John Cassavetes – Top 9

John Cassavetes is a frustrating case. I am, on the one hand, in agreement with so much of what he espouses, whether it be on his attitudes towards the ‘business’ side of filmmaking, the role of performance in society, or even his general philosophy on life. On the other hand I can’t stand his films. Well, that’s too far, but I do feel that whenever I watch one everything I want to like about them collides head on with his trademark style. They go on, for what inevitably ends up feeling like five hours, until I’m left not nearly as enraptured as I should be.

The ethos behind Cassavetes’ attitude towards acting is very reliant on repetition. Apparently there would be reels and reels of unused film for each scene. Still, much of it would be put into the film, resulting in a laborious trek through actors going over the same idiosyncratic gesticulations again and again. I’m sure this repetition is incredibly useful for the actors, but it makes his films rife with unnecessary superfluities. His films are made for himself and his actors, not for audiences.

Disclaimer – I haven’t seen Minnie & Moskowitz, I know, I’m sorry, I’ll watch it in the near future and update the list accordingly. I also haven’t seen A Child is Waiting or Big Trouble, but then who has?

9. Gloria

Gloria

A rare turn at relatively mainstream filmmaking, Cassavetes incorporates his vérité approach to a more conventionally linear narrative in Gloria. Rowlands’, begrudgingly, goes on the run with a child who’s being hunted down by mobsters. As the film goes on, they bond, there’s a whole adopted child looking for a mother thing going on, it’s not as original as Cassavetes’ other work, nor is it as good. Oh and if you’re not a fan of child actors, this will not be the film to bring you around.

8. Love Streams

Love Streams

I know, it’s heresy, but I just don’t like it. It’s so very languid and so very heavy. This was only my second Cassavetes’ film and I’m almost certain the autobiographical elements were somewhat lost on me, but I still think of this as being terribly dull. It’s shot differently to his other films, the camera seems more at float, giving Love Streams an altogether more Bertolucci-esque dreamy quality. Unfortunately, it only succeeded in making me fall asleep that much sooner.

7. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

A film with a lot of potential hampered by style. The motif in Cassavetes’ films of being in a constant state of performance, both on and off stage/screen, has the potential to make this his finest work. However, it’s bogged down once again by an inability cut out the surplus. Cassavetes’ characters don’t change, they discover themselves. His whole creative process revolves around actors finding their respective characters and blurring the line between the character and themselves, to the point where the characters are essentially the actors themselves under different circumstances. I don’t believe Cassavetes needs as much time to communicate what he is trying to communicate, especially in this film … and I watch the shorter cut.

6. Shadows

Shadows

The film where it all started, and indeed where a new brand of independent filmmaking also started. It is not, however, the first American independent film as some would have you believe (Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon was self-funded and predates Shadows by some sixteen years). It’s also not, as the credits would have you believe, improvised, as are none of Cassavetes’ films, all of which are meticulously scripted. But enough about what it isn’t, what it is, is a remarkable achievement in low-budget filmmaking. It set into motion the changes that would come to American cinema in the following two decades, both in terms of aesthetic and production. Shadows is a very rough film, full of technical errors, which is unsurprising given the lack of general filmmaking knowledge by Cassavetes and his rag-tag crew. That said, its near plotless narrative of New Yorker’s wondering around New York, gives complete control over the characters, allowing for the exploration of societal alienation, through acting, as the formula for all Cassavetes’ films to come.

5. A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence

Often cited as Gena Rowlands best performance, earning her first Academy Award nomination, A Woman Under the Influence examines the life of a (possibly) mentally unstable woman and her working class family. This is the film where the Cassavetes’ aesthetic is fully realised. Shot with a long lens, for the practical reason of keeping out of the actor’s way, it has the added benefit of making everything very claustrophobic. Set almost entirely in one house, the lens makes the distances between everything look closer, the characters are closer to walls, closer to the furniture, closer to each other. A rare financial success, primarily because of the female audience’s identification with Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence arguably sees the most applicable narrative content to be shot in Cassavetes’ style. The hectic, frantic, eccentric shooting style perfectly complements Rowlands’ performance, aligning the audience with her, on the edge of insanity.

4. Husbands

Husbands

Husbands is a film very much of middle age. Two of Cassavetes’ regulars, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, join Cassavetes himself, as they once again straddle the line between character and actor. The three of them play family men with respectable jobs who, dissatisfied with bourgeois life (you may be noticing a pattern), drop everything and eventually head to London. There are two scenes in Hunsbands that show Cassavetes at his best and worst. The best can be seen in the scene around the table, which is probably the closest I’ve ever seen a film get to making me completely forget I’m watching a work of fiction. The worst can be seen in the scenes in the hotel room in London. There’re hard to watch, partly because of the content, partly because the film is already bloated and the scenes don’t warrant being there, a common Cassavetes’ flaw.

3. Faces

Faces

Faces wholly focus on the differences between men and women, a theme that was just one of many in Shadows. What’s interesting to note is the nine-year gap between Cassavetes’ first and second films, during which Cassavetes moved into early middle age. This is reflected in the differences in content between the two films. Shadows sees a group of twenty-something, aspiring artists roaming New York, rejecting bourgeois ideals from outside the system (in as much as you can operate outside the system). In Faces, the characters have moved to Los Angels and been corrupted by what is ostensibly the American Dream, the good life. As a result we see businessmen, not Jazz musicians, despondent with their lives. In particular, a light is shone the institution of marriage, of people growing apart, and the inability to communicate that fact. Scenes stretch for what feels like days and nobody really says anything. The high contrast cinematography reflect the emotional chaos. What I aways remember from this film is Rowlands’ pained face as John Marley rejects her, not directly of course, but we know, and Rowlands knows, and the camera lingers long enough on her face to hammer home the futility of it all.

2. Opening Night

Opening Night

A great stage actress, Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands), is mentally shaken upon witnessing the death of one of her young fans. A rare break from the ultra-realism of other Cassavetes’ films, Gordon begins seeing the dead girl in dream sequences, as her condition deteriorates, throwing the opening night of her next play into jeopardy. The All About Eve comparisons are not without justification, although its approach couldn’t be more different. However, the most interesting divergence is in Opening Night’s character that symbolises youth. Whereas in All About Eve, she is a direct threat to Davis, in Opening Night she takes the form of a the dead girl, a more metaphysical approach, which better reflects the inevitability of ageing. Davis could potentially combat her threat. Rowlands cannot.

1. Too Late Blues

Too Late Blues

Considered a lesser work by audiences, critics, and even Cassavetes himself, Too Late Blues is the best Cassavetes’ film. Well, it’s my favourite at least, and I am aware I’m in a minority so small so as to almost be non-existent. It’s the film that made me realise what I didn’t like about other Cassavetes’ films. It’s the most structurally appealing to me, retaining it’s ambling, plotless narrative, whilst not straying into the chaotic, almost anarchic, incomprehensibility of his later works. 

I imagine the general criticism levelled at Too Late Blues is that it’s compromised. The independent, maverick, director comes into the controlling atmosphere of Hollywood, and so the film losses its passion. But I would instead suggest that rather than Hollywood’s effect being one of compromise, it is instead one of discipline. Perhaps this goes against the entire Cassavetes’ ethos, but for me it makes Too Late Blues the only Cassavetes’ film made for the viewer, not the actor.

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