On a dark November night in 1958, John Cassavetes arrived at New York’s prestigious Paris Theater to debut his very first feature film, Shadows. The indie director had announced three free midnight screenings over the radio, hoping to garner some support for his premiere. There were 600 open seats in the single-screen venue, and even though free tickets were thought to beckon a bustling audience, Shadows barely filled 100 of them. It got worse: Herds of audience members stranded the theater before the film had rolled credits. Over 90 percent of the viewers were displeased with the film, the sound had major issues and the director himself was convinced the film needed more editing. Though he didn’t have the money, Cassavetes reworked the film for a 1959 re-release, thus marking the director’s scrappy roots in a hearty career of wholly independent filmmaking.
Over 60 years later, the Paris Theater was set to close for good. Cassavetes’ shoddy midnight screening would be an ancient relic left to history, no longer reverberating through the walls of the movie palace. Folks mourned the loss of the special landmark—until Netflix swooped in to save it. Save it… with a caveat. The streamer revived the theater in 2019, just months after it shuttered, to give a screening space for their major awards contenders. For example: Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s harrowing tale of divorce between a young, famous couple. This year, there are a handful of other Netflix awards contenders that boast stories similar to that of Marriage Story: Young couples in conflict. Plenty of realism; plenty of arguments. Movies that feel like independent dramas, when in reality, they’re backed by a company that passed Disney and AT&T in market cap last summer. Movies that are unapologetically inspired by Cassavetes works.
Netflix has released a bevy of potential contenders this year, but aside from David Fincher’s historical Mank and Spike Lee’s sweeping Da 5 Bloods, there are three separate Netflix films up for consideration this year that have one major commonality: Cassavetes. Two bear semblance to the director’s iconic, indie filmmaking style, while another prefers to lean on more blatant name-dropping. Pieces of A Woman, Malcolm & Marie and I’m Thinking of Ending Things all reference and pull inspiration from a congregation of films and creators; Cassavetes, however, has been a recurring name drop with the streamer since the release of Kaufman’s road trip twister last September. Just search “Cassavetes” in Google News and you’ll scroll through an assemblage of reviews citing the director as they summarize and draw comparisons. Why was Netflix drawn to Cassavetes-inspired films this year, and how do these films compare to the pioneer of independent cinema?
“Film is, to me, just unimportant,” Cassavetes once said. “But people are very important.” Here is the heart of the director’s philosophy on filmmaking, written in plain language. Above style, above linear storytelling and above any of the conventions of cinema at the time, Cassavetes desired to pen sincere characters and guide his actors to conscientious performances. Sure, impasses between a man and woman seemed to be a common thread in his films, but those plights gave way to realistic, soulful performances. By the end of a Cassavetes film, a viewer was meant to be conversant with the main characters’ tics, walking patterns, vocal inflection and emotion; every intimate detail. On top of that, Cassavetes was a master of the handheld camera, tracking his actors as they flicked cigarettes, waved their fists in the air or tucked their children into bed. Though these weren’t real stories, he wanted audiences to feel like a fly on the wall thanks to a cinéma vérité technique.
These Netflix films that grab from Cassavetes’ style all portray a man and woman in a relationship, all sparring, all young and fidgety—but do they embrace this pertinent character-driven storytelling? There’s not all that much going on in the films, so there’s room to get intimate with the lead pairings. Each film presents a shared dilemma—a couple’s sprawling argument, a miscarriage, two car rides full of bickering—and hones in on their reactions. The style of filmmaking employed may feel like a contemporary version of Cassavetes at first glance. But Cassavetes’ “style” was the wealth of authenticity, of layered performances, of complex stories—not just cinéma vérité of angsty young couples.
For example: Kornél Mundruzcó’s Pieces of a Woman prefers to chuck Cassavetes influences at its performers, resulting in a film that feels like Cassavetes Lite. Sean (Shia LaBeouf), a young man who’s just faced a miscarriage with his partner, navigates around the movie with so much anger and ferocity that the film begins to feel contrived. Pieces of a Woman lingers so long on its performances, ripping emotions out of each character as if it were tearing pages from a book, that it forgets to pursue a plot worth observing. It’s what a fan of Cassavetes might consider when they’ve run out of Cassavetes films to watch—sure, it’s got breathtaking performances and an angered young couple, but substituting Pieces of a Woman for an original Cassavetes is like trading a steaming hot cherry pie with buttery crust for uncooked dough. The shell is there. But looking inside, it’s clear that the sumptuous innards, what makes a pie a pie and a film a film, have been left out of the picture.
Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things balances this issue, however, composing an intriguing story through two buzzing road trips. Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his nebulously named girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) endure a winter storm to meet the former’s parents, though the real storm brewing is the series of arguments the pair bluster. Here, Cassavetes’ impact is more evident: Characters drop his name and reference A Woman Under the Influence in their squabbles. Buckley’s character quotes an entire passage of Pauline Kael’s negative review, slamming Jake’s adoration of the film. And yet, the car rides feel reminiscent of Cassavetes’ endless bickering, cementing the leads’ emotional reactions into our minds and in doing so, providing an authentic portrait of a relationship. Though it isn’t shot handheld and doesn’t feel like cinéma vérité, I’m Thinking of Ending Things carries the weight of its characters’ predicaments in a way that matches Cassavetes’ style.
Then there’s Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, which was made in quarantine under tight COVID restrictions and a dedicated cast of two. The pitch sounds Cassavetes-esque, like A Woman Under the Influence meets Opening Night: A director (John David Washington) forgets to thank his girlfriend in a speech about his new film, spiraling the pair into a black-and-white brawl. No interruptions from other characters. Just the two of them, up close and personal, wrestling with art, romance, muses and criticism. Shot handheld, giving the film an intimate, nearly cinéma vérité look at these two performers, Malcolm & Marie sounds closest to Cassavetes’ style. But early reviews state that the film is too hooked on its own solipsism to fulfill any kind of noteworthy discussion—disregarding Cassavetes’ key idea that people are more important than film. After all, the movie is also about the trials and tribulations of being a filmmaker.
Still, these films triumph in honoring one of Cassavetes’s finest, most endearing trademarks: They’ve all nabbed stellar leading ladies. Cassavetes was nothing without wife and partner-in-showbiz Gena Rowlands. She starred in nearly every single film he devised, jumping from worn-out housewife Mabel Longhetti to exhausted actress Myrtle Gordon. Vanessa Kirby soars in Pieces of a Woman, personifying grief and lost motherhood in a way that rings more authentic than the rest of the story. Zendaya’s searing performance in Malcolm & Marie has similarly broken out as one of the only redeeming parts of the film. And as for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Buckley’s jarring, biting tone echoes through those thrilling car scenes—though Plemons is just as fun to watch. Where these films may lack in Cassavetes’ substance, they’ve at least got the lead actress performance going for them—which, depending on your view of Cassavetes, could be the most important factor.
Cassavetes had no connection to the film industry before he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Because of incredibly low-budget, often self-financed films like Shadows (a budget below $20,000), Faces and Husbands, Cassavetes is known as a pioneer of independent cinema. Even A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes’s most popular film, only had around $1 million to spend—co-fundraised by Cassavetes and his two stars, Rowlands and Peter Falk. Netflix has a $19 billion production budget for 2021.
Now, Netflix’s hand in the production of these movies should not gatekeep the films from all things Cassavetes. (In fact, Malcolm & Marie was made before Netflix jumped on board, produced with a $2 million budget and COVID safety restrictions. But then there’s the industry connection: Levinson is son of acclaimed filmmaker Barry Levinson.) But Cassavetes’ films were so purposefully micro-budgeted, delightfully anti-studio and ingeniously counterculture that it’s difficult to mesh his name with a film produced by a huge corporation. As inspired by Cassavetes as they might be, because they’re funded or purchased by the gigantic company, they can never be an “indie” film in the same way that Cassavetes’ films were indie films. They may look like an indie, feel like an indie, perform at festivals and awards shows as indie films might, but it’s all more than a little artificial. It’s like Tom Holland labeling his Spider-Man films as “indie films with a lot more money”—even though two studio powerhouses, Sony and Disney, control Spider-Man.
This artificiality rings especially true when it comes to awards season, which seems to be the main reason Netflix is interested in these films. With the success of Marriage Story last year—which doesn’t resemble a Cassavetes film as much as these newer films do, though the couple/argument model is present—the streamer seems to understand that they can poke their nose in for awards with cheaper films. There are grand, boundless epics like Da 5 Bloods, The Irishman and Mank, directed by awards powerhouses and almost guaranteed nominations. But acted well, with the right performers and subtlety, a couple’s argument plays just as powerful with awards voters.
None of this is to say filmmakers shouldn’t reference Cassavetes or take inspiration from his gleaming oeuvre. In fact, to see Cassavetes mentioned in reviews or echoed in posters is captivating—almost delightful—at first. But then, the wariness seeps in. Many directors securing funds to create films could be a net good—after all, Scorsese made the excellent The Irishman with Netflix, even though he wasn’t a fan of their online-only model— but it just doesn’t align with some of these directors’ biggest independent influence. Cassavetes often complained about artificiality in the studio system, which spat out the same formulaic films—he wanted fresh, real stories. So, when three Cassavetes-inspired Netflix films are released in one year, one might begin to assume that the streamer’s routine is cut-and-dried. Even aping Cassavetes can become the exact kind of formula that repelled him.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fIetcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.