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Cassavetes, for the Spirit and Dialogue

John Cassavetes is still better known for being in The Dirty Dozen in 1967, Rosemary’s Baby the following year. But he used his acting fees from those movies to make his own. He wrote and directed nine films from 1959-1984 so fearless and individual (he is credited with three others but they were not from scripts of his), it is a wonder they were ever made, it is a wonder they are still around (many had been unavailable for several years and two-Minnie and Moskowitz and Love Streams-are still not available on DVD), finally,  it is a wonder for the viewer, who craving something different gets something extraordinary.

The films feel improvised but actually they are not, the dialogue was already in the script. The cinematography is gittery and Cassavetes even pushed his cameraman while shooting a scene to give it a broken look. They were countless hours of rehearsals and takes. Like Ingmar Bergman before him, he developed a stock company of actors. Gena Rowlands (his wife), Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazarra, himself, his mother, his mother-in-law and his children all make regular appearances. The films concern working class people, mothers, fathers, friends, strangers. There are no special effects, no murder/mystery, just raw emotion-people grappling with how to love, with what happiness is.

Husbands, from 1970, concerns three men in the days after they lose their close friend. They are husbands, they have children, but death sends them searching, drinking and regressing to an infantile state. This clip (from the start of the film) begins on the subway with the three main characters before a round of calisthenics. At 7:20 a very long singing contest of sorts begins. The banter on the subway is an example of Cassavetes’ strangely cadenced dialogue. It’s so grossly like real life with half sentences and mumbles that it is ornate.

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) begins with showing one of the main characters, Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel) at work, going to see a movie-he then goes into a diner and talks with a stranger (at 3:15) in one of the most delirious encounters ever captured on film. One reason might be the stranger is played by the infamous Peter Carey, a man so wild Hollywood blackballed him, though he was in two early Kubrick films (The Killing and Paths of Glory). The stranger never returns (can you imagine pitching the studios today a film in which a character who speaks for five of the first nine minutes of the film is never seen again?). The non sequiturs in the stranger’s diatribe is like something out of Donald Barthelme, including the coup de grace to the waitress at the end.

Don’t you just love freckles?

In 1974 comes the masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence. Cassavetes films never had slick distribution deals, he was one of the first American filmmakers to take his films to college campuses to get shown.  Despite this, the film made a huge profit and received Oscar nominations for Actress (Rowlands) and Director(Cassavetes).   Because  Cassavetes used non-union workers on the film (and the film had made a chunk of change), Charlton Heston, then head of the Screen Actors Guild, threatened to sue Cassavetes. It never came to anything.

The film that Viennese director Michael Haneke calls one of the ten greatest films ever, concerns a husband and wife and their three children. Nick (Peter Falk) is a construction worker, his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) a mother. She is acting more and more on the verge of a breakdown. Nick tries to deal with her in this early scene. He has just brought his construction co-workers home early in the morning and what follows is a spaghetti breakfast cooked by Mabel. Most of the workers are non-actors. Again the dialogue is staggering in its naturalism and seemingly random, but artful divergences. I have never seen acting like this on film. It has shattered me again and again to watch it, knowing what the two characters are in for later.

The frustration is aptly captured. The forgiveness real, affecting. Nothing is phony here. Cassavetes shows all the faults and foibles of his characters-he doesn’t hide anything, neither do they.

Later in the film the breakdown does come. At 2:48 in this clip Mabel gives a speech about her life. Every time I watch this I finally grok the meaning of catharsis.

Ultimately Mabel returns to her family after a stay in the hospital, but we then see that maybe her husband was the one who should have been there too. The climax is incredible, almost unbearable. but it is a very rich art. It is the equivalent of the last scene of King Lear. I hope you will rent this film.

Ultimately Cassavetes died of alcoholism at 59. His characters represent himself-crazy, hard but soft, hard-drinking, searching, laughing, joking, wanting love. His influence on film is still misunderstood and underappreciated. There would not be the Scorsese in the fashion that is Scorsese without Cassavetes. He created American independent cinema.

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8 thoughts on “Cassavetes, for the Spirit and Dialogue

  1. one note on the murder/mystery statement: in ‘the killing of a chinese bookie,’ a whole bunch of people get murdered. in fact, ben gazarra gets shot. two of the scenes he delivers after taking that bullet are perhaps the most astoundingly acted in the 20th century.

  2. So true. It’s actually the only one I haven’t seen and I’m puzzling over which version to watch.

  3. Cassavettes is my favorite film maker. I think his son is amazing as well. I’ve never seen beauty, intelligence and a true, intense intuitiveness embody another actress like Gena Rowlands. “Woman Under the Influence” is psychological brilliance! Another film that has many layers is “Opening Night”. Thanks for this great article!

  4. Literary addendum: In the ‘Minnie’ clip, Carey is reciting ‘The Vagabond’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. Maybe a little too apt.

    David P: Yes, just need the $125. And I read your blog about Easter Rabbit and thought of the last word’s of Beckett’s ‘Watt’ – No symbols where none intended. Great cover, fellow BlazeVoxer.

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