Click here for best printing of text

This page contains an interview Marty Duda did with Ray Carney for Real Groove magazine, New Zealand's premiere independent music and film monthly, based in Auckland, N.Z., about Gena Rowlands's stewardship of Cassavetes' legacy and the New Zealand release of the Criterion “Cassavetes Collection” 5–disc DVD set in January 2008.

To read more about Rowlands’s decisions to withhold many of Cassavetes’ manuscripts and film prints from circulation, click on the “Ray Carney’s Discoveries” ticket icon in the left menu or click here.

How (and How Not) to Preserve
a Precious Artistic Legacy
(Marty Duda interviews Ray Carney for Real Groove)

Can you please give a brief overview of why Cassavetes is important today? What his influence is on contemporary film making. I understand that the answer could fill volumes, but please understand that the average reader of Real Groove is in his 20s and many will have never been exposed to his work before. Also, there is a very vibrant independent film scene here in NZ. … Not everyone wants to be Peter Jackson.

Cassavetes more or less invented the idea of independent filmmaking in America. Although there were a few other Americans who had tried to work outside the Hollywood studio system before him – Morris Engel, Lionel Rogosin, and Shirley Clarke being the most important – Cassavetes was the first one who showed that you could shape a lifelong career in film as an artist rather than a businessman. He showed it could be done.

Can you please explain what made Cassavetes such a unique director? Was it his willingness to let the actors experiment in front of the camera?

Cassavetes’ pig–headedness, perversity, and machismo were his genius. He just didn’t give a damn about doing things the way they were supposed to be done. He threw away the Hollywood rule–book about how films were supposed to be made and did more or less everything “wrong.” His scripts are not action–oriented. His stories are not task–based; they are not about accomplishing something or achieving a goal. His scenes and the interactions between characters run on ” too long.” His movies aren’t organized around a justice structure, and they don’t have happy endings. Even his casting is wrong. Many of the people he put in his films were not professional actors, but friends, family members, or even members of the crew he took a shine to! Those excesses, eccentricities, and idiosyncrasies are what make his films so unique and personal.

Who is making films today influenced by his style?

It's an interesting lesson in the history of taste. Because Cassavetes' work was not critically appreciated in his lifetime - his films were not screened or studied in university film courses or celebrated and written about by the leading American critics, and were, in fact, mocked and ridiculed by most American reviewers - his influence has been weirdly delayed. In effect, he skipped a generation. Critics and filmmakers whose heyday was in the 1960s to 1980s period still haven't come to terms with him. He and his work will never affect that group, since they are too old to change their minds. Only a few filmmakers from that period appreciated his work: Rob Nilsson, Tom Noonan, John Gianvito, Henry Jaglom, Sean Penn, and Gordon Erikson are the only ones I can think of in that category, who actually appreciated Cassavetes' achievement during his lifetime. They didn't have to wait for the retrospectives and the memorial essays.

He died in 1989 and really only began to influence a large number of critics and artists beginning in the middle 1990s, after I published my second book on his work. In the period since then, in the last decade or so, he has influenced more filmmakers than he ever did when he was alive. So he is suddenly being "discovered" by many low-budget American independent artists: including figures like Caveh Zahedi, Andrew Bujalski, David Ball, Aaron Katz, Frank Ross, Joe Swanberg, Mike Akel, and scores of others. If you haven't heard of any of the names I've mentioned except for Sean Penn, that's just the American PR and reviewing system continuing to do its damage. The list is a Who's Who of many of the most important living American filmmakers. The same commercial forces that kept Cassavetes' movies off the cultural radar screen in the 1970s and 1980s are still at work today. That will probably never change. The next Cassavetes is almost certain to be as marginalized or ignored by the reviewers as the last one. We always see things more clearly in hindsight.

Some critics accuse Cassavetes of being self-indulgent and pretentious. How do you respond to that?

Those are terms people use to describe anything that is a little different from what they are familiar with. “That music is self–indulgent and pretentious because it’s not like the kind of music I like….” “Those paintings are self–indulgent and pretentious because they don’t look like the kind of paintings in museums….” In other words, they are code words for our cave–man fear and suspicion of anything that is new and different. People don’t really want to have new experiences. They prefer what they know. That’s why something conventional is always going to be more popular than something original. But art is supposed to be different. There’s no point in doing it if you’re not going to do it differently from everyone else, if you’re not going to shake things up. If you want sameness you shouldn’t become an artist; you should be working in a factory. And you sure shouldn’t become a critic. Film reviewers pay a lot of lip service to “originality,” but they don’t generally like it when they encounter it. It confuses them. They tend to like the kind of movies they tend to like. Most of them shouldn’t be doing criticism; they should be doing market research.

I will mention the print of the 1st cut of "Shadows" that you unearthed and the surrounding controversy. Can you please describe why this early cut is so important and what are some of the major differences to the released version included in the box set?

