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Excerpts from a discussion of
MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ

It's never as clear as it is in the movies. People don't know what they are doing most of the time, myself included. They don't know what they want or feel. It's only in the movies that they know what their problems are and have game plans for dealing with them. All my life I've fought against clarity – all those stupid definitive answers. Phooey on a formula life, on slick solutions. It's never easy. And I don't think people really want their lives to be easy. It's a United States sickness. In the end it only makes things more difficult.

—John Cassavetes

....I remember hearing Cassavetes joke about the response to his films. Imitating an imaginary viewer, he slouched down in his chair and flailed his arms in front of his face, as if defending himself from the fury of an atomic blast, all the while chortling: "Oh, no. A new experience. Save me. Anything but that!"

Films come in cans. Unfortunately, most of the experiences in them are canned as well. "Look here. Think this. Feel that." We laugh and cry on cue. It's button-pushing – nothing like real experience.

Cassavetes gives us something closer to the turbulence and turbidness of life. He asks us to turn off the emotional Cruise Control and go off-road. The journey is bumpy and unpredictable. Characters get in our faces (and under our skin). They are as hard to figure out (and as changeable) as people outside the movies. There's no orchestration to tell us what to feel. There's no narrative road map to show us where we are going. It makes for a pretty rugged trip at times.

Cassavetes isn't merely being perverse. He wants to get us lost so that maybe, just maybe, we can find ourselves and meet the world in a new way. He wants to force us to throw away all of our formulas, clichés, and customary patterns of response in order to encounter life freshly. Disrupting our expectations, dislodging our stereotypes, making things hard on us is one way to do that.

Love is another way. No filmmaker had more faith in the power of emotion to show his characters and viewers the way out of the traps their minds get them into. Love is the great teacher because it forces us to open our hearts to new experiences. It forces us to jettison our old ways of understanding.

But don't look for swoony, moony "I-look-into-your-eyes; you-look-into-mine" Hollywood romance in these films. That is just one more clichè they shred. The films in this series tell the truth about love in all of its glorious, painful, wondrous complexity. The truth about how vulnerable it can make us. How scary it can be. How ferocious it can be at some times and how delicate at others. The truth about how hard love is to hold on to, and how fleeting it can be.

For Cassavetes, filmmaking was question-asking. His films ask the hardest possible questions about the meaning of our lives and relationships – questions we might not want to know the answers to. They force us to come face to face with difficult truths. But what is inspiring is that even after plunging into the darkest corners of our hearts, the most tortured and twisted recesses of our souls, the films never despair or turn cynical. Cassavetes never abandons his faith in the healing, redeeming power of love.....

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Has a comedy ever taken a viewer on a wilder emotional roller-coaster ride? On the Cassavetes Comet, we may chuckle as we chug up the romantic peaks, but are suddenly gasping for breath when the intellectual ground drops out from under us, or emotionally whiplashed as we scream around unexpected tonal curves. It's simply impossible to sit back and get comfortable. We laugh at a joke, then get slapped in the face by a character named Jim. Out on a blind date with Minnie and Zelmo, we start giggling, then want to climb under our seats in embarrassment. The tickle and the pain, the grin and the grimace are right on top of each other.

Each time we start to kick back, Minnie and Moskowitz kicks us back – gunning the accelerator with dizzying elisions and jump-cuts; screeching on the brakes to allow a minor character a crazy solo riff; wildly swerving from toughness to tenderness. No event unfolds in a straight line. The shortest distance between any two points is a U-turn.

Every time a tone is about to build, Cassavetes upsets it. Every time a relationship is about to stabilize, he pulls the rug out from under it. In this emotional demolition derby, it's impossible to recline into the featherbed of a simple, sustained feeling. Like the jazz on the soundtrack, the pacings in Minnie and Moskowitz are thrillingly irregular and unpredictably syncopated. We can't get our tonal bearings. We don't know whether we're supposed to laugh or cry most of the time.

Cassavetes won't let a viewer expand within a romantic moment. No scene, interaction, or shot gives us a simple emotion. If a scene has romance in it, it is invariably crossed with anxiety or pain. If there is seriousness, it is mixed-up with wacky comedy. If one character is feeling one thing, another is feeling something different. Even the lovely meditative interlude in which Minnie talks to Florence about her dreams and desires makes clear that Florence doesn't understand a word she is saying. While Minnie is waxing poetic, Florence is sitting there bewildered and half-soused. Every perspective is tangled up with contradictory ones. No imaginative relationship – of character to character or viewer to character – is uncompromised or unchallenged.

