John Cassavetes Robert E. Lauder

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Robert E. Lauder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Even though his latest film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is a disaster, John Cassavetes, among presently working American directors, comes closest to being a genius….

Hopelessly in love with people, John Cassavetes is hung up on the mysterious meaning of man. Neither a lack of depth nor commercialism is evident in Cassavetes' work….

More than any other contemporary director, Cassavetes can pack a scene with emotional content. Both Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence border on being great films because of Cassavetes' capacity for capturing the struggles and strains of everyday living, for photographing what someone has called "the texture of domestic dailiness."…

Operating out of a more profound vision of life than any of his contemporaries, Cassavetes is also a master technician. His film style has been accurately described as somewhere between Hollywood and cinéma vérité. Largely improvisational and intuitional, Cassavetes' camera sometimes without discrimination records the details of daily living. Often using a handheld camera focusing on his real-life relatives, Cassavetes produces films that are both brilliant and amateurish, compassionate and cluttered, mature and maddening….

When he is at his best, Cassavetes can involve an audience in a scene and within seconds have its members identifying with wounded humanity projected on the screen. If a Cassavetes scene works, a viewer will have a difficult time distancing himself from Cassavetes' creatures….

Cassavetes' persistent weakness is his lack of control. He often engages in cinematic overkill. His intuitions are good but his sense of timing is way off. Scenes from any of his last five films could be used as examples. A good illustration is the bar scene in Husbands. In an uncanny way, Cassavetes so captures the setting, the characters' conversation and the mood of the barroom that the viewer can almost taste the beer, smell the smoke and feel the loneliness. But Cassavetes stays too long and the scene eventually loses the necessary distance and perspective that art should have. (p. 427)

Absence of balance is one of the many things wrong with Chinese Bookie. The film is Cassavetes' most self-indulgent. In telling the story of Cosmo Vitelli, the owner of a strip joint who, because of gambling debts, is pressured into assassinating a powerful criminal, Cassavetes has made a film that is so erratically edited and so lacking in structure that he may be the only person who can make sense of the film. One wonders if parts of the film may be missing. The strongest positive element in Chinese Bookie is Cassavetes' affection for his characters: his love for them seems to illuminate their humanity for the viewer. In the seedy surroundings of a strip joint Cassavetes is able to see naked souls rather than naked bodies. With his camera Cassavetes strips away the pretense and bravura and unveils the beauty and lovableness of dreamers, even those whose dreams have dried up and died. (pp. 427-28)

Robert E. Lauder, "The Genius of John Cassavetes," in America (© America Press, 1976; all rights reserved), Vol. 134, No. 19, May 15, 1976, pp. 427-28.