Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Cassavetes Letters, #3

(The first and second letters.)

Dear Matt,

That saucepan is an axiom of the cinema! Let’s forget performance for just a moment—if one wants to talk about how Cassavetes allegedly “captures life,” we need to discuss the treatment of food and drink and meals! When I was a kid and saw an episode of Star Trek on television, I asked my Dad why we never saw the characters eating. “Well, we don’t want to see them eat. We want to see them work.” But that’s not a natural predilection, is it?, that has to be taught, inculcated just like so much of what we assume cinematic material “must” or “should” show us, fulfilling the desires we’ve been told we have. Like the Oedipal complex—it’s not that it’s universally true through time and space, it’s that it has been made true in certain cases through means of production, circulation, repetition. A cinema that gets us thinking or remembering or imagining for a few moments a glass of red wine and spaghetti, about an amiably awkward breakfast after a long shift … that can be special simply because its presence is rare. In Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica contrives hunger for his father and son characters. I’m not saying one has to reject De Sica for this reason, only that even the most seemingly heartfelt humanist moments of, say, hunger and fellowship are usually swept up in a much larger operation. Perhaps they’re swept up in Cassavetes, too—but it’s not that kind of operation, not that kind of story or image or space. His are something else.

Neither are they like the bottle of liquor passed around in Deliverance, on the characters’ first night on the river, where Boorman and Zsigmond follow the bottle around (cutting off character’s heads in the frame, if I recall) as it’s offered and passed from man to man. That’s a gesture, a line: a visual flourish that says something about John Boorman’s “universe” (and Vilmos Zsigmond’s, and 1970s America’s, and who knows what else). But we know it is operatively different from the saucepan in A Woman Under the Influence because it feels different: the emotions it triggers, the way it triggers them, are informed by other aspects of the film. We might say for instance that in Deliverance the clean liquor-line of the camera is in fact a last hurrah of camaraderie before the more harrowing events of the second day on the river: very very roughly, it’s the calm before the storm. That’s its simple, small narrative operation. The saucepan-line in Under the Influence, however, has no similarity in function beyond the fact that it brings people together in a shot under the aegis of communal consumption. We can see from the activity of the characters that the action isn’t about finding a dramatic point to emphasize, foreshadow, deepen (or clarify)—it is instead to get a sense of bustle: chaos of a family, of the way this Longhetti house runs (open to strangers; a balancing act between Mabel’s Mabelness and Nick’s simplistic good love and limited mirth). It’s about character rather than plot, but that’s too crude a way to put it, for how is it “about” these characters? Clearly the shot like that doesn’t do much to establish or draw out Nick/Mabel/whoever in three-dimensional, novelistic form. It doesn’t make them well-rounded, it doesn’t make them more or less sympathetic. It does establish a program of graphic movement; a rhythm as seen in the surrounding legwork and gestures (surrounding/anticipating this all important breakfast-spaghetti saucepan!), identifying the characters not so much as successfully literary transformations (conceptual-verbal trinkets) but as individualized and interacting auras of movement and visual-aural persona whose powerfully, suggestively sketched (just sketched) behaviors accumulate the gravity of personality over (cine-)time. Cassavetes mastered a own way of rendering Character onscreen, cinematically, in a non-literary way. This is part of what makes him so special. Even when he wasn’t being particularly revolutionary, Cassavetes was simply remembering things that almost every forces around him sought to forget, erase, suppress.

And anyway, Matt, I have no doubt bored and befuddled you enough with my eight-mile sentences. Food—let’s get back to that, to illustrate a point—and as you mentioned in your letter, there are also alcohol and tobacco (and caffeine) as initiators of social experience, and of individual experience. Consumption is sometimes overlooked in discussions of cinema, which is in its dominant format, after all, one big commercial product to be consumed.

