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Four Films About Cassavetes

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

Cassavetes and Rowlands

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 Cassavetes’ hair has greyed, his demeanor is relatively withdrawn and his mood somber.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.

John and Gena
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.

directing Love Streams in 1984

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.

-Robert Curry

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Listen To Me Marlon

Executed in 1966, Double Marlon is a celebration of a male icon.  Warhol has placed the double image of Marlon Brando, taken from his highly influential and controversial 1953 movie The Wild One, at the right-hand edge of a vast, deliberately unprimed canvas.” – William Paton, 2008

Andy Warhol's Double Marlon

Andy Warhol’s Double Marlon

Stevan Riley’s Listen To Me Marlon (2015) presents us with another doubled rendering of Marlon Brando.  Since Warhol originated his original silkscreen, Brando has lost none of his potency as a visual signifier.  Riley clearly understands this, as Warhol did, opting out of any contextualizing prologue in his film, favoring a direct descent into the “mind” of his subject, Marlon Brando.  The doubling in Listen To Me Marlon is not a visual one, but one of sound and image.  This coupling is one of the foundations of contemporary cinema, though it has been implemented in Riley’s film somewhat unconventionally.  That is to say that the images of Brando within the film, culled from motion pictures, news reels, and television broadcasts, rarely partner with the voiceover provided by the late Brando from his own audio journals.  Thus is the nature of the voiceover.  Where Ken Burns would rely upon Peter Coyote to dramatize the events recounted in a documentary, Riley has the luxury of the subject himself providing “his own” thoughts and recollections.

Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) implements the same technical and aesthetic techniques as Listen To Me Marlon.  Both films present unique portraits of their subjects in that these films are able to pass as authentic renderings of the subject within the confines of sound and image.  However, and this was more evident in Riley’s film than in Solt’s, the audio of the voiceover is actually a patchwork of dialogue edited together.  Obviously this is motivated by a need to make the subjects more succinct in their respective recollections and thoughts.  But another decisive proponent that often leads to such tinkering is the pressure upon the estates of both Lennon and Brando to preserve the brand they represent.  In Imagine: John Lennon May Pang is clearly edited into the relative footnotes of the film whilst Brando’s bisexuality and controversial relationship with fellow actor Montgomery Clift is overlooked entirely.  Both films reveal this white-washing in the filmmakers desperate need to make a film that appears all-inclusive of its subject.  May Pang is allowed a few fond recollections of her time with Lennon in 1974 while Riley uses a home-movie clip of Brando and Clift “goofing off” together in two brief instances early in Listen To Me Marlon.

The commerciality shared by Imagine and Listen To Me Marlon de-synchronizes the doubling of sound and image in a harmony that is authentic.  This is also expressed by Riley’s self-restriction when it comes to Brando’s career, bounding from the early sixties to Coppola’s The Godfather then to death.  Brando the brand that is seen on Turner Classic Movies’ websites and promotional materials, on t-shirts, handbags, buttons, and jackets, is almost always restricted to the Brando of the fifties.  This is another signal of Listen To Me Marlon‘s inauthenticity, as well as its power as a branding device.  Consider the effect this film will have as a form of advertisement for the products of the Brando brand?

What Listen To Me Marlon represents that is truly regrettable is that the film did not live up to its potential.  The vast scope of the material Brando had recorded onto cassette is astonishing.  If that had been coupled with exclusively the 16mm and Super 8 film of Brando’s own home movies then Listen To Me Marlon would have been unforgettable, if not unlike the films of Mark Rappaport.  If that had been the case, then the linear core structure of the film could have been replaced with a meditative, meandering one of self-reflection on the part of Brando, dictated by Brando himself by way of his tapes.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Listen To Me Marlon does redeem itself, and not just in its value as entertainment.  If one knew very little of Marlon Brando, one would have found Riley’s film informative and even engrossing.  Yet its true merits come from Brando’s insights into performance.  These insights, peppered throughout the film, are exactly the ideas young actors must be aware of, and these concepts are phrased in the manner that they should be.  The instructive possibilities of Riley’s film were something I had not anticipated.  The talents of the next generation would do well to have a look at Listen To Me Marlon.

