John Cassavetes: A Primer

I. Emotional Improvisation

Excessively close-up, jerky, out-of-focus shots. Flares of light and colour intruding into the frame. Music cues that enter and exit abruptly. Dialogue interactions that lurch from logorrhoea to catatonia. Scenes that end in the middle of a spoken sentence. Plots in which nagging problems are repeated, restated, reframed, but rarely resolved. What did John Cassavetes, as a film director, think he was doing?

None of this, even when discovered by chance in the midst of filming, was accidental or a mere mistake. Once Cassavetes found it, he kept it, worked on it, shaped it. It became his subject and his style. Moreover, he created the independent production conditions that would enable him to preserve every deviation from the norm, every surprising rise or fall of emotion, every unrepeatable gesture or intonation from an actor (including himself). He went in search of something unique, unconventional, and powerfully expressive.

In the process, Cassavetes revolutionised the medium of cinema—not just for America (as Raymond Carney boorishly persists in declaring), but for the entire world.

For decades—from the moment in 1959 when his first directorial effort Shadows was released—Cassavetes was sometimes praised but mostly damned as an “actors’ director”. Someone who just wanted to capture raw performances by his wife (the incomparable Gena Rowlands) his friends (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk) and his family members. Words like “free improvisation” and “the Method” were thrown around—without checking with the director. Many critics found his work to be vulgar, indulgent, uncontrolled, undisciplined, freeform, just letting it all hang out. As if it were all just a psychodramatic workshop for actors, sometimes literally filmed at the Cassavetes/Rowlands home. The camera, the soundtrack, the editing bench: it was said that none of these tools of cinematic craft really mattered to Cassavetes. That the play’s the thing, and nothing more.

All of these assumptions about Cassavetes as a filmmaker were (and are) utterly wrong, obscuring and cheapening his massive, radical achievement as an artist. For starters, there is very little improvisation in his films: everything was meticulously written beforehand. As he would often remark: it’s not the words that are improvised, but the emotions which the actors give them. And, in that phase of the filmmaking adventure, he was ready and willing to have the actors surprise him, every single time.

In a Cassavetes film, everything is an event. The way someone enters a room, a scene, or a shot. The way that the drama rises or subsides. The framing of an image, the way it moves. The play of light and darkness, colour and hue, the grain of the film stock. The interplay of views from multiple, simultaneous cameras (one of them frequently worked by Cassavetes himself). The violence of the soundtrack, open to waves and intensities of every kind of voice, noise or musical note. And the amazing work on editing, to which Cassavetes and his collaborators could literally (like Terrence Malick) devote years—he completely reworked the montage of several of his greatest works, beginning with Shadows. Jean-Luc Godard—to name only one—borrowed several editing tricks from Cassavetes.

Seven years after Shadows, Cassavetes embarked on a voyage of no return titled Faces, released in 1968: the film was his cinema-manifesto on every level, and he stuck to its principles all the way to Love Streams (1984). However, before that, a detour occurred: two Hollywood productions, Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child is Waiting (1963). The first is about jazz and the second is about disability—both subjects which mattered passionately to Cassavetes. There are performers familiar from Shadows, but also stars from the spheres of movies and music: respectively, Bobby Darin and Judy Garland. Cassavetes encountered resistance from the studio system while making them, and some compromises (and re-editing, out of his hands) occurred. Too often neglected in accounts of the director’s filmography, they are, nonetheless, fascinating, imperfect works, bursting with moods, ideas, situations and emphases that few American films of the early 1960s reach.

Twice more in his career, Cassavetes would take the plunge into nominally industrial, genre-based projects—the romantic comedy of Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and the action-thriller Gloria (1980)—and succeed on his own terms, marvellously. On his very final directorial credit, the madcap comedy Big Trouble (1986), he wasn’t so lucky. Three years and many tantalising unfilmed projects later (including a prequel to Love Streams titled The Third Day Comes, and even Gloria II), he was gone. Beyond the many very bad, superficial imitations of Cassavetes (in the Mumblecore movement, for example), we might feel the genuine force of his legacy in some films by Maurice Pialat or Jean-François Stévenin, Patricia Mazuy or Abel Ferrara, Elaine May or Martin Scorsese; however, in essence, Cassavetes remains utterly inimitable.

