‘In early 1956, John Cassavetes was a guest on a popular evening talk radio show, Night People, where he was scheduled to promote some of his forthcoming projects. So far, so standard P.R.; Cassavetes was a 26-year-old actor whose dark, tousled good looks and wiry intensity had won him many roles — including a fair smattering of criminals and hoodlums — in jittery B-movies such as The Night Holds Terror and Crime in the Streets. A little way in, however, the conversation took a somewhat unexpected turn.
‘Cassavetes started lambasting what he described as the “artificiality” of Hollywood. “Most of what the studio system churns out is nothing more than repetitive and formulaic drivel,” he announced to his somewhat disconcerted interlocutor. He then set listeners a challenge: if they wanted to see something authentic, unpolished and intimate on screen, they should forward him the funds and he would make it happen. “After all,” he mused, “if there can be off-Broadway plays, why can’t there be off-Broadway movies?”
‘To everyone’s surprise but Cassavetes’s, the money started rolling in. With contributions from strangers and friends, as well as his own acting pay checks, Cassavetes raised $40,000, and set to work on his directorial debut, 1957’s Shadows, making him the godfather of American independent cinema (the fact that he invented Kickstarter along the way is by-the-by). In an era in which the major studios held sway, Shadows was true guerrilla filmmaking. The cast was assembled from members of Cassavetes’s own acting workshop, and scenes were shot on the hoof using handheld 16mm cameras, bypassing filming permits and co-opting Cassavetes’s own apartment for interior shots, which he shared with his fellow actor and wife, Gena Rowlands.
‘But if the form of Shadows was daring, so too was its content. It told the story of three African-American siblings in New York City, one of whom, the fair-skinned and spirited Lelia — who often ‘passes’ for white — brings home a white boyfriend who reacts with shock when he meets her brothers. The film’s young, hipster cast and ineffable sense of cool, allied to its frank discussions of sex and interracial relationships, give it the air of a kitchen-sink drama styled by Blue Note (the appropriately free-form jazz soundtrack came courtesy of Charles Mingus). “The tones and rhythms of a new America are caught in Shadows for the very first time,” proclaimed the Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas. As the end credits of Shadows roll, a message flashes on the screen, part mission statement, part gauntlet-smackdown: “The film you have just seen was an improvisation.”
‘Shadows paved the way for subsequent generations of indie filmmakers with singular visions, from Mekas himself to Martin Scorsese (who said, “It was Shadows that gave me the urgency and the courage to try to make films; if Cassavetes could do it, so could we”) and on to today’s scriptless iPhone auteurs. But it also heralded Cassavetes’s unique oeuvre: slices of hand-held, improvisatory verité, from 1968’s Faces to 1986’s Big Trouble, which tackled subjects from marital strife to alcoholism to looming mortality in grainy, talky, raw-edged style. “The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to,” Cassavetes said. “As an artist, I feel that we must try many things, but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad — to be willing to risk everything to really express it all.”
‘Cassavetes’s uncompromising style alienated as many as it captivated. People magazine described him as a “bar-room brawler of an artist… he eschewed the best table at Spago’s in favour of the smoky back room of P.J. Clarke’s. And like most of the giants of both movies, and brawling, he never hesitated to lead with his chin.”
‘He was born in New York City in 1929 to Greek immigrant parents, and credited his upper-middle-class upbringing on Long Island and “loving, hectic” home life with inculcating his unshakeable faith in his own instincts. “My parents allowed their two sons to be individuals,” Cassavetes said in a 1970 interview. “My family was a wild and wonderful place, with lots of friends and neighbours visiting and talking loud and eating loud and nobody telling the children to be quiet or putting them down.”’ — Stuart Husband
John Cassettes @ IMDb
JC @ Wikipedia
Great Directors: Cassavetes, John
Book: ‘Cassavetes on Cassavetes’
Book: ‘John Cassavetes: Interviews’
John Cassavetes: An Icon for Independents
John Cassavetes – the Man and His Work
The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies
JC @ Letterboxd
JOHN CASSAVETES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That No More | John Cassavetes
Exactly who did Cassavetes make films for?
THE ENDURING NOIR LEGACY OF JOHN CASSAVETES
Message in a bottle: was alcohol John Cassavetes’ magic ingredient?
How John Cassavetes Pioneered Independent Filmmaking
John Cassavetes Talks Comedy, Life, and Reputation in Rare 1989 Interview
JOHN CASSAVETES AT HIS MOST INTENSE, SEARCHING AND EXPERIMENTAL
I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes – the Man and His Work (1984)
John Cassavetes – “Television Sucks!”
John Cassavetes: The Technique
Martin Scorsese on John Cassavetes
MICHAEL VENTURA: What was it like to work with Mazursky in Tempest as an actor?
