Ray Carney's John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity
Excerpts from the discussion of A Woman Under the Influence
There are films with vivid characters, gripping plots, and memorable lines. And then there are films like A Woman Under the Influence—films that reach into your heart and sear it with pain and joy. Cassavetes gives us experiences as complex, demanding, and intense as life itself—at least in part because we encounter them in the same unanalyzed, uneditorialized, unabstracted way we encounter things in our own lives.
As the filmmaker noted in an interview, most films depend on a shorthand that allows us to view them in a fundamentally different way from the way we experience things outside of the movies. They employ a kind of code: See this. Think that. Get it? Got it. They tell us what to know and feel, what things mean. They make points. The result is a slight but decisive abstraction from everything in them. The viewer is always at a certain critical distance from what is on screen. These movies are about an experience, rather than giving us the experience itself. Rather than plunging us headlong into life, these movies tell us about life—the way reading an essay about an experience is entirely different from having the experience.
Cassavetes takes away the aboutness, the abstraction. To watch one of his movies is not to learn about a group of characters and situations, but to have something very close to the kind of experiences we would have if we were actually in similar situations with similar figures.
The secret of Cassavetes’ method is to deny viewers every form of intellectual distance and control. The experiences he presents can’t be held intellectually at arm’s length. They won’t be simplified by being translated into received ideas or emotions. They resist being formulated. They must be challengingly negotiated moment by moment the way we live and feel things in real life. In all of their unresolved sprawl and mutability, the experiences in his films are the opposite of the canned, pre–programmed summaries of experience most other movies provide.
Real emotional experiences are never formulatable the way the synthetic emotions most other films provide are. In fact, if you can even say what emotion you are feeling while you are having it—as you almost always can in most other movies—it is proof that you are actually at a remove from it. If you can think about it, analyze it, understand it, it doesn’t have the power of feelings in life. That is the state of intensity—or reality—that Cassavetes brings back to the cinematic experience. He moves us beyond thought.
There are many ways Cassavetes could have turned A Woman Under the Influence into the other kind of movie by simplifying it. While other films provide experiences that are clear, Cassavetes gives them to us murky. Events and emotions are not cut into bite–sized bits for easy consumption. They are presented "undigested"—in all of their mixed–up glory—the same way they are encountered in life. Viewers are left at least a little in the dark. They are at sea, somewhat uncertain a lot of the time about what they are supposed to think and feel. The mystery isn’t explained out of life.
Even if the viewer does succeed in figuring out a character or scene, it is sure to change. Characters’ behavior is wildly unpredictable and mutable. We have to scramble to understand what is going on, racing to keep up with continuously changing tones. Feelings keep shifting (as in the spaghetti breakfast scene, which cycles through five or six or more entirely different moods before it is over). We can’t slip into a simple mood and cruise along on emotional autopilot. We are forced to stay emotionally on the qui vive—to keep responding, shot–by–shot, second–by–second. In its open–endednes, it is a simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying vision of life. (Cassavetes told me that he thought comedy was a deeper and more important dramatic form than serious drama, because "you could put more different feelings into a scene, more views of one thing"—a pretty good description of all of his work—comic or otherwise. Chekhov would have agreed.)
A Woman Under the Influence creates a different kind of viewer from the mainstream movie. Because feelings are changing so rapidly, our relationship to the experience must be far quicker, more intuitive, less theoretical, less abstract. Because things are shifting around on us so fluidly, we are prevented from assuming an intellectual stance or maintaining a purely conceptual relation to them. That would be too static. Ideas are too slow to keep up with changes of this rapidity; only emotions will do. We cannot unify the shifting details into a generalization. Since it is changing so rapidly, we cannot fly 50,000 feet above the experience to take it in as an abstraction. We must surf on an wave of ever–shifting perceptual experience. We cannot relax our state of attentiveness for a second.
© Text Copyright 1999-2001 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.
This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.