Thursday, September 6, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... John Cassavetes

Welcome to yet another edition of Getting Acquainted, where I watch three films by a cinematic trailblazer whose work is unfamiliar to me, over the course of a month's time.

John Cassavetes has long been a figure of some fascination for me. From seeing only a single film he directed (Gloria) and a few more he appeared in as an actor (Whose Life Is It Anyway?, and later Edge of the City), I developed an interest in the type of filmmaker Cassavetes aspired to be -- a true iconoclast, who would sooner eat a bowl of rusty nails than make a conventional Hollywood movie.

In fact, I'd say that a large part of my impression of Cassavetes came from a movie his son made that tried to emulate the elder Cassavetes' style. On a trip to Atlanta for my cousin's wedding in 1997 -- almost exactly 15 years ago, in fact -- I saw She's So Lovely, a gritty drama directed by Nick Cassavetes and starring Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn and John Travlota. I didn't like this movie very much; I didn't even like the type of movie it was trying to be. I just didn't care for Penn and Wright Penn playing glorified white trash who love each other and hate each in equal measure, with brutal fights, tearful apologies, inarticulate emoting and torrid makeup sex accounting for basically the entire dynamic of their relationship. But I wondered if I mainly didn't like it because I thought it was a simulacrum of something his father would have done better and with more authenticity.

Still, it wasn't just Penn and Wright Penn who had the love/hate relationship -- that seemed to be my relationship with Cassavetes as well. While on the one hand, I didn't really respond to Gloria, on the other, something essential about this man's persona intrigued me. Any time he would come up, I would feel this amorphous sense of respect for his work -- even though I didn't really like the things he made, or the things that were inspired by the things he made. I couldn't ignore that he seemed important in some way, and that I should see more of his films.

Apparently, I existed in this state of suspended animation with regards to his career until about a month ago, when I finally watched my second Cassavetes movie -- and then my third and fourth soon afterward.

Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes)
Watched: Wednesday, August 8th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A free-form look into the lives of a number of characters living on the fringe of society and the music scene, including an interracial would-be couple separated by society's prejudices.
My thoughts on the film: I try to do these plot synopses without actually consulting a written synopsis for the movie, and this was the best I could do for Shadows. This is independent cinema, pure and simple -- except in 1959, independent cinema didn't exist like it does today, making this a pretty groundbreaking film. Instead of seeing Shadows exactly on its own terms, I saw it in terms of future movies it reminded me of, such as the beginning section of Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and the entirety of Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. (And look how impressive I am, name-dropping a Jarmusch film, and then an indie musical that most people reading this will have never heard of.) Cassavetes' first film introduced a future hallmark of his work, which can be seen in this poster: confronting, unflattering close-ups of characters, which is symbolic of the way he's using a microscope to peer into the very essence of their humanity. Although Shadows has some of the affectations that I didn't like about She's So Lovely, it mostly side-steps being ponderous and exists on a level that's fairly easy to digest. The little interludes that comprise this movie usually have a beginning, middle and end, and the central spine -- the relationship between the light-skinned black woman and a white man -- has some truly devastating moments. They're devastating without being the slightest bit manipulative or heavy-handed, which contributes to the sense of naturalism derived from using non-professionals and relying almost entirely on improvisation. For a movie that is mostly about people hanging out and talking -- about things that rarely string together concretely into a greater whole -- Shadows is pretty satisfying. And I can really see how people would have found it bracing and original at the time it was made.

