Now firmly entrenched in film history as the “father of American independent cinema,” John Cassavetes was in his day one of the most controversial, even reviled figures in American film, regularly lambasted by both the Hollywood establishment and the mainstream press.
Now firmly entrenched in film history as the “father of American independent cinema,” John Cassavetes was in his day one of the most controversial, even reviled figures in American film, regularly lambasted by both the Hollywood establishment and the mainstream press. After attaining considerable success as an actor in studio films, Cassavetes bit the hand that fed him by decrying the falsity of typical Hollywood product and declaring the need for a new, freer cinema to replace it. Often shot in Cassavetes’ own house, with friends and family frequently cast in small or large roles, his fiercely independent films were often attacked as pretentious, shapeless and selfindulgent by some of the most influential critics of the day, the dreaded Pauline Kael chief among them.
It has taken decades of dedicated work by his devoted following—and his influence upon such major contemporary directors as his friend Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn, Paul Thomas Anderson and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne—for Cassavetes’ true significance to be recognized. Often regarded as an “actor’s director,” Cassavetes developed a rigorous working process designed to free his actors—both professional and non-professional—from the practiced reflexes and received notions of the drama they were performing; to dig deeper, to peel away the surfaces of their characters and reveal the tender truths of the person underneath. The result was a new type of film, one that resisted classification not because it was evasive or ambiguous, but because it was so startlingly direct: a rawer, truer vision of contemporary American life achieved by a radically new conception of film art.
Cassavetes enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1950 for the express purpose of meeting girls—and successful he was, as it was there that he met Gena Rowlands, his future leading lady both onscreen and off. Shortly after graduating, he had some success in Hollywood B pictures and on television as “jazz detective” Johnny Staccato before making his first major impact in Martin Ritt’s 1959 dockworker drama Edge of the City
, co-starring with Sidney Poitier. Dissatisfied with his experiences working within the Hollywood system, Cassavetes started an acting workshop in New York with Burt Lane, from which he would derive the cast for his epochal first film. Shadows
, a searing portrait of race relations in Beat Generation NYC that won the critics’ prize at the 1960 Venice Film Festival, became an instant landmark of the emergent American underground and independent cinema, its rough, handheld camerawork, elliptical editing and gritty immediacy bringing a new urgency to an American film world preoccupied with neatness and “professionalism.” Indeed, unsatisfied with the first version of Shadows
and thinking that it was too focused on beautiful images, Cassavetes actually shot the entire film over a second time, disdaining “pretty” compositions and artful lighting in favour of achieving a greater emotional intensity from his actors—a method that would form the foundation for his future films.
Ironically, it was the very triumph of Shadows
—made in defiance of contemporary Hollywood standards of production and storytelling—that briefly lured Cassavetes back into the studio fold, when has was hired to direct the jazz film Too Late Blues
with teen idol Bobby Darin and the social-worker drama A Child Is Waiting
with Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster. Cassavetes soon found himself at war with his studio overseers, who, far from desiring to produce anything truly different from their usual run of product, were looking to capitalize on their maverick employee’s aesthetic and package it: to lay out the entirety of human experience and resolve it in a neat 120 minutes or less. Constrained by the strict controls over budgets, scripts, schedules and stars and repulsed by the hypocrisy behind the studios’ opportunistic interest in “socially conscious” filmmaking, Cassavetes declared the death of Hollywood and vowed never to return. “Ideally, I guess the only happy way to make a film is to use your own money,” he said at the time. “Maybe that’s what I’ll do!”
Cassavetes’ next film, Faces
—destined to be equally as groundbreaking as Shadows
—took more than three years to complete, not only because Cassavetes financed it himself but because, being his own boss, he insisted on taking as long as was necessary to get what he wanted. A compelling drama about middleclass infidelity and middle-age despair, Faces
was cast with Cassavetes’ friends, some of them professional actors (Rowlands and John Marley, the latter of whom had previously appeared in A Child Is Waiting
and Elia Kazan’s America, America
) and some not (Seymour Cassel, who would become a Cassavetes regular, and Lynn Carlin, who received an Academy Award nomination for her performance—her very first feature film role). Unlike the compartmentalization and strict chain of command of a standard Hollywood film, on Faces
the line between cast and crew was fluid: not only were some actors (Cassel most notably) recruited from the behind-camera team, but the rest of the cast could at various times find themselves operating the camera, helping to edit the film and even distributing posters when it was released.
This remarkable collective effort pushed the semi-improvisatory method Cassavetes had previously experimented with in Shadows
to radical new heights. The rough exterior of Faces
—the wandering camera, erratic focus, jumpy editing and occasionally inaudible sound—is not a matter of technical “mistakes,” but an inversion of priorities. While so many Hollywood films were (and still are) led by the technical process, to obtaining the proper, “professional” look, Cassavetes made the technical process subservient to his actors and their mutual exploration; a process of discovery that broke down the actors’, the crew’s and even Cassavetes’ own preconceived notions of the film’s subject matter.
Originally titling the film Masks and Faces
, Cassavetes’ goal was to shatter the facades not only of the film’s characters, but of the actors who played them. “The mistakes that you make in your own life, in your own personality, are assets on the film,” said Cassavetes, and he makes these “mistakes” not only his subject but his method. While Faces
was completely scripted (as all of his subsequent films would be), it feels so natural and immediate because the actors were not restrained by conventional dramatic logic; they were free to veer off on tangents, to experiment with reactions that, while seemingly illogical, were truer to the fundamentally illogical emotional textures they were exploring than the easy emotional cues of what we normally accept as screen “realism.”
This generosity is typical of Cassavetes’ fundamentally empathetic perspective. Despite their nakedly exposed failings—their everyday incomprehension, insensitivity and even cruelty—his characters are never judged; they are always met with a moving tenderness that encourages them to be free to be who they are. Freedom, that most American of themes, is the real subject of Cassavetes’ films, the perpetually unattainable goal after which all of his characters strive: freedom from marriage (Faces
); from work, families and responsibilities (Husbands
); from the socially determined roles of wife and mother (A Woman Under the Influenc
e); and most of all, freedom to love. While predominantly middle class, Cassavetes’ characters find that they must constantly struggle against the very same systems and social codes that provide them with their material comfort, exposing in the process the hypocrisy of the American dream, or rather that perverted version of it propagated by capitalism and its instruments—including the Hollywood studio system.
Like many great filmmakers—Fassbinder, Godard, Pasolini—Cassavetes offers a reflection of his society in response to this grand illusion, a portrait of America suffocating its people with glossy dreams and illusions of happiness. Yet for all their harrowing situations, emotional pain and lack of tidy resolutions, there is nothing pessimistic or despairing about his films. “C’mon, cry, that’s it, that’s life honey,” says Cassel’s Chet to Carlin’s Maria in Faces
as she breaks down in exhaustion and shame after he saves her from a suicide attempt. “Tears, tears of happiness man, just do it.” As Thom Andersen puts it, Cassavetes’ films “face up to tragedy and reject it. . . . for Cassavetes, happiness was the only truth.”
This programme presents all of Cassavetes’ films as director (with the exception of his disavowed final film Big Trouble), as well as three of his most memorable performances in films by other directors.
Thanks to Gena Rowlands and Robert Forrest; Johanna Schiller; Al Ruban; Jim Healy; Julian Schlossberg, Jumer Productions, Inc.; Todd Wiener and Steven K. Hill, UCLA Film & Television Archive; May Leung, Academy Film Archive; Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac, Janus Films.