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Cassavetes on Cassavetes
A Description of Cassavetes on Cassavetes
Edited by Ray Carney

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"What a great gift you've given to young filmmakers everywhere. Your book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, made me miss him even more. I didn't think it possible."—Ben Gazzara, the star of Cassavetes' Husbands and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

"Thank God for Ray Carney's Cassavetes on Cassavetes. It captures the man I knew—the most vivid, colorful, intriguing, infuriating, fertile, man, child, artist, actor, friend. It's all there. The passion, the craziness, the complexity, the mystery. There'll never be another like him. It's a terrific book."—Peter Falk, star of Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence

"Fascinating footage of the mind and heart of an American original."—Kirkus Reviews

"Reading this book is like attending an extended master class at the Actors Studio, a reminder of a rebellious spirit sadly missed."—Stephen Rees, Library Journal

For more than thirty years–from the late 1950s through the late 1980s–John Cassavetes, the spiritual father of American independent filmmaking, steered a courageous course freelancing on the fringes of the Hollywood studio system. During his lifetime, with the exception of A Woman Under the Influence and Faces, his work was largely ignored by reviewers (when it wasn't simply ridiculed), but in the years since his death he has been re-discovered by a new generation of viewers and artists. He has become a cult figure with millions of young followers. He and his films are bigger today than at any point in his lifetime.


Cassavetes on Cassavetes is the autobiography he never lived to write. In his own words Cassavetes tells the story of his life as he lived it, day by day, year by year. He begins with his family and childhood experiences, talks about being a high school student, college dropout, and drama school student. He describes the years he spent pounding the pavement in New York as a young unemployed actor unable to get a job–or even an agent. Then he takes the reader behind the scenes to sit in on the planning, rehearsing, shooting, and editing of each of his films–from Shadows, Faces, and Husbands, to Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, Gloria, and Love Streams. He describes the battle to get them made, and the even greater struggle to get them into movie theaters. He talks about the reaction of audiences and reviewers to his work, and responds to criticisms of it. This is Cassavetes at his most candid and outspoken–uncompromising, humane, and passionate about life and art.


The tale is a personal one: of dreams, struggles, triumphs, setbacks, and frustrations; of high-stakes financial gambles, crazy artistic risk-taking, and midnight visions of glory. But it is also the story of an artistic movement that extended beyond Cassavetes and defined an era in film history. Between the lines as it were, these pages chronicle the history of one of the most important artistic movements of the past fifty years–the birth and development of American independent filmmaking–and the response to it by critics and reviewers.


Cassavetes pioneered a new conception of what film can be and do–a vision of it as a personal exploration of the meaning of his life and the lives of the people around him. He made his movies the way poets write or painters paint. It was not about telling a hyped-up dramatic story to take people away from their lives, but a way of asking deep, probing questions about the world in which he lived, and of asking viewers to explore the meaning of their experiences. Cassavetes on Cassavetes traces the cultural trajectory of that idea, and the wildly opposed responses it elicited: the incredible energy and excitement it engendered among certain artists, critics, and viewers; and the fierce resistance it met with from uncomprehending studio heads, producers, distributors, reviewers, and audiences fighting to hold onto their notion of the movies as "story-telling" or "entertainment." It’s not too much to say that Cassavetes was engaged in a struggle for the soul of American film, and that the battle is not over; it continues today.

Ray Carney, the world’s leading authority on Cassavetes’ life and work, plumbs the depths of Cassavetes' soul, presenting both a spiritual portrait of the artist and a soul-searching meditation on Cassavetes' more than half-doomed attempt to create works of art in a commercial medium like film. Carney says his goal was to "get beyond the press release version" of Cassavetes’ life. "I wanted to tell the real story of the predicament of the American film artist.... to show what it really is like to be an artist in a commercial medium like film and a business-oriented culture like the one we live in. You read the film magazines and watch the TV talk-shows, and they make being an ‘indie’ sound exotic and glamorous and exciting, but the truth is that anyone who attempts to make films that are more than entertainment in America is almost certainly doomed to be neglected or reviled by newspaper and magazine reviewers, who are almost all under the sway of Hollywood entertainment values. Every generation fools itself and thinks that it is wiser than its predecessors, but the next Cassavetes, the young artist trying to do interesting things today, is in exactly the same situation Cassavetes was. Cassavetes still has a lot to teach us."

These pages capture the spirits that possessed Cassavetes’ soul–the filmmaker’s cultivated alienation, loneliness, self-destructiveness, ambition, unpredictable fits of anger, desperation, self-protective clowning, need to be the center of attention, and inability to work as a member of a group or for anyone else. They subtly hint at spooky similarities between the artist and his demon-driven protagonists (all of whom are in states of emotional extremity, most of whom attempt suicide or throw themselves into orgies of self-destruction at some point in their films).


Carney spent eleven years assembling the text, editing it down from more than five thousand pages of original source material. It was based on extensive interviews with the filmmaker during the final decade of his life, and on both new and previously published interviews with virtually everyone who ever worked with Cassavetes–from stars like Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara to artistic collaborators and friends like Ted Allan, Sam Shaw, Al Ruban, and Elaine May.


With Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Carney has created a contemporary version of Stanislavski’s My Life in Art for film and for our time. It is a book that will enlighten and inspire drama students, actors, filmmakers, and artists everywhere.


Illustrated with more than sixty pages of previously unpublished behind-the-scenes photographs. 544 pages.

***

Since this is the first time Cassavetes’ life story has been told (and since he lied to journalists about many of the events in his life), many of the facts Carney reveals have not been known outside the inner circle of Cassavetes’ friends and family. Many facets of the story will be unfamiliar even to someone who has read all of the standard journalistic treatments and film encyclopedia entries. A few highlights (all references are to book pages):

The kinks and twists in Cassavetes’ psyche and his embattled cultivation of his "outsider" status are captured here for the first time:

• His brushes with the law, playing "chicken" on the Port Washington sand-pit cliffs in his teen years, and feelings of oppression at the narrowness and conformity of American culture when he was in high school (pp. 10-11).

• His "crazy" behavior as an aspiring actor fighting for work in New York and the "lone wolf" side of his personality his flamboyance camouflaged (pp. 20-24).

• His occasional ruthlessness and "use" of people to further his own agenda, with details about more than one lawsuit initiated or threatened by his co-workers (pp. 73-5, 99-100, and 179-80).

• His legendary fights with Pauline Kael, his wife, Gena Rowlands, and other actors and journalists (pp. 171-2, 246-52, 283-4, and 330-33).

There are many uncensored, behind-the-scenes accounts of the creation of the films. Some excerpts:

• The half-drunken "six-month traveling house party" that resulted in Faces (pp. 144-8).

• The first in-depth explanation of what Cassavetes actually meant when he used the word "improvisation" to describe his actors’ performances (pp. 161-6 and 323-7).

• The outrageous pitch Cassavetes made to a gullible Italian millionaire that resulted in Husbands, committing Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara to act in it, when Cassavetes had not yet written the first word of the script or told the two actors that he was using their names (pp. 204-8).

The deeply autobiographical basis of Cassavetes’ work–its grounding in his own life and relationships:

• Cassavetes’ feelings of being an outsider to New York society and of "passing" for something he was not at the point at which he made Shadows. The deep similarity between the character of Ben in Shadows and himself (pp. 58 and 257-8).

• The veiled self-portrait of his own commercial "sell-out" after making Shadows that is woven into Too Late Blues (pp. 107-8).

• Cassavetes’ depiction of his own life and marriage in the central couple of Faces, with the Maria Forst character originally being written for Gena Rowlands to play (pp. 134-5 and 138-9).

• The portrait of Cassavetes’ own courtship of Rowlands and the differences in their personalities dramatized in Minnie and Moskowitz (p. 277).

• The autobiographical resonances of the marriage in A Woman Under the Influence, but with a gender reversal that fooled the critics who identified Rowlands with Mabel. In real life, Rowlands played Nick to Cassavetes’ Mabel (pp. 362-3).


• The self-portrait of the artist as a struggling repertory theater company manager in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (pp. 382-5).

• In Gloria, the comical similarity between the midget macho-man Phil and his creator (p. 448).

• The connections between Cassavetes and Robert Harmon in Love Streams, Cassavetes’ farewell to filmmaking, made when he knew he only had a short time to live (475-81 and 500).

The hair-raising financial gambles and bureaucratic struggles that went into making and distributing the films:

• The near derailing of Husbands when financing was withdrawn only days before shooting was scheduled to start (pp. 224-7).

• The fights with Columbia over the length of Husbands and the "vomiting scene" (pp. 252-7) and with Lew Wasserman over the publicity and distribution of Minnie and Moskowitz (pp. 293-5).

• The probable use of porno-film "short ends" to make A Woman Under the Influence (p. 319); Cassavetes’ "blackmailing" the New York Film Festival to get the film screened (pp. 355-7); his reluctant foray into self-distribution (pp. 358-61); and his "Fuck ‘em" response to the film’s Academy Awards nominations (p. 364).

• The crushing defeats Cassavetes encountered when he attempted to self-distribute The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (pp. 397-400) and Opening Night (pp. 426-31).

• Cassavetes’ abortive attempts to get a series of cinematic projects off the ground in his final years, his turn to play-writing and dramatic production, and the gradual decline of his health as a result of what he euphemistically called the effects of "too much artistic living" (pp. 501-12).


ABOUT THE EDITOR


Ray Carney is Professor of Film and American Studies and Director of the undergraduate and graduate Film Studies programs at Boston University.


He is the author or editor of more than ten books, including the critically acclaimed The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World; The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies; American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra; Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer; American Dreaming; and the newly published monograph on Cassavetes’ Shadows for the BFI Film Classics series and the guide to his films: John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity. He co-curated the Beat Culture and the New America show for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, is General Editor of the Cambridge Film Classics series, and is a frequent speaker at film festivals and special events around the world.


He is an acknowledged scholarly expert on independent film and American art and culture.


CASSAVETES on CASSAVETES
is published by Faber and Faber (England)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US)
$25.00
ISBN 0-57120-157-1

Text Copyright 1999-2001 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.