Monday, February 19, 2007

The Cassavetes Letters, #1

Dear Matt,

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.]


Alex said...

"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."

One thing that might help us is to meditate on how Cassavetes compares with other "tough guy anti-intellectual" artists of the time. We've lost a lot of our insight into that intellectual milieu because the 1960s seperates us from the high tide of most of those artists (primarily in the 1950s and early 1960s).

A lot of the "tough guy" pose seems to me to be fairly obviously the artists' intentional bids to first create archetypal American macho characters and then undermine (or explore) how that facade falls apart (or is inadquate at least). It's quite obvious that this is what is the artists' intention in Yates' Revolutionary Road, most of David Goodis' fiction, Appointment in Samarra and numerous others. It's THE theme in Nicholas Ray's work, for example.

I think you can analogize this American artists strategy to strategies undertaken by artists in other cultures - they assume the masks of the leading "types" of their type, partially for protective coloration but also to better critically analyze that "type" of their historic moment. Thus, all the English artists who pretend to become country squires, the French artists who pretend to be technocratic intellectuals, the German artists (early in the twentieth century at any rate) who are stern professors and so on.

Zach Campbell said...

The artist's role or function as a kind of performance (or even as a meta-tool), huh?

I wonder if Cassavetes drank Ballantine's.

But anyway, yes, this is precisely the sort of possibility I think we should explore more in relation to Cassavetes and others. The tough guy pose you find "fairly obvious" in fact seems to win over a lot of people. Assuming the people who write Ray Carney fan mail are not fictions, there are a fair amount of "don't be a phoney, dood, live life!" types around. Certainly it's clear that Cassavetes wasn't trying to be outright macho. What I think is less clear for most of us is the extent to which we (do? should?) implicity accept the machismo of his more apparent puncturing of macho. That is, anyone can tell that Husbands is about feelings, and fractures in the good old-fashioned American businessman facade. It's whether or not Cassavetes' confidence about life issues and what art can do to grapple with them is also analyzed as a macho performance (and hence an examination of such machismo). You're saying it is, or at least it probably/partly is, no?, and I think I agree with you. But I don't get the sense that a lot of discussion of JC would acknowledge as much ...

Alex said...

"It's whether or not Cassavetes' confidence about life issues and what art can do to grapple with them is also analyzed as a macho performance (and hence an examination of such machismo). You're saying it is, or at least it probably/partly is, no?, and I think I agree with you. But I don't get the sense that a lot of discussion of JC would acknowledge as much ... "

Can you flesh this thought out a bit more? I'm not certain I've absolutely grasped it. First, I'm not certain that Cassavetes really gives off that much confidence about life issues. Most of his films finish with highly inconclusive or ambigious endings.

There's not much guarantee in the films that "emotional openess" or the other cliches people say about Cassavetes will actually make any real improvement in the characters' lives.

Of course, there are plenty of shallow people who will naturally view Cassavetes in a shallow way. I think Cassavetes even encouraged this misinterpretation to some extent. Also, since he survived financially from his acting roles, there are a limited number of social poses that an American male actor can occupy and still remain a well-paid actor. The easiest mask to utilize is the "hard-drinking tough guy artist" pose, which also has the huge benefit of keeping you employable as a male lead in Hollywood. There are other masks for an American artist to occupy, but most of them don't keep you working as a mainstream male actor for lead roles.

HarryTuttle said...

Great project guys!
I'm not sure where the idea that the fiction equates to the worldview comes from...
And I'd like to know the reference of Adrian Martin's work on Cassavetes' parameters. Is it available?
Looking forward to what comes next. :)

Matthew said...

Thanks for the kudos, Harry.

Check out Adrian's 'John Cassavetes: Inventor of Forms' from Senses of Cinema. It's a really compelling piece of work.

Zach Campbell said...

Alex--I think there's less there to flesh out than you may be expecting of me! You've already put it better than I have been able to: a misinterpretation of Cassavetes which, so long as we give Cassavetes himself the benefit of the doubt, he encouraged for reasons of survival & even advancement for his art. It's a "mask," as you put it. Now, I don't want us to talk too much about masks & performances, as though my/our object is to get to the "bottom" of Cassavetes, the "true" one. Neither do I want to throw up my hands and say, "Nothing matters, nothing's absolute, we're always performing." (Which is true enough but utterly meaningless unless you do something with that idea.) At any rate I'm not really working with this schema, but the idea of the "mask" is useful for this one particular blog comment of mine, in that I can say that what I want to do is analyze this particular mask that Cassavetes used, to get to the alternate (less-explored) sides of this artist ...

Harry, the "fiction=worldview" idea is a crude way of schematizing or characterizing a lot of Cassavetes appreciation (or negative criticism), as I see it, in that people discuss the films in terms of how they're so life-like, how they show us to be true to ourselves, against phoniness, against ideas, etc. Look at a lot of the stuff in Ray Carney's page, especially the fan mail. This is not to say that there's nothing of value to be found in given articulations of this particular assessment of Cassavetes as fearless pioneer of Human Truths, only that it's dominion in the discussion of JC has worn out its welcome ...

HarryTuttle said...

Thank you Matthew.

I agree with you Zach, it's ok to enjoy or even identify with characters whose conduct we disaprove of. Cinema is catharsis (both for actors and audience). And improvisation doesn't necessarily mean performing one's own role. So do you want to figure out from the films his biographical mentality or his worldview signature?