When it first appeared, Shadows superficially resembled one of the “social issue” productions of the 1950s, specifically focussed on the fraught racial relations between white and black Americans. It looks at a small, tightly-knit, subcultural community of musical artists, and explores internal divisions of this milieu that arise not only from race but also gender—this stark, jagged abyss between men and women influenced many later filmmakers including Larry Clark and Mike Leigh. Even within every friendship and intimate encounter, there are acute problems of trust, communication, empathy and understanding. Each person’s solitude—and their degree of dysfunction in relation to the normal, everyday world—is underlined from the inaugural moments of Cassavetes’ cinema.

Faces and Husbands (1970) lay out the most crucial elements of the extraordinary works that are to follow in the 1970s and 1980s. Faces is a dissection of the malaise of the American middle-class: empty and unfulfilled in work, marriage and family, everyone gets drunk or high, and chases whatever fleeting sensations of pleasure they can grab. Many films of the 1960s address this terrain, but none are as formally radical as Faces. It is here that Cassavetes establishes the repertoire of cinematic tools and techniques that will serve to translate and convey what Sylvie Pierre described, at the time, not as some bogus realism, but “a war waged, by tremors and hesitations, on meaning in its living inexactitude”. The face—for the first time since Carl Dreyer, an artist that Cassavetes revered—becomes the privileged site of obsessive fascination, but also disintegration and dissolution: a true experience of corrosive modernity. No wonder the great avant-garde filmmaker James Benning “remade” Faces in 2011, in his merry way, by selecting and slowing down some of its already grainy frames.

Even the titles are brutal: Shadows, Faces, Husbands. In Husbands, Cassavetes gets closer, via an indirect angle, to what will ultimately be his core subject: family. The men (played by Falk, Gazzara and Cassavetes) are spinning out, wracked by grief, fleeing from suburban responsibility and domesticity. They seek an existential authenticity that is impossible to find, because it does not exist in the stereotypical way that they imagine it. It is among Cassavetes’ most demanding films in its agonising emphasis on the protracted, repetitive duration of each scene-event—incidents brimming with pain, humiliation, terror and hysteria. And in this bleak panorama of masculinity, the ultimate return home is the bleakest option of all. We are very far, here, from the tales of sentimental redemption expertly engineered by Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard.

Cassavetes: a journey to the end of night.

II. To Know How To Love And Where To Put It

In John Cassavetes’ cinema, love is a hurricane able to suck everything into its centre, a disarray of unpredictable moods and emotions, a flood where tender gestures of affection are mixed with violent outbursts of rage. “I can’t give you anything but love”, sings Mr. Sophistication in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). But love, here, isn’t just a host of elevated and idyllic feelings. Love includes, as well, destructive and unhinged components; choleric attacks of jealousy; the presence of bitterness, rejection, hate; the reactivation of profound, intolerable wounds; the disappointment of naïve fantasies and projections.

Love—that vital force, that totalising experience, that unavoidable event in the construction (and dissolution) of the characters’ identity—permeates Cassavetes’ entire filmography.

Gloria begins as a frantic gangster film that soon veers into an intense melodrama. It depicts the growing and indestructible tie between the titular character and Phil. She is a strong, independent woman without an inch of maternal instinct; he is a six-year-old kid whose parents have been killed by the mob. Gloria is not cold; she wants to protect the child but, for her, he represents a burden dropped on her like a bomb and thwarting all her plans. For the boy, however, Gloria stands as everything that he’s lost or hasn’t known yet: “You are my mother, you are my father, you are all my family. You are even my friend, Gloria. You are also my girlfriend”.

Just at the level of how to frame the interactions between adult and child, Gloria offers us an inventory of poetic, ethical and imaginative experiments. Like Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), Gloria belongs to a tradition of films about orphans in search of unlikely parental figures. It reminds us how, sometimes, our chosen paths are profoundly altered by the birth of an unforeseen gush of affection that insists and resists—making us discover that we are, as well, what we did not suspect we were.

