Face to Faces With Faces

By 1968, John Cassavetes had completed his fourth film Faces after three years of production.  It was then, and is now one of the seminal works of American filmmaking.  It is not an independent film in the sense a film is independent today, those films are usually “pick-up” films.  Films that are financed by small production companies in New York or California that become bankable because they’ve found distribution from a subsidiary distributor at a major Hollywood studio, Coming Home for example.  What Cassavetes did was self-finance and self distribute, a major act of rebellion that remains so even today, though it has become virtually impossible to do so.

Cassavetes’ prior film to Faces had been the star studded A Child Is Waiting [with Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland and Gena Rowlands respectively].  A Child Is Waiting [1962] was intended by it’s producer Stanley Kramer to be his humanistic follow-up to Judgment at Nuremburg, and whose appointing of Cassavetes as director had only been the result of Burt Lancaster’s insistence [Lancaster had wanted to work with Cassavetes since he had seen Cassavetes debut film Shadows in 1958, and had even considered contracting him for his own production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster].  The film A Child Is Waiting as it exists today is the Kramer cut, the Cassavetes cut has been destroyed, because of this Kramer got his nose broken and Cassavetes swore off directing for a major studio [A Child Is Waiting was an MGM and United Artists co-production, as had been Cassavetes’ film prior Too Late Blues].  This falling out set the stage for a new direction in John Cassavetes’ career, and put into motion the film we now know as Faces.

            Faces is different from many other Cassavetes’ films as well as the Hollywood mainstream.  The crew was self-taught out of necessity, the cast was little known, and the film was shot in six months on the basis of actor availability, which wasn’t even common in Cassavetes’ future productions.  But because the crew and actors were friends before shooting, the process of making the film became, as Cassavetes puts it “a way of life”.

It was a labor of love.  When Cassavetes’ ran out of sufficient funds, having already mortgaged his own home [where most of the shooting took place], he took roles in other more major films like Don Siegel’s The Killers and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen to finance his film.   This was a rebellion to the Hollywood system, and he knew that.  He believed, after his experience working for Stanley Kramer, that to make a film that he thought depicted and addressed the problems of American people he would have to do it alone, outside the glitz and glamour of MGM or Warner Bros.  In retrospect, he seems to have been correct.

Faces is not a marketable film.  It’s the story of a middle aged upper middle class couple on the eve of their divorce who happen upon affairs with younger people.  Faces avoids the turbulent revolutions of the sixties, negating politics and pop-culture to focus upon the emotional truth of the human condition among middle aged Americans.  Faces is raw in its material and in its execution.  There was no make-up on the players, which gave them a credible believability especially since the film is made up of mostly close-ups.  The editing and cinematography are throwbacks to the calculated cinema verte’ of Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive.  Even the soundtrack is strictly diagetic.  All these components suspend the film in a plastic reality whose placidity is so transparent and foreign that the film rings uncomfortably accurate, and undeniably truthful.  John Cassavetes, as writer and director, has so astutely represented his subject that even today the film is difficult, not because it is dated but plays on the audiences emotions so subtly with a brutality one does not expect from a film but only the real life conflicts when lived that are depicted in Faces.

            John Cassavetes knew the film was difficult, and in 1968 the critics agreed with him.  The critics would, however, hail it as a masterpiece.  Faces went on to enjoy acclaim and festival awards upon it’s limited release in film festivals and Cassavetes’ own take on block booking.  Subsequently, Cassavetes never again would make a film with the artifice of his Kramer production, remaining essentially independent and controversial for his brutally honest portrayals of the American every-family.

The type of filmmaking that defined Faces brought about a new wave of American filmmakers and a new corner to American cinema.  Though this influence would not become mainstream and therefore obvious till the late nineties in films such as Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy and David Gordon Green’s George Washington, a decade after Cassavetes’ death.  While Still in Cassavetes own life time, his influence could be seen in films such as Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Barbara Loden’s Wanda [though through her marriage to Elia Kazan procured a distribution deal], and Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep.  It was an American Cinema of outsiders even to the likes of the BBS production company and to Columbia Pictures at the turn of the decade [through 1969-1971, Columbia produced several films for new auteur directors with a million dollar budget and carte blanche for creative control, among these filmmakers were Monte Hellman, Dennis Hopper and Hal Ashby].

No one person took up the precedent Cassavetes had set with Faces quite like Cassavetes’ own very good friend Elaine May.  In 1976, May wrote and directed her third feature which not only barrowed heavily from Cassavetes’ revolutionary technique, but starred the director as Nicky in Mikey & Nicky [1976].  Elaine May had been the sole author of the material for Nichols & May, and worked as a script doctor for Warren Beatty and Robert Towne.  Her admiration for John Cassavetes astute writing for realist characters led to their friendship and to the subsequent production of the film Mikey & Nicky.  Today, May’s film is considered a masterpiece of American Cinema as well as a film of considerably artistic credibility just as most of Cassavetes’ own films have.  At the time of it’s initial release, Mikey & Nicky was reprimanded for it’s long shooting schedule and inability to find an audience.  Her film went the way of Cassavetes’ Husbands and Opening Night.

It’s clear from the vantage point of a critic in 2010 that John Cassavetes tread water with Faces, and that as a filmmaker he has had an immeasurable influence.  Though in his day, he would always struggle to make his films and garner some recognition in the United States; he was either dismissed or neglected or even worse, rejected by critics.  At a time when the world had gone mad he had held a mirror to the most private lives of Americans, the domestic life.  Though his hopeful message is clear today, in the sixties and seventies he was seen as an exploitative mad man of the Art Houses.  John Cassavetes’ revolution of the cinema was a silent, covert revolution.  But it may just have been the most crucial career to the development of the artistic in American Cinema.

-Robert Curry

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