John Cassavetes: The Brilliance and the Disorder

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Freedom. Watch any of John Cassavetes’ films, and the word keeps popping into your head. It’s not just the creative freedom that the writer-director (and sometimes-actor) exhibited in his independent films—it’s also their anything-goes, winningly shambling quality. Even his greatest movies don’t feel tightly scripted or carefully organized—they’re chaotic by design. But it’s hard to think of a filmmaker whose messes were more meaningful or influential. It’s impossible to separate the brilliance and the disorder—the insights and the self-indulgence—in a Cassavetes film. They’re all part of the same package.

Cassavetes, who died in 1989, grew up in Greece and New York, returning to America for good when he was eight. His parents didn’t have much money—this was the Great Depression—but the young man didn’t notice. “My mother and father were never frightened of anything,” he recalled to critic Ray Carney in Cassavetes on Cassavetes. “They always felt that they should go through life happily and without fear, and they did that. And it was a great boon to my brother and myself.” That attitude would serve Cassavetes well when he embarked on a filmmaking career, scrounging together money however he could and not letting his last movie’s dismal commercial response deter him from his next project.

The other crucial childhood impact on his films would be the sense that movie sets are, in a way, their own kind of family. “My family was a wild and wonderful place,” he once said, “with lots of friends and neighbors visiting and talking loud and eating loud and nobody telling the children to be quiet or putting them down. … My family was highly instrumental in giving me freedom—the freedom from fear—to become a person who would like to express himself in this world.”

Developing a taste for acting, he taught improvisation and worked in film and television during the 1950s. When he directed his first film, Shadows, it came out of the acting workshops he conducted in New York, and the story focused on an interracial romance between a white man (Anthony Ray) and a light-skinned black woman (Lelia Goldoni) that he assumes is white. Coming out around the same period as Breathless, Shadows echoed the French New Wave’s desire to strip away Hollywood artificiality, privileging unpolished performances and location shooting. (If that wasn’t enough of a connection, a suave musician character played by Ben Carruthers had the same sunglass-wearing urban cool as Breathless’ Jean-Paul Belmondo.) Shadows was a fearless, awkward movie that felt like it was made by a close cadre of actors—a clubhouse of likeminded chums—and the final title card, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation,” only amplified Cassavetes’ moxie, even if the movie wasmore scripted than he initially admitted.

Despite its self-consciousness and rough execution, Shadows set the stage for the rest of Cassavetes’ oeuvre: the sense of real life being observed unadorned, the notion that so much of existence is hanging out and shooting the breeze. Cassavetes’ movies drew from Italian neorealism, but instead of incorporating amateur actors and wielding political commentary, they used professionals to express his personal concerns. Movies like Faces and Husbands (which was advertised as “A comedy about life, death and freedom”) detailed the quiet misery of suburbia, Cassavetes’ camera patiently wandering around with his middle-aged characters as they dabbled in infidelity and other futile distractions. Working with a rotating cast of regulars such as Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, these films played like an extended conversation that took place over years, the filmmaker pursuing the obsessions that wouldn’t let him go, assisted by the people closest to him.

“Making films means having an idea that you have to talk about and not knowing what it is that’s disturbing you, so that it’s an adventure all the way,” he explained. “The best you can do is try to put down what happens in your own life, the things you can understand and comprehend, and then take a chance with it—say that ‘This is what I’m feeling now—so let’s get some people together who think and feel the same way, and we’ll all take our best shot at it.’”

That finding-your-way technique emphasized handheld cameras and sometimes jarring cuts, elongating scenes to allow the mundane minutiae—the “boring” stuff that usually gets excised—to stand alongside the highly dramatic moments. Consequently, just about every Cassavetes film feels baggy, the actors (improvising within structured scenes) meandering their way toward hard-earned revelations. That can lead to criticism that the filmmaker indulged his performers’ (and his own) desire to seek an unvarnished “truth” that wasn’t present in conventional Hollywood dramas. “It’s my feeling that nothing makes one so aware of acting as this self-conscious kind of willed realism,” New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote dismissively of Faces, “and I think we may overreact to the occasional small victories because we sit there waiting for the actors to think up something to say and do.”

This debate about whether spontaneity or structure is better for dramatizing reality continues to this day, so it’s little wonder that modern filmmakers like Judd Apatow and Jay Duplass (one-half of the Duplass brothers) have cited Cassavetes as an inspiration. In Apatow’s later, episodic films such as Funny People and This Is 40, he’s embraced Cassavetes’ belief that roundabout storytelling can have its own rewards, the flabby rhythms of normal life being somehow more authentic than a conventionally plotted comedy. Likewise, the Duplasses’ best films (The Puffy Chair and Jeff, Who Lives at Home) emanate from a commitment to low-budget, independent filmmaking in which small character moments contain profound universal truths.

The trick, of course, is to make this effortlessness resonate—to make the seemingly pointless improvisation lead to something significant. Even Cassavetes’ strongest films can try your patience with their controlled-chaos atmosphere, but their tone is also deceptive. In lesser hands, Mabel, the slowly deteriorating matriarch of A Woman Under the Influence, would be a capital-A acting platform, but Rowlands’ superbly rough-hewn portrayal eschews showboating. Her Mabel doesn’t fall apart triumphantly—she splinters and breaks agonizingly, her own husband (Falk) unable to fully understand what is happening to her. A Woman Under the Influence is over two-and-a-half hours, but it needs that time to disorient you, to shake you out of any preconceived notion of where it might go next.

The same goes for the psychological character study-cum-backstage drama Opening Night or the pseudo-gangster film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: Cassavetes’ people ramble through their unique worlds, only to wind up somewhere utterly unexpected at the end. And part of the reason why it’s unexpected is that Cassavetes stealthily builds to his emotional finales, tricking us with flabby, unpredictable scenes and narrative dead-ends before performing his magic trick and delivering payoffs that we never saw coming. At worse, his movies showed the dangers of unbridled freedom—to mistake the raw or sloppy for insight. But to revisit his films almost 25 years after his death is to be reminded that his pursuit of something realer than what we’re used to at the movies remains excitingly unfulfilled—both by him and the disciples he inspired.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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