"A new experience? Oh, no! Anything but that!"
The Critical Resistance to Cassavetes
A physicist friend told me that there is an adage in science that you don't convert your opponents; you wait for them to die. A discovery that is baffling or unintelligible to one generation is accepted as obvious or even inevitable by the next. I thought of that many times as I edited my Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Shadows (British Film Institute Publishing).
John Cassavetes tells the story of his life and work in both books, based on interviews that I and others did with him. Part of the research involved reading the reviews of Cassavetes' films that appeared when they were first released in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The experience was an eye-opener. To call them negative would be an understatement. Pauline Kael called Faces "dumb, crudely conceived, and badly performed;" Variety jeered at Minnie and Moskowitz as "oppressive," "irritating," "shrill," "numbing," and "indulgent;" John Simon called A Woman Under the Influence "muddle-headed, pretentious, and interminable," and Stanley Kauffmann said it was "utterly without interest or merit."
But what became even more striking as I reviewed the critical literature was the nearly complete reversal of opinion in the 12 years since the film-maker's death. The same works that were ridiculed 40 years ago –Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night and Love Streams –are now regarded as masterpieces. The earlier critics have not recanted, of course; they have simply been forgotten.
Appreciation has leaped a generation. Cassavetes exerts more influence on films and filmmakers today than he did at any point in his own lifetime. Scores of those too young to have seen his films when they were originally released, count him as the patron saint of what has now come to be called the American independent movement.
Virtually all of the American independents of the current generation, from high-profile figures such as Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn and Steven Soderbergh, to younger or less well-known artists, including Tom Noonan, Rick Schmidt, Jim McKay, and Caveh Zahedi, give Cassavetes credit for inspiring them to become filmmakers. He showed them it could be done –without a studio, a professional crew, or a multi-million dollar budget.
How could critical judgment have been so mistaken during Cassavetes' lifetime? I think the answer resides in the fact that he subscribed to conceptions of film-making that even now are still fairly alien to American critics and viewers. (Among later generation critics, David Denby is still unconvinced that Cassavetes' work merits attention.)
To start with, his films were attempts to understand ordinary, everyday life. Cassavetes' films ask questions about his experiences, and ask his viewers to explore their own experiences. This is not unusual in other arts; it's what poems, novels, and paintings regularly do. But exploring your own personal experience was something American directors didn't do. They told stories. They made "entertainment" that took people away from their problems. Cassavetes wasn't interested in running a circus. And, of course, the result was incomprehension from studio heads, producers, distributors, viewers and critics fighting to hold on to their old-fashioned notions of movies as an escape from life.
While Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s was addicted to glamour and spectacle, Cassavetes' films were quarried from the most ordinary aspects of his life. He is in his movies in scene after scene, character after character. His first film, Shadows, uses an interracial situation to explore his own feelings of being an outsider at the social circles he was thrust into as a young actor. More specifically, the relationship between two of the main characters, the brothers Hugh and Ben, is a point-for-point portrait of Cassavetes' relationship with his older brother, Nick.
Faces, the film he made in his late thirties, depicted his fears of encroaching middle-age and his frustrations with his marriage as well as his dreams of wiping the slate clean and making a fresh go of it (even as he despaired that such a fresh start could be possible).
The opinion of Xan Cassavetes, John Cassavetes' daughter and the director of Z Channel and other works, about Ray Carney's Cassavetes on Cassavetes, as relayed to Carney by a friend in Los Angeles (stars indicate omitted personal material):
am still in LA, working on *** , which is coming along. Real progress.
This evening saw Z CHANNEL, a new documentary by Xan Cassavetes.
*** I spoke with her after the screening. I thought you might like
to know that she absolutely loves CASS ON CASS. Says she sleeps
with it. Says it's enabled her to have conversations with her father
she never had."
