Excerpts from Ray Carney’s award–winning 1990 Kenyon Review John Cassavetes memorial essay. This piece was co–winner of the “Best Essay of the Year by an Younger Author Award.” Only the beginning and the conclusion of the essay are printed here. To obtain the complete essay, purchase Ray Carney’s John Cassavetes: Collected Essays packet.

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Life is a series of surprises and would not be worth the taking or keeping if it were not. . . . Onward and ever onward. . . . the coming only is sacred. . . . Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

We realize this life as something always off its balance, something in transition, something that shoots out of a darkness through a dawn into a brightness that we feel to be the dawn fulfilled. — William James

John Cassavetes completed eleven films prior to his death last year in 1989. While three (Too Late Blues, A Child Is Waiting, and Gloria) were studio co-productions which are not really representative because of compromises were required during their production, the other eight (Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and Love Streams), which were conceived, written, directed, photographed, and edited by the filmmaker fully expressed his vision to an extent that is unprecedented in American feature film. As one critic has characterized them, they represent "one of the greatest sustained individual achievements in the history of American cinema." Yet the sad fact is that one year after Cassavetes’ death, those eight films are still almost completely unknown to the average (or even the considerably above-average) American filmgoer. Ironically enough, if Cassavetes' name is recognized at all, it is as an actor in other people's movies, rather than as a maker of his own.*

It is only natural to wonder how such an extraordinary body of work could have fallen into the cracks so completely, both commercially and critically. Part of the explanation is simply the terrifying economics of film distribution and publicity. Lacking the backing and the budgetary resources of major studio sponsorship, Cassavetes self-promoted and self-distributed his own work, which means that he actually carried the film cans from city to city trying to convince a distributor to book his movie, organizing small-scale screenings at local theaters and giving interviews to journalists to drum up free publicity. When all was said and done, the movie might play in ten or twelve cities for a few weeks (if he was lucky). All things considered, it's probably not that surprising that so few people saw the films during their extremely limited and brief releases.1

I would also note in passing that Cassavetes was almost completely ignored by academic American film criticism as well. There were virtually no serious essays written on the filmmaker during his lifetime. (I don't count the brief and superficial journalistic reviews the individual movies received during their releases.) That situation began to change a little after Cassavetes' death, with a popular American film magazine, Film Comment, dedicating a special section of one issue to him, and an American scholarly journal, Post/Script, recently devoting an entire number to a survey of his life and work. But beyond those two instances, even as I write this, Cassavetes' films remain a terra incognita for the vast majority of American film critics. The unavailability of Cassavetes' films on video in America is traceable to their not being plugged into studio distribution package-deals (where "ancillary rights" are sold before filming has even begun). Even at this late date in the video revolution, not one of Cassavetes' eight fully independent productions is available in the United States on either tape or disc. (Love Streams was briefly available on tape several years ago from MGM/UA; it was, however, dropped from circulation after the most limited of releases.) Gloria, the only Cassavetes title that is currently available on tape, was one of the three studio productions, and Big Trouble, which is generally available on video and is misattributed to Cassavetes, is actually not his work.

To make a difficult situation worse, Cassavetes' work fell squarely between the two stools of American film criticism and viewership – the journalistic and the academic. Consequently, even when his movies got screened, they often didn't get reviewed (at least not sympathetically) or couldn't find an audience. They were entirely too sophisticated and demanding for the Sneak Previews-type reviewer and audience: the coke and popcorn crowd, the pop-culture trash collectors, the genre-film slummers. At the same time, they were entirely too shaggy and baggy to interest the high-culture devotees who write and read the toniest academic criticism. Cineastes who look to Europe for Art (or who confuse art with gorgeous photography and literate dialogue) were the wrong ones to understand Cassavetes' barbaric yawp.

The commercial coup de grace in America was probably Cassavetes' refusal to become trendy. There are no fashionable themes or movie-of-the-week issues in his entire oeuvre. His films never punched any of the topical hot buttons within contemporary film commentary that would have guaranteed them at least a modicum of general attention.2 Although there are plenty of strong and interesting women and lots of men who fight for their lives and honor, there is not a single feminist or Vietnam vet in all of Cassavetes' work, no more than there are any of the other staples of "relevant" filmmaking: terrorists, drug deals, venal policemen, greedy capitalists, or corrupt public officials. Unlike the work of Spike Lee, David Putnam, or Stanley Kubrick, Cassavetes' films do not lend themselves to public statements or political stances because the drama is generated more from contradictions and confusions within a character, than from conflicts between characters. This sets his work apart from ninety-nine percent of other American films. With only the fewest exceptions, American movies imagine life in terms of a myth with three components to it: 1. Individualism: The plot revolves around a personal quest led by one main character. He or she acts largely alone, or with the assistance of a few allies (most commonly, a single romantic partner). 2. Competition: The narrative is organized around conflicts and confrontations between individuals or between an individual and an institution. 3. Materialism: Practical rewards or penalties are the outcome of the competition between the opposed characters: fame, money, power, or sex are the payoffs for the individual's risk-taking behavior.

In short, it is the ideology of entrepreneurial capitalism, a set of assumptions which virtually every American feature film internalizes (even those that intend to critique capitalism). Ostensibly counter-capitalistic films like Silkwood, Taxi Driver, Wall Street, Working Girl, and The Godfather are as much in its thrall as pop culture schlock like Pretty Woman, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Rocky, and Star Wars. A lone individual fights and triumphs over (or, on rare occasions, fails to triumph over) personal opponents and worldly obstacles, with the payoff in the form of tangible rewards–ranging from increased wealth or social status to winning the girl or getting the job done. It's remarkable how rarely American films deviate from the formula, and how satisfied viewers obviously are with it. As anyone who has ever sat through Rambo or Rocky with a large audience can attest, American filmgoers relish imagining their experience in terms of personal conflicts and confrontations with practical rewards. The nature of American society apparently predisposes most viewers to imagine their lives in these terms–no matter how emotionally and spiritually impoverished such understandings may be.

