This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing about John Cassavetes. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces about Cassavetes that are not included on the web site, click here.
I'm very concerned about the depiction of women on the screen. It's related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, and with whom or how many. There's nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her. I'm sure we could have made a much more successful film if A Woman Under the Influence had depicted Mabel's life as being rougher, more brutal; if it made statements so that people could definitely take sides. But along the way, I'd have to look at myself and say, "Yes, we were successful in creating another horror in the world." I don't know anyone who has had such a terrible time that she doesn't smile ever, that she doesn't have time to love, open her eyes, think about the details of life. Something [wonderful] happens all the time, even at the height of tragedy. I wanted to show that too.

—John Cassavetes

Excerpts from a discussion of

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....There is a homogenized quality to many films so that everyone ends up sounding (and acting) more or less the same – the children like little adults, the women like men with skirts on, and everybody like they know what they want and need. A Woman Under the Influence is a celebration of what makes us different from one another – different in every way: physically, imaginatively, socially, sexually. Nick's orders-from-headquarters style of interaction is entirely different from Mabel's ballerina-like delicacy and vulnerability, and both are different from everyone else in the movie.

When characters are so deeply imagined from the inside, they don't have to do anything in particular to hold our attention. The events in Cassavetes' work are not generated by what figures do but what they are. Personality becomes plot. Behavior is narrative. To watch the spaghetti breakfast scene (or the family gathering that structurally echoes it at the end of the film) is to be gripped not by a series of actions, but by a course of emotional interactions. Living does not involve doing anything but being something – a much harder task.

Critics sometimes talk as if great art gives us new ideas, when it would be more accurate to say it give us new ways of knowing and feeling. To watch A Woman Under the Influence is to have our vision cleansed and enriched. The film transports us out of our old selves. It transforms us. It lets us see the world under an emotional microscope, registering butterfly flickers of feeling on faces, hearing dog-frequency vocal flutters. Cassavetes gives us something much greater than thoughts. He gives us powers – new capacities of sensitivity and awareness....

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....Most films depend on a shorthand that allows us to view them in a fundamentally different way from the way we experience things outside of the movies. They employ a kind of code: See this. Think that. Get it? Got it. They tell us what to know and feel, what things mean. They make points. The result is a slight but decisive abstraction from everything in them. The viewer is always at a certain critical distance from what is on screen. These movies are about an experience, rather than giving us the experience itself. Rather than plunging us headlong into life, these movies tell us about life – the way reading an essay about an experience is entirely different from having the experience.

Cassavetes takes away the aboutness, the abstraction. To watch one of his movies is not to learn about a group of characters and situations, but to have something very close to the kind of experiences we would have if we were actually in similar situations with similar figures.

The secret of Cassavetes' method is to deny viewers every form of intellectual distance and control. The experiences he presents can't be held intellectually at arm's length. They won't be simplified by being translated into received ideas or push-button emotions. They resist being formulated. They must be challengingly negotiated moment by moment the way we live and feel things in real life. In all of their unresolved sprawl and mutability, the experiences in his films are the opposite of the canned, pre-programmed summaries of experience most other movies provide....

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....Many of Cassavetes' main characters function as alter egos for their actor-director creator, but none more obviously than Mabel. She is the most dazzling theatrical presence in all of Cassavetes' work. She is an off-balance ballerina of intricate choreography, an eccentric entertainer, parodic pantomimist, and comical mistress of ceremonies. (Though Gena Rowlands is best known for her intensely serious roles in her husband's films, her exuberant, mugging performance here and in Gloria reminds us that she began her acting career as a comedienne in The High Cost of Loving.) Mabel's deepest similarity with her creator is that she is an improvisatory writer-director of family scenes – not only herself performing, but sponsoring performances in others. She gets hard-hats to sing opera and encourages her own and neighbor children to become actors and actresses of their own lives – by turns, imaginatively transforming themselves into cowboys, dying swans, and pirates.

What interests Cassavetes about Mabel, of course, is not just that she is a kind of director, but what kind of director she is. He makes a number of points about her directorial style throughout the film. In the first place, she is never merely mechanical or technical in her direction, which is to say, she is less interested in the details and the surface polish of a performance, than in the depth of emotional exploration it represents. She shows us that there is no "best" way to direct others and that she is after no one "right" response. She will do just about anything to move the figures around her into a deeper place than merely scripting, blocking out, or dictating their actions ever could. Sometimes she proceeds by mimicry (as when she comically parodies her mother's gestures and tones of voice when the kids return home for their books). At other moments she badgers and nags (as she does with Mr. Jensen, when all else fails). She can direct with expressions of tenderness (as when she caresses Billy Tidroe's face or her son's hand). At still other times, she directs by not directing (as when, in the final gathering, to cut the tension, she changes the subject away from her hospital stay and tells jokes to get Mama Longhetti to lighten up).

Another point about directing that Mabel illustrates is that in order to keep opening up others in this way, you must yourself remain open. That is to say much of her directing (especially at the spaghetti-breakfast) simply consists of responding freely and passionately to others' performances. Directing is not dictation, but dialogue, a relationship between two people. Mabel is a great listener, an amazingly alert viewer. Even as she pushes herself and those around her away from expressive clichés and conventions, she continuously adjusts her own directorial performance to take account of their discomfort or anxiety. Even with a cause as lost, an actor as blockheaded and uncooperative as Mr. Jensen, she keeps changing her performance to respond to his. It's not accidental that Mabel's idea of directing Mr. Jensen (or, earlier, Billy Tidroe) is to dance with him. She doesn't impose "her vision" on others but asks for a kind of mutually responsive partnering.

That leads to the final and most important point about Mabel's directing, which is that it is for others, not for herself, that she is ultimately working. Rather than making the actor an extension of her personality, her direction attempts to elicit answering responses that express their needs and desires. She encourages her "actors" and "actresses" to dare to give the performance of their lives, not so that that they will realize her vision, but that they might explore unrealized parts of themselves and enlarge their own possibilities. She doesn't want to change them or make them over in her own image, but to use their possibilities, their differences from her.

As should be clear by now, Mabel is John Cassavetes, not in a superficial biographical sense, but as an embodiment of his vision of life's collaborative expressive possibilities. Mabel gives us our deepest view of how Cassavetes actually performed on the set. She aspired to dance with her actors, and in a metaphoric sense of the term, Cassavetes "danced" with all of his, partnering them in different ways to elicit original and fresh responses. (It is not coincidental that many of the most evocative scenes in Cassavetes' work actually involve dancing, including a wonderful ballroom sequence cut from the final print of Husbands.) It was in the nature of Cassavetes' conception of dance – and direction – that each actor was partnered differently....

To read more about the limitations of contemporary criticism, see "Sargent and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, and "Skepticism and Faith," "Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," and other pieces in the Academic Animadversions section. To obtain more information about Ray Carney's writing on contemporary criticism, click here

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing about John Cassavetes. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces about Cassavetes that are not included on the web site, click here.

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