JOHN CASSAVETES: Well, when I first saw the script, my mind flashed back to all the incredible double-crosses people perform, particularly when they’re working on an expensive picture. So the first thing I wanted was not to be double-crossed. And the only way you can not be double-crossed, is to say up front what you feel. Straightforward. A lot of people thought the script was very good. I frankly didn’t understand the script.
I understood that the guy was an architect and that he was having troubles with his wife and his way of life and job, and that’s simple, that’s everybody. It could be a workman just as easily as being an architect. But I didn’t understand his reactions to the feeling that he was in — the change-of-life period, or whatever you want to call it. Somebody trying to be young, trying to be vital the way they used to be. And finding himself in a position where everyone surrounding him is as dead as he is. And all the things you try to accomplish in your life suddenly come back on you and you realize you don’t have that much time. So, when I read it, I didn’t know if the struggle to get out of that was going to be handled honestly, movie-wise. I knew it was a comedy, because everyone said that. But I didn’t know if Paul wanted me to do jokes, or act funny — which I can’t do anyway — or if he’d let it be straight. And so I said, “I take this very seriously, this script.”
I went into that meeting angry. And I didn’t know why I was so angry, but I was angry. I think I wanted to let Paul know that there is a certain amount of bitterness that comes into the constant boredom of meeting people who don’t connect with you — I mean, chemically, or just what they’re doing. You get crazy, you just don’t want to do it.
But Paul is very interesting. Because he’s a man who doesn’t really say a lot about what he’s gonna do. He’s always alive and vital and making statements that you can challenge. I mean, he’s a dynamo! Dynamic man. Laughs in the middle of what actors would deem important scenes. And clowns around during rehearsals. And he prefers somebody to challenge his thoughts.
A lot of directors — not good ones — but a lot of directors let their script-girl tell them that you didn’t say the line, that you left out a “But, I –,” or something like that. You do a take over again. And the feeling is that it doesn’t matter what’s on the screen, it only matters that you left out a “But, I –.” But with Paul — I very rarely work with a director, like him, who doesn’t really challenge every specific comment, and yet watches every specific moment.
You know, sometimes everyone second-guesses the director. It’s very simple to do and it’s very normal. I’m sure when Mazursky acts he does the same thing. You know, you think, “My god, why do they have to push it in this direction, when it could be so lovely in this direction. That happens all the time. But Paul really likes that. He likes it in the sense that if you really know so much, do it. Don’t sit and talk about it and conspire about it and fret about it. Put it on the screen. Who’s stopping you?
And then he might stop you. But Paul’s whole thing, not only in front of the camera, was a nice rapport between the actors.
And working with Paul wasn’t, “This is the scene about the girl whom you meet for the first time,” there’s none of that. It’s “Oh! There’s Susan! [Susan Sarandon] Gah! She looks great. Susan, you look great! Fantastic! Oh my God!” And Susan gets all embarrassed, she says, “Ok, Paul, let’s do the scene,” and he says, “Ok, the car is coming, I’ll play the guy, I’ll play the guy!” And off-scene Paul will play me, and he’ll say, “There’s no room for you, John, you get outta here!” And I found it, for everybody there, maddening, because it’s a strange different kind of direction. But now I miss it. And I don’t want to go back to the other.
I mean, he’d never say, “This is what it’s about,” “This is funny,” “This is not.” It’s, “Look at that daughter [Molly Ringwald, in her first role], isn’t she wonderful, God, she’s better than you! She’s better than Gena [playing John‘s wife]! She’s better than anybody! God! She’s marvelous!” Then he cries. Hugs her. Embraces her. Then you do the scene.
Or in Greece, in the Peloponnesus, he might storm into the bedroom and say, “Are you going to the party?! We have the boat tonight!” And Gena and I would be asleep. And he’d say, “I can only stay a minute, John. John, don’t ask me what the dailies are like,
‘What are the dailies like,’ don’t ask me, you’re gonna drive me crazy.” “Would you like a drink, Paul?” “A drink?! No, I don’t wanna drink. I toldja I can only stay a minute. Are you going to the party or not? Oh, God, the dailies were really great, the dailies were…” and then he’d talk about them.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about magic in films. I think, from my standpoint, that Paul was Phillip [the soul-searcher of Tempest], and so was I. But so was he. Not only was he, but then he insisted that the whole crew make magic! And if the weather turned and it was all just beautiful blue sky and he wanted it gray, then he’d go into the water and actually be doing these chants! So it was a delight.
VENTURA: You said you walked into that first meeting angry?
CASSAVETES: I think, like everybody, nobody trusts anybody. I’m not different. And actors are particularly distrustful, and mean. Simply because they feel that no one is really going to be able to help them. Or be able to understand what the story is — that the author himself has written, but actors just feel that they know it. Your tendency as an actor is to create your own story immediately. Out of panic. And that’s what happens in the beginning. And Paul just wanted that short period out.
VENTURA: When you’re directing, what’s your approach to that period?