It's not really accurate to call it "the first cut." The version of Shadows that I found is an almost totally different movie from the so-called "second version" of the film. (Click here to view clips from the print.) That's why it's important. In effect, it's Cassavetes' first filmand the better–known version of Shadows is his second film. It’s always important to find a new work by a major artist. Finding this print was like finding a manuscript of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Won or Cardenio [lost plays by Shakespeare] or like finding a group of unknown Picasso paintings in an attic.

I offered a video of the print to Criterion, the company that put the original DVD set together, but Gena Rowlands vetoed its inclusion for reasons I give on my web site. She doesn’t want it seen. She was very firm and adamant about that. When I talked to her I tried every which way I could to persuade her to change her mind, but she dug in her heels and refused. Since then, for more than four years, I’ve made the case over and over again to please let people see the film, to please let me put it on a DVD or let me show it in a theater, with any screening conditions she chooses, but she absolutely refuses to change her mind. In fact, at this point [2008], she won’t even reply to my letters.

You are quite critical of Gena Rowlands on your website, yet she comes across as quite insightful and involved with the creative aspects of her roles in the accompanying documentary. How much has her reaction to your discovery of the first version of "Shadows" affected your opinion of her contributions to Cassavetes' films?

Gena Rowlands is a great actress. She created some of the most important roles in Cassavetes’ work. I have nothing but praise for that part of her life. What I have problems with is her stewardship of his estate after his death. I think she must be getting terrible advice. She’s not been a very good custodian. She wants to keep a lot of Cassavetes’ work out of circulation and to prevent people from seeing it or reading it – not only the film prints I’ve discovered (Shadows, Faces, and an unknown film he wrote and directed that I’m not at liberty to name), but thousands of pages of his unpublished writing, including scripts for unproduced films and an amazing full–length novel related to Husbands but entirely different from the film. Rowlands has also attempted to control – a polite word for “censor” – what has been said or written about his work: who is allowed to do voice–overs on DVDs and what is included in the pack–in booklets that accompany the DVDs. She has even influenced the edits of one or two of the films, expressing her dislike for certain scenes. My web site has more than you want to know about all of these things. (Click here and here to read more about Rowlands’s attitude towards the recently discovered alternate versions of Shadows and Faces. And click here to read about how UCLA removed 11–minutes from the so–called “restored print” of Husbands after Rowlands expressed her dislike for the Leola Harlow scene. Scroll down the page you are taken to and read the entry for April 28, 1994.)

Because film is such a high–finance form of expression, with so much money at stake, people seem to think of this as acceptable behavior on the part of a director’s widow. But I think it’s outrageous. Think of it in terms of other arts. What if Shakespeare’s widow had kept the manuscripts of many of his plays from being printed after his death? What if Picasso’s widow had decided that people shouldn’t see many of the paintings he left behind? What if Beethoven’s heirs had suppressed – or destroyed – his Sketchbooks, under the argument that “they were never meant to be seen”? What if these artists’ widows or heirs had prevented particular critics from working on projects connected with their creative work because they objected to what they might say? What if they had put pressure on others to fire them? What if they had attempted to confiscate and suppress work that was discovered after their deaths? Well, Rowlands is doing all of those things. That’s what’s going on with Cassavetes’ films and manuscripts.

Is that the way to preserve someone’s legacy? Is that the way to deepen and enlarge the appreciation of it? Is that the way to encourage scholarly inquiry and discussion? If that was happening with the work of a dramatist, painter, or musician who had died twenty years ago, would literature, art, and music critics accept that kind of behavior from his or her heirs without objecting to it? Would they remain silent about what was going on? That’s what film critics have done. Not a peep from one of them! That’s the difference between film and the other arts, at least in America. Money talks. The rich and famous get kow–towed to. No one dares question their actions.

It’s a sad reflection of the power of money and celebrity to limit what gets discussed that you have to go to my web site to read about these events. As far as I am concerned, the critical silence is as discouraging – and immoral – as Rowlands’s behavior. Writers on film are afraid to report the story since it involves a millionaire movie–star. Even beyond the sentimental confusion of Rowlands with the characters she played in her husband’s movies (who wants to pick on poor Minnie Moore or Mabel Longhetti?), movie stars have a lot of cultural power and influence and film reviewers and editors are afraid to alienate them for fear of being denied a future interview or having them cancel a visit to an event they are involved with.