-Robert Curry

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She Said Boom

fifth column:  a group of people who act traitorously and subversively out of secret sympathy with an enemy of their country.

(dictionary definition)

She Said Boom

Dick Hebdige marks the beginning of “punk” as we know it today in the year of 1976 when a young girl was almost blinded by a flying beer glass at the 100 Club in Soho.  Hebdige singles this incident out because in his mind it served as the catalyst for what he terms “the mass moral panic” that first drew critical attention to “punk”.  What does this have to do with Kevin Hegge’s documentary film She Said Boom (2013)?  Defining and understanding the political origins of “punk” will enlighten one to the motives behind the band The Fifth Column; the subject of Hegge’s film.  To explain why “punk” became such an enduring and influential cultural movement one need only apply the very definition of “fifth column”.  Consider, as the members of The Fifth Column did in their native Toronto, that the “enemy of their country” is not a terrorist nor a corrupt politician necessarily, but rather concepts and ideas that are in conflict with the traditionally accepted modes of thinking in Western civilization today.

The Fifth Column cannot be labeled “punk” however, even if their music fits within the mechanics of punk music.  The Fifth Column, like Crass before them (though to a lesser extent), utilized an array of media beyond music such as film to give a voice not only to women, but homosexuals.  Before Pansy Division or Bikini Kill there was The Fifth Column, and their influence on both demographics has been monumental.

This is what Hegge’s film She Said Boom works very hard to communicate.  By interviewing members of the band, their contemporaries, and their successors Hegge is able to contextualize The Fifth Column not just musically, but sociologically.  That The Fifth Column was so successful in their aesthetic fusion of punk music and film in giving voice to Toronto’s subculture tempts critics to draw a comparison between them and Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.  Yet Hegge’s ignores this comparison wisely.  Primarily, one must assume, because at this point not only is a comparison with The Velvet Underground a cliché, but Hegge would be indicating a duplicate social structure of oppression at work in both New York of the mid-1960s and Toronto in the 1980s.  Admittedly there are similarities, but a comparison of this nature would negate the principal instigating factors at work in propelling The Fifth Column beyond the circuit of your “run of the mill” garage band.  Thus, Hegge is very successful in his portrait of The Fifth Column, their work, and their legacy.

The Fifth Column

She Said Boom is very liberal in its appropriation of footage of The Fifth Column members from their films and the films of their associates (Caroline Azar, Beverly Breckenridge, GB Jones and Bruce la Bruce).  Though this footage is compelling in how vividly it renders a time, a place, and an aesthetic, the very employment of footage in this way has become a tactic so often used by documentary filmmakers that it is becoming tiresome.  Between Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) and Don Letts’ Westway To The World (2000) this tactic was not nearly as prevalent.  However, Westway The World‘s syndication on MTV and VH1 over the following years have helped engrain this device into the very mechanics of what is popularly referred to as the “Rock-Doc”.  And this is a shame because of all the documentaries that utilize this tactic to this end She Said Boom has had some of the best archives of footage to pull from.

-Robert Curry

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Lulu In Berlin

Louise Brooks circa the 1920s

It’s not difficult to see why Louise Brooks remains one of the most captivating personas of the silent cinema.  Even in her day her look and her talent for acting on film were widely discussed, praised, and adored.  Her celebrity may even be so potent today that it alone is responsible for the deluxe editions of her two films with G.W. Pabst (released by Kino Video and the Criterion Collection respectively).  These two releases posses an abundance of supplements ranging from interviews with Brooks, latter day short films (Windy Riley Goes Hollywood of 1930 was directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and, on the Criterion release of Pandora’s Box (1929), Richard Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin (1984).