Cassavetes' narratives violate all three tenets of this entrepreneurial ideology. In the first place, his family-centered films define characters not as loners, but as members of groups. Not rugged individualism and capitalistic competition, but social interaction and interpersonal cooperation are the keys to their success. The qualities most in demand are not Yankee ingenuity, resourcefulness, and ruthlessness, but sensitiveness, responsiveness, and emotional openness. In the second place, Cassavetes' narratives are not organized around personal conflicts between figures. Characters are not pitted against each other in tests of strength and intelligence. For Cassavetes, our private battles with ourselves are always more interesting than our public fights with others. The wars his characters fight are inward. The important struggles in which they are engaged are attempts to understand themselves and their emotional needs. Finally, characters' successes or failures are not marked in terms of capitalistic rewards. What is at issue is not worldly or failure, but emotional exploration and growth. When the quest of a figure is for self-knowledge and self-expression, the only gain or loss that ultimately matters is spiritual.

Accordingly, one can actually reverse the charge that Cassavetes’ work is socially "disengaged" and politically "irrelevant" or "naive." While the other sort of film, in effect, buys into capitalistic understandings of experience in the very organization of its narrative (even when it may think it is criticizing it), it is Cassavetes’ work almost alone that offers a profound critique of the assumptions of entrepreneurial capitalism. The very structures of Cassavetes’ narratives implicitly criticize the premise the other sort of film accepts: the belief that we can be saved and our lives healed by competing with one another and struggling for worldly success. By these standards, Silkwood is a far more conservative film than Faces.

The reason Cassavetes’ films don't appear to engage themselves with public issues is that rather than focusing on the externals of characters' lives, Cassavetes focuses on how social ideologies affect their hearts and minds. His films depict the internal, psychological disruptions of capitalism as being potentially even more disturbing than its external, economic consequences. Rather than dealing with the economic or social predations of capitalism, Cassavetes depicts its emotional consequences: the pernicious effects of bureaucratic organizations of human relationships, the soul-killing qualities of competitiveness, the way business values distort his characters' understandings of the meaning of their lives. His movies are peopled with small-time entrepreneurs (from Shadows' Ackerman and Too Late Blues’ Frielobe to Faces' Richard Forst, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie's Cosmo Vitelli, and Opening Night's Manny Victor) who get into trouble by trying to organize their emotions and personal relationships the way they run their businesses.

Asked why he didn't address public themes the way Oliver Stone or Mike Nichols does, the filmmaker characteristically replied: "Why should I make movies about things I already know? I want to make movies about things I don't understand. And anyway I want to ask people questions about themselves, not about someone else." That suggests a further explanation for why Cassavetes' films met with incomprehension during his lifetime. His movies ask questions whose answers are not nearly as obvious or clear as those in the other sort of film. Furthermore, they force viewers to question their own everyday lives and actions.

Cassavetes' cinematic agenda is a deliberately challenging one. While films like the ones I have named are content to recycle certain basic fictional formulas, Cassavetes attempts to teach his viewers radically new ways of knowing–new ways of understanding themselves and others. Cassavetes' films are lessons in new forms of thinking and feeling–though what it might mean for a film to be a form of thought may take some explaining. Suffice it to say that the filmmaker fully understood that confronting the ingrained viewing habits of his viewers might be the necessary first step in the process of redefining the nature of life and experience for them.

Cassavetes frequently said that he was not in the least surprised that most audiences resisted his work. He knew that reaching viewers in a deeper place might require making them uncomfortable: “I'm interested in shaking people up, not making them happy by soothing them. . . . It's never easy. I think that it's only in 'the movies' that it's easy. . . . I don't think people really want their lives to be easy. It's a United States sickness. In the end it becomes more difficult. I like things to be difficult so that my life will be easier.”

Faces illustrates that deliberate difficulty. Compared with most other films, the behavior of its characters seems inconsistent and unpredictable. A character who seems witty and sensitive one moment is boorish and immature the next. A figure who seems aware of his faults and foibles in one scene is headstrong and self-centered in another. I remember the first time I saw the film, and how this aspect of it confused me, and made me extremely uncomfortable. I was denied the sort of intellectual and emotional comfort that settling back with one feeling about a character allowed. I liked them, then I despised them. In one scene I admired their intelligence or sympathized with their predicament, even as I felt on the basis of a previous scene that I ought to have contempt for them.

Cassavetes springs his characters free from the sorts of intentionality that most other films, especially mainstream American works, accustom us to. The chief way we are able to get a handle on characters in most other films is by ferreting out a figure's "true intentions." But in Cassavetes' work, intentions count for almost nothing. They certainly don't allow us to sort out the good from the bad, the nice from the nasty.

Virtually all of Cassavetes' characters (even the most despicable) have good intentions. With only the fewest exceptions, all of them are sincere. They mean well. Like Mama Longhetti (who terrorizes her daughter-in-law Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence) or Mister Jensen (the neighbor who precipitates a family crisis in the same movie), they are trying to do their best for themselves and their loved ones (even as they may wreck havoc on everyone around them). Everyone has his reasons (to borrow a phrase from Jean Renoir, whose characters are similar in this respect)–which is to say that behavior is generated out of sources far deeper than reasons can describe or motives can plumb.