A tangent, because when it comes to Cassavetes a tangent is always a fine thing to go down for a while—let’s pretend it’s three in the morning and we’ve had eight shots of single malt apiece—have you ever seen Big Night, which I have not seen and have heard has some of the most delicious images of food and cooking? How does it stand up in this age of constant cable cooking shows? And if my inadvertant alliteration didn’t just make you choke on your coffee, perplexed, what can you tell me about La Grande bouffe, if you’ve seen it (again, I haven’t)? Because there’s plenty of discussion of sex and sexuality in the cinema, but what about that other element that is supposed to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom: taste, literal taste, the enjoyment and savor of food? Because as surely as one could write about gender relations, desire, the sensual/sensuous body in Cassavetes, one could—and should—write about the way that the sensuous intake of calories and substances operates on the viewer and her psychology.
What do these images mean to you?

Because every time I ask myself this question (as you know I’ve mulled over this letter far too long) I find myself coming to different things, different emphases, each time: the establishment of routines; the structure of (economic) power which runs amidst these routines (a real and political presence in the Cassavetes world); the pleasure of these routines; the pleasure of an individual moment of consumption in explicit contrast to routine (capital-r Routine?); the utter drabness of modern (American) business life; the secretary as the harem-corollary to the ‘60s playboy swinging girl; the way hangovers express themselves in our bodies.

Substances nourishing or otherwise are interesting in films because, among other reasons, they ground a certain basic corporeality—this other corporeality to stand beside ‘sexuality’—and in this way depictions of eating, drinking, smoking, etc. share something with the way cinema, or art in general, deals with sex and violence. (It’s about material, “content,” that may—but needn’t—inspire strong affective reactions in viewers.) At any rate when we see a character smoke, eat, or drink we are drawn to their bodily reality in some way, the illusion of their physically manifest presence on the screen, the reminder that the emulsions or pixels suggest of something ‘filmed,’ and so ultimately I think there’s something very Bazinian-ontological about almost any cinematographic representation of consumption, because it indicates, sometimes it clearly records, a reality of physical processes that strengthens the illusion of life in the frame.

1) Life is a process.
2) Life flows.

And because the processes flows, continually, well, this is how Cassavetes thinks and works and this is why he creates his uniquely “lifelike” characters (gradually, over cine-time, remember!). And blood flows too, which indicates the significance of Cosmo Vitelli’s wounds in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, because just as important as eating, drinking, and smoking are in Cassavetes (as signs of life, celebrating or simply surviving, of sociality, vitality), is the idea of life lost. One irretrievable flow is time (Love Streams experiments with this a bit: it’s the Cassavetes film that “looks back” the most, I think), another is blood, and in fact everything is flowing—love, hate, compassion, ichors, anything and nothing in particular. I don’t know if you’ll want to pick up on this idea: blood, flow, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—if you don’t, that’s perfectly all right; but I think I may come back to it myself when I reply to your next letter.




Marilyn said...

It might be instructive to know that Gena Rowlands used to cook for and feed the company in her husband's movies, since many of those films were shot at and around their home. A family man through and through, Cassavetes probably thought of ritual consumption (think of Husbands especially) as an ultimate bonding experience.

Personally, the prelude-to-sex eating scene in Tony Richardson's ribald masterpiece Tom Jones can't be beat.

Dan Sallitt said...

Eating scenes can be seen as challenging the illusion of fiction. Every time I see a character eat on screen, I always think, "I hope they didn't have to do too many takes, so the poor actor didn't have to pretend to be hungry when he or she is actually stuffed."

The filmmaker runs into problems on either side when bodily functions have to be depicted. Fakery is obvious (think of how rarely anyone in the cinema has vomited convincingly), and yet a commitment to authenticity turns the film into a documentary on the state of the actor (for instance, when the penis is shown during sexual activity).

Which is not to contradict your belief that there's value in showing the fulfillment of appetite. But maybe it's a complicated effect that has to be judged appropriate or not in each situation?

ZC said...

Marilyn, didn't know that, thanks! (And I've never seen all of Tom Jones, either...)