CASSAVETES: I’m a totally intuitive person. I mean, I think about things that human beings would do, but I just am guessing — so I don’t really have a preconceived vision of the way a performer should perform. Or, quote, the character, unquote. I don’t believe in “the character.” Once the actor’s playing that part, that’s the person. And it’s up to that person to go in and do anything he can. If it takes the script this way and that, I let it do it. But that’s because I really am more an actor than a director. And I appreciate that there might be some secrets in people. And that that might be more interesting than a “plot.”
I like actors and I depend on them a lot. I depend on them to think. And to be honest. And to say, “That never would happen to me, I don’t believe it.” And to try to decipher what is defense, and what is a real irregularity in somebody’s behavioral pattern. And then I try to find some kind of positive way to make a world exist like a family — make a family, not of us, behind the camera, not of the actors, but of the characters?
VENTURA: A shared world?
CASSAVETES: That they can patrol certain streets, patrol their house, and — that’s what I feel people do, they know their way home. And when they cease to know the way home, things go wrong.
VENTURA: How do you mean, know the way home?
CASSAVETES: You somehow, drunk or sober or any other way, you always find your way back to where you live. And then you get detoured. And when you can’t find your way home, that’s when I consider it’s worth it to make a film. ‘Cause that’s interesting. People are interested in people that are really in trouble. Not pretending to be.
VENTURA: Did you discover that first as an actor?
CASSAVETES: I think I discovered it on the streets. I think I discovered it in barrooms, when people talk about their life. And they’re not worrying about paying a psychiatrist, or worrying about the guy next to them. I think it’s a given with men, or has been, that that’s not just conversation, it’s stating something else — so whatever somebody was talking about, they were talking about it for a reason. People in barrooms know that. Like being in a war, being in a bar.
And I think women probably — I don’t know — I don’t really know anything about women. I try to deal with women in films a lot differently than I would deal with men.
CASSAVETES: I look at women much, much more fairly, because I’m not a woman. And I don’t really know very much about them. So I try to make their life a little more straight-line, so that we won’t be taking some opinionated view of a man taking an opinionated view of a woman — rather deal with it on a line of activity. Of what they do. And then their behavior comes out in their activity.
With men I don’t do that. Because I feel I know men. I know men very well. I know all their hypocrisies, and the fact that they don’t have babies, and how important that is, and what a pregnant woman means to a man, and what sports or non-sports mean, or philosophy, or culture, or when it happens, and when it’s interesting to talk about, when it brings tears to the eyes, and when it means nothing. All the complexities of men I’m sure are like the complexities of women, but they’re definitely in my opinion not the same. I don’t care what the legislation says.
I feel that women are more receptive by nature than a man is. I don’t know whether it’s conditioning, or whatever — it’s an actuality, anyway. I’ve seen my daughter, when she was very young, practice seeing herself through a man’s eyes. I mean, no one told her to do that. I don’t see boys doing that. They don’t practice being. They just grow up, and they are either something that pleases them, or nothing that pleases them. I don’t think that the question of identity is so strong with a man as it is with a woman. It’s just, most men don’t go around worrying if they’re good enough. And women do. And their whole life is a challenge.
VENTURA: How did that view figure in A Woman Under the Influence?
CASSAVETES: I only knew one thing about Woman Under the Influence when we started: that it was a difficult time for today’s woman to be left alone while somebody goes out and — lives. And it’s fine for a housewife to get her kids off to school. As irritating and annoying and boring as that may be, it’s not the same as, later in the day, being totally alone with nothing to do, nothing you’re supposed to do, except maybe darn a sock or something like that. So it becomes a very tough existence. So you look to get out. And what place do you have to go? Because when they all come back you’re happy.
And I think that probably happens to every woman. I know when I was not working, and Gena was working for me — because I was really in trouble in this business, I’d done a lot of things where it really looked like I wasn’t going to be able to work again — and I stayed home and took care of the baby, and I was a pretty good housewife and everything else, and I didn’t have really much time to think about what was wrong and all, but I didn’t really have the same reactions as a woman would have. Mainly because I didn’t have to be a housewife the rest of my life. I didn’t have to think into the future of when I’d get older or when my attractiveness would fade or when the kids would grow up or when the baby would cease to cling to you and you’re not really a mother then and you have to think, Well, should I be the friend or should I be the mother?
All those things are much more interesting than what they’re making movies out of — taking a figure like Begelman [a studio executive]. People are crazy, you know? They really are. Because they think that it’s good enough to make a movie that you don’t like, as long as it makes money. It’s just much more interesting to find out whether you’re going to live or die. Whether you’re going to have a good time or not. Whether the children will be content with their life — not “content,” but content with their life. Not feel they have to be like everybody else.
VENTURA: When you were in trouble with the movie industry, how were you in trouble?
CASSAVETES: Well, I — I was young. And I felt that everybody had talent. And that for some reason they were being arbitrary and not employing that talent. ‘Cause I thought, “Well, these people are the giants of an industry, they must have a good brain and a good heart and ability, how come they don’t use it?” And Gena, she said, “Look, a lot of people just don’t have the same drive, the same desires, the same gun that sparks them, as you do. You’re acting like these people all understand you; nobody understands you. I don’t understand you, who the hell can understand you?! You’re nuts!”
