James Monaco

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1524

[Acting], its art and craft, is the key to John Cassavetes's cinema. He started as an actor (he's a good one) and he still acts to make money to finance his own films. He seems to be more interested in the process of shooting a film than he is in the end result, and he designs his movies more often than not as attractive exercises for himself and his actor friends and relations. (p. 299)

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Cassavetes's movies are family affairs; in fact they're like nothing so much as home movies, with all the problems and advantages thereof.

They go on too long, they're often too private and self-indulgent, they never seem to come to the point, they're loosely plotted—certainly leagues away from the intricately constructed Hollywood formula film—they don't seem to show much care for production values, and they tend to be repetitive. When Cassavetes finds an idea he likes, he'll run it into the ground. But they're also exhilaratingly verisimilitudinous—they're slices of life cut with precision enough for a biopsy; at their best they sing with pleasure in the craft of acting; and taken together they give us a rich portrait of contemporary sexual politics and its attendant anxieties that is unrivaled in the medium. They may be home movies, but these amateurs are professionals, workers who love their craft.

The result of this classically amateur provenance is that, as the critical cliché has it, people are either passionate devotees of John Cassavetes's movies, or they despise them. The key, I think, is how far you are willing to go to participate in this rather self-absorbed process. Cassavetes seems constitutionally incapable of playing to a broad audience. He makes movies for himself and his friends because that's all he knows how to do…. [Despite] all the aforementioned crotchety difficulties one has with his movies, there is an essential humanism there that's undeniable…. [It's] available in any Cassavetes movie, for those who want to actively participate in the process. To do so, you have to give up a number of ideas about what a (commercial) movie should be—ideas about pace and construction and meaning—and learn to appreciate John's naturalistic rhythms.

Cassavetes's films may seem avant-garde: they are certainly the closest approach by commercial films to the so-called New American Cinema of personal art films…. But really, there isn't that much that's innovative about Cassavetes's cinema. (pp. 299-300)

[The] shape of Cassavetes's actor-centered moodpieces was foreshadowed on the stage as early as Chekhov, a playwright who was entirely dependent on the talents and techniques of his actors…. Like Cassavetes's films, Chekhov's plays are about rather sad people—losers, if you like—who don't ever seem to get anywhere, but who enthrall audiences with their inaction, their self-centeredness, and their cosmically funny failures. The creation of pure atmosphere—and a rather lackadaisically maudlin one at that—has been legitimate ever since. Not only is Cassavetes not an innovator, but he can trace his roots straight to one of the grandfathers of the modern theater!

Perhaps that's part of the problem. His films are highly theatrical. There isn't one of them that couldn't be converted easily into a stage play. They take place almost exclusively in interiors. (p. 300)

Clearly, Cassavetes's people aren't outdoor folk. They don't thrive in the sunshine. They're interior characters in both senses of the word, and that seems more a theatrical trait than a cinematic characteristic. The director further emphasizes this with a very insouciant, almost sloppy mise en scène. Everything is organized around the actor and his work. Closeups are preferred. Most scenes are shot in long takes. Cassavetes's technique is to load the camera with as much film as it can carry, then turn it...

(The entire section contains 1524 words.)

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