A matrix scene in Cassavetes cinema: in the streets, Gloria tries to get rid of Phil; each time she runs away, he runs back to her, sticking to her skirt. For minutes in a row, the camera traces the variable distances of this exhausting push and pull between Gloria’s desire for retrieving her freedom and Phil’s extreme dependence on her.

In Love Streams we’ll find echoes of the same idea when Robert, a decadent writer, is suddenly left in charge of Albie—his eight-year-old son, whom he hasn’t seen since the kid was born. Robert takes Albie to Las Vegas and, afterwards, leaves him alone in a hotel room for the whole night. In the morning, upon returning from one of his typical nocturnal escapades, Robert finds Albie in great distress, desperately begging for his mother. It all ends in a devastatingly violent scene that perfectly encapsulates the mixture of disappointment, frustration, longing, mad idealisation and unfulfilled desire that the boy’s heart stews for his absent father—a figure about whom he’s fantasised all his childhood.

The troupe is, in Cassavetes’ cinema, a sort of variation of the family ensemble—an extension of it. In some films, the stage becomes the best platform for exploring those types of relations. In Opening Night (1977), Myrtle (Rowlands)—a successful Broadway actress—experiences a severe crisis during the rehearsals of a play aptly titled ‘The Second Woman’. She insists that this role is totally alien to her, but everybody else suspects that her breakdown is simply due to her incapacity to accept her own age. While her companions project upon Myrtle their own experiences about aging, she’s determined to find her own way of owning the character.

Myrtle fights furiously against herself and against anybody that tries to impose on her a predetermined conception of how to act her part—including the play’s author, the director, her co-star, and even ‘the first woman’ (a ghostly presence—a younger version of Myrtle—that appears to her in several scenes). Deep down, Myrtle is trying to do what she’s always done: to perform. Even if that means doing it differently. Because love must be reinvented…

In Opening Night, Myrtle gets her kicks from acting on stage; in The Killing of Chinese Bookie, Cosmo (Gazzara) gets his kicks from The Crazy Horse West—a strip-tease joint that he could lose due to a gambling debt. What is at stake here, though, isn’t just the ownership of a nightclub, but the whole lifestyle that supports Cosmo’s way of being, loving, and relating with his dearest troupe of strippers and freaks. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie recreates the twilight of an era. Cosmo runs not so much against time, as against the times: the signs are everywhere, and the film is tainted by a heavy, crepuscular energy. The flashes of light; the stains of colour; the charged spirit of the place; the anti-spectacularity of the minimal musical numbers; the mitigation of the main dramatic events… all this gives way to one (and perhaps more than one) death foretold.

In Opening Night,a conversation—interrupted by Myrtle’s phone call—introduces an idea that the entire film develops at the margins of its main plotline: the wife’s constant relegation to the background in favour of the man’s professional and artistic ambitions. This scene is a superb example of Cassavetes’ craft, and of his search for authenticity: the mixture of humour and pain, of trust and vulnerability; the heavy weight of a shared intimacy; the formal inventiveness of its editing; the delicate interlacing of dialogue, music and mise en scène; the superb acting of Gazzara and Zohra Lampert—all these elements make this scene one of my favourite moments in the entire Cassavetes oeuvre. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, we find a worthy equivalent of this moment when Cosmo’s girlfriend, after surprising him being seduced by a waitress during an audition, passes from an explosion of rage to a state of closed-off catatonia.

We can perceive, in Cassavetes’ cinema, a bold feminist vein for, while his varied gallery of characters—all a bit loony, out of the norm, exalted and obsessive, prone to all kinds of crisis and neuroses—makes no gender distinction in relation to their degree of madness, his films clearly show that, ultimately, it is the women who, frequently and unjustly, pay a higher price for their eccentricities. The clearest example of this is Mabel (Rowlands) in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

Cassavetes was also obsessed with depicting the different attachment styles of males and females (in today’s parlance, those styles would be labelled ‘avoidant’, ‘anxious’ and ‘disorganised’—apparently there’s also a ‘secure’ attachment style, but I am afraid that this one is as rare in Cassavetes’ films as it is in real life). His is a cinema that, by deepening the inquiry into the vital needs and primal behaviours of his characters, unflinchingly questions and problematises the image of love and romance to which films have accustomed us.