Both Minnie and Moskowitz and A Woman Under the Influence were portraits of the filmmaker's stormy, argumentative relationship with his wife, Gena Rowlands, and of the enormous differences in their personalities and attitudes towards life (though Cassavetes throws viewers off the track with a gender reversal in the later film, by having the cautious and conservative Rowlands depicted in the character played by Peter Falk, while Cassavetes' own feelings about life are depicted in the Rowlands character).
The films make no concession to easy understanding. Cassavetes' work is not organized around traditional melodramatic conflicts between good and bad characters, or in a conventional, problem-solving format. The only problem that Cassavetes' characters have is what they are, and there is no solution for that. Everyone in his films, like everyone in life outside the movies, is both good and bad. There are no absolutes and no simple answers. There is no narrative key to unlock the characters' hearts or solve their problems. Life is forever lived in an uncertain, ambiguous, in-between place.
Cassavetes was the poet of imperfection. He pioneered a radically de-idealized art form liberated from unearthly ideals of beauty, heroism or virtue.
No cinematic works more thoroughly embodied Lenny Bruce's statement that "truth is what is, not what should be." Even the best of Cassavetes' characters are bundles of flaws and foibles; even the worst surprise us with their wit or have redeeming qualities. The result is figures that viewers can't put handles on and pick up in a single thought.
We encounter the characters in Cassavetes' films the way we encounter people in the world –studying ambiguous expressions and contradictory or inconsistent behavior, formulating a succession of interpretive hypotheses, changing our minds as we go along.
But what baffled Kael, Simon, Kauffmann, and the rest of the first generation of critics most was that no matter how deeply flawed the characters might be, they are not judged, but accepted and even loved –faults and all. When asked during press screenings about his apparent failure to condemn the male figures in both Faces and Husbands, Cassavetes compounded the felony by telling the critics that the main characters in those films were not being satirized. They were not someone else. They were him and his friends.
While most American films of the era were in love with visual and acoustic virtuosity, Cassavetes made movies that were calculatedly rough. He scorned beautiful shots, favoring shifting, asymmetrical groupings that look haphazard. He said he wanted to make movies that didn't feel like movies, but like life.
Cassavetes doesn't employ the bouncy editing and accelerated rhythms of conventional film, because they tell lies about the rhythms of experience outside of the movies. The pacing of the experience is closer to that of life than of movies. He doesn't want scenes or pacings to fall into predictable patterns. Predictability is death. Consistency was something for robots, not human beings. Patterns were the enemy.
The irony, of course, was that Cassavetes succeeded so well at capturing the unidealized, clumsy complexities of unpatterned life that many of the first generation of reviewers decided that the films were improvised. In other words, those who wanted their movies to look like movies concluded that his weren't really movies.
Cassavetes fulfilled Marshall McLuhan's observation that new systems of knowledge don't look like improvements or innovations when they are first proposed. They look like chaos. It also supported Clement Greenberg's epigram that all profoundly original art looks ugly at first. I remember the filmmaker joking about the reception of his work. He imitated an imaginary viewer by slouching down in his chair and windmilling his arms in front of his face, chortling: "A new experience? Oh, no! Save me. Anything but that!"
I was a slow learner myself. I fought the experiences in Cassavetes' movies tooth and nail before I could come to grips with them. There is no doubt in my mind, at this point, that he was one of the greatest artists in the history of film. But it's not something someone can decide for others. Kael, Kauffmann, and the other early critics need to see the films again, put their preconceptions aside, and wrestle with what they actually offer. I hope my publication of Cassavetes' own accounts of what he was trying to do with his life and work present a opportunity for every viewer to revisit the films and decide for himself.
Ray Carney is the author of three new books about Cassavetes: Cassavetes on Cassavetes from Faber and Faber, and the volume on Shadows for the British Film Institute Film Classics series, and the souvenir program John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity –A Pocket Guide to the Films. He is Director of Film Studies at Boston University.
© Text Copyright 1999-2001 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.
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