John Cassavetes

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John Simon

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The films of John Cassavetes are, by and large, sterile actors' exercises. They are not even for all kinds of actors, but mostly for the friends of Cassavetes and amateurs like his family or his wife's family. They are doggedly pretentious and often of enormous duration; unless you are an actor, or a friend or relative of the director, you should find them quintessentially trivial and boring. Cassavetes, who is quite a good actor but a bad director and worse writer, has insisted ever more emphatically over the years that his films are "scripted," though they seem to be taped and transcribed improvisations, possibly re-enacted from such "scripts." At least I hope that this is how it is done; if Cassavetes is telling the truth, and he really writes this trash that postures as plot, characterization, and dialogue, he would be an even bigger simpleton than I take him to be….

[Consider] A Woman Under the Influence. It did not begin to enlighten us about whether the woman was demented or unjustly viewed as such, whether her husband loved her or not, whether her family and her doctor treated her rightly or wrongly. It did not remotely come to grips with whether she had extramarital relations, whether her love for her children was genuine or some form of infantilism and hysteria, and whether anything was changed after her return from the asylum. Many feminists hailed the picture as a major plea in behalf of oppressed womanhood; yet it was by no means clear whether and by what the heroine was oppressed, and whether her abject stupidity, indeed near-idiocy, made her a representative specimen….

In any case, A Woman Under the Influence struck me as muddleheaded, pretentious, and interminable, fooling some people because of its factitious social significance. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, cut from the same burlap, makes two strategic errors: its subject cannot even lay claim to significant social comment, and it tries for something like a thriller plot, for which Cassavetes and his pals have no real affinity. On top of kids playing with typical improvisations and cameras, we get kids playing with guns—disastrously. (p. 65)

[When] not very bright or clever people try to convey to the movie audience that someone or something is supposed to be dumb, they sink to levels of stupidity and ineptitude that strike people of normal intelligence as positively feeble-minded.

So, for example, when Cosmo tells about two girls in Memphis who cut off a gopher's tail, ate it, and died of botulism, we wonder—there being no botulism outside of canned food—who is being inept: the character, the improvising actor, or the filmmaker…. Not only are ignorance and witlessness fulgurating in the movie, we do not even know whom to ascribe them to and how to evaluate them. (pp. 65-6)

[The] movie becomes ever more clumsy and incredible: not only do things become totally divorced from sense, but also the filmmaking cannot or will not make clear just what happens during various key scenes. We do not find out just when Cosmo gets shot, what kind of wound he incurs, and why it seems insignificant and staunched when that suits the filmmakers, and profusely bleeding and presumably fatal when that makes for a splashier effect.

Not even Cosmo is decently examined and comprehended by the Cassavetes method; the other characters, except for an occasional touch of (usually spurious) colorfulness, remain total ciphers….

There is always the joker who says sneeringly, "Muddled, contradictory, stupidly bungling—that is just the way life is!" Maybe, but in that case give us cinéma-vérité rather...

(This entire section contains 702 words.)

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than actors' improvisations posturing as life. If, on the other hand, you're trying to give us something more—art, perhaps—it is your obligation to probe a bit below the surface, to try at least to raise some questions worth the asking. Cassavetes offers up only a lot of extreme closeups and murky lighting—both literally and figuratively—and fails either to penetrate or to illuminate his subject. (p. 66)

John Simon, "Technical Exercise, Exercise in Futility," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1976 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 9, No. 9, March 1, 1976, pp. 65-6.


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