I would think she was crazy. And I would go in, and I would think, “Naw, this sonofabitch understands what I’m talking about — he just, for some reason, doesn’t want to do it. I don’t know what the hell it is with this guy.” And I’d meet these people years later and we’d become friends and they’d say, “I don’t know what the hell you were upset about!” But I’d go like a maniac. Because I figure, if you work on a picture, that’s your life. For the moment. That you’re working on a picture. It’s like a beautiful woman. And you fall in love. And when the picture’s over it’s like a break-up of that love affair. And then somebody says, “Well, are you gonna do another picture,” and it’s offensive, because it’s like saying, “When are you gonna fall in love again?”
I mean, Husbands was Husbands. I was in love with that picture, in love with Bennie [Ben Gazzara] and Peter [Peter Falk] and New York and London and hotel rooms and beautiful women and the whole adventure, behind the camera and in front o fit, and it was one of the most romantic things that ever happened in my life. A Woman Under the Influence was a wonderful experience — but it was hard.
CASSAVETES: It was hard work. It was disciplined work. Something that made me feel good, the discipline, but it wasn’t free-wheeling, you didn’t feel like going out after shooting. I usually like a lot of noise on the set. I didn’t like any noise on that set. I felt the people who were doing it should be respected, because it’s so embarrassing to relive moments that are private and delicate. And it was also not totally real. It was a concept. Of love. A concept of how much you have to pay for it.
That’s kind of pretentious, but I was interested in it. And didn’t know how to do it, and none of the other people knew how either, so we had to work extremely hard.
VENTURA: You said it wasn’t totally real? How would it have been?
CASSAVETES: Well, it would have been nastier. I think in the whole picture the defensiveness was just removed. No one there is defensive in the whole film. There isn’t one shield on anybody’s psyche, or anybody’s heart. It’s just open. So you just to have to work on a different level. You have to work on a higher level, and deal with philosophic points in terms of real things.
VENTURA: How do you mean, in terms of real things?
CASSAVETES: Real things. Children — are real. Food is real. A roof over your head is real. Taking the children to the bus is real. Trying to entertain them is real. Trying to find some way to be a good mother, a good wife. I think all those things are real. And they are usually interfered with by the other side of one’s self — which is the personal side, not the profound, wonderful side of somebody’s self. And that personal side says, “Hey, what about me? Yeah, you can do this to me but, uh…” If you’re in the audience, the audience is saying, “Hey, what about ME?” All the way through the picture, the characters are not — and therefore the audience is allowed to ask that, because the characters can’t. And that’s why it was unreal. Because in life people stop and ask “What about me?” every three seconds.
VENTURA: That accounts for the reaction that many women I know had to that picture, leaving it with this deep yet not bitter conviction that they had to change their situations now — the picture made them say “What about me?” for the character, and so for themselves.
CASSAVETES: And Gena is the kind of person — I don’t mean she’s an actress — I mean, I’m sure she’s an actress, but I don’t see her that way; I see her as an incredibly gentle and kind person with this vision of what life could be.
I remember one time in the picture, when Gena was committed by Peter, and she went to an institution, and as the film says six months later she comes out — I would have thought that she would be so hostile against her husband. But she comes in the house and she never even acknowledges his presence. She’s only considering her children. And we did a take, and I thought, “Should I stop this? I mean, she never looked at Peter.” She walks in the house and everyone greets her and she never looks at her husband — I mean, she looks at him, but she never sees him, yet she’s not avoiding him. And I thought, “Well, that’s that defenseless thing carrying itself too far here, what are we doing?”
You know, ignorance is astounding, particularly when it’s your own. And all through the homecoming scene I was astounded by what was underneath people, what these actors had gathered in the course of this movie. And I was way behind them. As a matter of fact, when we looked at the dailies, Gena said, “What do you think? I’m at a loss, did we go to far?” And I said, “I didn’t like it, I just didn’t like it at all.” I mean, I found it really so embarrassing. To watch. It was such a horrible thing to do to somebody, to take her into a household with all those other people after she’d been in an institution, and their inability to speak to this woman could put her right back in an institution, and yet they were speaking to her, and that Gena was so willing to get rid of them, and at the same time not insult them — but then I thought: what Gena did, it was like poetry. I thought the film really achieved something really remarkable through the actors’ performances, not giving way to situations but giving way to their own personalities. So it altered the narrative of the piece, but it really made it. I would grow to love those scenes very, very much, but the first time I didn’t.
VENTURA: When you say “altered the experience,” you mean —
CASSAVETES: The dialogue was the same.
VENTURA: But the performances changed the meaning of the scene.