No filmmaker had a greater distrust of formulas for living or was more committed to avoiding formulaic characters and relationships. Cassavetes puckishly trampolines against all of the ways Hollywood has taught us to think and feel. He turns every screwball formula upside-down and inside-out. Leading men are supposed to be handsome, charming, and aloof; Seymour Moskowitz is a homely, hot-blooded carhop who tries to sleep with every woman he meets (succeeding with two others beyond Minnie in the course of the film – though one of his early sexual conquests, a night spent with Irish, the girl in the bar, was cut by the studio at the last minute). Leading ladies should be mysterious, unattached, and virginal; Minnie Moore is in a relationship about as far from Irene Dunn and Cary Grant as can be imagined.

Even minor characters won't be reduced to clichés. They are too human, too mixed-up, too complex, too close to being us. There are no heroes or villains in Cassavetes' universe. Zelmo (played by Cassavetes regular Val Avery) may be the blind date from hell, but we can't demonize him. We can't even really hate him. Cassavetes makes sure that we feel his neediness, his desperation, his pain. Eternally damned to his own self-created hell, he clearly suffers for his sins, torturing himself even more than he tortures Minnie, pushing her away in the very attempt to get close to her. We are forced into sympathy against our wills. Listen to the sobbing Cassavetes subtly lays in on the soundtrack at the end of the fight scene.

The secret of Cassavetes' art is that it is fundamentally an act of empathy. We are not asked to stand outside and judge (as in an Altman film), but to go inside and understand. We can't hold ourselves above the characters, untouched by them, superior to them. Cassavetes opens trap doors into their consciousnesses, so that they are given the chance to explain themselves and justify their actions. We are forced to see things from their perspectives, feeling what they feel. No one is generic, a type; everyone is a unique individual. Morgan Morgan (played by Tim Carey), odd duck that he is, touches us with his bonhomie and lame attempts at humor. Florence's sad loneliness and confession of sexual frustration move her beyond being simply comical. We can't merely laugh at any of Cassavetes' characters; we are forced to care.

Cassavetes' films are not ultimately about actions and events, but feelings. They are not about what characters do, but what they are and can be. The central dramatic issue faced by the figures in Minnie and Moskowitz is that they are each imprisoned in doomed ways of being – trapped by limiting emotions, memories, and experiences. The masterplot of all of Cassavetes' work is the question of whether – emotionally wounded and beset with problems as they may be – characters can keep alive possibilities of love and caring. Heaped with pressures as they are, can they find a way to hold onto their innocence and vulnerability?

The specific focus of Minnie and Moskowitz is culturally inherited forms of masculinity and femininity – especially as handed down to us by Hollywood movies. The film is an echo chamber of compared and contrasted versions of what it is to be a man or a woman in modern America. Minnie (brilliantly played by Gena Rowlands to bring out her shell-shocked vulnerability as a result of the romantic battles she has had to fight) must find a new way of being a woman. She must get over her fears of being wounded, and learn how to give love without giving herself away, how to receive it without losing track of who she is.

Moskowitz is Cassavetes' attempt to imagine a new form of manhood that avoids the pushiness, competitiveness, and emotional guardedness of male culture. (As Faces, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams show, one of Cassavetes' great themes is what it is to be a man.) Cassavetes plunks Seymour down in a house of mirrors comprised of alternative, flawed images of manhood – from Humphrey Bogart, Wallace Beery, and Charles Boyer (Cassavetes had wanted to include a clip from Algiers), to Zelmo, Morgan, Jim, and Dick Henderson. Cassavetes has Moskowitz's scenes, gestures, and lines of dialogue subtly echo Zelmo's and Jim's, to bring out both the differences and the similarities. As Seymour Cassel wonderfully plays the character, Moskowitz represents a rejection of male intellectualism, coolness, and distance in favor of utterly uncool emotional expressiveness. (Moskowitz is in many respects a spiritual self-portrait of the artist who created him.) He is Cassavetes' Boudu – in fact, more interesting and complex than Renoir's figure, because he is less abstracted and idealized.

Hollywood film is based on idealizations of every sort, at every level. Cassavetes radically de-idealizes experience and expression....

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.