Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Question Regarding Cassavetes

Who here finds his work challenging in the specific way that Ray Carney does? (If you need to be refreshed, just check out his website.) If you look at Stephen Bender's guest essay on the site, you'll see this about Faces:
"Yes, this film is one of the supreme masterworks of all of American cinema. It is absolutely essential. Yes, it is "difficult." Yes, it is "slow." But those standards are for enterainment. Cassavetes wants to take us out of our ordinary ways of viewing. He wants to deny us the escapism of "entertainment." That's the point. If you have trouble with this film--good! If you find it infuriating--good! If you find it not entertaining--good! It wants to get under your skin. It wants to shake you up."
Cassavetes' films are always tricky, uncontainable creatures--they are demanding, exhausting, rewarding in so many surprising ways. Yes. But never, not even as a teenager watching Shadows or Chinese Bookie, have I felt the urge to turn off the television or leave the theater. I've never felt initially that any of these were bad or incompetent or infuriating films that I had to "scale" like Brenez did with Stromboli; never been put off by their alleged "amateurishness." I never feel the need to justify Cassavetes' work to myself or others by contrasting it to "entertainment." Is it just me--is it the product of my self-conditioning that I'm not as put off by Cassavetes as someone who saw almost primarily postclassical Hollywood films would presumably be? Or are Carney and his advocates here pressing too hard on this point, not considering that not all people who watch Cassavetes are coming from the same allegedly Hollywood-sanitized place?

So the question I want to put forth to those who read this blog is, what kind of challenge does Cassavetes represent to you? Is it, for anyone, especially for anyone who loves these films, an affront to your system, each time you see a film of his, so much that you're tempted to stop watching, or to shout out in anger?

16 comments:

Mark Asch said...

This may or may not play hell with your thesis, but I think I actually recall shouting out in anger while watching The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as a teenager. (Foolishly, I thought that a genre set-up would be a good point of entry for Cassavetes, that I could feel out his style while coasting along on the narrative tropes. Whoops.) "Shut up!", I think I said, or else, "I don't care!"

I don't know whether it was specifically the slowness that did it (I hadn't really acclimated myself to, well, any kind of experimental narrative at that point in my movie-going education; I'd like to think I'm older, wiser, and more open and adventurous now than I used to be); I seem to recall finding the mannerisms of the actors especially grating. So much so, in fact, that I haven't risked Cassavetes since. (Oh, wow, it feels good to finally admit that.)

But, like I said, maybe it was just so alien to me at the time that I'm the wrong person to ask. Maybe if I had read Carney at the time, I would have been so impressed by someone who clearly knew more about movies than I did telling me what to like about it that I would have forced myself to like it. (Isn't that how we all get started? We fake it 'til we make it? Maybe it's time to try again.)

girish said...

I never feel like I'm resisting Cassavetes' films as I'm watching them. The pace, the "looseness", the seeming "haphazardness"--they never seem inessential, and are always charged.

One director whose film-viewings do invoke a certain resistance in me (and I haven't seen enough to entirely confirm this) is Rivette. It takes me a while (like an hour or more) before he "breaks" down this resistance that I have (quite unconsciously--I don't walk in expecting to resist).

Zach Campbell said...

I don't have a thesis, Mark--I'm genuinely interested in what kinds of reactions people have, or once had, to Cassavetes' work. So your own "resistance" is congruous with what Mr. Carney sets up. But that was years ago, so now you have to promise us that you'll attend to Cassavetes, perhaps in the form of the Criterion box set, forthwith. That's right. Forth. With.

Girish, I think I know what you mean about Rivette. It's been years since I've seen it, but isn't there that scene (a great one) in La Belle noiseuse where Piccoli finally says 'I've got it' when looking for Beart's pose, a moment of tension, and then they break out in laughter? Perhaps I'm misremembering the scene, but I recall thinking, as I watched it, that it was a perfect summation of the dual temporalities, that within the diegesis, and that of the viewer in the chair before the screen, both of which are slow and leisurely processes, and both of which reward patience.

Adrian said...

Good post, Zach, and a good question. I can truthfully say I have never felt 'angered' by Cassavetes films, even when I saw a few as a teenager, or had to combat a 'resistance'. (Carney and co. press to hard on that 'Hollywood has coditioned everyon' crap - and remember what Bob Dylan says in DON'T LOOK BACK, that ALL art, even the most difficult, also works as 'entertainment' in some sense, that shouldn't be a dirty/negative term.) I didn't necessarily love, appreciate or 'get' them right away, either - that came later, seeing LOVE STREAMS on a big screen when I was in my mid '20s. That was the 'open sesame' for me. But, your question, what is the challenge the films pose? - because they are indeed challenging. Well, for me, the challenge is: how much can I understand, what can I grasp in this 'picture', what cues can I grab hold of to anchor myself, to be able to go deeper into the film? I still feel this challenge every single time I rewatch a Cassavetes film (including the less talked-of ones, like TOO LATE BLUES) - they disorient you, but hold a deeper kind of logic at systematic levels well below or beyond the thresholds of the usual narrative/thematic/characterological systems. The challenge is to get to those levels!

weepingsam said...

