In the film Husbands, John Cassavetes’ character says to the Peter Falk character, “forget truth”. To forget truth seems to be the objective of all of Cassavetes work as a writer and director. His films carry a narrative that is not dictated by the characters objectives and desires. His films are about not knowing why, acting without understanding why a character does what he/she does. That is what fascinated John Cassavetes. All of his films, even his pictures made at United Artists, following a main character(s) just as they reach some point of desperation and are struggling to understand their own behavior as they re-evaluate the dynamics of their life. The characters in these films are learning how to maneuver without knowing. That is the “plot” in all of Cassavetes’ films. Sometimes he’ll change the setting, the inciting action, or even what it is the character doesn’t understand about themselves. But overall, the journey and struggles of these characters are fundamentally the same from Richard Forst in Faces to Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under The Influence to Sarah Lawson in Love Streams.
It is this process of storytelling that make the films of John Cassavetes so remarkably different from any other American films. Unlike his contemporaries, he rejected the rigor of plot and established narrative devices. Instead, Cassavetes chose to collaborate very closely with his actors, re-writing his scripts after every rehearsal, accommodating what the actors unearthed in their characters and fine tuning it for his own means. Cassavetes always strove to articulate that non-understanding which is so organically intertwined to the human condition via tactics of organic character construction. The emphasis on this theme may be what makes a John Cassavetes film so difficult. The reality, which he so unashamedly depicts, is as close to our own as we, as an audience, can ever get in a cinema.
In a world that popularly perceives the cinema as place to manufacture the fantastic, this seems an odd goal for a director, particularly one who has to put two mortgages on his house every time he goes into production. It’s important to remember where Cassavetes comes from. His first feature, Shadows, was produced in the late 1950s in New York at the dawn of what Jonas Mekas has called “the new Hollywood”. Art house cinemas were bustling with talk of a more honest and true to life cinema. And though Cassavetes never formally joined the ranks of these filmmakers, he certainly shared the sentiment.
Cassavetes always hoped his films would help his audience understand themselves better, and maybe even life in some miniscule way. After all, and it is clear in all of his scenes of social gatherings, John Cassavetes loved people unconditionally. His characters, though manufactured in his imagination, were also subject to that same unconditional love and care. In none of his films is there an unsympathetic character of any significance, or at least a character whose confusion we can empathize with as an audience.
Today, when the cinemas are full of blockbuster special effects or cookie cutter copies of an established formula it seems ever more relevant to revisit the films of John Cassavetes. There is very little in theaters to challenge an audience today, let alone enlighten one. I can safely say as a filmmaker of sorts myself that everything I learned about directing actors has come from the films of John Cassavetes or Ray Carney’s books about him.