VENTURA: So because they didn’t succumb to what was obvious in the situation, but played from a deeper level, they came out with something entirely new and liberating. But your scripts expose intimacies, privacies, in a way that’s very tense as far as the audience is concerned. It’s why European filmmakers, especially, look at your films as landmarks in film history. You let the act of performance, on the set, determine a great deal, but you do write the script as intuitively as you direct? When I interviewed Gena, she told me there were no improvised lines in Woman.
CASSAVETES: The preparations for the scripts I’ve written are really long, hard, boring, intense studies. I don’t just enter a film and say, “That’s the film we’re going to do.” I think, “Why make it?” For a long time. I think, “Well, could the people be themselves, does this really happen to people, do they really dream this, do they think this?”
In replacing narrative, you need an idea. And the idea in Woman Under the Influence was, could love exist? Then, in 1974, ‘75. Could it exist? Society had already changed. Is it possible that two people could really be in love with each other under the conditions of the new world, where love is really a sideline? It’s just a word. And it’s even offensive — like the word “art” in Los Angeles.
So it was interesting to see, whether that could be done. And it’s impossible to determine the result when you start. You know it’s going to be painful, to begin with, but you hope that the love will be strong enough that you can take the picture as far as it has to go. The adventure of making films is to say, “Can we do it? I mean, is it possible to do it?”
VENTURA: The process of “doing it” is getting more and more interminable. What would you say to a young director who asks you, “What is the most important thing that I should think about?”
CASSAVETES: I would probably say, “Love the artists, and — screw the rest of the people!”
John Cassavetes’s 13 films
‘John Cassavetes’s directorial debut revolves around a romance in New York City between Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), a light- skinned black woman, and Tony (Anthony Ray), a white man. The relationship is put in jeopardy when Tony meets Lelia’s darker-skinned jazz singer brother, Hugh (Hugh Hurd), and discovers that her racial heritage is not what he thought it was. Shot on location in Manhattan with a mostly nonprofessional cast and crew, Shadows is a penetrating work that is widely considered the forerunner of the American independent film movement.’ — The Criterion Collection
Too Late Blues (1961)
‘Partly due to the biases of Raymond Carney’s lamentably over-cited work on John Cassavetes, Too Late Blues has often been regarded, sight unseen, as a minor work in the œuvre – a straitjacketed “Hollywood” interregnum (alongside A Child Is Waiting, 1963) between the freer, experimental, independently produced Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968). It is certainly a more conventional revisitation of elements from Shadows: jazz club milieu, Beat/hipster lifestyle, the problem of creative, musical freedom versus commercial, record-industry compromise. But there is much that is remarkable in Too Late Blues: the unusual dramatic rhythms; an artfully meandering narrative construction; an unflinching exploration of difficult emotions; sudden switches of mood; outbursts of violence; and performances that go well beyond type-casting. Both Bobby Darin as jazz muso Ghost and Stella Stevens as aspiring singer Jess are surprising and superb.’ — Adrian Martin
A Child Is Waiting (1963)
‘Watched this for Cassavetes but there is very little of him except Gina Rowlands as the main kid’s mum. Apparently Kramer fought with Cassavetes over budget and how best to present the subject matter but I would like to think that the decision to include so many scenes of the actors interacting with real students was something for which Cassavetes lobbied. There is quote from Kramer that explains that he wanted to make something that ‘could have been deemed objectionable…exquisite’. That is not the quote of someone who has any experience or affinity for people depicted in the film.
‘I would love to know what kind of insensitive, socially isolated and emotionally stunted censor deemed this worthy of an X. Even the films from this period which were formerly X but have been re-certified over the various releases have some form of sex and/or violence. This story by Abby Mann (creator of Kojak), features nothing objectionable. The only possible reason for the ostensible banning of the film has to be the inclusion of many, many students with special needs.’ — gibson8
‘John Cassavetes puts a disintegrating marriage under the microscope in the searing Faces. Shot in high-contrast 16 mm black and white, the film follows the futile attempts of the captain of industry Richard (John Marley) and his wife, Maria (Lynn Carlin), to escape the anguish of their empty relationship in the arms of others. Featuring astonishingly nervy performances from Marley, Carlin, and Cassavetes regulars Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel, Faces confronts modern alienation and the battle of the sexes with a brutal honesty and compassion rarely matched in cinema.’ — The Criterion Collection
