....Cosmo struts through The
Killing of a Chinese Bookie with an aplomb that dozens of gangster
films have immortalized. From Cagney, Raft, Muni, and Bogart in
to Schwarzenegger, Nicholson, De Niro, and Eastwood in the nineties,
we have seen this he-man maintain his cool under fire as he man-handles
women he lets into the margins of his life. But while these films celebrate
masculine coolness and self-possession, Cassavetes wants us to
it. Peter Bogdanovich's Saint Jack – which features Ben
Gazzara in a reprise of his role here – succinctly summarizes the
difference: Bogdanovich is in love with his star's charm, panache, and
sees them as tragic evasions.
are so many extraordinary female parts in Cassavetes' work that it
is easy to forget that he was
one of the supreme explorers of the male psyche in all of American art.
He has Robert Harmon say "men don't interest me," but even
as he says it, his tone gives away his creator's fascination with
of the male psyche. Cassavetes' films put manhood under a microscope – in
all of its various manifestations, from Tony, Bennie, and Hughie in Shadows,
the salesmen in Faces, and the husbands in Husbands,
to Cosmo here, and Robert in Love Streams. The Killing of
a Chinese Bookie is a searching study of what it is to be a man
in our culture.
Cassavetes uses Ben Gazzara's
actorly stillness and reserve to investigate the male need to be in
Cosmo is emotionally invulnerable. He won't let anyone – even his
lover Rachel – get past his veneer of poise. He keeps the show
going through thick and thin, in scene after scene. He is stunningly
in the heat
of action and unflappable in the face of death. He devotes his life to
looking good – on stage and off – and succeeds. But Cassavetes
wants us to examine the emotional costs of caring so much about appearances.
wants us to ask what happens to our lives when looking good and acting
cool become so important.
Cassavetes' work represents
film as a form of knowledge – as a process of exploring and
understanding people and experiences outside of the movies, but American
film criticism – from
Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris to David Bordwell and beyond – has
never been intensely interested in film as a form of truth-telling.
It is always
easier to describe movies in terms of semantically empty aesthetics (the
"beauty" or "virtuosity" of the photography, the "signature
of the auteur" or the "stylistics" of the work);
to talk about a movie's relation to other movies (its conformity to
of "genre conventions," its "intertextual" connections
with other films); to describe it in terms of contentless cognitive
(value-neutral "structures" of meaning and emotionally empty
"diegetic strategies"); or to reduce it to a series of de-authored,
impersonal "ideological" predispositions (as much feminist
and politically engaged criticism does). Such criticism unconsciously
the values of Hollywood filmmaking (the values it is supposed to place
in critical perspective). It parades its knowledge of lighting, photography,
and editing, but has virtually nothing to tell us about life or the relation
of art to life. Like the typical high-concept pitch session, it is
on connections of one movie with another, but falls silent if we dare
to ask why any of this matters.
Since the explorations in Cassavetes'
films never remain merely formal, since his style is always in service
of moral values and human meanings, his work raises issues with which
such criticism simply cannot deal. His films explore new human emotions,
new conceptions of personality, new possibilities of social relationship.
He explores new ways of being in the world, not merely new formal "moves."
His films are not walled off in an artistic never-never land of stylistic
inbreeding and cross-referencing. Cassavetes gives us films that tell
us about life, and aspire to help us to live it. He shows us that art
can be a form of knowledge, the finest, most complex form of knowledge,
and of its communication, yet invented. We learn things when we watch
his movies, about our culture, ourselves, and our relations with others,
that we never knew and that can't be communicated in any other way. This
passed relatively unnoticed and uncommented upon during his lifetime because
the knowledge we acquire is not didactic, but stylistic. We don't learn
new facts or observations or beliefs, but new ways of seeing, hearing,
thinking, feeling, and being in the world.
experiences in Cassavetes' films were mysterious to him and his actors
when he began them, while he made them, and after he was finished with
them, and they stay mysterious for a viewer, no matter how many times
he sees the films. The mysteriousness is the experience itself; it is
not something added to it in the writing, shooting, editing process, nor
is it something eventually to be gotten beyond by figuring it out. As
in a Charlie Parker performance, the experience Cassavetes presents only
exists in all its speed and density; it never existed in outline form
and can therefore never be subsequently translated into outline form,
so it stays complex no matter how many times we have it. It may take from
three to five viewings of a particular work to get the hang of it, but
even when that happens, the complexity is not something we leave behind.
Mastery doesn't involving rising above the soupiness, the opacity, the
uncertainty, but rather learning to live in them, responding nimbly
enough to stay with them, not to drop out of them for even a second. As
in listening to the best of Dizzy Gillespie or watching Balanchine's Symphony
in Three Movements, it's when we haven't mastered the experience that
we keep dropping out of it in a quest for simplifying essences, origins,
destinations, or resolutions. Understanding Cassavetes does not consist
of moving from confusion to clarity, from thickness to thinness, but rather
of eventually learning how to live with particularly intricate and interesting
forms of uncertainty, weight, and clutter.
procedures were the furthest thing imaginable from following a blueprint.
His cameramen, producers, and actors all tell stories about how many different
ways he wrote, rehearsed, shot, and cut his films, continuously rethinking
the material. He was always ready to change in order to pursue a discovery.
If he shot a scene and noticed something unexpected that interested him
along the way, he might change everything to pursue it. Since he filmed
in continuity, as he worked, he was truly watching and wondering, studying
and learning about his scenes and his characters. As an example, Cosmo's
meeting with the gangsters in the casino after his night gambling was
shot over and over again with Gazzara "thanking" the gangsters
for their kindness to him using almost imperceptibly different tones of
voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Cassavetes later said that he
regarded this as one of the key moments in the film, and wanted to understand
how someone like Cosmo could carry off the experience of losing absolutely
everything while still holding onto his self-respect. He wanted to understand
what kind of person can "thank" someone for ruining his life.
As he was editing, he repeated the process: comparing alternate takes,
studying the unplanned gestures or spontaneous expressions that might
have unexpectedly surfaced in a particular take for what they might mean
or reveal, playing with the footage to shift the tone or change the emotional
This page only
contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing about
John Cassavetes. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts
of many pieces about Cassavetes that are not included on the web site,