Under the Influence 

The beautifully ugly films of John Cassavetes

The beautifully ugly films of John Cassavetes

By Rob Nelson, Donna Bowman, Noel Murray, and Jim Ridley

We have to move beyond the current obsession with technique.

—John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes is sometimes referred to as the prototypical indie filmmaker. But his films remain controversial and widely unseen. He never had a big financial success. Nor has he ever been a critics’ darling. His 12 films have been the subject of retrospectives—such as the one that comes to the Watkins Belcourt this week—but plenty of people loathe them. Pauline Kael was notoriously unappreciative of his oeuvre, accusing it of “muddiest confusion” and commercial compromise.

Huh? Cassavetes’ films suggest that anyone with a camcorder and a point of view can make a film. To fund his personal projects, Cassavetes, like Orson Welles, took jobs acting in movies he wouldn’t have gone to see: biker movies, The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby. In his own work, the conflict between formula and iconoclasm permeates both form and content. More than any other American feature filmmaker, Cassavetes represents the polar opposite of escapism, as defined by the Hollywood movie. His films blatantly accentuate everything that mainstream fictions aim to conceal. They hit home.

Hollywood films process the world for us. They introduce problems and resolve them; they suggest we can’t handle our lives; they reach conclusions more tidy than those we make do with in real life (which is their appeal); they threaten, or promise, to keep us pliable, dependent on authority. So pervasive is the Hollywood model that its agenda can be hard to recognize or resist. And so precious is the commodity of “entertainment” that many of us don’t want the experience ruined. Cassavetes’ movies, on the other hand, withhold solutions. They aren’t entertainments, they’re provocations. They’re exercises in preparing for life. They’re hardly “upbeat,” but they are, ironically, more likely to inspire. Acting in 1970’s Husbands, Cassavetes’ first line is, “Don’t believe truth.”

Hollywood films are concerned with pacing and “drama.” In Cassavetes, narrative momentum matters not at all. In fact, his films do away with the myth of intent. They remain baffling after repeated viewings. They deliberately elude familiar methods of interpretation. Cassavetes said his movies are composed entirely of the moments that would be left out of Hollywood films—and vice versa. In 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence, after Mabel (Gena Rowlands) brings a stranger home from a bar, the film abruptly cuts away as soon as things appear to become sexual. But it does show the entirety of a long dinner scene, when Mabel serves spaghetti to her husband’s coworkers. Neither scene is more important than the other. There are some things we can’t know.

Hollywood films feature written characters. They are helped by their authors to be more beautiful, heroic, articulate, and revealing than we are. Cassavetes merely observes flawed, inconsistent behavior. At one point in Woman, Mabel stands atop the living-room couch and waves her arms like a ballerina. But she’s never proven to be clinically unstable. How could she be, the movie seems to ask, and who are we to diagnose or judge? Is being different necessarily bad or intolerable? (In this regard, Mabel might be the personification of Cassavetes’ art.)

Relationships in Cassavetes amount to a series of negotiations, sacrifices, sudden rewards. Mabel and her husband (Peter Falk) love each other, but their ways of showing it are so different that neither is satisfied. The husband seems at least as mercurial as Mabel, with fewer consequences. In all his films, Cassavetes depicts tensions between expressers (usually women) and repressors (usually men). Sympathetic to both, he nonetheless favors expressiveness, intensity, impulsiveness, improvisation, and childlike creativity. The “crazy” characters often appear the most highly evolved.

Cassavetes’ movies don’t orient the viewer, they yank us in. Deemed a “home movie” by Leonard Maltin, 1976’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie begins with an abrupt shot of Cosmo (Ben Gazzara) exiting his strip club—no establishing shot, no larger sense of place. The movie is not about this guy; this guy is the movie. (The director’s surrogate, Cosmo is a show-biz “artist” under financial pressure from the mob.) The abstract discontinuity of Shadows, Cassavetes’ 1960 debut, predates Godard by at least a year. And Husbands screeches to a start with a still picture of four buddies at a pool party and the sound of splashing water. Albeit motionless, the film is born kicking and screaming.

Hollywood films strain to appear confident, dazzling, seamless, coherent. Cassavetes’ are proudly imperfect works in progress. They contain shots that are out of focus. They demand the viewer’s participation. Their courage can be measured by their reluctance to hide beneath technique, their refusal to make things impressive. Like Cassavetes’ characters, his films risk failure. They dare to be honest and ugly, and thus they’re beautiful. One Cassavetes curator was right to suggest that his work is “fueled by obsessive energies,” but less so that it “arrogantly proclaims its own rhythms and themes.” The arrogance is ours in presuming to know his films, our own lives.

—Rob Nelson

The John Cassavetes Film Festival, featuring Shadows, Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, screens June 26-July 2 at the Watkins Belcourt. Check the movie clock or call the theater for show times.

Listless

As intended, the American Film Institute’s score-card ranking of the top 100 American films last week produced an avalanche of hype and press coverage, not to mention an immediate (and even more predictable) tsunami of a backlash. Both seemed equally dubious. Let’s see...we’ll celebrate the scope and diversity of America’s film history by narrowing it down to a list of 100 movies (from a pre-selected list of 400)? And we’ll decry this trendy list-making by making more lists? There’s no way out—other than to focus on the films, which have been overshadowed by their place on or off the list.

