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Ray Carney's John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity

Excerpts from the discussion of Love Streams

Critics sometimes talk as if great art gives us new thoughts, when it would be more accurate to say it gives us new powers. If Cassavetes’ work is about transforming his characters, it is even more about transforming his viewers. To watch Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, or Love Streams is to be given new capacities of sensitivity and awareness—something much greater and more revolutionary than new ideas. Cassavetes gives us new forms of perception, not just new meanings.

Specifically, he trains us to watch the faces, bodies, and voices of his characters with unusual acuity. No filmmaker has done more to make the subtlest nuances of body language the fundamental building blocks of meaning. Every film might be said to be acted, but virtually no film is acted to the extent Cassavetes’ are—none relies more heavily on the viewer’s ability to read the tiniest facial flickers of emotion or listen to tonal demisemiquavers with greater sensitivity. It is as if the very atoms of the soul were put under a microscope and made visible as they vibrated in place or darted back and forth between characters.

Although Cassavetes’ work is dramatically structured in quite elaborate ways (Faces, for example, consisting of an intricate network of sexual comparisons and contrasts, A Woman Under the Influence employing allusions to Rebel Without a Cause and a series of operatic and balletic visual and acoustic stylizations, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie drawing on Sternbergian and Wellesian notions of art, Minnie and Moskowitz tweaking and teasing Hollywood forms of expression), to a remarkable degree, Cassavetes’ meanings are not created with general stylistic effects or narrative forms of organization (the way meanings in most other American films are), but emanate from the faces, bodies, and voices of specific performers. While, in the other sort of film, we watch how the frame is composed, how a character is lighted, how the camera moves or doesn’t move, etc., Cassavetes’ work cultivates different ways of seeing and hearing. We are not looking at the lighting or framing, but attending to butterfly flutters of feeling in a character’s face; we are not listening to the sound design, but vibrating to birdsong vocal tremulations in a character’s voice.

That is, in fact, why most serious American film scholars have ignored Cassavetes’ work. The films are treated as if they were merely the record of dramatic performances imagined somehow to be independent of them as films. The thinking goes that when we watch a movie like Citizen Kane, 2001, or Apocalypse Now, we feel the director’s presence and choices in more or less every shot, since we are awash in generalized stylistic effects of lighting, framing, and sound. When we watch Cassavetes, the argument runs, we are not exposed to the choices of the director but those of the performers. Ergo, his work is an "actor’s cinema"—in other words, a form of filmmaking not truly "cinematic."

The way out of the definitional trap is to realize that the decision to make faces, bodies, and voices the sources of meaning is as much an expression of the director’s values and vision as the decision to downplay the expressiveness of such things in the other sort of film. The values are just different. That is to say, Cassavetes’ style is as cinematic as Hitchcock’s. It just figures an entirely different understanding of life and expression.

While the stylistic practices of conventional cinematic expression (the use of light, sound, camerawork, framing, and various symbolic and metaphoric forms of presentation) generalize, abstract, and allegorize experience, the expressive embodiments of Cassavetes’ style physicalize, individualize, and particularize it. Hitchcock’s characters and situations are generic, representative, dreamlike; Cassavetes’ are unique, specific, localized. Hitchcock gives us Everyman doing anything; Cassavetes gives us someone doing something.

Even more importantly, in the stylistically inflected film, meaning is tipped toward the visionary. It expresses more or less disembodied, imaginative states (and is apprehended by the viewer’s identification with and participation in such states of abstraction and disengagement). Experience is turned into a mental event. In Cassavetes’ work, meaning and experience are practical, engaged, worldly. Insofar as meaning inheres in the body and is expressed through practical social interactions (and through the viewer’s intricate perceptual negotiation of those interactions as he or she watches the film), meaning is not in the mind, but in the world. Cassavetes lowers his figures’ centers of gravity and moves his characters and viewers away from states of unworldly vision and into practical acts of social negotiation. (Cosmo shows us Cassavetes’ feelings about visionary stances and relations.) Characters are not their thoughts, feelings, and intentions, but their gestures, tones of voice, and bodily expressions.

Finally, stylistic effects, as they occur in the mainstream film, to a large extent, stand still. If an interaction is kick–lighted one moment it will tend to be kick–lighted the next; if the music is suspenseful at the start of a scene it will generally still be suspenseful a minute later. In Cassavetes’ work, because the meanings are a matter of particulars of timing, pacing, body language, facial expression, and vocal tone, nothing will stop moving or summarize itself in this way. Meaning is as labile as voice tones and facial expressions. To watch these films is to inhabit a world of exhilaratingly, scarily, shifting meanings. There is no predicting the next beat.

Not only can Richard and McCarthy or Nick and Mabel tonally be at knife point one moment and best buds the next, but even in getting from one point to the other, they can go through dozens upon dozens of zig–zag swerves. In Love Streams Sarah and Jack cycle through twenty or more tones and relations to each other, Judge Dunbar, and Debbie in the hearing room in three or four minutes. To watch Robert interact with Albie at the bar or with the transvestites in the nightclub is to watch meanings that shift from second to second. It’s an extraordinary place to get a work of art to—where streams of microscopic energy are flowing, coruscating, flickering more rapidly than we can keep up with them. There is no Archimedian stylistic point outside of the flow by which we can get theoretical leverage on it.

That’s what makes Cassavetes’ films so different from their summaries or the memory of them. In summary, A Woman Under the Influence might seem like a fairly clichéd depiction of "a misunderstood, neurotic housewife" (as one early reviewer put it). In actual experience, it is entirely different. The summary doesn’t even come close to touching the actual experience of what we see and hear. It is not a film of generalizations, but of startling, unclassifiable, individualized, unpredictable, astonishing details. Consider just the first two or three minutes in which we see Mabel: the way she is dressed, her hopping around on one foot, the way she rides the bike to the car, the way it won’t fit into the trunk, the way the trunk won’t close, the way the car stalls (a detail added in post–production), her shimmering tones. Nothing is generic, representative, or indicated. Every instant is new. Every local detail stunningly realized.

To cycle back to my beginning, that is ultimately what it means to say that Cassavetes’ works are perceptual more than intellectual events. To put it more precisely, one might say that they redefine intellect as perception. Sarah and Mabel aren’t a set of ideas about women (the way Thelma and Louise are); they are a set of specific events. Cassavetes’ films are all details—all the way down to the ground. They tell us that specifics are, in fact, all there are.

The de–ideologization of Cassavetes’ depictions, the semantic embodiment of his expressions, the emphasis on perceptual events figures a comprehensive vision of all of experience. T.S. Eliot said of Henry James that he had a mind too fine for an idea to violate it, and of Cassavetes it might be put more strongly: In his work ideas are opposed to understanding. Like William James, Cassavetes saw conceptual relations to experience (including the ones that generalized stylistic effects create and the ones critics that explicate such films habitually indulge in) as betraying it, because they abstract us from and stop the motion of life. While sensory experiences never pause, ideas stand still. All of Cassavetes’ work is an effort to capture the feeling of unconceptualized experience, to replace conceptions with perceptions. He tells us we must learn to think without ideas.

One might say that the reason Cassavetes’ films feel so different from mainstream works is that he is doing nothing less than swimming against the entire Western intellectual tradition as it was inflected by Plato—contravening two millennia of post–Platonic contemplativeness, dephysicalization, disembodiment, and spiritualization.

© Text Copyright 1999-2001 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

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