John Cassavetes

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Pauline Kael

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The theories of R. D. Laing the poet of schizophrenic despair, have such theatrical flash that they must have hit John Cassavetes smack in the eye. His new film, A Woman Under the Influence, is the work of a disciple: it's a didactic illustration of Laing's vision of insanity, with … Mabel Longhetti [as] the scapegoat of a repressive society that defines itself as normal. The core of the film is a romanticized conception of insanity, allied with the ancient sentimental mythology of madness centering on the holy fool and with the mythology about why Christ was crucified. The picture is based on the idea that the crazy person is endowed with a clarity of vision that the warped society can't tolerate, and so is persecuted. (p. 392)

It's never suggested that there's something wrong with Mabel for not getting herself together. Others reduce her to pulp; she's not a participant in her own destruction. The romantic view of insanity is a perfect subject for Cassavetes to muck around with. Yet even in this season when victimization is the hottest thing in the movie market this scapegoat heroine doesn't do a damn thing for him. He's always on the verge of hitting the big time, but his writing and directing are grueling, and he swathes his popular ideas in so many wet blankets that he is taken seriously—and flops. In Faces and Husbands Cassavetes might almost have been working his way up to Laing; his people were already desolate, hanging on to marriages that made no sense to them because nothing else did, either….

Mabel, however, is more (and less) than a character, since she's a totally sympathetic character: she's a symbolic victim, and a marriage victim especially. Cassavetes has hooked Laing on to his own specialty—the miseries of sexual union. (p. 394)

Like all Cassavetes' films, A Woman Under the Influence is a tribute to the depth of feelings that people can't express. As a filmmaker, he himself has a muffled quality: his scenes are often unshaped and so rudderless that the meanings don't emerge. This time, he abandons his handsome, grainy simulated-cinéma-vérité style. The shots are planned to make visual points that bear out the thesis (though there are also arbitrary, ornamental angles, and vistas that make a workingman's cramped house big as a palace). But once again he has made a murky, ragmop movie. Actually, he doesn't know how to dramatize, and one can try to make a virtue of this for only so long. When the actors in his films strike off each other, there are tentative, flickering moods that one doesn't get in other kinds of movies, but these godsends are widely spaced, and it's a desert in between. He still prolongs shots to the point of embarrassment (and beyond). He does it deliberately, all right, but to what purpose? Acute discomfort sets in, and though some in the audience will once again accept what is going on as raw, anguishing truth, most people will—rightly, I think—take their embarrassment as evidence of Cassavetes' self-righteous ineptitude.

His special talent—it links his work to Pinter's—is for showing intense suffering from nameless causes; Cassavetes and Pinter both give us an actor's view of human misery. It comes out as metaphysical realism: we see the tensions and the power plays but never know the why of anything. Laing provides Cassavetes with an answer. However, his taking over Laing's views has cost him something: he didn't have comic-strip villains—or villains at all—before he swallowed Laing. In his earlier films, he commiserated with those who couldn't make contact except...

(This entire section contains 860 words.)

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by brutalizing each other. Their drunken hostilities and blighted, repetitious conversations weren't held against them; their insensitivities were proof of the emptiness they felt. He used to love violent characters and outbursts of rage. Now the actors, no longer given their heads, are merely figures in a diagram. (pp. 394-95)

Details that are meant to establish the pathological nature of the people around Mabel, and so show her isolation, become instead limp, false moments. We often can't tell whether the characters are meant to be unconscious of what they're doing or whether it's Cassavetes who's unconscious. Mabel's children keep murmuring that they love her, and there are no clues to how to decipher this refrain. Are the children coddling her—reversing roles and treating her like a child in need of reassurance? Or are they meant to be as unashamedly loving as she is? And what are we to make of Nick the pulper's constant assertions of love? The movie is entirely tendentious; it's all planned, yet it isn't thought out. I get the sense that Cassavetes has incorporated Laing, undigested, into his own morose view of the human condition, and that he somehow thinks that Nick and Mabel really love each other and that A Woman Under the Influence is a tragic love story. (p. 396)

Pauline Kael, "Dames" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. L. No. 43, December 9, 1974), in her Reeling (copyright © 1974 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 390-96.∗


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