Lulu In Berlin is, at essence, a filmic analysis of Brooks’ life in and around the cinema with a detailed foray into what was the climax of that relationship; her collaboration with Pabst on Pandora’s Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929).  In conversation with Brooks, Leacock prompts his subject to recall all of the anecdotes and personal reflections that make her own memoir Lulu In Hollywood such a delightful read.  But what Leacock is able to do in Lulu In Berlin that Brooks was not in her book is to deconstruct the visual aesthetic of Pabst.  To do this Leacock, like any sensible video-essayist, slows down sequences, freeze frames on notable compositions, and replays sequences of particular importance.  What Lulu In Berlin manages, that is entirely unique in my experience, is to couple the subjective recollections of a subject with an objective aesthetic analysis of another related subject congruently.

Consider the many DVD special features that one is most familiar with.  A celebrity, either director or actor, recalls the pleasuresLeacock and Brooks of making a film whilst, via jump cuts, the film in reference is often cut to.  The difference between these supplemental features on DVDs and blu-rays and Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin is their motivation.  Where Leacock presents an analysis that is two prolonged and intent on enlightening the audience as to the mechanics of a film and the experience of constructing those mechanics that make the film your average special feature is nothing more than a prolonged advertisement for whatever film happens to be in question.  Even some of the most informative special features, like those on Warner Bros. DVD release of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973), are, at their heart, commercials.

Leacock’s film of Louise Brooks, with all of its aforementioned merits, still would not likely to have been seen on a home video release if it weren’t for the fact that Louise Brooks is the subject.  In Barry Paris’ excellent biography on Brooks, Louise Brooks, Paris will, again and again, reassert this timelessness.  He points out that to many fans of the cinema today Brooks is more famous and recognizable than those actresses with whom she often competed, such as Clara Bow.  This observation, that is very true, was also shared by Leacock; who opened and closed Lulu In Berlin with the sequence pictured below.

freeze frame from Lulu In Berlin

-Robert Curry

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All American Enigma

In 1962, with the issuing of the Oberhausen Manifesto, New German Cinema began.  For twenty years a generation of German filmmakers produced small, personal and decidedly nationalist films in response to the Americanization of West Germany and the stagnation of any national unifying notion of Germany.  Of these filmmakers, only one fixed himself to narrative subjects that existed almost exclusively outside of the contemporary West German setting, preferring the Romantic and Operatic of German folk tales and literature, his name is Werner Herzog.

In his book The Altering Eye, Robert Phillip Kolker refers to Werner Herzog as the “self appointed Holy Fool” of New German Cinema, citing Herzog’s rejection of contemporary subjects as a lack of seriousness, an evasion of social commentary and national urgency.  Though, in superficial terms, this may appear to be a valid assessment of Herzog’s position within the movement, such an assumption negates the unifying obsession at the heart of almost every Werner Herzog film, the investigation of what it means to be an outcast.

Werner Herzog in 1968

This obsession, appearing in varying degrees of abstraction reoccurs in not just Herzog’s films, but also in the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Wim Wenders, and Volker Schlondorff.  The working-class subjects of Wenders’ early films as well as those of Fassbinder focus on the contemporary disenfranchisement of various social demographics within German society.  In contrast, Herzog’s protagonists handle the same issues of isolation, but within the singular context of the film’s narrative.  The most dramatic example of this is in Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974).  Hauser, raised in isolation till his release in his early twenties, must adapt to the German society of the late eighteenth century just as that society must in turn adapt to his sudden emergence.  Indirectly, Herzog is presenting his commentary on West Germany’s reemergence as a serious world power in the early seventies for the first time since the end of WWII.  The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser then serves as the same social commentary as lets say Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), yet remains far more distinct in its ability to retain a national notion of Germany by framing its commentary within the narrative of one of Germany’s most infamous folk tales.