In Love Streams, two apparently unrelated scenes present a particularly poignant condensation of this idea: while Robert quizzes a group of girls about what defines “a good moment”, Sarah compulsively returns to the notion that “love is a stream”. For him, the emphasis is on the high of the unique experience; for her, on the unstoppable continuity of feeling. These are the respective cries—we could call them philosophical inquiries—of this brother and sister (although, in typical Cassavetes fashion, it won’t be until over midway into the film that we discover that Sarah and Robert are, in actual fact, siblings).

Love Streams explores the swerves of life that impose a re-routing of the libido. After having devoted her life to her family, Sarah finds herself with a husband who claims to not want her anymore, and with a teenage daughter who seems to reject her. How to channel all that energy—that flux of love—now that its habitual field of action is unavailable? Cassavetes’ final project becomes stranger and more hallucinatory as it unfolds. Robert will eventually find himself in the unlikely role of caregiver—encountering an elusive spirituality thanks to the animals with which her sister has populated the house. Sarah, on her part, will be driven to a delirium filled, first, by destructive fantasies and, later, by an oneiric trance.

Sarah’s final dream is a devastatingly emotional catharsis in which the family melodrama is reformulated as an affecting musical performance. Carl Gustav Jung said that “the dream is a spontaneous self-portrayal in symbolic form of the actual situation in the unconscious. […] It shows the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is: not as I conjecture it to be, and not as he would like it to be, but as it is”. We could easily apply Jung’s idea to Sarah’s dream for how it elaborates, in a new light, the traumatic situation she’s caught in, signalling a possible exit from her depression. The dream plunges her into the depths of the unconscious—offering her hope, relief and an altogether new clarity.

Structurally speaking, Minnie and Moskowitz adjusts itself to the pattern of many romantic comedies, but the way in which Cassavetes deals with interpersonal relationships subverts all clichés and topics of the genre. The film begins with Minnie cruelly abandoned by her lover, follows with a series of sloppy courtship rituals, and ends with her wedding to Seymour. But this happy ending isn’t a deserved bed of roses, or the apotheosis of a match made in heaven—rather, it is the conquest of a reality fraught with tensions. Minnie and Seymour are, in many senses, a strange couple. Their relationship is a parade of differences, incompatibilities, humiliations, wounds, insecurities, dissatisfactions, oddities, misunderstandings and quarrels. But it is also a bet on the complete acceptance of the other, for the necessity of leaving aside—or, at least, negotiating—the romantic fantasies that culture has been selling us for centuries.

The keystone of the film is the conversation between Minnie and her sexagenarian friend, Florence (Elsie Ames). This moment is filmed with such delicacy, with such an attention to rhythms, cuts, framing and the selective use of the zoom lens, that simply watching it immediately serves to ridicule many contemporary directors who declare themselves fans of Cassavetes on the basis of spurious notions of naturalness, spontaneity and improvisation. It’s a scene that dares to put its focus on something that cinema has glaringly neglected: during their candid, drunken conversation, Florence confesses that she is still interested in sex, that her erotic desire hasn’t extinguished, and that she feels a great deal of frustration; Minnie, on her part, succinctly unmasks how Hollywood cinema has indoctrinated women with ideas about romance that have turned them into slaves. “Movies are a conspiracy”, she concludes.

Movies are a conspiracy, indeed. But the films by Cassavetes strive to dismantle this conspiracy and restore the enormous complexity that belongs to the human experience of love. It was the director himself who declared that, for him, these people and these small feelings are the greatest political force there is: “I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in—love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need. […] To have a philosophy is to know how to love and where to put it.”

© Adrian Martin & Cristina Álvarez López, July 2022/January 2023

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