John Cassavetes Stanley Kauffmann - Essay

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The curse of filmmaking, as John Cassavetes shows us [in A Woman under the Influence], is that it's too easy. No, of course not the financing and so on, but the basic process of making a film….

Cassavetes is enraptured. He puts his camera in real houses and he gives his actors things to say as lifelike as he can make them and he even puts some non-actors in the cast and he lets the camera run and run, lets the people improvise on their lines, and the camera keeps running and running and the people keep on doing and saying and quarreling and crying and making up, and after it's all done he takes the film out of the camera and shows it to us. For goodness' sake, there it is. What more can we want?…

This sentimentality about method is, unsurprisingly, joined to sentimentality about subject. His definition of truth is, apparently, anything that commercial films overlook or skimp. He certainly didn't invent this booby credo, but he bears the banner onward….

You can read [the plot] any way you like. Some have said, quite erroneously, that it's an indictment of society. Is every spouse indictable if he/she is not clinically trained or completely self-negating? The husband here is shown to be a loving man with no more egotism than gives him the power to love. Some have said, also quite erroneously, that the film dramatizes R. D. Laing. But Laing doesn't stop at saying that madness is caused by society ("hell is other people" in Sartre's familiar phrase). Laing goes on to say that madness is the sanity of the mad, a way of coping. This woman doesn't cope. She is wretched. She would clearly rather not be the way she is.

But, admittedly, the film isn't really "about" anything…. To me this film is utterly without interest or merit. It tries to establish its bona fides simply by existing: it's up there on the screen and is therefore to some degree incontrovertible. This might be argued for a documentary, where the film would be a medical record. Not here.

Stanley Kauffmann, "Films: 'A Woman under the Influence'" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 171, No. 26, December 28, 1974, p. 20.