I was very well prepared by the time I saw any Cassavetes films, so I did not feel any resistence to them. I had seen enough Godard and Altman (and probably even some Wong Kar Wei) that the structure and look didn't throw me - and I had seen Cassavetes come up in relation to books I had read, so I had an idea what he was doing in his films. Enough so that I recognized Cassavetes when I saw it - I was flipping through channels, and on Bravo, saw Ben Gazzara running down a hill, clutching his side, catching a bus - I stuck around a while and realized this had to be a Cassavetes film that I'd heard so much about! I had no idea which movie it was, but I could tell this was Cassavetes.

I suppose this could relate to either side of the Carney divide - I think art generally teaches you how to react to it - and if you see Cassavetes strictly in terms of classical Hoollywood, then yeah, I guess it would seem strange. When I saw it, I saw it in terms of William Gaddis and Henry Miller (and Godard and Altman), so it wasn't much of a leap. I do tend to think Carney assumes that viewers will only see Cassavetes is contrast to conventional films, rather than in concert with novels or unconventional films....

jmac said...

Z. this is so fascinating! FACES was one of my favorites for a long time, and I found A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE to be so heartbreaking & beautiful. I never resisted these films, but I did resist the avant-garde/experimental films for awhile. So I understand some of what that's about . . .

Why do we like the films we like? One thing I've realized is that our practical judgement that is vital for our success in job interviews or apartment searches is completely at odds with experimental cinema or more simply poetry. Somehow what is a valuable form of common sense becomes a liability and a hindrance for interpreting an experimental work. After all of this time, I think that I had to unlearn some of the stuff I had learned throughout my life. Or in essence, to lose some of the ego & to dissolve judgement on some level . . . . Or when I moved to NY I just began to experience everything differently. NY can be very humbling . . .

P.S. G-- I saw CELINE & JULIE GO BOATING at Anthology a long time ago, and I did not get it at all. Maybe now?

aaron w graham said...

While Cassavetes was most definitely challenging when I first became aware of his work (at aged fifteen during a festival of sorts on the Canadian channel CBC, which played one film per weekday for close to two weeks), I was never angered by any of the proceedings.

At a time when all I had to compare the films to were the very post-classical Hollywood films you speak of, Cassavetes still posed no threat to my system. He simply represented a breed of cinema that was far more honest and unequivocally more personal than anything I had seen before. I would watch that scene in HUSBANDS, where Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara torment that poor old lady to “do it better!” during the impromptu singalong at the bar, and unconsciously sense my judgment change from regaling with that sort of bravado, to rebuking everything I saw before me; from believing that HUSBANDS was a documentary-like account of Cassavetes and Co. gallivanting across London to realizing and identifying the subtle criticisms of male braggadocio Cassavetes clearly intended.

Then again, maybe all of this constitutes as a shock to the system, but it never did feel that way.

Mark Asch said...

Ok, ok, I will, I promise. Promise.

Darren said...

Okay, I'll own up to feeling more than a small amount of resistance to Cassavetes. I distinctly remember turning off Faces before the film had even left Gena's apartment. I'd rented it because Cassavetes's name kept showing up on the "Best Directors" and "Best Films" lists I was deliberately working my way through at the time. I'd known nothing about his style beforehand and found it completely unnerving. A Woman Under the Influence was the first of his films that I successfully navigated but only after -- and it pains me to admit this -- turning it off two times. For the record, Faces is now among my four or five all-time favorite films.

I've never been able to articulate this, exactly, but what I was resisting at the time -- and what I so love about Cassavetes's films now -- is their ability to feel "more real" than a documentary has ever felt to me. There's an intimacy in those close-ups in Faces and in Rowlands's performance in Woman that makes me feel like that "voyeur" the film theorists are always going on and on about. It's a curious mixture of fascination and shame, and only Cassavetes makes me feel it.

David Lowery said...

I never resisted Cassavetes because he wasn't entertaining or too slow...in fact, I loved the style and pace of his films. I was very disappointed the first time I saw Shadows because it ended before I wanted it to.

The one thing that I had to slightly acclimate myself to, however, was some of the acting; particularly, Rowlands' performance in A Woman Under The Influence. The first time I saw it, I just didn't buy her. It was too overt, I felt, too strenuous. I remember writing to Matt at the time that the film felt like something Altman, a more subtle filmmaker with a handful of similar traits, might have made better; it wasn't until a few pictures later that I began to realize what Cassavetes was doing, and exactly what sort of performances he was drawing out of his cast. He doesn't go for literal realism, I don't think; he's after something closer to an emotive truth. He forces his actors to the point of the bombastic, and then holds on just long enough to catch the afterglow.

Alex said...

I believe Carney is accurately describing the reaction to Cassavetes both at the time AND currently (from people generally only familiar with mainstream Hollywood cinema post the Lucasberger revolution).

The historic proof is the actual reaction to the movies (which included major critics telling Cassavetes to his face that his movies were "garbage").

