John Cassavetes

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James Monaco

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, 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)

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...

(This entire section contains 1524 words.)

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to load the camera with as much film as it can carry, then turn it on and let the actors do their stuff. If a scene works in one take, he's not going to shoot it over again to get reverse angles and master shots. If a character's out of the frame, so be it. It's the words and delivery that are most important. (p. 301)

He enjoys shooting in restaurants and bars because those are the locations where people have nothing much to do but talk, and talk is at the center of his world—a universe of discourse. In fact, a better theatrical referent than Chekhov might be Harold Pinter. Both the filmmaker and the playwright deal with characters who at first appear from a comic perspective only to reveal in sharp and often poignant outbursts the violence and frustration which always lies just beneath the surface. Both take particular pleasure in the colors of speech—both are erstwhile actors who are very aware just what a pleasure it is to deliver monologues with wit and style; fun for the actors, certainly, and perhaps also for audiences. Pinter is more elegantly fey; Cassavetes is certainly more naturalistic, less symbolic, and elusive: that's to his credit. Neither cares very much where the piece is going; they just want to catch these actor/characters in the act of being. Existential? Yes, I'm afraid so. Both are eventually limited by their commitment to an essentially pessimistic worldview. But while Pinter's people take it out on each other, tyrannize each other, and kill, Cassavetes's people seldom do. If they hurt one another, and they do, it's not out of viciousness, but because they can't help themselves, much less each other. (p. 302)

The year 1959 was truly a watershed in world cinema, and John Cassavetes's Shadows served as the representative milestone in this country. (p. 305)

Shadows succeeded because, almost naively, it broke all the narrative rules of commercial filmmaking. It was largely improvised by a cast of unknowns…. We have time to get to know these people, and if often it's too apparent that they are working at acting, there's something nevertheless charming and refreshing about this style. It's Brechtian, in a way, since it brashly admits its fiction. We know we're watching actors, not real people, and paradoxically that gives the film a riveting sense of reality. Jean-Luc Godard was doing something like this in France at the time. It's an attitude toward the underlying assumptions of filmmaking that's exceptionally modern. It's easy to understand why Shadows became a model for the new independent cinema (with which Cassavetes was never again associated): it strikes at the very foundations of the Hollywood dream movie. It's not entirely a conscious act of rebellion, but that makes it all the more likeable. (pp. 305-06)

Exactly what Cassavetes demands from an audience is more obvious in Faces than in any of his other films. These people don't work in screen time, they work in real time. Force them into screen time with its neatly edited ellipses and thoughtful connections, and they become characters; leave them in real time, rough, sometimes boring, with idiosyncratic rhythms, disconcerting jumps, and inactive holes, and they tend to remain people. The effect of watching people rather than characters on the screen is startling, and I think, worth the effort films like these require. (p. 308)

A Woman Under the Influence is rare in its understanding of the dehumanizing forces of working-class life as well as sexist marriage patterns, but inasmuch as the film has a political dimension—it makes it clear that this neurosis isn't arbitrary; there are "influences" at work—it stops far too short. (p. 310)

It became clear in Cassavetes's next two films after A Woman Under the Influence that he was locked in a bind of his own. No American writer/director knows more about the triangular relationship between character, acting, and reality. But finally, this isn't enough: the triangle becomes more and more constricting. (p. 311)

Like Ingmar Bergman, with whom he's often compared (Opening Night is certainly parallel with Persona, A Woman Under the Influence with The Passion of Anna, Faces with Scenes from a Marriage), Cassavetes eventually disappoints because he can't or won't extricate himself from this swampy delta of neurotic recrimination. He gives his actors enormous freedom, but he and his actors together team up to repress his characters. For people who go along with him, his films are emotionally draining experiences. But this isn't the only identifying characteristic of realism, as either style or attitude. People do learn to cope, sometimes even successfully; they don't always submit. Except for Minnie and Moskowitz, the most spirited of Cassavetes's movies, his characters are in search of a way to liberate themselves from their authors, both writer/director and actors. From Faces to Opening Night, Cassavetes operates as an artistic tyrant: characters, and fiction, don't have a chance against this champion of actors and of a very precise (and often precious), limited reality. Like Bergman's, Cassavetes's films are stuck in the existential fifties. They haven't learned the truth of the sixties, that it is at least possible to take action, that passive suffering isn't the only legitimate response to psychological binds. (pp. 311-12)

James Monaco, "Who's Talking? Cassavetes, Altman, and Coppola," in his American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies (copyright © 1979 by James Monaco; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York), Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, pp. 295-348.∗


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