Faces (1968, John Cassavetes)
Watched: Sunday, August 19th
One-sentence plot synopsis: In a state of marital impasse, a husband and a wife strike out to find love in the arms of others with painful, troubling results, which highlight the emptiness of their lives.
My thoughts on the film: Just because I can make a nice-sounding synopsis of this movie doesn't mean I found it the least bit rewarding. Have you ever watched a film where it felt like everybody was speaking a foreign language, even though it was filmed in your native tongue? That's how I felt throughout Faces, which is decidedly, exactly the kind of Cassavetes movie I fear. Which I guess puts me on the outs with most movie folks, because Faces actually appeared on the Sight & Sound 250 at #183. The crux of this movie is supposed to involve a middle-aged man (John Marley) and his slightly younger wife (Lynn Carlin), unhappily married after 14 years. Yet we don't meet her until the movie is 30 minutes old -- Cassavetes fritters away the first half-hour on an evening out involving Marley, his friend and a prostitute played by future Cassavetes wife Gena Rowlands. And when I say "fritter," I mean that this is where I felt like I was watching another language -- what they're talking about is this aimless, meandering mish-mash of anecdote and life philosophy, punctuated by frequent bouts of inexplicable singing and dancing. (The fact that they're drunk does not adequately explain it.) It's not that I found what they were talking about too difficult to grasp; I found it simultaneously banal and pretentious, containing so little content of interest that I literally could not focus on it. The movie then tries us further by essentially repeating this same dynamic again with Marley, Rowlands and some other people, and again with Carlin and a young swinger played by veteran character actor Seymour Cassel. Each of these scenes involves endless minutes of characters talking around things, and I suppose that Cassavetes intends us to deduce a lot from what they're not saying, from awkward exchanges and from uncomfortable pauses. Again, it's not that I'm incapable of meeting a film on these terms, I just didn't find it skillfully or engagingly done. Another problem was that I didn't find any of the characters the least bit sympathetic. Surprisingly, both Carlin and Cassel got Oscar nominations for their performances in this film, which is rather astonishing -- I can't imagine a time when this kind of film would have had any mainstream appeal, let alone enough to yield two Oscar nominations. The affection for this film indicated by its numerous Sight & Sound mentions left me with the feeling that Cassavetes may just not be my kind of filmmaker.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976, John Cassavetes)
Watched: Friday, August 31st
One-sentence plot synopsis: To clear a $23,000 gambling debt, the owner of a Los Angeles strip club (Ben Gazzara) allows himself to become the trigger man in a plot to kill a local Chinese bookie.
My thoughts on the film: And just when I think Cassavetes has defeated me, along comes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. In a way, the Getting Acquainted on Cassavetes was an excuse for me to finally fulfill my long-gestating desire to see this film, which had always caught my attention because of the specificity of the title (especially specific, you might say, when compared to Cassavetes' two previous films that I watched). In fact, you could say that just knowing this title gave me some of my impression of the type of filmmaker Cassavetes was. However, by the time I got to watching it, I was sure that my Faces disappointment would only carry over here. Nothing could be further from the truth. Giving himself ever so slightly over the greater structural requirements for narrative in a genre film, Cassavetes made a masterpiece -- but one that clearly has his own stamp on it. And I'd say the difference in my interpretation of it has to come down to Ben Gazzara. With him as an unambiguous figure to root for, I found that Cassavetes' trademark meandering provided color and context rather than frustration; his long stretches of inessential dialogue, part of ordinary life rather than some kind of artistic affectation. Which is not to say that Gazzara's Cosmo Vittelli is a model citizen, nor even that different from other Cassavetes characters I've found repellent -- just that he is sympathetic enough for us to be on his side, which is key in my enjoyment of a film. There are long portions of this film -- especially at its 135-minute length, rather than the stripped down 108-minute length that was put back into theaters after the original's poor reception -- that are devoted simply to things like dance numbers at the strip club. But the main story, and Gazzara's understated yet charismatic performance, give a viewer reason to stay invested, and to accept these interludes as brief diversions rather than just incomplete ideas in Cassavetes' head. In fact, the interludes in the strip club, though technically inessential to the plot, are some of the most effective in terms of the type of subtle character development on which Cassavetes prides himself. The cadre of gangsters who bring Vittelli under their thumb is truly intimidating, and Bo Harwood's original score only deepens the sense of impending doom. I could probably go on and find a greater eloquence about why this film worked so well for me, but my self-imposed space limitations prevent me from doing so. Let's just say that this makes a welcome addition to a 1970s subgenre that also features the likes of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.

Conclusion: John Cassavetes is not my kind of guy ... except when he is.

Favorite of the three: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

In September, I'm going to do something a little different. Actually, a couple things different. For starters, I won't focus on one person, but three, or even sometimes four: Mo, Larry and Curly, and sometimes Shemp. That's right, I'm going to acquaint myself with the sophisticated comedic stylings of the Three Stooges. Right now, I'm lined up to watch Soup to Nuts, Dancing Lady and The Three Stooges Meet Hercules. Here's hoping they'll all be short. And then the other different thing I'm doing is finishing the month with the Farrelly Brothers' The Three Stooges, which came out earlier this year. I figure I'll be uniquely qualified to assess the success or failure of the actors' impersonations, having just watched these other three films. I'll probably write a short bit about that as well.

Until then, expect another 15 to 20 posts on other matters.


Joseph B. said...

As a staunch Cassavetes lover, I do confess that "Faces" is a bit of a slog to get through. If you haven't seen it, I'd highly recommend "A Woman Under the Influence" which is a bit more plot-driven but features a tremendous performance by Gena Rowlands. My personal Cassavetes fave is "Husbands", although it meanders way too long at times.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Joseph! In fact, I probably should have gone with A Woman Under the Influence, because that title was already familiar to me as a quality Cassavetes film. (I hadn't heard of either Shadows or Faces, though the Sight & Sound list would coincidentally soon introduce me to Faces.) I also considered Husbands, being a husband and all. I think Chinese Bookie worked well enough for me that I'll be back for more. Thanks for the comment!