However, even to say that characters have good intentions is not to do justice to their true complexity. In the majority of scenes and encounters, Cassavetes' characters are liberated from having any definable intentions at all. Cassavetes' most interesting characters don't have any fixed, predictable, or static center of being. The films present behavior and expression that stays psychologically multivalent and irreducible to motives or goals. The first long scene in Faces can stand as an illustration. Richard and Freddy are in Jeannie Rapp's home, making an obvious sexual play for her. But what makes the moment so strange and gripping is that, in the first place, Cassavetes suppresses the details of how the three characters came together and who exactly they are. (Is Jeannie a call girl, an easy pick-up, or a "nice" girl? Are Richard and Freddy married or single, good guys or con men?) In the second place, and even more importantly, Cassavetes leaves entirely up in the air why they are where they are, what they want out of the moment. (Are they looking for a one-night stand, a "meaningful relationship," just passing time, or what?)

It is impossible to say. We just don't know. But the crucial point is that Cassavetes isn't Hitchcock: clarifying information is not withheld in order to tease the viewer or stoke up dramatic interest. It is withheld because it doesn't exist, because, given Cassavetes' view of life, it can't exist. It is impossible to know what any of the characters expect from the moment or why they are together, because they themselves don't know. Richard and Freddy don't know what they "really" want from Jeannie, any more than she knows what she "really" wants from them. In fact, if they could say, they wouldn't be nearly as interesting and the scene wouldn't be so fascinating.3 As Cassavetes once put it: “It's never as clear as it is in movies. People don't know what they are doing most of the time. They don't know what they want. It's only in "the movies" that they know what their problems are and have game plans to deal with them.

Cassavetes is interested in bringing forward the vague and the inarticulate in human awareness. He focuses less on the problems his characters know and understand than on the hidden confusions in their consciousnesses–confusions that are hidden even from themselves, since if they knew they were confused, they wouldn't be as confused as they are. (To the extent that intentions may be said to exist at all, multiple and contradictory intentions can co-exist in one figure, and more than that, the intentions of which a figure is aware may be opposed to intentions of which he is unaware.) 4

If the effect of this is not clear, consider Love Streams' Robert Harmon. He sincerely believes that he opens himself to the women he surrounds himself with and earnestly tries to understand their deepest feelings (which he calls their "secrets"), even as the film itself shows us how he manipulates them, holds them off at arm's length emotionally, and refuses to let them into his life.5 But it would be wrong to call him a hypocrite, since after all, he is not even aware of his deception. The important lies in his life are the ones he tells himself. As the filmmaker once said to me: "Nobody's a phony, the way they are in the movies. People believe in what they are doing, even when it hurts them and [hurts] others." Robert's romantic efforts are in earnest; even as, in another sense, they are not in earnest.

Cassavetes was always more interested in the ways we fool ourselves than in the ways we fool others. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie presents confusions of feeling so deep that the individual who is ultimately undone by them is not even aware of them. Cosmo Vitelli gradually allows the Mob to take over his life (and his nightclub), but the subtle thing is how imperceptible the gangsters' triumph over his soul is. As Cosmo struts toward his doom, he keeps telling himself that he, and not the Mob, is in control. Even as he lets them take over his life bit by bit, he doesn't realize that he is signing over to them what even they couldn't have touched without his cooperation: his definition of himself.

When the film was first released, a number of reviewers objected to the shagginess of the presentation, the way it becomes impossible to tell whether or where the precise boundary is crossed at which Cosmo has lost the emotional battle with the Mob and given himself away. But that is to miss the point of the film. The blurriness of the line is its essence. Cassavetes explores the shadow line where the deepest emotional sell-outs take place–the line where the person selling-out isn't even aware of it. The film is a study of the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to hold onto our pride and keep going in life. If the slippery path to hell were more clearly marked, Cassavetes suggests, we wouldn't have such difficulty avoiding it. If Cosmo were aware of his emotional weaknesses and moral emasculation (his need to avoid arguments or confrontations, his boyish desire to please people and keep everyone around him happy, his escapist impulses as an artist), he wouldn't be in the trouble he is.

In comparison with other films' schematic crises and externalized struggles (where characters face clear-cut problems with well-defined solutions), Cassavetes' work explores twilight areas in our lives: subtle self-betrayals, secret bewilderments, and failures of self-awareness. That is, I believe, what he was getting at when he once said that contemporary filmmakers must move "beyond the artificial conflicts of melodrama," in order to define "new kinds of problems"–problems more subtle than those generated by external conflicts. As he said on another occasion, his films attempt to deal with "characters who have everything they want, but [who] still can't sleep at night," characters for whom "the problem has become what's the problem."

In the service of doing that, it was necessary for him to free his scenes from the sorts of simplifying dramatic "point" one encounters in conventional films. When the problem is "what's the problem," the point of a scene or an encounter between two characters may be its absence of point. When the real events are not external conflicts, but interior muddlements of feeling, scenes and characters reveal truths between the actions or the lines of dialogue, in the beats, the pauses, the hesitations, the moments of uncertainty.

Husbands was criticized for the rambling quality of some of its scenes. But Cassavetes argued that the absence of point in many of the scenes was the point: "The lack of action was what the picture was about. . . . Sometimes the guys would just sit there. I mean, [when] somebody dies and it affects you deeply, I don't know anybody who knows what to do."