Dan, those are perceptive thoughts about ingestion & other acts that are impossible to totally simulate. The very potentiality of challenging the fictive illusion is inextricable from the potentiality of reinforcing a certain semblance of verisimilitude, or 'illusion of life,' I think. Indeed, the documentary aspects of scenes like these (ones frequently difficult or impossible to fully simulate) instigate a certain friction between the diegetic reality and the indexical reality. (Or only insofar as we can posit one or the other to exist--different things for different films & all that.) On a documentary level I don't know that I want to say there's necessarily a value to "showing the fulfillment of appetite." (Of course, there are complicated effects in every case to be treated accordingly, that goes without saying.) It's more a matter of harnessing certain aspects of the Bazinian/indexical power of representational cinema for a certain function of fiction (or anti-fiction, or parallel-fiction, as extended and unsimulated scenes of eating or sex frequently do little to advance "plot" or establish narrative verisimilitude). I like what Cassavetes does not because he shows people eating but because his scenes of people eating are connected to other elements of form (like camera movements) and indicate something about Character that I don't think one could easily get through words.

Dan Sallitt said...

I suppose every shot is a challenge to fiction, and we just get habituated to some challenges. If an actor cries, or even just stands there, we are certainly free to wonder how hard it was to simulate that fictional moment. I don't think that kind of wondering necessarily destroys the power of fiction.

The bodily-function examples are different only in that they expose the physiological limits of what acting can do. So, in addition to their documentary quality, they point us at the filmmakers' inability to create fiction in some cases. Interestingly, even success in this arena is threatening to the diegesis: when Lee Kang-sheng seems actually to vomit in Tsai's The Hole, it will be more distracting for most viewers than the lame but familiar convention of having the actor spit out a mouthful of something. And an erect penis in a sex scene may never lose its power to make us forget the movie in our wonder about what was happening on that set.

Daniel Kasman said...

So, in addition to their documentary quality, they point us at the filmmakers' inability to create fiction in some cases.

Or perhaps the reverse? Like, say, the many Hong Sang-soo films where the actors get increasingly drunk throughout those painful conversations over dinner.

ZC said...

Tardy commentary is great, right?

Dan, I basically agree. It all seems to boil down to context, what a particular film does with its images of certain hard- or impossible-to-fake physiological acts. In original Bazinian terms, anyway. CGI scoots us more and more into the future I suppose.

I think maybe Hong Sang-soo tries to get his films all going in the same grain (e.g., drunk actors and drunk characters meant to spur on the conceits of the film), and we are meant perhaps to read across this grain ourselves--never totally giving into or disavowing in the "fiction" of a recorded moment.

Dan Sallitt said...

Maybe there's something I don't know about those Hong scenes. Are the actors really getting drunk?

In Truffaut/Hitchcock, Truffaut tells the story of a director, nervous about doing his first love scene, who instructs the actors to do it for real. And the audience couldn't tell the difference between real and faked sex.... The moral of the story is probably that it's no use documenting real behavior if you don't do whatever is needed to notarize that behavior with the camera.

I guess CGI will upset the Bazinian applecart when we can't tell that it's CGI. My impression, though, is that the big CGI spectacles can't hide the CGI, or maybe don't mind being obvious about it. I saw a few minutes of Jackson's King Kong on TV recently: it was not much different from watching an animated film, really.

ZC said...

I was under the impression that Hong acknowledged that, at least sometimes, his actors actually were getting drunk for some of those scenes. Is this not the case? Do we have documentation? I'll scour the Internets...

You're correct about CGI; it's not "there" yet, to look real on its own. But even at this early stage it has at least muddied the waters of the ontology (that is to say the integrity) of the photographic image ...

David McDougall said...

"Hong appreciates drinking and the camaraderie that often comes with alcohol. I confirmed with him later that his actors are truly drunk in the scenes they appear to be drunk." - My Moments with Hong by Adam Hartzell