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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 Cassavetes’ hair has greyed, his demeanor is relatively withdrawn and his mood somber.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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She’s So (De)Lovely

Diseased. A freak.  Totally screwed, put together with spit and shit and honey.  Impossible to figure, nutty, mean, selfish, crazy, creepy, sick, weak. On a scale of ten million, she’s last.  And she’s mine.  I can’t believe how lucky we are to find each other.”-Eddie, from the 1987 version of the script She’s Delovely by John Cassavetes

She’s Delovely was written by John Cassavetes in the summer of 1980.  Its premise involves a married couple (Eddie and Mo) that lives on the fringes of society, residing in a slum.  When Mo is assaulted, her husband Eddie flies off the handle and ends up shooting a clinic attendant Mo had called to subdue the situation.  Ten years later, the script picks up with Eddie and Mo’s second husband Joey competing for her affections.  In 1987, Cassavetes re-wrote large portions of his script to suit Sean Penn, who had agreed to be in the film (which would have been the first film Cassavetes had made since Big Trouble in 1986).  As John Cassavetes began pre-production and location scouting (between 1987 and 1988), the project was shelved.  Part of the reason for this was a number of financial problems arising from allegedly unpaid taxes on A Woman Under The Influence (1974), while the other reason Cassavetes had to shelve She’s Delovely was because of personal differences between himself and Sean Penn.  In Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes, he attributes their dispute to Penn’s insistence that Madonna play Mo in the film, a casting decision that Cassavetes could not support.  As a result, Penn made Casualties Of War (1989) with Brian DePalma, and Cassavetes never returned to filmmaking before his death in 1989.(Carney, page 761)

A decade later in 1997, John Cassavetes’ son Nick Cassavetes directed the script now titled She’s So Lovely.  Just as John Cassavetes had intended, Sean Penn plays Eddie. Though instead of Madonna playing Mo opposite, Penn’s then wife Robin Wright-Penn assumed the role.  The part of Joey was delegated to John Travolta, with James Gandolfini and Harry Dean Stanton filling out the cast.

It seems safe to assume that Nick Cassavetes changed a little more than just the title of the script since the monologue featured above does not appear in the final cut of She’s So Lovely.  Similarly, there are a number of time lapse sequences in the film, most obviously the pasta scene, that were probably long scripted scenes that are now abbreviated.  Scenes such as these are hallmarks of John Cassavetes’ films; scenes like the singing contest in Husbands (1970) and the spaghetti breakfast in A Woman Under The Influence (1974).  However, scenes such as these do not conform to the contemporary vernacular of American filmmaking, when fast cuts and pigeon holed characters are the norm.  Slow scenes designed to build character and present the audience with insights and observations regarding human behavior are not on the agenda for Nick Cassavetes.  Instead, Nick Cassavetes deludes these scenes, compressing them to the point where only the most essential superficial information can be given to propel the narrative forward.

It may appear presumptuous to pin the stylistic shortcomings of She’s So Lovely on Nick Cassavetes; it could very well be that Miramax (infamous for their ruthless re-cutting of films) pared the film down.  But I don’t believe that is the case.  If we examine Nick Cassavetes’ filmography we find a series of commercial dramas designed to entertain or preach some moral issue and not confront the nature of human beings.  This is a problem when watching She’s So Lovely because the film beckons the lengthy scenes that are missing from it.  In its final version, She’s So Lovely feels lopsided and top heavy.  The character of Joey, and certainly Mo and Joey’s children, are under developed, yet are still rich enough in character that they cannot function as archetypes or clichés.

That said, there is still a great deal of the script that is unmistakably John Cassavetes.  The words the characters use such as “wacko”, “soft eyes”, “sweet potato pie”; among others are the very trappings of Cassavetes’ own speech pattern.  The character models of She’s So Lovely are also standards within the cinema of John Cassavetes.  Eddie represents the penchant for violence and the neediness of Ben Gazzara’s character Harry in Husbands.  But Eddie is also a romantic, whose selflessness toward Mo recalls Seymour’s relationship to Minnie in Minnie & Moskowitz (1971).   Though Harry and Seymour may appear as opposites, their personality traits work together within Eddie, representing the two sides to his personality.  Eddie is at times tragically romantic while at other times he is distant or violent.  This division in personality, though present in all of Cassavetes’ characters, is much more dramatic in Eddie.  Only late in his career did John Cassavetes begin to construct character studies based around such divided personalities.  In comparison with Myrtle of Opening Night (1977) and Cosmo of The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) Eddie’s behavioral divisions appear far less drastic.  What are essential to the portrayal of these sorts of characters in Cassavetes work are the mundane and familiar circumstances that trigger these characters to “act out”.  Eddie’s penchant for violence only rears its head when he feels his wife has been threatened, just as Cosmo assumes new personality traits as he becomes more and more desperate to save his nightclub.

Even Mo resembles characters that have come before in the work of John Cassavetes.  Like Eddie, she is both romantic, sentimental and yet, tough enough to make it on her own.  The dreaminess of Mo is not too distant from that of Mabel, the heroin of A Woman Under The Influence, though Mo is much more down to earth.  The versatility and adaptability Mo exhibits, that could be perceived as toughness, derive from Jeanie in Faces (1968) and Gloria of Gloria (1980).  All three women are stubborn and deliberate in their plays for power, while simultaneously showing a profound tenderness and compassion for those who have won their affections.  Consider the dualities of these character’s worlds as well.  Gloria and Mo are each attempting to escape their past, but are unable to because the past has become inexplicably tied to their identity.  Such comparisons between the characters in John Cassavetes’ earlier works and those in She’s So Lovely could go on forever, even going so far as to compare Joey with Robert in Love Streams (1984).

What these character models represent is a thematic consistency that manages to survive in even an abbreviated version of a John Cassavetes screenplay.  In contrast to John Cassavetes’ thematic concerns are those of his son’s, Nick Cassavetes.  What She’s So Lovely, The Notebook (2004) and My Sister’s Keeper (2009) all have in common is the depiction of one family member endeavoring to find redemption in the very family they have wronged.  Nick Cassavetes’ characters are unable to communicate as manufactured individuals, functioning more like ventriloquist’s dummies, a mouthpiece for his own concerns.  This approach is the very opposite of his father’s, and may account for the irregularities in the performances in She’s So Lovely.  Ultimately, it is the characters of a narrative film that have to articulate and represent the thematic concerns of the filmmaker.  When the characters are imbued with very little dimensionality and there is an absence of the illusion of a real life that extends beyond the confines of the film, then the validity and the readability of these themes becomes superficial.  Though John Cassavetes condemned these tactics, the tactics themselves are the defining stylistic tendencies in all mainstream American film.

The conflict between the tactics of father and son exemplify the conflict John Cassavetes found insufferable while working with Stanley Kramer on A Child Is Waiting (1963).  That so little has been learned from the debacle of A Child Is Waiting is the real shame.  Audiences still refuse to be confronted with any meaningful exchange with the filmmaker as an artist, so therefore, films like She’s Delovely become films like She’s So Lovely.

-Robert Curry

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