To keep a viewer in the fuzzy places, and to keep the fuzzy places fuzzy and not falsely to clarify them, it is additionally important for Cassavetes to deny viewers a privileged point of view on his characters that would simplify or resolve our understanding of a scene or interaction (just as he denies his characters privileged insights into themselves or their own motives). There can be no liberated self-expressions on the part of a character, or absolute knowledge about a character's intentions on the part of a viewer. Viewers have no source of knowledge about characters above or beyond the figures' own vexed self-representations, which never provide direct or easy access to "true" meanings or feelings. There is neither visual nor verbal presentation of unmediated feeling. Nobody can simply "be" themselves, or unproblematically "express" something. Every self-expression is socially mediated, emotionally compromised, inflected by ulteriority. Arguments, brags, jokes, compliments, criticisms, even expressions of love all need to be interpreted.

This is one of the most challenging aspects of Cassavetes' work for a viewer trained by Hollywood films, which invariably provide fairly direct access to a character's "true" feelings and beliefs–either by simply having a character say what he or she means, or by presenting the characters' feelings in visual terms: through a point-of-view shot, a mood shot, an expressive lighting effect, an exchange of glances between characters. In Cassavetes' work, no expression is transparent in the way such stylistic devices presume (neither to the characters in the film, nor to the audience watching it). Subjectivity is rejected as the basis for experience. There can be no direct revelations of consciousness. 6 In a world in which characters can't say what they are doing, because even they don't know, all the film can depict is raw behavior.

The irony was that Cassavetes succeeded so brilliantly at presenting the convoluted complexities of his characters' performative disarray that most critics wrote off his work as a mess. He was so successful at freeing his scenes and his characters' interactions from conventional forms of dramatic shapeliness (which he called "getting the literary quality out" of the detailed scripts he wrote as the basis for all of his important work and which survive in multiple drafts) that critics concluded that his actors were simply making up their lines and actions in front of the camera as they went along.

While most Hollywood scripts are written to generate well-turned phrases and cute repartee as ends in themselves, an examination of Cassavetes' successive drafts of his scripts demonstrates that his goal was to mess-up overly tidy expressions, to take scenes and interactions that went too smoothly and rough them up. The expressive clumsiness in a Cassavetes film is a depiction of shambling purposes and mixed-up goals. His characters' expressions are confused because they are confused. (Though, needless to say, that is an entirely different thing from their creator being confused.) Their lines sound improvised because their lives are improvised. Cassavetes' characters don't know what they are doing until they have done it–and even then they frequently don't know. Gena Rowlands once said that the difference between her husband's and others' films was that in other movies, characters always look like they are following some sort of master plan, while in his films they make up their plans and keep changing their minds about them as they go along.

That should suggest why there is no greater sign of a character's confusion in these films than for him to pretend he is not confused, and no greater mess he can make of things than to attempt to plan out his life. No performers get into greater trouble than the ones who think they are in control. Our fantasies of being in control and of knowing what we are doing are the supreme lies we tell ourselves about ourselves: In Husbands, Gus's verbal panache–his promiscuous charm–is an attempt to avoid emotional involvement with the girlfriend he performatively dazzles, even as he romantically gets in over his head with her anyway. In Shadows, Lelia uses her dazzling powers of self-dramatization to hold her various boyfriends at a protective distance so that she can't be hurt, even as she then suffers from the emotional distance she has created. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cosmo's pretensions to being calm, cool, and poised in front of the various audiences he performs for are an attempt to deny, even to himself, the troubles that beset him and ultimately do him in.

[The conclusion of the essay:]

The alternative to "shorthand" filmmaking is a longhand scrawl that is essentially temporal in its effects. To adapt William James' terminology from Some Problems of Philosophy, Cassavetes offers "concatenated knowing" in place of "consolidated knowing." Rather than rushing to a portable meaning (to what Cassavetes dismissively calls "quick, manufactured truths"), the viewer is forced to live through a changing course of events. In this view of it, meaning is always in transition: it lives in endless, energetic substitutions of one interest and focus for another, in continuous shifts of tone, in fluxional slides of relationship. For Cassavetes, life is motion, and experience is essentially leaky and slippery. It won't be pinned down. "Life is in the transitions," in William James' phrase. Neither life's nor art's meanings can be "caught on to," "grabbed," "held," or "kept ahead of."*

Cassavetes' art is essentially and crucially temporal in the way a piece of music is, not spatial the way painting, architecture, or sculpture are. As the title of Love Streams suggests, his work comprehends the "streaming" of love–the endless movements, adjustments, swerves of life as it is actually lived. He forces both his viewers and his characters to throw away their static concepts, to abandon all fixed positions, in order to plunge into the flow of events.7

To a viewer accustomed to the other sort of filmmaking, even the most important scenes and relationships in Cassavetes' work may seem to "get nowhere," because in Cassavetes' imaginative universe there is really nowhere to get. There is only a series of shifting positions to be cycled through. In Emerson's words, "health of body consists in circulation." 8

Now though it might be thought that if characters and scenes never get anywhere, the films must be tedious or boring, the opposite is true. Since a scene or a relationship doesn't exist to lead to something else, a viewer is never released from his activity of attention. We can't push the pause button on our VCRs (or our minds) anywhere. Go out to get a Coke and come back for the next scene, and you've missed everything. It's pointless for the person sitting next to you to fill you in on "how it ended," since the scene doesn't exist to generate an end-point.9 That makes Cassavetes' scenes as continuously exciting as listening to a good jazz performance (even the second or the tenth time through). In contrast, ordinary films, with their fixed trajectories of build-up, confrontation, climax, and resolution–more like Burt Bachrach than Charlie Parker–let us coast most of the time, while we wait for the next crisis or climax to kick in. The evenhandedness, the refusal to subordinate the individual impulse to the atemporal architecture, makes these films the Jackson Pollocks of cinema.10

Another way of explaining the process-aspect of Cassavetes' work is to say that significances are not merely asserted visionarily, abstractly, or impersonally, but are socially negotiated between individuals in particular acts of practical performance. If the force of this is not obvious, I would point out that another reason Cassavetes' work has experienced so much critical misunderstanding is that most other American film is predicated upon an entirely different set of expressive premises. The principal meanings in Hitchcock and Welles, for example, are not generated out of the practical interactions of characters. They are brought into existence chiefly through visionary events (in two senses: imaginative visions experienced by the characters in the film; and visions created by the director for the viewers of the film).