Someone (hello, Watkins Belcourt?) could do the AFI, its supporters, and its critics a favor by programming a festival composed entirely of movies that aren’t even on the list of 400—which would allow you to see the likes of Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, Keaton’s The Navigator, Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, Wyler’s Roman Holiday, Mann’s The Naked Spur, Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, Kubrick’s The Killing, Fuller’s Shock Corridor, Lewis’ The Nutty Professor, Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song, and Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Now, that’s a cinema worth celebrating. In the meantime, Scene reviewers Donna Bowman, Noel Murray, and Jim Ridley each picked two films that should be on the list and one that shouldn’t:

Donna Bowman: The AFI’s “100 Best American Films” list is nine parts media hoo-hah to one part critical endeavor; after all, how exactly is The Third Man “American,” and why must I argue with Donald Trump about the merits of Wuthering Heights? Still, the function of such lists is to provoke argument, so here’s mine. In choosing among the unworthy films that made the list, it’s too easy to pick on product from the last 20 or 30 years—we don’t have enough historical space to make a proper judgment. So I’ll reach a little further back and vote to chuck Dr. Zhivago, perhaps David Lean’s least impressive film. Zhivago has great stars and an enduring theme, but it lacks conflict and resonance. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see it flanked by Double Indemnity and North by Northwest, neither of which had to rely on its epic status to get respect.

One certainly can’t assemble a “best of” selection on a quota system, but allowing that, it’s instructive to see what genres and eras lose out when the votes are tabulated. Comedies get short shrift on the list, especially modern ones; I count only four post-1980 comedies, one if you restrict yourself to pure genre pieces. AFI didn’t even nominate This is Spinal Tap, the greatest comedy of the past 20 years. And why not find room for Francis Coppola’s The Conversation, undisputed king of the ’70s paranoia genre? That would give Coppola four slots on the tote board and demonstrate that at his best, he’s the quintessential American director.

Noel Murray: Quibbling with the AFI’s list—what got in inexplicably, what’s missing criminally—is part of its purpose. And while I might more fruitfully argue about the placement of movies—The Philadelphia Story can’t crack the Top 50?—I’ll join in my colleagues’ game of knocking off one and adding two.

I’m tempted to be a bad boy and topple a crowd favorite like A Clockwork Orange, Butch Cassidy, or E.T., but I understand why those films are well-loved even if I don’t love them. Instead, I’ll drop Bringing Up Baby, a screwball comedy whose charms have always escaped me. (Maybe I just don’t want to see the classy Cary Grant doing double takes.) I also think it’s a joke that this Howard Hawks film makes it (albeit just barely), while Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings, and the masterpiece Scarface, The Shame of the Nation are left shivering.

As for what else is missing, I’m torn between Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (my favorite movie) and Nashville, but for cultural significance I’ll slip in the latter. I’d also make room for Jonathan Demme’s deconstructed (and unnominated) romantic comedy Something Wild, which is not only his best film (edging Melvin and Howard by a frame), but is superior to his overrated and included The Silence of the Lambs.

My top six other exclusions? The Great Escape (unnominated), Mary Poppins, Meet Me in St. Louis, Paths of Glory, The Right Stuff, and Strangers on a Train.

Jim Ridley: First, how many people voted for movies they actually admired, as opposed to movies they felt obligated to mention? I’ll bet half the people who voted for The Birth of a Nation have never seen it. And I’d love to find out who thinks the mawkish, insufferably self-righteous Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is one of the all-time greats. (Answer: Someone who either hasn’t seen it or hasn’t seen a movie since Hubert Humphrey was vice president.) In that spirit, I’ll bounce the self-congratulatory votes for Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s virtual-reality Holocaust thrill ride.

If you define a great American movie as one that provides insight into our national character, one that uses the tools of moviemaking in innovative ways, or one that delights you or offers something new each time you see it, here are two nominees. One is Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing, a drama so rich in conflict, movement, humor, observation, craft, and the particulars of its time that it will stand. The other is Joseph H. Lewis’ 1949 Gun Crazy, a cinematically bold, shockingly frank retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde story. Sex, guns, and money—what could be more American?

Village people

To Whit Stillman and his characters—young, privileged New Yorkers looking for love—the early 1980s were a time of promise. Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) speaks for the mood of the group when she gazes onto a crowded dance floor and says, “There are a lot of choices out there.” Disco culture means sexual freedom, release from romantic illusions, the chance to sample alternative lifestyles in economic safety. But Stillman’s latest film is called The Last Days of Disco for good reason; just as his characters are embracing disco and its ideology, yuppies like themselves are destroying its substance.

Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte are assistant editors at a publishing house by day and regulars at “the club” (modeled after Studio 54) by night. Charlotte pushes Alice to fight for an editorship at work, and to have a few flings at play. Alice likes hapless Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), an ad flunky banned from the club because the owner dislikes his type, but she goes after Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), an environmental lawyer whom Charlotte deems a cooler catch. Des (Chris Eigemann), a manager at the club, hangs with the group, defending his indefensible ethos in outraged terms. The club is being investigated for drugs and tax evasion by Josh (Matt Keesler), an assistant district attorney with ties to the group.

Disco is the final installment of a trilogy that began with Metropolitan and Barcelona, and like its predecessors, its chief joys lie in conversation—an analysis of Lady and the Tramp or loyalty in Julius Caesar. The rarefied dialogue reflects an upbringing filled with literary romance and a hunger for real-life experiences, but the characters’ hip veneer hides a deep naiveté. Disco, however, has more incident than either of the previous films; its choppy pace and constant twists make it more tiring and demanding than the tableaux of Metropolitan or the lyric of Barcelona.

What makes Stillman’s films irresistible, though, is his desire to have these fragile, protected characters find a world where love is possible. The final joyous images of Disco reveal his romantic optimism. Disco itself may collapse under its own hedonism, debutante balls have to end, and none of the movements and labels to which the characters cling may last. But in spite of their wordy self-delusion, Alice and Josh in this movie, Fred and Audrey from Metropolitan, and Ted from Barcelona all survive and even find happiness under Stillman’s benevolent eye.

—Donna Bowman

—Donna Bowman

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