You think I want to be popular? You think I want them out on video? I want millions of people to see my movies? Why would I? – John Cassavetes
When I teach film directing I inevitably discuss John Cassavetes at length, usually with regards to collaborating with actors. I prefer to show an interview or documentary to my students as opposed to one of Cassavetes’ own films so that they can hear from him about his process as a filmmaker. The reason why I don’t usually show one of his films is that most of my students have already taken my film analysis course where I show either The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) or Husbands (1970). So the issue isn’t so much their familiarity with Cassavetes’ work so much as it is an issue of familiarizing them with Cassavetes as an artist at work and de facto teacher.
An episode of Cinéastes de notre temps (dir. Hubert Knapp & Andre S. Labarthe, 1968), I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work (dir. Michael Ventura, 1984), Anything For John (dir. Dominique Cazenave & Doug Headline, 1993), and A Constant Forge (dir. Charles Kiselyak, 2000) are the four films about Cassavetes that I choose from for various reasons, though usually the choice is predicated by running time (I may only show an excerpt), the students’ ability to focus, and the students’ own aesthetic interests. Each film has its own merits, each has its own limitations; but I have found all of these films to be indispensable as a teacher and as a filmmaker.
Cinéastes de notre temps (which translates to “filmmakers of our time”) is a series for French television about the cinema; the episode about John Cassavetes can be found as a bonus feature on the Criterion Collection release John Cassavetes: Five Films. This television documentary first introduces the viewer to Cassavetes in 1965 as he is editing Faces (1968) during a break from shooting. In this first section, Cassavetes’ euphoria in the midst of his second independent production after two films for major studios is contagious. It’s all jokes and laughs as he walks through his hand-held shooting style and drives along the Canyon where he lived in LA. The second section, shot in 1968, picks up with Cassavetes at Cannes after screening Faces. Cassavetes’ hair has greyed, his demeanor is relatively withdrawn and his mood somber. This episode of Cinéastes de notre temps epitomizes one of the serious pitfalls of independent production for Cassavetes in how these two halves demonstrate the serious toll that completing Faces has taken, both physically and emotionally. But it is also interesting to hear Cassavetes, before and after, as he discusses the intent of the film. There isn’t a variation in terms of aesthetic goals, but there is a variation in language and conviction. For these reasons I find Cinéastes de notre temps works better as a portrait of the artist rather than a portrait of the artist’s process.
Michael Ventura’s film I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work is distinct for having been made with Cassavetes’ cooperation during the actual shooting of one of his films, Love Streams (1984). Ventura does not venerate his subject, and this film is all the better for it. Cassavetes can be seen going wild on set directing his wife Gena Rowlands, throwing tantrums at the crew, and espousing some particularly elegant musings on the condition of American cinema in sit-down interviews. Running at just about one hour, I’m Almost Not Crazy is one of the most fascinating authentic portraits of a filmmaker at work that I have ever seen. I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work, like Cinéastes de notre temps, is also available as a special feature on a Criterion release, though this time for Love Streams.
I chanced upon Dominique Cazenave and Doug Headline’s Anything For John on the bonus disc of the Wild Side Video deluxe release of the film Husbands (this is a French release and therefore Region 2). Unlike the two films discussed above, Anything For John was shot after Cassavetes’ death and therefore takes the approach of an oral history. Al Ruban, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Sam Fuller (a neighbor of Cassavetes apparently) are all interviewed and each sings the praises of Cassavetes. The interviews are intimate and yield their greatest rewards when former co-stars begin to goof around a little, inadvertently shedding some light upon their relationship as collaborators. This becomes even more fascinating if one views one of Cassavetes’ films immediately before watching this documentary. Seeing actors’ spontaneity in performance and then in life can give one a precise idea as to what control Cassavetes exerted as a director.
The same is true, though to a lesser degree, of Charles Kiselyak’s A Constant Forge (which is available in the Criterion Collection’s release John Cassavetes: Five Films). Unlike these other films, A Constant Forge is epic in scale (running at 200 minutes) and much more frank about Cassavetes’ shortcomings as an alcoholic. Like Anything For John, a bulk of A Constant Forge is made up of interviews and film clips. Kiselyak’s film’s most unique attribute is that it incorporates footage of Cassavetes from I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes, The Man & His Work and Cinéastes de notre temps as well as a voice-over narration of an actor reading some choice quotes from Cassavetes (that can be found in Ray Carney’s excellent though controversial book Cassavetes on Cassavetes) in an attempt to keep Cassavetes’ own voice heard amongst the chorus of interviewees. A Constant Forge’s grand scale allows it to be this inclusive and seemingly definitive, though I would argue it yields fewer rewards overall as a film than the three previously discussed pictures (despite the time it devotes to Cassavetes’ elusive stage works in the 70s and 80s for which I am grateful). The same criticism that is often leveled upon Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes is applicable to A Constant Forge in that while being so inclusive in its texts it misses out on one of the great truths about Cassavetes, and that is, like his filmmaking process, he is a different person everyday, infinitely adaptable. In a book this is an acceptable loss, in my opinion, especially if the book intends to read like a patchwork autobiography. What makes it detrimental to A Constant Forge is that it serves to pinpoint Cassavetes’ appearance in the film to be nothing more than an illusion. Anything For John, on the other hand, employed Cassavetes’ absence rather well, structuring much of the film as a sort of make-shift eulogy where his absence is very much the point.
What all of these films lack is a healthy appreciation for Cassavetes’ early days as an actor in films and television. Only A Constant Forge deals at length with this period, though mostly only with regards to Cassavetes’ work in Martin Ritt’s film Edge Of The City (1957). I would have enjoyed some analysis of Cassavetes’ work as a director on Johnny Staccato (1959) as well as a more in-depth biographical context.
If I had to pick just one of these excellent films to recommend, it would be Michael Ventura’s film. Despite its very vivid and immediate portrait of its subject, Ventura, according to his interview in Anything For John, manages to capture something of the tragedy Cassavetes faced on the set of Love Streams. Cassavetes believed that Love Streams would be his final film, his last statement to the world. This feeling just seems to permeate every aspect of Love Streams and I’m Almost Not Crazy, investing them with a taste of tragedy.