‘Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Cassavetes himself play Archie, Harry and Gus respectively, three middle-aged married friends who experience a kind of three-way midlife breakdown when their best buddy dies. A brilliant opening sequence of still shots shows the four musketeers goofing around by the pool with their wives and kids, flexing their muscles, Mr Universe-style, an ironic demonstration of power and strength. After the funeral, they go on a monumental 48-hour drinking spree in Manhattan to anaesthetise their grief and fear. After Harry has a fight with his wife and mother-in-law on returning home still drunk, the three then head off for an impulsive break in London – of all the dreary and unpromising places. This is so they can … what? Have a rest? Have the last bachelor party before the grave? Perhaps nothing in the movie matches the opening 20 minutes in Manhattan, when the guys begin drinking and, like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, play a little consolatory basketball. Some scenes are outrageously extended, with some hardcore improv material and head-butting male display, and there is a whole lot of Acting with a capital A. The scenes in which the guys hang out in hotel rooms with the British women they have picked up are almost exotically contrived, like a trip to another planet, but with the snappiest of lines. “Diana and I were just discussing …” says Harry, blearily tailing off. “Disgusting?” interrupts Archie drolly. “… discussing how amazing the world is!” What texture and flavour this movie has. Cassavetes’ film-making style seems as alien to modern Hollywood as silent cinema. The director’s own heyday coincided with the arrival of younger New Yorkers Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen; Cassavetes died in 1989 at the age of 60. If he were still alive, might he be making movies such as Hugo and To Rome With Love? Who knows? Husbands is something to be savoured.’ — Peter Bradshaw
John Cassavetes and the making of Husbands
Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
‘Cassavetes’ films quite often include scenes featuring abuse of women. Women are mocked (Shadows), objectified (Faces), and even beaten (Husbands). From that perspective, Minnie and Moskowitz is one of the director’s most painful movies. It tells the story of a sudden and unexpected love between two completely different people. Minnie is a typical middle class citizen. She is educated, elegant, and polite. Seymour Moskowitz is a hippie type. Although grown-up, he still lives with his mother. Ray Carney suggests that to show their love, Cassavetes uses the screwball comedy formula, very popular in U.S. cinema of the 1930s. In those movies, filmmakers showed how it was possible for two different people to become a couple. Following that interpretation and taking advantage of it, Cassavetes not only used the screwball comedy formula, but also deconstructed it, showing the hypocrisy of its latent ideology. Through Minnie and Moskowitz, Cassavetes asks a question that continues to confound psychologists and sociologists forty years later: why do women, in spite of everything, decide to get married?’ — Elżbieta Durys
Columbo “Etude in Black” (1972)
‘John Cassavetes seems an odd fit to direct a Columbo episode but he makes for a good one. It’s not surprising considering Cassavetes directed Peter Falk in several films. The two must have got on very well and certainly they have a fascinating chemistry as actors in this episode, “Etude in Black”, which is credited for legal reasons as being directed by ‘Nicholas Colasanto’.’ — setsuled
A Woman Under The Influence (1974)
‘When Gena Rowlands, his wife, expressed her interest in appearing in a play about the difficulties that contemporary women had to face, John Cassavetes wrote a script so emotionally profound and exhausting Rowlands immediately understood it would be too much for her to perform it eight times a week. Cassavetes turned the play into a screenplay for the big screen, but A Woman Under the Influence was too much for Hollywood studios and producers to swallow. Nobody wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame, they said. Luckily enough, both for Cassavetes and for all of us in the audience, the filmmaking couple had a lot of friends who fell in love with the powerful script and who were willing to chip in and even become a part of the project. Peter Falk provided half a million dollars of his own money just so he could watch his friend’s impressive vision turn into a movie. Cassavetes himself mortgaged his house. The crew consisted of both professionals and students from the American Film Institute, where the director worked as the first filmmaker in residence. Rowlands did her own hair and makeup, Cassavetes and Rowland’s mothers were cast—the budget was very limited, but the production had heart and guts, and one hell of a talent behind the camera.
‘Even after completion Cassavetes’ trouble with the film was far from over. Unable to find a distributor, he called theater owners himself, asking them to run the film. It was one of the very first cases where an independent film was distributed without the use of distributors or sub-distributors. It was Cassavetes’ passion project and he was prepared to do whatever it took to share it with the world. Unexpected help came from Richard Dreyfuss, of all people. Appearing on The Mike Douglas Show with Peter Falk, he said he saw Cassavetes’ “incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie” and after the experience “went home and vomited,” and people rushed to see what made the actor so sick. It’s hard to find better words to describe the rollercoaster of feelings you get when you watch it.’ — Sven Mikulec
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
‘In 1976, when The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was first released, it bombed at the box office, much to Cassavetes’s disappointment. Critics found it disorganized, self-indulgent, and unfathomable; audiences took their word for it and stayed away. Today, the film seems a model of narrative clarity and lucidity; either our eyes have caught up to Cassavetes or the reigning aesthetic has evolved steadily in the direction of his personal cinematic style. Now we are more accustomed to hanging out and listening in on the comic banality of low-life small talk; to a semidocumentary, handheld-camera, ambient-sound approach; to morally divided or not entirely sympathetic characters, dollops of “dead time,” and subversions of traditional genre expectations.