Pure, socially unmediated subjectivity (rather than impure, compromised behavior) is the basis for expression. The eyeline match and the shot/reverse shot define the relationship of characters as virtually telepathic. The expressive close-up registers states of personal emotion liberated from the mediated messiness of speech or action. The point-of-view shot figures the directly available contents of an individual’s consciousness. Other meanings are generated by lighting effects, camera movements and framings, editing effects, musical orchestrations, and the metaphoric inflection of objects in the setting. This is the form of cinema that American audiences have become adept at understanding and American critics extremely comfortable at explicating. It is the dominant line in American film–carried on today by the vast majority of mainstream filmmakers (by figures as different from one another as Kubrick, De Palma, Spielberg, Coppola, and Lynch). In this expressive tradition, meanings are created relatively independent of the particular space and time and resistance of the actual personal expressions of the individual characters in a scene. That is why, in Hitchcock's infamous phrase, actors truly may be treated as "cattle" in his form of filmmaking. They are the more or less passive recipients of significances imposed upon them and generated by the cameraman, the lighting supervisor, the editor, or the director, rather than being the independent originators of their own personal meanings. In Hitchcock, a specific camera angle or movement or lighting effect tells us how to feel about a character or how the character understands his own experience; in Welles, a tendentious blocking or framing of characters in certain spatial relationships with each other metaphorically communicates their true relationship or feelings about each other. Meanings are cut relatively free from the ebb and flow of social expression and practical personal performance.11

Such stylistic occurrences presume that states of knowledge or feeling can be made directly available to viewers (and that they can, in effect, be weightlessly, painlessly communicated between characters). In Hitchcock, in particular, to "see" something is to "know" it, and to "know" is to "be." Nothing could be less like the fragile, vulnerable social negotiations of meaning and relationship that take place in Cassavetes' scenes, where expression is never unmediated or unproblematic. The prickly practicalities of specific times and places and personalities can't be transcended or left behind. States of personal subjectivity are not liberated from the intricacies and obliquities of bodily and social expression. Meanings have none of the expansiveness, impersonality, or metaphoric generality of a visionary experience. (That is why, to an eye accustomed to visionary stylistics, Cassavetes' films look confused and disorganized. But it is not the mess of unplanned, sloppy work that a viewer is witnessing, but the mess of life lived without visionary releases and metaphoric clarifications.)

There are no lyrical interludes, visionary stylistics, or point of view shots in Cassavetes' work. Characters don't "look" meanings (or relationships) into existence. They don't communicate in shot/reverse "glances." They don't open their consciousnesses to our view (or to each other). Such techniques allow the "eye" to separate itself from the "I." They privilege our visionary capacities over our social expressions of ourselves. Much of Hitchcock's legacy to film (and to filmmakers like Lynch and DePalma in particular) is the separation of our socially expressive and our private visionary impulses, a separation Cassavetes completely refuses to entertain. For him, imagination must express itself in and through social interaction–never as an alternative to it.

While the other kind of film offers us meanings which are pure, static, abstract, and atemporal, those in Cassavetes' work are continuously subject to loss or decay in a way that visions, imaginations, or dreams are not. What is brought into existence in space and time and with the cooperation of other people is always in imminent danger of being lost in space, time, and social interaction.*

In Cassavetes' work, not only does the essence of a character not precede his or her existence, but there might be said to be no essences at all. One's personal identity is created and maintained in the process of social negotiation with others. There is no "essential" self apart from its "accidental" expressions of itself. We make ourselves up as we go along. As something that must be worked into existence, the self is always in danger of lapsing out of existence. In William James' phrase, one is "continuously breasting non-entity," and therefore continuously risking slipping back into non-entity. Ontological slippage threatens many of Cassavetes' most important characters: In Minnie and Moskowitz, when various figures start echoing each others' lines and actions, Cassavetes is showing us how easy it is to lapse back into being a semiotic function of one's environment (or one's film). In A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, and Love Streams, Mabel Longhetti, Myrtle Gordon, and Sarah Lawson each make themselves so available to other people's definitions of them that they run the risk of giving themselves away–losing control of any independent sense of themselves. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cosmo Vitelli, in his need to please and entertain the various audiences in front of which he performs, loses his grip on a self separate from the various costumes and masks he wears. In the end, he becomes the master of ceremonies as invisible man: stunningly unable to distinguish his own needs from the needs of his audience.

