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Tag Archives: directing

Maria and Chet, the morning after 

John Cassavetes once said of making his first film Shadows, ‘We didn’t know the first thing about making a movie. It was an experiment. I never thought I’d be a director.’ Yet Cassavetes, who lived from 1939 to 1989, pioneered a whole independent film movement in America – even without his knowledge. Nearly twenty years after his death, cinema still bears his mark. We call it ‘indie’.

Fitting to his work, Cassavetes keeps a relatively low profile in film studies. In the past few years, several biographical works have credited him with jump-starting modern indie and underground film production. Of these, Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001), a compilation of interviews with the director, and Marshall Fine’s Accidental Genius (2005) try, by raising his profile, to establish him among the upper echelon of auteurs and cinematic masters. But perhaps it is fitting that Cassavetes be left a class apart – and that it be said: there’s nothing ‘accidental’ about his genius. It was always Cassavetes’s intention to stand out, even if at first he thought he could do it as a star.

Cassavetes’s talent as a performer is, and always was, unmistakable: he played Johnny Staccato on TV in the late ‘50s and acted in The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964), The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967), and Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanksi, 1968), among others, to critical acclaim. In those films, his acting genius is fully on display. In the films he directed, however, it is a subtle and self-obfuscating genius that is more felt than seen.

 The roles Cassavetes took from Hollywood primarily financed his own projects and performances in ten self-directed independent films, from Shadows in 1959 to Big Trouble in 1986. Besides financing his art, Cassavetes needed to provide for his young family with Gena Rowlands, whom he met at drama school and used in many of his films. He directed two movies for Hollywood: Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child is Waiting (1963). After them, he renounced the Hollywood industry, and an indie hero was born. Cassavetes is a comparatively unsung hero at that: compared to Anger, Brakhage, or Bergman, counter-culturalists, avant-gardes, and art-house auteurs, Cassavetes’s legacy stands independent of the independents’ canon, marginalized even from the margin.

Cassavetes, like his movies, is nothing if not hard to define. Was he in or out of Hollywood? A lapsed actor or visionary director? Undoubtedly he was a versatile player in the field, and a consummate movie-maker at that. When he had to work with Hollywood, he got over it by working through and beyond it.

 He worked ‘inside-out’ in every aspect of filmmaking, and perhaps that quality best defines his certain ‘indie sensibility’. As an actor, he followed Lee Strasburg’s Method; Cassavetes’s life was acting, his acting, in turn, an expression of life. And the approach translated easily into his so-called ‘direction’ of films: for in that capacity his greatest affront to classic, Hollywood-style filmmaking was, in fact, the denial of his very natural impulse to ‘direct’ or control his projects.

By rights, Cassavetes ‘owned’ his indie films from start to finish as writer, producer and director. He had complete creative control. But the consummate Method actor believed one shouldn’t have to tell actors where to go or what to do – armed with a script and a basic understanding of themselves, they should naturally be able to perform any scene presented.  Cassavetes found the secret to effective ‘improvisation’: he didn’t disguise his direction under actors’ performances – he simply didn’t use any.

Neither did he have to apologize for subjectivity or bias. Often he acted in front of the camera, but Cassavetes disappeared behind it. Metaphorically speaking, he took the ‘I’ out of ‘independent cinema’. Each of his films is a study on the interaction of individuals – but they would be nothing without that crucial interaction, that multiplicity. They are not about Cassavetes, they are about the people Cassavetes sees and leaves them be.

And as he grew more confident of himself as a director, he learned as well that one must take the ‘eye’ out of indie film – in order that it be truly ‘independent’. According to his biographer Ray Carney, Cassavetes recalled falling too much “in love with the camera” during Shadows’ filming. He found that trying to catch beautiful shots only distracted him from fostering the character development that made his films really ‘real’. Thereafter, Cassavetes purposely neglected ‘the look’ of films, and he focused nearly exclusively on effecting performances as true-to-life as possible in every instance.

Unlike a Godard or Pakula, others who got started in the modernist-friendly 1960s, Cassavetes didn’t go in for self-reflexivity.  Instead, he tried to banish his own subjectivity nearly completely from his movies. Maybe the attempt at self-detachment, even negation, is just one more directorial affectation. But Cassavetes never tried to hide; he just saw himself as a part in, and thus apart from, the ‘whole’ of each of his films – he was never above them, pulling the strings.

            From the very beginning, Cassavetes explored characters not readily identifiable – physically, psychically, socially, sexually – with himself. As a young white male, Cassavetes even against his will represented an artificial ‘norm’ or ideal preserved in ideology by Hollywood films. His was a minority still more powerful over the disenfranchised majority comprised of all women and non-whites males – those whom Hollywood largely elided from pictures. Cassavetes’s first indiscretion against Hollywood-style filmmaking was to bring these people to light, that is, literally projected onscreen.

Shadows is about a young light-skinned black woman named Lelia (played by Lelia Goldoni – often in Cassavetes’ movies, actors’ names become characters’ – another instance of his loosening directorial control, letting characters take on lives of their own). Over the course of the movie, Lelia loses her virginity to a white man (initially unaware of her racial ‘difference’), gets rejected, and afterwards finds it hard to open herself honestly, emotionally, to men. It’s nothing to which Cassavetes, a married Caucasian male, could ever have directly related. But it didn’t matter: as a director, he played a role distinct and removed from all others, the facilitator of an independent creation, of individuals, not their creator per se. Lots of directors make films about ‘others’. Cassavetes made those ‘others’ make their own films.