‘The film, seen today, generates considerable suspense, part of which comes from classic man-against-the-mob conventions: seeing how the noose of fate is tightened. Part of it, however, comes from Cassavetes’s perverse reluctance to play the game of simple entertainment, offering more complex rewards instead. An example is the scene where Cosmo stops off at a hamburger restaurant to pick up some meat with which to placate the guard dogs before murdering their owner. The waitress, a well-intentioned, matronly blonde, tries to convince her customer to take the burgers individually wrapped, so they won’t make a greasy mess. Cosmo obviously cannot share with her the real reason why he refuses this amenity and is reduced to repeating his request, with mounting frustration, while the bartender acts as a sympathetic bridge between the two. Classic gangster movies or film noirs often feature sharply etched cameos of garage attendants, hotel clerks, or hash slingers, but generally they perform a strict narrative function and then disappear. In this scene, however, the waitress goes beyond that point, threatening to pull you out of the hit-man narrative by insisting on her reality. Cosmo, looking tired and aggrieved, is being forced to acknowledge that every human has a distinct point of view—something he will again have to take into consideration soon enough, when he faces the old Chinese bookie, naked in the bathtub, before deciding whether to blow him away.
‘In Cassavetes’s cinema, these delays, these eruptions of the messy, frustrating, time-consuming, and inconvenient ways that everyone, bit player to star, asserts his or her right to be taken seriously, are not impediments to the plot but are the plot. This point is made clearer in the original, more leisurely (and, to my mind, better) version of the film, which lasted 135 minutes, as opposed to the second, tightened version of 108 minutes. In the longer version, we learn more odd details about the De Lovelies (the one who doesn’t like champagne, for instance) and get an introduction to the Seymour Cassel character at his most unctuously ingratiating. We are allowed to sink into the moment voluptuously, to see more stage routines in the nightclub, which reinforces Teddy’s/Mr. Sophistication’s role as Cosmo’s grotesque doppelgänger and makes for a better balance between crime and showbiz film. The shorter version is in some ways tougher, colder, more abstract, like a French policier; in the longer, exploratory version, Cosmo takes a while to seem completely lost, alienated. Both versions, however, end in the same ironic way, with Teddy mistaking his padrone’s philosophical spiel as proof that Cosmo “practices the best thing there is in this world—to be comfortable.” Cosmo goes off we know not where, bleeding, possibly to death, and we never see him again. The focus shifts back for the final time to the nightclub, where Teddy sings a despicably hostile rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to the audience (and, by extension, to us), and the last line heard in the film is a chorus girl reassuring Mr. Sophistication that they really do love him, even if he thinks they don’t. We could say the same to the now departed Mr. Cassavetes.’ — Phillip Lopate
Opening Night (1977)
‘While in the midst of rehearsals for her latest play, Broadway actor Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) witnesses the accidental death of an adoring young fan, after which she begins to confront the chaos of her own life. Headlined by a virtuoso performance by Rowlands, John Cassavetes’s Opening Night lays bare the drama of a performer who, at great personal cost, makes a part her own, and it functions as a metaphor for the director’s singular, wrenched-from-the-heart creative method.’ — The Criterion Collection
‘Gloria trades in John Cassavetes’ ability to keep his story’s in motion with pure emotional intensity, for a palpable tension while still maintaining a tenderness and sensitivity that makes his movies so special. The gangster plot line mostly sets up the emotional through line while still delivering on the genre goods.
‘Gena Rowlands performance is phenomenal hold the film together and maintains this masculine energy while not being closed off. The huge amount of character actors and non actors as well deliver ranging from menacing, stupid, or sweetness. Standouts to me are the donut shop owner, the flower delivery guy, and Buck Henry’s Jack Dawn.
‘Gloria is probably Cassavetes’ weakest film because he relies on the emotional intensity and drain. Here it’s tender, but not intense. Investing but not draining. Those are not bad things to be but Cassavetes’ particular way of telling story’s in unique in what it needs to be told.’ — Arlie
Love Streams (1984)
‘The electric filmmaking genius John Cassavetes and his brilliant wife and collaborator Gena Rowlands give luminous, fragile performances as two closely bound, emotionally wounded souls who reunite after years apart. Exhilarating and risky, mixing sober realism with surreal flourishes, Love Streams is a remarkable film that comes at the viewer in a torrent of beautiful, erratic feeling. This inquiry into the nature of love in all its forms was Cassavetes’s last truly personal work.’ — The Criterion Collection
(Making-of) LOVE STREAMS 1983
Big Trouble (1986)
‘Big Trouble feels like a defeat. It’s the defeat of an extremely independent personality who made films that he wanted to make, not caring about building a large audience. With Big Trouble, Cassavetes gives in to the studios and it seems poetically appropriate that he died after making this film. The picture is an unofficial follow up to Arthur Hiller’s The In-Laws (1979), and Hiller was originally attached to direct until fights with the studio caused him to leave. Bring in Cassavetes (such a bizarre choice, but I suspect his friendship with Peter Falk played a part) and you have a film that is shredded so brutally in the editing bay by the studio that any humor that might have been gleaned from its piss poor script is lost.’ — Seth Harris