It is precisely because identities and meanings are so fragile and temporally fugitive in his work that Cassavetes' viewer is compelled to become so active in his process of keeping up with the shifting figures and significances on the screen. Cassavetes asks that the viewer work almost as hard as the characters within the films in order to make and remake meanings that are always in the process of decay. Cassavetes asks both his viewers and his characters to embrace a life of present-tense experience. We must stay on the qui vive. Like the improvisers who function at the center of each of the films, the viewer must learn to thrive in a state of perpetual activity, openness, vulnerability, and exposure–energetically engaged in making something out of each moment without being able to predict or to predetermine the outcome. The challenges and dangers of this situation–for both viewers and characters–are obvious. The reward is a state of empowerment in which meanings are not imposed or received from outside experience, but are actually made in the course of an active, passionate relationship with it. We become powerful, temporally engaged, meaning-makers in a sense very close to the one William James described in “Pragmatism and Humanism”: “In our cognitive as well as in our active life we are creative. We add, both to the subject and to the predicate part of reality. The world stands readily malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. Like the kingdom of heaven, it suffers human violence willingly. Man engenders truths upon it … For pluralistic pragmatism, truth grows up inside of all the finite experiences. They lean on each other, but the whole of them, if such a whole there be, leans on nothing. All ‘homes’ are in finite experience; finite experience as such is homeless. Nothing outside of the flux secures the issue of it.”

The process of breaking free from limiting formulas of response in order to learn how to make meanings in a moment by moment activity of improvisation might be said to be the masterplot of all of Cassavetes’ films. They tell his viewers and his characters alike that only by plunging unconditionally into the present, to make something of it here and now, may the possibility of possibility be brought into existence. This capacity to hold ourselves open and responsive to the individuals around us, irrespective of our experiences, might in fact be said to be Cassavetes’ definition of love. In this entirely practical sense, all of his films are about finding possibilities of emotional spontaneity and susceptibility in a world which relentlessly mechanizes behavior and punishes vulnerability. This is the lesson that Minnie must learn in the course of Minnie and Moskowitz. As someone who has gone through disastrous relationships with men, she has to find the courage to open herself to a new relationship in a world without guarantees. The doom of characters like Zelmo and Morgan is that they can’t break their patterns. They can’t leave their pasts, their fears, and memories behind long enough to make a future possible.

In the dramatic metaphor that informs all of his work, Cassavetes asks his characters to throw away all of the preformulated scripts of life and become improvisers of their own identities and relationships. The supreme challenge with which his work confronts both characters and viewers is whether they and we are brave enough to throw ourselves headfirst into experiences whose course we can't ever entirely understand and whose conclusion we can't control. 12

The result is an extremely challenging state of affairs, and far from an easy one. It is much easier to abide by the scripts of life, and to stay on the beaten path. The society of Cassavetes' films is a fiercely predatory and power-saturated one. It is a world extremely hazardous to the individual's health, threatening characters with erasure or extinction at every moment. Cassavetes imagines the most arduous possible universe for his characters to function within, one that exacts Herculean labors of effort from each individual, each of whom is continuously tested to the limit of his or her ability. There is no possibility of poise or relaxation, only a state of endless struggle and combat.

This is undoubtedly the source of the common misperception of Cassavetes as a bleak, pessimistic, or cynical artist. For a certain sort of viewer, his world is obviously a horrifying, even a nightmarish one. But, as he once put it to me, Cassavetes "relished the fights." He viewed struggle as the source of creativity. The challenges are stimulating and invigorating. The difficulty is what makes the glory of the performance. It is only in the face of nearly infinite resistance that we can be heroic. In fighting for our lives we bring ourselves into the fullest and most exciting states of being. Only in negotiating danger is virtue born. His characters inhabit the world of the American dream (in both the positive and the negative senses of the concept)–a realm of both opportunities and dangers.

Faced with the inescapability of complication, Cassavetes' glorious improvisers show us, as Emerson argued in The Conduct of Life, that: "The only path of escape known in all the worlds of God is performance." (Or as Robert Frost more wittily put it: "The best way out is always through.") The improvisational imperative is the only satisfactory response. Emerson, James, and Cassavetes all agree that mastering the influences–not avoiding them–is the only adequate course available to us, no matter what.

This process of plunging into complications, rather than side-stepping them, was integral to James' definition of American heroism, as he writes near the end of his Psychology concerning what he calls the "ethical importance of the phenomenon of effort." As the final sentence indicates, James was fully aware that his advice was only for those who were willing to live a "risky" life "on the perilous edge"–precisely the life Cassavetes urges on us:

"If the searching of our hearts and reins be the purpose of this human drama, then what is sought seems to be what effort we can make. He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero. The huge world that girdles us about puts all sorts of questions to us, and tests us in all sorts of ways. . . . When a dreadful object is presented, or life as a whole turns up its dark abysses to our view, then the worthless ones among us lose their hold on the situation altogether, and either escape from its difficulties by averting their attention, or if they cannot do that, collapse into yielding masses of plaintiveness and fear. The effort required for facing and consenting to such objects is beyond their power to make. But the heroic mind does differently. To it, too, the objects are sinister and dreadful, unwelcome, incompatible with wished-for things. But it can face them if necessary, without for that losing its hold on the rest of life. The world thus finds in the heroic man its worthy match and mate; and the effort which he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken is the direct measure of his worth and function in the game of human life. He can stand this Universe. He can meet it and keep up his faith in it in the presence of those same features that lay his weaker brethren low. He can still find a zest in it, not by "ostrich-like forgetfulness," but my pure inward willingness to face it with those deterrent objects there. And hereby he makes himself one of the masters and the lords of life. He must be counted with henceforth; he forms a part of human destiny. Neither in the theoretic nor the practical sphere do we care for, or go for help to, those who have no head for risks, or sense of living on the perilous edge."