More relevantly, you can look at the negative commentary left on IMDB for such movies as Funny Ha Ha or Forty Shades of Blue, which, for better or worse, are movies clearly in a Cassavetes tradition. There's plenty of angry commentary in IMDB for these movies. There's plenty of positive commentary for these movies NOW, but imagine how you would react to such a movie when neither you nor no one else had ever seen such things before.

Zach Campbell said...

Adrian: "The challenge is to get to those levels!" ... I think that's a really good way of putting it.

Darren: That's interesting about how you say that Cassavetes' films feel "more real" than documentary to you--he has a singular and amplified way of achieving immediacy & intimacy. In a certain sense--scripting, in some ways the acting--his films are clearly not realistic, despite what people say, because of the singular stylistic cohesions (Cassavetes-people talk, laugh, confess in patterns divorced from "reality," cleaved to "Cassavetesism"--David mentions his own initial discomfort with Rowlands' acting). But his camera, his editing patterns, capture the details so powerfully that his films are about that gray space where, beyond all these things, fiction/nonfiction and performance/being fuse.

Alex: no doubt Cassavetes' films met a lot of resistance; what I'm curious to also ask, though, is what's left (in Carney's work specifically) for those of us who don't need to be guided through his films by holding Carney's didactic hand? Over and over we hear how these films (like those of Elaine May, Mark Rappaport, Tom Noonan, Charles Burnett) don't do what "Hollywood" does with its shallow truths, etc. Well, I already like (no, love) all these filmmakers, I treasured their work since I first saw it, and the challenges of their work have nothing to do (for me, for some others) with rejecting and disliking these films in the theater or in the home videotheque.

My own taste, my intelligence, my perspicacity, my understanding of these films--these are all very open to doubt. But what is clearly not suspect is the fact that I, personally, was game for these 'challenges,' and others here have attested as much for themselves. So what can Carney's criticism address for us, since it's so closely allied with the idea that Cassavetes' films are supposedly a "shock to the system"--ostensibly *all* systems?

girish said...

It's true. These challenges may not quite apply to us. But I think they might be worth noting because of "missionary" reasons, i.e. the task of framing his films for the millions of people out there who may indeed do face these challenges because of "Hollywood narrative conditioning".
Perhaps it might help some of them make an easier entry into Cassavetes' films by presenting his films in such a context...

Alex said...

Responding to Zach's comments:

1. While I'm not going to put myself in Carney's shoes, I expect that his response to your comments would be that Cassavetes is challenging on numerous levels. The challenges are different for each person. Remember that, for instance, that the American experimentalists often rejected or at least largely ignored Cassavetes. Not because they were bothered by the pacing or non-Hollywood plot constructions, but because they had an entirely different cinematic project of their own, and Cassavetes didn't fit into that programme.

2. I suppose the ultimate challenge within Cassavetes is of the same kind as the challenge for any great director on that level of achievement: what does Bresson or Cassavetes or Ozu or mean? What can I take away from my viewing of [x] movie? Many film-makers are not as challenging in terms of initial reaction as these are - say, someone like Billy Wilder is seemingly more accessible - is still very challenging on this ultimate level.

James Russell said...

If you have trouble with this film--good! If you find it infuriating--good! If you find it not entertaining--good!

But how can it be good when the film infuriates you so much it puts you off ever wanting to see anything else by the director?

I don't expect to be entertained by all films (at least not in the conventional Hollywood sense), and I didn't particularly expect to be entertained by Faces when it was thrust upon me in a film studies class about ten years ago; I hadn't seen any of his films then, but knew of them and Cassavetes' reputation, so I wasn't expecting conventional entertainment. Unfortunately, I do expect that a film will interest and engage me on some level or other, and Faces simply didn't do that for me.

One day I may find myself checking him out in more detail, but frankly, I'm buggered if I can see myself doing it. I need motivation, and frankly there's far too many other films I'd rather watch, too many other filmmakers I'd rather explore.

Zach Campbell said...

I suppose what I am skeptical about is the practice of placing Cassavetes' work as the equivalent of moral green vegetables, the 'good' (and not always palatable for our allegedly saccharine-accustomed tastes) end of a polarity with "Hollywood entertainment," as though all Hollywood entertainment were the same. (And, with the exception of Frank Capra, Ray Carney at least seems to think that it all is.) Anyone who reads this blog knows I have little sympathy for cinema commerce and its heavy-handed rhetoric of "the magic of the movies" (laffs, tears, popcorn, etc.), but I'm equally uncomfortable with rhetoric that loudly posits itself against this system of 'fakery' and therefore more pure. It's often a lot of posturing. (Worst example: I don't know if they still do it, but IFC used to have those ridiculous commercials with tag lines expressing the gist, "No Hollywood crap. We show good films.") What I look for isn't the negation of the bad so much as the production of the (alternative) good, which to me Cassavetes offers so abundantly ...

But I ramble ...

James, I hope that sometime down the road you'll give Cassavetes another chance and find his work as rewarding as his admirers do. Until then--life is short, so see what interests you, right? I one day hope to get Fred Camper of all people (who has also only seen Faces, and hates it) to give these films another shot.