Let me tell you, I have had absolutely no desire to go down the path I’ve gone down, in terms of calling attention to Rowlands’s behavior, but I have had to do it, to remain a moral person. I’m attempting to speak for Cassavetes from the grave, fighting for the release of his unreleased films and unpublished manuscripts – if you had seen this material, you would see that it is fully the equivalent of Beethoven’s sketchbooks in importance. It would be irresponsible on my part not to speak out on behalf of the preservation and dissemination of his work in the state he left it when he died, not to fight to prevent it from being edited or changed or suppressed because particular scenes or works offend Rowlands. It would be immoral for me not to defend the right of critics to say whatever they want about Cassavetes and to present and write about his work without experiencing retaliation or legal threats from his widow. (To read Ray Carney’s suggestions for questions Rowlands should be asked by critics and journalists, or by viewers, when she makes public appearances, read his reply in blue to the first letter on page 40 of the web site Mailbag.)

What are the chances of international audiences getting to see the 1st cut of "Shadows"? I know you've shown it at selected public screenings. Will it ever be released on DVD?

As I said, it’s not really accurate to call it ‘the first cut.” It’s a work unto itself. I offered it to Criterion, the American DVD company that originated the New Zealand set, but Rowlands sent them a lawyer’s letter threatening a law suit if they included it. As far as I can tell, it was just a bluff, since she doesn’t have any real legal basis to prevent the film from being included, but you know how businesses are. The mere threat of a law suit was enough to stop them dead in their tracks and scare them off. (Click here to read the text of a letter written by Al Ruban at Gena Rowlands's behest to the Criterion Collection to prevent the print of the first version of Shadows from being released on video followed by the response from Criterion.)

I would be delighted to screen and lecture about both versions of Shadows at any legitimate film event – in New Zealand or anywhere else. The ideal occasion would be something larger and intellectually more substantial than just a single screening though. I’d love to organize or participate in a conference on Cassavetes’ work in which alternate versions of his films and different drafts of his scripts would be compared and discussed. I own – or have access to – all of the necessary material – amazing things that document Cassavetes’ evolving, revisionary, creative process as he worked on and changed his mind about Shadows, Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams. Beyond exposing viewers to new and unknown work, the event would completely change the understanding of Cassavetes’ life and films. You can take my word for that.

You are very critical of the relationship between film reviewers and the big film companies. Is there anything that can be done to improve coverage of film? Why is it important anyway? To many people, movies are just another way to pass the time. (Yes, it's a loaded question, but I'd like to feature the sentiment in your own words).

Maybe it is not as much a problem in New Zealand. I don’t know. But the fact is that American reviewers are more or less in the hip pockets of the Hollywood studios and their publicists. Part of the problem is that the entire American reviewing system (on the TV and radio and in the newspapers) is driven by the desire to turn a profit. And that means focusing on big box–office “blockbuster” movies, doing interviews with big–name movie stars, and putting pretty or famous faces on magazine covers to sell issues. But the other part of the problem is imaginative. Hollywood really defines the functions and purposes of film in America. It’s surprising how completely film is thought of in terms of glossy, big–budget productions, so that even “high–brow” quasi–intellectual journals or magazines like The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker devote most of their column inches to Hollywood releases and most of their articles to what is essentially little more than movie–star gossip.

As to what can be done, I don’t know. After I reform the political system, I’ll spend a week or two solving this problem! Just kidding. Sorry, I can’t be more encouraging. All of American culture is in a pretty bad state. The mediocrity and mendacity of American film reviewers is pretty low on the list of my fears for my culture right now.

Finally, for film fans looking to discover the work of John Cassavetes. Where should they start – what film – and why?

I’ve programmed many festivals of Cassavetes’ work and either Shadows or Minnie and Moskowitz would be the best film for a new viewer to start with. After that, Husbands would be a good choice for a third work to view. After that, it’s every man, woman, and child for himself, hacking his or her way through the jungle of deepest, darkest Cassavetes. Of course getting lost is half the fun.

Unfortunately, in terms of the DVD set being released in New Zealand (a re–issue of the Criterion set), Shadows is the only one of those titles included. Cassavetes made seven movies that are not in it. Once more, business considerations triumphed over artistic ones. Surprise, surprise. And not a murmur of demurrer from the world’s film journalists. Imagine the hue and cry if a CD–releasing company did a Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven “introductory set” and omitted many of the composer’s major works because it was too much trouble to clear the rights. Well, that’s the difference between show business and art in a nutshell. Film releasing is always ultimately about the money.

Ray Carney

Ray Carney is Professor of Film and American Studies, Boston University; the author Cassavetes on Cassavetes, and many other books about the filmmaker; and the manager of a web site devoted to independent film and other art at

This page contains an interview Marty Duda did with Ray Carney for Real Groove magazine, New Zealand's premiere independent music and film monthly, based in Auckland, N.Z., about Gena Rowlands's stewardship of Cassavetes' legacy and the New Zealand release of the Criterion “Cassavetes Collection” 5–disc DVD set in January 2008.

To read more about Rowlands’s decisions to withhold many of Cassavetes’ manuscripts and film prints from circulation, click on the “Ray Carney’s Discoveries” ticket icon in the left menu or click here.

Top of Page


© Text Copyright 2008 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.