Cassavetes' three most moving demonstrations of this Jamesian relish of embracing complications are A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams–the first a positive example of the creative stimulations of "braving alien entanglements" (to quote Robert Frost again), the second a cautionary tale about the hazards of what James calls "ostrich-like forgetfulness," and the third a depiction of both possibilities in the contrasted characters of Sarah Lawson and Robert Harmon. In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel Longhetti (who is closely related to Sarah Lawson) balletically dances her way through circle after circle of familial entanglements and personal complications. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cosmo Vitelli (who resembles Robert Harmon in this respect) demonstrates the dangers of attempting to avoid life's complexities. Cosmo is a Sternbergian artist who aspires to use his art (i.e. his nightclub and the stage shows he writes and choreographs there) as a means of escape from the pains and confusions of the world. He fantasizes that he can run away from worldly problems and take refuge in the beauty and order of his imaginative creations. 13

Cassavetes' own career was clearly founded on the opposite of Cosmo's and Robert's belief. He understood that great art is not an escape from life's messes and complexities, but a finer embodiment of them, sponsoring a deeper involvement with them. Our supreme works of art are not hospitals where the wounds incurred in life's struggles may be nursed and healed, but are the dangerous battlegrounds themselves, the places where the fiercest wars are fought. Cassavetes' entire career was devoted to the principle that a film is not an island of safety and refuge, a Pateresque "world elsewhere," but an opportunity for emotional exposure, a site of supreme engagement with the disturbances of experience outside of the movies. (Unfortunately, in the realm of film criticism, neither the genre-film escapists nor the formalists have yet assimilated this lesson.)

Cassavetes' work deserves a place alongside the writing of Emerson and James as a seminal presentation of a distinctively American imaginative predicament. Cassavetes transports us to the true America of the imagination: a world in which relationships and identities are up for redefinition; a world of social, psychological, and emotional instability; a world of frightening openness and dangerous vulnerability; a world without rest, relaxation, or pause for the performer who would meet and master the opportunities it offers.

To adapt James’s remarks from “The Absolute and the Strenuous Life,” the world Cassavetes imagines is “always vulnerable, for some part of it may go astray; and having no eternal edition of it to draw comfort from, its partisans must always feel to some degree insecure.” In pushing the envelope of our experience into new places, we are destined always to be a little off-balance—with the edgy anxiety Cassavetes’ improvisers display. As James argues, in this situation it is necessary for the individual to have “a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees.” It would be difficult to find a better description of the strenuous courage of Cassavetes’ greatest and most inspiring improvisers—Leila, Chet, and Jeannie (in the films of the fifties and sixties), Moskowitz, Mabel, Gloria, and Sarah (in the films of the seventies and eighties). Living on “the perilous edge,” they risk everything—but they also put themselves in a position to discover something. In James’s words (from “Pragmatism and Religion”), the result is “a real adventure, with real dangers … [and] with a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done.”

In this view of it, our play is serious, but our work can become play. But life is certainly not a post-modernist romp though a stylistic supermarket. We are far from the campy parody, the aesthetics of kitsch and deconstructive goofiness, of David Lynch, John Waters, Robert Townsend, and the Coen and Kuchar brothers. And we are equally far from the charm, sweetness, politeness, humanism, and visionary quietism of Woody Allen, Barry Levinson, James Ivory, and John Sayles. Cassavetes and James imagine life as being harder, more frightening, more dangerous, and more serious than these filmmakers do.

But, by the same virtue, Cassavetes and James imagine life's rewards as being keener as well: they imagine a world in which what James in Some Problems of Philosophy calls "real growth and real novelty" accrue to those courageous enough not to duck the complexities and challenges of living, breathing experience–to those who decline to withdraw from the messes of life as it is actually lived by escaping into jokes, visions, or dreamy states of good feeling.

It should be obvious that there is a parable about being an independent filmmaker implicit in all of this. Cassavetes' life and work demonstrate what Sarah does in Love Streams: the joys, the challenges, the hazards, the fun of living on the uncertain, moving edge of uncontrolled experience. She and her creator show us the consequences of improvising a trajectory of discovery outside of prefabricated systems of understanding. They illustrate the excruciating, enlivening results of being brave enough to plunge into life's expressive complexities, functioning without guarantees, taking real chances and braving real dangers.

The critical abuse and commercial neglect of Cassavetes' work during his lifetime illustrate the lesson Sarah teaches us in Love Streams: that to live with this abandon is to risk incomprehension and failure at every turn. To operate at this pitch of intensity, extremity, and exposure is inevitably to make a fool of oneself in the eyes of the world and to court dismissal of one's actions as being half-crazy and more than half out of control. But Cassavetes' inspiring career and the careers of his improvisers also teach us something else. They teach us the meaning of authentic American heroism in the brave new world in which we must all learn to live.



