We’re going to talk about the films of John Cassavetes, but before I really initiate this discussion, I want to touch upon a point in which we’re in total agreement, I’m sure—namely, that the prescribed methods & pathways of discussing Cassavetes have not been entirely acceptable.
First things first. There is a disturbing tendency for viewers to assume (particularly when they dislike a film) that the attitudes and worldview of the characters are direct correlations to that of the author. In some cases this assumption may be true, but this does not excuse the employment of the untested assumption as considered fact. (In recent discourse this assumption has plagued Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, for instance: those who dislike the films transfer their criticisms of poor Jesse and Celine to the film itself: it [meaning they] is privileged, hip, hopelessly armchair-liberal; smart without being brilliant, emotional without being profound. It doesn’t occur to some of these people that a film, or this film, is not the sum of its characters’ dialogue!) And this can cause trouble for those who love these films (from Shadows to Love Streams: I confess I haven’t yet seen Big Trouble or Too Late Blues) if they don’t necessarily buy into Cassavetes’ tough guy anti-intellectual sensitivity, the same crudeness that informs a lot of the characterizations in these films. How do we talk about Cassavetes, respect him as an artist, when we don’t subscribe to some ideas he appears to have had an tried to express in his cinema?
Cassevetes taken at his word is, I think, an anti-systematic essentialist. He believes in a great truth, or great truths, of human existence and life and the world—but never in any kind of system that would claim to shed light on what these truths actually are. It’s all about experience, the necessarily unclassifiable energies that crackle between all of us: that’s Life, that’s the secret of it. There’s no formula for not being a phony, Cassavetes would assert, but the great humanistic diagnosis of Cassavetes’ work is that we’re phonies all the time, and the great categorical imperative is that we must not be phonies. But I don’t believe these dicta; not very much anyway. And I think that in Cassavetes we can find reservoirs of (yes) “political” or “social” thought, ones that extend out from the bounds of interpersonal experience. So really I’m speaking of Cassavetes (a dominant actorly-soothsayer conception) contra Cassavetes (the less visible filmmaker I’m hoping we can further tease out into the open). Here’s a source (on the conceptual level) of much conflict, joy, piss-and-vinegar in these films we love so dearly! I wonder how many times have I have applied the simplest of lines to important situations regarding film theory and Cassavetes: “Be yourself! Be yourself!” Nick says to Mabel after the “return” in A Woman Under the Influence. The earth shakes, for me, when I see moments like those in Cassavetes. The tension is unresolvable, palpable.
But this is what makes cinema important, important for individuals and for groups, that it’s not about finding consonance (and pretending that we can reject all else) as it is about producing meaning and also value, whether the reified allure of a product, or a more pragmatic use value (ethical, logical, pleasurable…). This is similar, of course, to what makes advertising work: a commercial doesn’t force you to run out and buy Tide detergent, but it does imprint the product or a brand upon your brain—cultural products don’t work without recipients, it’s not as though a Cassavetes film or a novel or a commercial ever do anything in a vacuum. Cassavetes can change me as a person, but this doesn’t mean I am going to turn into one of his protagonists.
At this point I think I should simply summarize that my overriding concerns about this filmmaker have to do with the importance of moral engagements and human existence as negotiated not by purely emotional appeals (and I have cried during these films, been very deeply moved), but by formal analysis and rational consideration of the merits—and limits—of the work at hand. Adrian Martin has done good work outlining some (formal) parameters of Cassavetes’ films; there should be more of us working on this large project with him. I hope that this overture of mine, which is really just a selfish and convoluted way for me to shake out the tablecloth I’m providing before we put food on it, will adequately sketch out the space that I am visualizing for us. John Cassavetes = a major artist, an important artist, someone to bow to—but not our master, not the arbiter, not a genius who’s transcended those pesky categories of social life, politics and history. Now for the real question of this exchange:
What/how is the man’s cinema?
I think Cassavetes tended to keep his camera lower than most people. This is an idea I’m putting forth that I want to keep in mind as we discuss these films. When he photographs groups of people together, we are sitting and looking over someone’s shoulder (the drinking scene that comes around the 20 minute mark in Husbands and the spaghetti breakfast in A Woman Under the Influence, lighting aside, are shot in remarkably similar ways). He even worked with a quite similar color palette over his 1970-1984 films (e.g., the skin and hair tones of Gena Rowlands find themselves forecast by the tall British woman, Mary, in Husbands). And right before the famous spaghetti breakfast we would do well to notice how subtly prominent a place the pot of sauce is given. This people person knows a thing or two about food (and drink), always fine things to zero in on as far as I’m concerned. Anyway—cheers:
[Response at Esoteric Rabbit.]