The device I have outlined within Herzog’s film The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser recurs in all of Herzog’s period dramas of the seventies, from Heart Of Glass (1976) to Woyzeck (1979).  Still, it isn’t entirely surprising that Kolker overlooked this aspect of Herzog’s style.  One must remember that America’s perception of Herzog today is still very much what it was when he first became known on the Art House circuit in 1972 with Aguirre The Wrath Of God.  The stories and legends that have arose around Herzog over the years, though some are true, often overshadow or at least color the critical readings of his films.  Herzog himself has propagated many of these myths himself, and has done very well to preserve them by taking only the most bizarre acting assignments in other filmmakers’ movies.  That said, it seems only logical that Kolker’s equating Herzog’s own presumed obsessive behavior with that of the protagonists in his films is the product of Herzog’s own presentation of himself.

A critical misinterpretation of Herzog’s early filmography is only half the problem with the American understanding of the director’s work, the other half lies with the audience itself.  As with any foreign film in the seventies, Herzog’s films weren’t likely to screen in America till they had already played in West Germany for a year.  Couple that delay with America’s ignorance of West German politics and social movements and the reasons for all misinterpretation become clear.  If one is unaware of the social problems facing West Germany, how is one to interpret or even recognize Herzog’s commentary in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser?  What if, in addition to socio-political ignorance, one was also unaware of the Kaspar Hauser folk tale?  Herzog’s film would then probably read as the obsessive musings of a demented German philosopher, an image of Herzog that many Americans carry today.  It is the other worldly reading I have just described of Herzog and his films that has become a generalization of all German films amongst American audiences.  It doesn’t matter if Herzog is involved or not, the popularity of his “other-worldly” cinema in America is the basis of America’s expectations of a German film, Wenders, Fassbinder, Syberberg, Kluge, or otherwise.

Werner Herzog’s last film to adhere to a distinctly German world view was his first Hollywood film Invincible (2001), which is also the first of three films that function as character studies of protagonists in environments that reflect their inner psychological turmoil; Rescue Dawn (2007) and The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009) being the other two.  Invincible follows a Jewish strongman struggling to survive as a performer in Nazi Germany.  Herzog’s two follow up narratives have Americans as their protagonists who are forced to navigate two American tragedies; the Vietnam War and New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  These three films represent a closing down of Herzog’s political and social commentaries, preferring to investigate internal moral dilemmas and personal struggles.  Herzog’s internalization at this late point in his career is the direct result of the documentary films he had begun to make in 1997, beginning with Little Dieter Needs To FlyLittle Dieter Needs To Fly (1997) along with Grizzly Man (2005) represent documentary portraiture along the same lines as Flaherty’s Nanook Of The North (1922), Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967), and the Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975) to name but a few.  This style of documentary filmmaking emphasizes intimacy, and through observation offers an astute psychological analysis of a subject.  This mode of investigative filmmaking is the primary purpose of Herzog’s first three American narrative features.

But Herzog would close in even more in his narrative work with his feature My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009).  This film, unlike the three that preceded it, is not grounded in any national catastrophe, but rather unfolds as a psychological thriller.  In essence Herzog has retreated from the wider context of German heritage in his earlier films and the national crises of his later films to explore exclusively the cause and effects of obsessive behavior.

Mendes, Herzog & Cage

Though Herzog’s aesthetic has transformed and narrowed itself down in terms of portraiture, the appraisal of his American films by Americans is still within the context of an “other-worldly” German filmmaker making films in Germany.  Even without the distinctly German themes of his classic period, Herzog’s films are still understood to be imports, with vague signifiers and an elusive context.  Werner Herzog as a brand has become more significant then Herzog the artist.  Most people I have encountered who are familiar with his later work still asses and read Herzog’s films as though they were derivative of a context akin to Signs Of Life (1968) or Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), going so far as to say “his films don’t usually seem to make sense” (anonymous).  What the image of Werner Herzog has become in American culture prevents Americans from understanding and engaging Herzog’s narrative films within the context of his aesthetic evolution.  As a result, because of Herzog’s good standing with film critics in the 2000s, people will go and see a Werner Herzog film with no intention of understanding the concerns of the narrative, but simply because it’s “cool” to see a Werner Herzog film.

-Robert Curry

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