Monday 30 March 2020

The Art of John Cassavetes

The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes

"Cassavetes made things hard to understand. That's why a work of art exists."

Born on December 9th, 1929, in New York City,  John Cassavetes, went to Mohawk College and Colgate University after graduating from high school, then attended the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts before graduating in 1950. After appearances in minor films in the early his first major break was when he landed a part on the long-running television series “Johnny Staccato”.

Cassavetes started his filmmaking career by financing his first picture, Shadows, using the money he had gained through television work. Notable for its improvised acting, street locations, realistic portrayal of New York life, and experimental direction, Shadows was an instant critical success.

Invited to Hollywood to work on higher-budgeted studio pictures both Too Late Blues (released in 1961) and A Child Is Waiting (released in 1962) didn't have the enthusiasm or improvisational energy of Shadows. 

Cassavetes continued to work as a jobbing actor throughout the 1960s. Starring in The Killers (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). By 1968, however, Cassavetes had moved back into the director's chair to create films based on his own scripts.

In Faces, the characters' struggles with suburban life continued the style first seen from Shadows, and the writing and photography mirrored the actors' spontaneous performances. However, although some found the unscripted sequences exhausting compared to traditional Hollywood scenes, a lot of others were persuaded by Cassavetes' capabilities to depict more truthful and poignant situations. 

His subsequent movie Husbands, in which he played alongside Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara was a searing, funny, painful semi-improvised account of three best friends grappling with life and death as a result of the death of a close friend.

Though neither Faces nor Husbands were popular with the general moviegoing public, both films were important in helping to pave the way for future Hollywood films to include more film verité techniques.. For the most part, Cassavetes' most successful pictures blend the techniques of the experimental with the commercial. Though the screenplay for A Woman Under the  Influence (1974) was complete, much of the improvised and spontaneous performance of the early Cassavetes films was kept. Starring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk it delved into the breakdown of a woman's marriage, and delved into her complex emotional state.

The following extract is from a piece by Raymond Carney on Cassavetes’ working methods. 

Cassavetes' insights came from life, not from theory – which is of course the best place to get them. It's the opposite to how most critics function, which is why a critic has to be very, very careful about the conclusions he draws. The films didn't begin as ideas. Shadows didn't begin as a study of “beat drifters” or “race relations.” It was Cassavetes' effort to give voice to the mixed-up feelings he had as a young man (particularly about his relation to his brother). Faces and Husbands didn't originate as analyses of the “male ego” or studies of the frustrations of “suburban life.” They were Cassavetes giving voice to his own personal disillusionments about marriage, middle-age, and his career. They were documentaries of everything he knew and felt at that point in his life – not sorted out into a series of “points” or “critiques” or “views.”

That's actually a fairly unusual way to proceed. La Dolce Vita was released three years before Cassavetes wrote Faces, and has some superficial similarities with it (as well as being referred to in it). I sat through a screening the other night at Harvard and the scenes practically had labels on them. This one was an attack on the idle rich. That one was a critique of on the superficiality of journalists. This other one commented on the vapidity of modern architecture. The majority of films are organized this way. Look at NashvilleWelcome to the DollhouseMagnolia, and American Beauty. They have theses. They make points. The characters represent generalized views and ideas – and the critics eat it up! They love abstract movies, since they make their jobs easy. Films that originate in ideas can be translated back into ideas with almost nothing lost in the translation. These films are eminently discussible. You can write an essay about them. Because ideas are abstract. They are simple. They say one thing. They stand still.

Cassavetes' work resists that kind of understanding. Every time we want to lasso a character or a scene with an idea, it scoots away from us. The incredibly detailed behaviors, facial expressions, and tones of voice that comprise his scenes defeat generalizations. The characters in Faces and Husbands are too changeable, too emotionally unresolved to be pigeonholed intellectually. As Cassavetes says in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, they may be bastards one minute but they can be terrific the next. In A Woman Under the Influence just when we're about to decide that Nick Longhetti is a “male chauvinist,” he says or does something kind and thoughtful. Just when we want to turn Mabel into an “oppressed housewife,” she sleeps with another man to show us she is not under the thumb of her husband and has genuine emotional problems. The racial incident at the center of Shadows invites an unwary critic to view the main drama of the film as being about race, but the film's narrative and characterizations subvert the attempt. The racial misunderstanding at the center of the film is largely a device to create other, more interesting, more slippery dramatic problems for them to deal with. The characters are given such individualized emotional structures of feeling that it becomes impossible to treat them generically as racial representatives. We can't factor out their personalities. Character is at the heart of Cassavetes' work, always displacing incident as the center of interest, and the particularity of the characterizations in all of the films prevents us from treating the characters' situations in a depersonalized way, which is what ideological analysis always requires to some extent.

I'm convinced that this aspect of Cassavetes' work is the reason that during his lifetime reviewers wrote off his work as being confused or disorganized. They wanted to be able to label characters and situations, and when they couldn't, decided it was the films' fault. They wanted to be able to stabilize their relationship to an experience by being able to maintain a fixed point of view on it. In Shadows, they wanted to be able to conclude that Lelia and Ben were victims of racial prejudice; in Faces, that the figures were being morally judged; in Husbands, that the three men were being satirized. When the movies defeated such easy relationships to the experiences they presented, the critics wrote them off as muddle-headed, self-indulgent actors' exercises. 

Cassavetes made things hard to understand. That's why a work of art exists. Otherwise, you might as well write an essay about your subject. Real art is never reducible to the sort of moral lessons and sociological platitudes that Spike Lee or Oliver Stone give us or that reviewers and academic critics want. Art speech is a way of experiencing and knowing far, far more complex than the ways journalists, or history, sociology, or film professors think and talk.

- Raymond Carney on John Cassavetes

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