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Excerpts from a discussion of
HUSBANDS

I can understand that certain people would like a more conventional form, so that they can borrow it, much like the gangster picture. You can "read" it, because it's something you know already. But if you deal with a scene [in an unconventional way], it's very hard for people to get with the film because of their expectations. Other films depend on a shorthand, a shorthand for living. You recognize certain incidents and you go with them. People prefer that you condense; they find it quite natural for life to be condensed in films. They prefer that because they can catch onto the meanings and keep ahead of the movie. But that's boring. I won't make shorthand films. In my films there's a competition with the audience to keep ahead of them. I want to break their patterns. I want to shake them up and get them out of those quick, manufactured truths.

—John Cassavetes

....Most 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 of 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 someone 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 does 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.

One 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. If Richard, 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 has to pay attention to everything. To the maximum degree possible, experience is encountered "whole" – in an unanalyzed, unedited, unglossed form.

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 (or 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 what they 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, hours of rehearsals, and repeated takes to generate the impression of muddlement he was after. The impression of casualness takes a lot of discipline to achieve. It took labor to make it look effortless. Tristram Powell's BBC documentary about the creation of the film (which has unfortunately only been shown in an edited version in this country) shows the filmmaker working, working, working with his actors on timings, pacings, shifts of beats. 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 too linear, their emotional line from being too clean. For Cassavetes, truth is always dirty. When we dance in the dark, we inevitably step on toes.

The 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 that he was thought not to have prepared properly. He was so adept at capturing the flowingness of improvised lives that reviewers assumed that his actors 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....

Text Copyright 1999-2000 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.