p.s. Hey. ** Misanthrope, I guess because of global warming and all that I’ve come to really prize good rainstorms, lengthy or otherwise. They seem potentially precious. Not necessarily logical, just a gut feeling. Sucks about your weekend. I literally never get bored, I don’t know why. It’s weird. I suppose doing the blog helps because I just make blog posts when there’s nothing else. ** David Ehrenstein, Yep. That ‘Daddy’ article looks interesting. I’ll read it, thanks. ** Robert, Yeah, that was the first time I’d seen or heard any mention of ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ in ages. Strange: the viral or its opposite thing. We’re okay heat wise right now. It won’t last, but we’re in a slightly warmer than mild stretch. Hugs (or the opposite, I guess, i.e. air-conditioned hugs) about the 100 degrees. I feel stressed just seeing that number. I must’ve worried about the parents. I did lock my door. And I had a pervvy friend who turned an old, dissused gardener’s shed on his family property into a secret porn palace, and I would sometimes take my stuff over there and look at it with him. That was before VHS tapes. You had to buy 8/super8 mm films and use a projector and stuff. (I had one because I liked to make little avant-garde films when I was young, so that was convenient.) For most of my post-puberty years my parents were separated, and my mother was a raging alcoholic who was either plastered or lying around with a hangover, so that probably helped or, rather, “helped”. ** Sypha, If you do a search, you’ll see that there are about 8 unrealised Tarantino film projects out there. I’m just about to start the Nulick. ** _Black_Acrylic, That ‘Maldoror’ is up there for me too, but Bresson’s ‘Genesis’ will forever by my ‘if-only’. I hope the toenail extraction is like flicking a gnat off your foot. How did it go? How are you? ** Dominik, Hi!!! Yep, a bridge too far. That is extremely peculiar about the ‘Queer as Folk’ name robbery. What in the world? Oh, wow, have the massive amount of fun and relaxation I am certain you will have, and I really look forward to your return and hearing all about it. Love making your next two(ish) weeks historically important, G. ** Bill, Yeah, Evenson has this whole crossover thing whereby he gets writer’s-writer kinds of readers and also just your usual average thrills seeking readers. Not bad. I too just saw ‘Mad God’, and I totally agree. I expected to be irked by it, but it’s really quite an impressive thing (sans the score, yes). ** Stephen M, Hi, Stephen! Welcome! Oh my god, I know, about the Hellman/Corman/Robbe-Grillet, Jesus. Thanks a lot. What’s going on with you? ** Billy, Hi. Purdy was so uptight. I knew people who knew him and, yeah, he said ‘no’ a lot to even really interesting him-related proposals. Not sure if that was a good or bad thing. These are the strangest times ever, for sure, and I don’t understand why as hard as I try to analyse it. ** Godot, Godot! You may not like Beckett, but he got you anyway, ha ha. He and Polanski are certainly an unexpected combo, but I mean, that mash-up does make me curious, and sometimes trainwrecks can be great, unintentional fun. My summer hasn’t been very exciting so far, and neither have I by a long shot, trust me. But summer is still a newborn, so … And how has yours rocked your wicked self? ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Everyone, Some Steve Erickson booty for you, i.e. ‘My June music roundup for Gay City News (including 070 Shake, MUNA and Bartees Strange) just came out. So did my review of Porcupine Tree’s new album for Slant Magazine.’ I haven’t thought about Porcupine Tree in ages. Curious. I’ve never totally cottoned to Perfume Genius, but maybe this new one will do the trick. ** Suzy, Hi, Suzy! Oh, cool, welcome back then, and sorry if I spaced. Can I read your writing? Is it findable? Excited. ‘Hogg’ is one singular tome, that’s for sure. Happy to have instigated its fuckage. I thought I might be the only one jonesing for the lost ‘Dumbo 2’. Thanks for making me feel less weird. All awesomeness to you! ** John Newton, Hi. Sad, sad about your friend. No clue about the Fassbinder script. It probably exists somewhere, right? Porn bookstores were stress city. I mostly went when I was still underage, but I was very tall for my age, so usually I got away with it, but there was always that terror that I’d be asked for an ID. I went to the Mineshaft twice. I’ve never liked bathhouses, so never went to St. Marks Baths. The Ninth Circle was my hang out. It and Boy Bar on St. Marks Place. I went to Julius’s a few times, but I didn’t really like it. Never went to the Mudd Club. Danceteria was more my jam. I went to Area sometimes. CBGBs too, though it was fading by the time I lived there. You? I quit university after one year and never regretted it. But I never wanted to be a teacher, and I always wanted to write experimental fictions so an MFA had nothing for me. MFA programs seem good for connections and finding peers and as a preferable option vis-a-vis a full time job. One doesn’t need to go that route to be published, I guess unless you want to be a NY Times darling or get on the best seller list and that sort of thing. May your week ahead rule as well. ** Okay. I realised recently to my surprise that I had never done a post about Cassavettes, and today that problem gets fixed. See you tomorrow.