in Cassavetes’ films, “what we see most often are moments of failure in which everyday performance breaks down and characters experience a split between the social front and the personal front.” These outbursts are so revealing to the audience because just like people who are neither good nor evil all the time, they’re real and they make you evaluate a character you may have incorrectly assumed you had figured out in a whole new light. The outbursts make the characters shed a defensive layer of armor and reveal more of themselves than they do in their careful, self-conscious public persona. It’s these constant questioning bits of dialogue and the ugliness that’s included in the grainy film edit that make his work so disturbing to some because you realize you’re not seeing movie heroes on the screen but real people to whom you can relate.
The rest of the film follows Dickie and Maria as they deal with the aftermath of the topic of divorce as he goes over to Jeanie’s and Maria goes with three other women to a nightclub and bring home a hippie named Chet. Both Maria and Dickie end up having one-night stands (with Chet and Jeanie respectively) but the way each of them deal with their evenings is fascinating to watch when you realize just how clueless and separate they’ve become that they barely know how to interact with others. Roger Ebert described Dickie and Maria the best in his 1968 review of the film:
“The central characters are middle-aged, middle-class, and rather ordinary: a man and his wife. They have everything in the world they desire, except love and a sense of personal accomplishment. They’ve become consumers in the most cruel sense of that word: Their only identity is as economic beings who earn and spend money to sustain a meaningless existence. They don’t do anything, or make anything, or create anything. They use.”
One of the most often discussed scenes in the film takes place after Maria and her three friends have brought home a young hippie named Chet, brilliantly and sensitively played by Seymour Casssel. The three youngest women (including Maria) are baffled as to how to behave—first music is put on as they dance around but then the evening turns into an awkwardly polite tea party without the tea as they discuss polite things and Chet realizes that these are not the type of women who normally bring strange men home. The eldest woman of the group is the most sexually free and desperate—she dances with Chet, asks him to kiss her (which he does obligingly) and finally asks him to take her home. The idea that an older woman could crave the simple sexual contact of dancing and kissing that the repressed younger women overlook must have been quite shocking to viewers in 1968 as most audiences try not to think that their mothers and grandmothers might actually enjoy or welcome a sex life.
Chet is a curious character—a hippie prophet who keeps contradicting himself—you never quite figure out if he’s being serious, if he’s amused by the women or genuinely cares. He seems sincere when he says that although he isn’t religious, he reached out to Maria’s table of women at the club like he was Jesus since he couldn’t bear to see someone trying to join in and not knowing how. He adds that it looked like they were all about to break into tears at any moment. The women like this flirtation with danger, in having Chet to themselves and like the safety in numbers when they admit that their husbands are scared of men like him—scared of losing their wives to the young, built Chets of the world. Chet entertains the women with silly suggestive songs but he starts to become aware of Maria’s judging eyes. The scene is typical of Cassavetes in the way that characters seem to think and react sometimes nonsensically right before our eyes in actions some felt were banal and too improvisational. Effie Rassos explains:
“… the interaction between the characters in this scene, much like the entire film, is an unpredictable and often ambiguous game. All the talk, and more importantly, all the time that we are presented with here does not essentially explain these characters nor the way the scene will eventually play out. What we fundamentally encounter here is a ‘non-event’; moments of confusion, unease and uncertainty. Moments filled with ‘nothing of consequence,’ moments of the everyday.”
Maria is the only one of the group not falling for his charm, so naturally she’s the one whom interests him the most. One of the younger women begins dancing with him but by this time he’s realized how it seems and stops dancing, saying that he and the woman are making fools of themselves as Maria’s self-conscious nature has affected him as well. The woman in question gets defensive and leaves and other women follow, including the oldest woman whom Chet drives home in Maria’s car.
Later, Chet returns to Maria’s and the two make love although he awakens to discover that she had tried to kill herself with pills. After an excruciatingly graphic sequence for the viewer to watch, Chet revives her and helps bring forth the theme of the movie with a memorable speech. He tells her he doesn’t believe in God but that he’d prayed for her to make it and that in this world, nobody cares or has the time to be vulnerable to each other. Armor, according to Chet, goes on like a defense and people become mechanical (including him) in order to hide.
The morning after both Dickie and Maria’s one night stands is very telling as the characters in both incidents are unsure what to do or how much armor they should remove. It’s heartbreaking to watch as Dickie returns home, Chet escapes out the bedroom window, onto the roof and down the street. Afterwards, Dickie and Maria argue and then seem to call a truce as they smoke on the steps and each walk up and down the stairs of their home. They seem unable or unwilling to communicate effectively except in shocking, accusation filled complaints and exclamations but it’s very brief and the dialogue seems to stop just as quickly as it had begun. The two sort of walk around each other, ignoring and leaving space for one another (moving legs out of the way on stairs), and the effect is eerie—there’s so much they’re not saying and so much they’ve internalized that it’s frustrating to watch. To quote Effie Rassos, “there is no conclusion,” for just like life, there is “just a break in the drama.”
The ending of Faces recalls the beginning of the film in the screening room where a nervous filmmaker is afraid of showing a film that may upset or shock the character of Dickie. Once the film plays at the start, Dickie’s story begins—and like Dickie, the audience realizes that the film being shown could be the story of any of our lives if we don’t recognize our own mechanical instincts and repressed way of communicating with one another. As a writer, the thing that always gets to me when watching a film like Faces is as Effie Rassos says, the way the film, “seems to continually emphasize the tension between a ‘nothing happening’ (that ruptures an idea of classical narrative) and the possibility of anything happening (in time).” When the characters banter, act ugly and reveal themselves, the writer in me wants it to be more polished and wants the dialogue to flow logically to better assess the situation. However, it’s good for me to watch the films of Cassavetes—to understand that life doesn’t always go from point A to point B and that sometimes, some of the things we say just don’t make a lot of sense. The fun in watching his movies is the same as it is in life, picking out the pieces that do make sense and trying to figure out what it all means to you as an individual. And indeed, researching John Cassavetes and reading the countless articles and reviews available online, in addition to spending time watching Faces and the documentary A Constant Forge helped me appreciate and understand Cassavetes in a new light.
Bibliography Cassavetes, John. John Cassavetes: Five Films. The Criterion Collection; 2004. Ebert, Roger. Faces. www.rogerebert.com. 4/14/06 IMDb. John Cassavetes. 4/11/06. www.imdb.com/name/nm0001023/bio Kiselyak, Charles. A Constant Forge—The Life and Art of John Cassavetes. Castle Hill Productions; 2000. Martin, Adrian. John Cassavetes: Inventor of Forms. 4/11/06 www. sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/`16/cassavetes_forms.html Rassos, Effie. Performing the everyday: time and affect in John Cassavetes’ Faces. 4/11/06 www.sensesofcinema. com/contents/01/16/cassavetes_faces.html
John Cassavetes: A Critical Perspective By Jen Johans