films foster two fundamental illusions about experience: namely, that
things happen to us, and that what matters is what we do back to them.
Characters have enemies or are given obstacles to deal with. Cassavetes
understands that our only real enemy is ourselves. There are no villains
and never anyone to blame in his work. There are no obstacles to overcome,
except the ones we impose on ourselves.
The other kind of movie gives
characters problems to solve. Cassavetes tells us that we create all
our own problems. Character itself is the only important problem. There
is no need to add anything else; it is already more than enough for
to deal with. The events in Husbands are not generated by anything
that Archie, Harry, and Gus do, but by what they are.
In Cassavetes' work, personality is plot; behavior is narrative. Living
not involve doing anything but being something – a
much harder task for both a character and a viewer to deal with.
Mainstream works employ a question-answer
form of presentation that allows viewers to participate along with the
character in the achievement of a goal or attainment of a solution. Scenes
ask questions or pose dilemmas that, for both the character and the viewer,
subsequent scenes answer or resolve. The reason films are organized this
way is obvious: It makes things much easier on viewers by limiting and
focusing what they need to pay attention to. Progress or lack of it is
easy to keep track of. At any one moment, the viewer and character know
almost exactly where they are and how far they have yet to go.
of the things that drives viewers crazy is that Cassavetes doesn't
provide this sort of ontological
road map for development. He doesn't organize his films around problems
to solve. Scenes don't pose questions which subsequent scenes answer.
Characters don't have particular things to do, or goals to achieve. It
would be a lot easier if Cassavetes made the other kind of movie.
Maria, Cosmo, Myrtle, and Robert had specific problems to solve or goals
to attain – or, in Husbands, if Harry, Archie, and Gus
did – the
viewer would know what he should pay attention to in each scene and,
to some extent, how to understand it. Instead, it is as if the viewer
to pay attention to everything. To the maximum degree possible, experience
is encountered "whole" – in an unanalyzed, unedited,
Audiences sit through a movie
like Husbands waiting for a challenge to be posed, a course
of action to be embarked on, and, in the end, a solution to be achieved
not achieved) – and get frustrated when the film doesn't play the
Hollywood game. The only "problem" Harry, Archie, and Gus deal
with is an emotional one involving their doubts about who they are and
want out of life. The difference between this sort of problem and the
other kind is, of course, that you don't necessarily even know you have
it, let alone being able to tell if you are getting anywhere in terms
of solving it.
If these characters even knew
they were confused, they wouldn't really be as confused as they are. As
Cassavetes once put it to me: "The problem with most movies is that
people know what's wrong. What happens in life is you can't sleep at night,
or are unhappy, but don't know why." Nick, Cosmo, and Robert all
illustrate the point. They think they are OK, and keep insisting on it
to everyone they meet, even as they get into ever deeper emotional water.
To paraphrase a Stevie Smith poem, they think they are waving, while they
are really drowning.
Like George Balanchine (who
used to tell his ballerinas "perfect is boring"), Cassavetes
was, at his greatest, a choreographer not of unworldly grace and grandeur,
but of the sorts of awkwardness, hesitation, and uncertainty that most
of the greatest moments in real life consist of. That may make art seem
all too easy, but it took Cassavetes multiple drafts of his scripts,
of rehearsals, and repeated takes to generate the impression of muddlement
he was after. The impression of casualness takes a lot of discipline
achieve. It took labor to make it look effortless. Tristram Powell's
BBC documentary about the creation of the film (which has unfortunately
been shown in an edited version in this country) shows the filmmaker
working, working, working with his actors on timings, pacings, shifts
To make it look easy, he has to make it hard on them, preventing things
from getting too clear or direct. He worked, as he called it, "to
get the literary quality out" of his scenes – to prevent
his characters from being too articulate, their interactions from becoming
their emotional line from being too clean. For Cassavetes, truth is always
dirty. When we dance in the dark, we inevitably step on toes.
only entire scene in Husbands that was not scripted in advance
was the singing contest, including the long interchange with Leola Harlow
(the woman wearing the red tam-o'shanter who sings "It was just a
little love affair"). But there was a method to the apparent madness
of going off-book for this particular interchange. Harlow told me that
when Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara swarmed all over her about her singing,
she didn't realize it was part of the scene. She thought that she was
being directed to change her performance and that her performance as an
actress was genuinely being rebuked. She was genuinely hurt and upset
by the criticism. In short, Cassavetes used the unscriptedness of the
moment to get emotions that he could not have gotten otherwise.
The irony was that Cassavetes
succeeded so well in depicting the rawness of unformulated feeling
he was thought not to have prepared properly. He was so adept at capturing
the flowingness of improvised lives that reviewers assumed that his
were improvising. There is a difference between the depiction of disorganization
and making a disorganized film. Husbands is a study of confusion – a
very different thing from being confused....
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,