Cassavetes has been called
the great cinematic poet of love. What is it like to write about a filmmaker
whose work is about love?
I've read that description
of Cassavetes' work dozens of times. If you ask Peter Bogdanovich
Scorsese or Roger Ebert or even Gena Rowlands, that's what they'll say – that
all Cassavetes' films are about love. It runs throughout French criticism
too – that Cassavetes is the great philosopher of love – or
words to that effect. But to tell you the truth, I've never understood
these people are talking about. It seems a very very shallow view of
What do you mean? Isn't
that just to say the obvious? The films are about men and women and love.
Well, to start with, aboutness
isn't a very good way to understand any work of art. What is Hamlet
about? A man who could not make up his mind? It's not about
anything that way. It's not an essay, but an experience. Leave the about
game to Polonius. Or Olivier.
Cassavetes' films are about something aren't they? They aren't just art
for the sake of art.
Yes. They are about life. I'm
not saying they are not about anything. I am saying that if we are going
to play the about game, love is not the right
answer. It's a shallow answer. It betrays a high school understanding
of Cassavetes' work. OK. There are men and women in the movies, falling
into or out of love, but he is not making films that are obsessively,
thematically, imaginatively centered around states of love or questions
about love. When Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert and Al Ruban and Gena
Rowlands say that that's what his films are about, it shows that they
don't really understand the movies in a deep way.
It's a little like saying Beethoven's
Ninth Symphony is about joy. Or that Wordsworth's poetry is about
nature. These are not just partial, incomplete, provisional answers. They
are wrong answers. They are stupid answers. They show that whoever says
them is not really seeing what is in the work, what it really is about.
Can you explain what you
Well, Wordsworth talks a lot
about nature, there are lots of walks in the country in his poems,
his poetry is not about nature. That's simply wrong. His
poetry is about states of consciousness and special kinds of heightened
and awareness. It's about strange fits of passion – not rocks and
stones and trees. Nature is an accident, a convenient subject matter.
the subject of the poems. Ultimately, in some parallel universe, he could
have written all of his poems about living in an apartment in London,
and his poems would be no different. In fact, a couple books of the Prelude
are about city life, showing that he could do that.
Beethoven may use the Schiller's
Ode to Joy as a lyric in the final movement of the Ninth
Symphony, but the symphony is not about joy. In fact
when I listen to it, I hear very little joy. I hear a lot of other
emotions – anger,
argumentativeness, sadness, fear. The Ninth Symphony is about those
feelings – no matter what words the singers are singing at the
end – much
more than it is about joy. By the way, that's true of all of Beethoven's
symphonies. They are a lot more about his enormous, overweening ego,
his barrel-chested, table-thumping bluster and swagger, the wonderful
that made him an impossible human being in most people's minds – than
they are about the stupid titles they go by.
My point is that the love thing
in Cassavetes is a little like the trees in Wordsworth or the Schiller
lyrics in Beethoven. Male-female interaction gives Cassavetes something
to work with. Something to react to. Something to bounce off of. Love
is not at the center of his vision of life. The films are not deeply,
essentially, profoundly about love.
What are they about?
All the stuff I talk about
in my books. The things I've written about for the past twenty years.
Can you name some of them?
Read the epigraph to my first
book, the American Dreaming book. It's an Emerson quote. That's
the best summary of it.
Well, aren't you going to
tell me what it is? I don't have the book here.
Neither do I, but I remember
it, since it was the organizational principle of the entire project. And
it's very short. It's from Experience: "Where do we find ourselves?"
Emerson didn't, but I intended it to be a kind of pun.
What's the pun?
Where are we – in our
lives or in the world? That's the meaning Emerson intended. But I also
to mean how do we find out what we really are, what we want, what we
need, what we feel? That's much harder to do.
That's what Cassavetes is
The central subject in all
of the films is the exploration of sincerity and authenticity – what
called "phoniness" versus "honesty" or "truthfulness."
Though he cut it from most of the final edits, most of his scripts actually
have discussions of "phoniness." Cassavetes thought of himself
as the least "phony" person in the world. And his work is
an exploration of how we phony-up ourselves.
What does that mean?
How we fool ourselves or get
mixed up about what we really need and want emotionally. How we lose
of ourselves, or what we are, in the Emersonian sense. And how we can
"find ourselves" again, if we are lucky. Look at the salesmen
and the housewives in Faces. That's what they are depictions
of. How we fool ourselves about who we are. How we tell ourselves self-protective,
self-deluding stories about ourselves. That's McCarthy in a nutshell:
"Jeannie, Jeannie, I'm a nice guy." It's Louise: "I come
from a musical background. I know how to dance my way." It's
Tony in Shadows. "Tell her I love her. Tell her there's no difference
between us." Cassavetes is interested in how our pride and sense
of dignity get in the way of being real. We lose track of ourselves
trying to look good. Or by caring what people think of us. That's Nick
in A Woman Under the Influence. Or Cosmo in The Killing
of a Chinese Bookie. We wear masks to hide from others and protect
ourselves from being exposed. That's Hugh in Shadows, Zelmo
and Jim and Minnie in Minnie and Moskowitz. It's Maurice
in Opening Night or
Robert in Love Streams. That's the master plot of all of Cassavetes'
work. Exposing fraudulence and self-delusion. Finding out what someone
really is. It's not about events; it's about character. About the layers
of performance we try to hide behind. About the way we try to live by
some fraudulent internal script, and about his attempt to get us off
the page, onto the margins, to improvise – and in the process
to really listen
and see and respond without a script.
So that's what Cassavetes'
films are about?
You insist on getting me to
play the "about" game, eh? The problem is that the films won't
be boiled down to a simple theme, even one as rich as that. There's just
too much to say. Really. There's a lot more to them even than that.
OK. If you promise this is
the end of it, here are some other things. They are about change and
They are about staying free, avoiding being limited by social rules and
arrangements. About possibility and open-ended definitions of selfhood.
About the difficulty of expressing your dreams and desires – and
the necessity to express them any way you can. About taking chances and
open yourself to new experiences and make yourself emotionally vulnerable
after you have been hurt or wounded. They are about the need to break
free of the past and live in a present-minded state of flowingness. They
are about breaking down emotional and behavioral patterns. About how
to live in a state of not knowing can free you. About plunging into things
without knowing where they will lead. About cycles of loneliness,
and non-communication and self-inflicted isolation and pain. I guess
you could say they are also about Cassavetes' personality.
What do you mean by that?
In the Beethoven vein, many
of the films seem to me to be about Cassavetes' desire to shock or outrage
the viewer. Or confuse, bewilder, and surprise a viewer. They are about
him thumbing his nose at conventions. Being deliberately outrageous. They
are about tricking and testing us. Listen, that's enough for now. I have
to beg off. I'm really getting bored talking about this. Anyway, it's
in my books much better than I can say it to you. But I hope my point
is clear. Following any of these threads through Cassavetes' work will
get you a heck of a lot further than looking for love scenes or trying
to find out his views on courtship and marriage. That's a waste of time.
Leave it to the French.
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a short section from an interview with Ray Carney. The complete interview
covers many other topics and is available in the Necessary Experiences
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including information about obtaining three different packets of material
in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of
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