            Cassavetes’s hallmark as a director was his ability to draw improvisations of character from his actors. Not to be confused with improvised dialogue or plot (often a source of confusion) – Cassavetes carefully scripted his movies and was painstaking in rehearsals to achieve a naturalistic style of delivery, but he never directed character. True to the Method, Cassavetes believed emotion and motivation had to come from within the actor him- or herself. Only then could acting be ‘true to life’, and an essence of truth to life was what Cassavetes, the Method actor become director, ultimately sought to find through film.

Representation was not enough – he needed presentation, life living life, not actors playing roles. For Cassavetes, a ‘script’ was more than words, it was a barrier to complete understanding and sympathy between two people (in this case, actor and character, one real, the other fictional). So in a sense, Cassavetes wanted to erase that script: as he explained to Ray Carney, Life begins when you leave the ‘script’ behind and ‘improvise’. With ‘improvised’ movies, Cassavetes offered the public an honest self portrait, a mirror image even, of itself, acted out through the ‘real lives’ of movie characters – an alternative to the heavily scripted (in the sense of being artificially constructed) Hollywood movies that only compounded, by smoothing over or ignoring, the ‘horror’ of contemporary middle-class America.

            The biggest problem with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, Cassavetes found, was that movies failed to challenge audiences, and that they thus failed to be sympathetic to social plight. Hollywood scripting and plotting had, by the time Cassavetes started making films, become entirely predictable by convention. He called this letting people ‘get ahead’ of movies, and declared, ‘I won’t make shorthand films. In my films there’s a competition with the audience to keep ahead of them. I want to break their patterns. I want to shake them up and get them out of those quick, manufactured truths.’

For Cassavetes, this was not a matter of keeping audiences guessing ‘what happens next’ in the plot – it was a matter of keeping emotions and motivations always slightly ambiguous, so that you’re never quite sure what characters in his films are thinking – just as you’d be unsure of others in real life. The characters onscreen so become real people, the actors are so wholly, really motivated, that they step outside the confines of artificial plot to become individuals with independent thought.

This is the legacy of independent cinema John Cassavetes leaves us: the responsibility of one among many, the awareness of one’s relationship always to others, and a respect for every other’s individuality. And as Cassavetes is, after all, just one filmmaker among many, perhaps it would, with that legacy in mind, be a disservice here to call him one of the best, if not the best, among the independent filmmakers of the last 60 years. But you’re free to think what you want.




Essential Cassavetes



Shadows (1959)



Don’t let the indie-quaint appearance fool you: this is perhaps Cassavetes’s most stylized, most ‘movie-like’ of movies. Shots are ambitious, the story compelling, but most importantly, effective characterization and performances make for a brilliant movie in their own right. Cassavetes takes underground cinema out onto the streets of Manhattan and into the lives of three African-American siblings – Lelia, Ben and Hugh – looking for identity in a world both ignorant and hostile to ‘difference’. Shadows takes a revelatory look into the ghastly business of being human. As Lelia says to Tony on the morning after, ‘I never knew it could be so awful.’




Faces (1968)




If Shadows is revelation, Faces is a darker meditation on the emotional paralysis of middle-class marriage and middle age. Amidst the dysfunction, Cassavetes stresses compassion and sympathy, qualities all too often ignored or taken for granted in relationships – like that of Richard (John Hurley) and Maria (Lynn Carlin) Forst. Most poignant is the scene in which they joke over the dinner table and dissolve into fits of laughter – before a single, misunderstood comment from Lynn sets them off, and their marriage collapses. We get an ever-so-fleeting glimpse into why, in spite of everything and no “happily ever after”, they got together once upon a time.



Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)



Or, Maria and Chettie from Faces, but without marriage as an excuse for middle-age melancholia. Cassavetes forces the question: what really keeps people from falling – and staying – in love? It’s because we block our emotions up, out and away from others. As Minnie, Gena Rowlands (Faces’ Jeannie) disappears behind big black sunglasses, and as Moskowitz, Seymour Cassel (who seduced Maria Forst as Chettie, previously) wears his hippie heart on his sleeve – and a bushy blond moustache under his nose. In the end, the goggles come down and the moustache off. And we see that a successful marriage is not so much ‘built’ as it is revealed: emotional barriers have to be broken and self-imposed restrictions overcome.



A Woman Under the Influence (1974)



Familial dysfunction was never so heartbreakingly rendered. There’s no rhyme, and certainly no reason, to Mabel Longhetti’s (Gena Rowlands) eccentricity. Husband Nick (Peter Falk) can take it, but only up to a point: when their precariously balanced private lives meet with disapproval from the outside, Nick finally caves and commits his wife.  But not before ‘reassuring’ Mabel several times that all she has to do is “just be yourself!” Nick fails to sympathize fully with his suffering wife: he doesn’t even know who she is; he only knows he loves her – and that’s not enough to save her. If there’s a triumph to the film, it’s that Cassavetes never once tries to solve or explain Mabel’s condition. He merely bears witness to the destruction all around and within her – and perhaps that’s the greatest tribute to individual selfhood that there ever could be.