1Having taken the eleven films (along with Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, Cassavetes' greatest acting performance in a work other than his own) on a national tour to fifteen cities and a number of American universities during the year following his death, I can testify that the ignorance of Cassavetes' work is just as pervasive inside the film studies programs of our major universities as it is outside of them. (It's an unfortunate reality that American film students and film professors have almost as little knowledge of American independent feature filmmaking in general as does the average man on the street. See my essay "Looking Without Seeing," in the Winter 1991 issue of Partisan Review for an extended discussion of this lamentable situation.) back

2 The coincidence between 1975's A Woman Under the Influence and the mid-seventies women's movement–which briefly embraced the film and helped to make it one of Cassavetes' best-known works–was entirely accidental, as the filmmaker insisted after the movie's release. He pointed out not only that he had written the script and made the movie in 1971 and 1972, before feminism had attained a place of prominence on the national agenda (though it took him until 1975 to get it released), but that in any event he completely rejected feminist interpretations of his central character, making the feminist reading a case of mistaken identification as far as he was concerned. work does not offer the sort of obvious cultural generalizations which elicit knee-jerk journalistic discussion and debate (and which most journalists and journalistic film reviewers naively equate with "artistic importance"). back

3 Even in Cassavetes' "entertainment" comedy, Minnie and Moskowitz, the filmmaker's denial of certain kinds of information about characters' "true" feelings and relationships is not merely a game of cinematic hide-and-seek. A viewer can't make up his mind about characters' "real" feelings, because they themselves can't. If it were otherwise, if the "truth" were simply being concealed from the viewer, Cassavetes would be merely playing with expectations. We would be in the world of David Lynch or the Coen brothers. (I will have more to say about Minnie and Moskowitz below.) The process would be fundamentally frivolous and irresponsible. back

4 Though it might seem paradoxical to talk of "intentions" of which a character is "unaware," it is one of the achievements of Cassavetes' work to make the meaning of such a concept perfectly clear. Intention is less a conscious, verbalizable explanation of behavior, than a habitual pattern of response. back

5 In the scene that takes place between Robert and Susan in front of his house when she comes to visit him, notice how the kiss he gives her is two opposite kisses at one and the same time: a warm romantic invitation and a frigid sexual kiss-off. His interviewing of Joannie in another scene has the same doubleness: even as his sincerely expressed desire is to try to enter imaginatively into her wishes, dreams, and fantasy life, his simultaneous intention is to hold himself aloof and unsympathetic. back

6 In my discussion of Hitchcock and Welles below, I go into a little more deeply into the ramifications of Cassavetes' avoidance of visionary stylistics. back

7 In the second divorce scene, the judge, the lawyers, Jack, Sarah, and daughter Debbie jockey for place and position in a quick, glancing emotional dance with each other as they decide whether Debbie should wait inside the hearing room, outside in the lobby, on the father's side of the table, or the mother's. In the Las Vegas scene with the hookers, there are more "shifts" and "slides" of position (both literally and imaginatively), in one location (the front seat of a car) and two minutes of screen time than there are in other entire films. back

8 What would a film criticism look like that understood this sense of meaning in motion? One can only surmise that it would look quite different from what is now practiced in so-called "advanced" circles of film commentary (particularly as conducted by David Bordwell and other formalist critics). Rather than translating a work into a series of static structures–semiotic conventions, image patterns, and mythopoetic references–criticism needs to find a way to talk about the ways meaning boils over any attempt to contain it within such abstractions, the ways it slips out from under our efforts to fix it. back

9A Woman Under the Influence provides a vivid illustration of the process-quality of Cassavetes’ work. Nick and Mabel Longhetti merely run a course of events in the time of the narrative. Or consider the way scenes and interactions are structured in Faces deliberately to avoid clarifying (that is to say, simplifying) resolutions. Cassavetes' goal is to prevent characters' relationships from congealing into abstract positions. The scene between Richard and Freddy and Jeannie that I already mentioned at the beginning of Faces goes nowhere in the course of its fifteen minutes of screen time, just at they go nowhere with each other. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cosmo's relationship with his girlfriend Rachel and her mother Betty stays stimulatingly unresolved throughout the movie. back

10 Another aspect of Cassavetes' narrative "over-all" handling is his democratic equality of treatment of the various characters–his abandonment of star-system photographic and narrative hierarchies in his scenes. back

11 It is not too much to argue that Hollywood filmmaking (including the work of Welles and Hitchcock) is essentially "Romantic" in ways that Cassavetes declines to be. Rejecting one of the premises of most post-Romantic art, to return to what might almost be called an Elizabethan (or in cinematic terms: a Renoirian) aesthetic, Cassavetes tells us that states of consciousness matter only insofar as they are translatable into forms of practical interaction. (Hitchcock and Welles tell us the opposite: that the truest part of us can never be spoken in society, and that our visions and imaginations are the most important part of us.) Apart from the group, the individual has no existence. States of subjectivity are of no more expressive importance in life than dreams are. Not only must the imagination be expressed socially, but that expressive struggle is the greatest joy and challenge of life. (A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams are Cassavetes' clearest statements of this credo.) back

My Speaking the Language of Desire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 81-86, 156-157 and 234-235 goes into much more detail on the difference between a cinema based on the cultivation of subjectivity and metaphoric transformations of experience and one devoted to practical, social, temporal expression.

12 For slightly fuller discussions of what I would call "the improvisory imperative" in Cassavetes' work, see my "Waking up in the Dark," The Alaska Quarterly Review, Volume 8, Numbers 3 and 4 (Spring 1990) and "Complex Characters," Film Comment, May-June, 1989. back

13 This is the lesson that Minnie must learn in the course of Minnie and Moskowitz. As someone who has gone through a series of disastrous relationships with men, she has to find the courage to open herself to a new relationship in a world without guarantees. The doom of characters like Zelmo and Morgan in the film is that they can't break their patterns. They can't leave their pasts, their prefabricated routines, their fears and memories behind long enough to make a future possible. back

Excerpts from Ray Carney’s award–winning 1990 Kenyon Review John Cassavetes memorial essay appear above. This piece was co–winner of the “Best Essay of the Year by an Younger Author Award.” Only the beginning and the conclusion of the essay are printed here. To obtain the complete essay, purchase Ray Carney’s Collected Essays on the Life and Work of John Cassavetes

Collected Essays on the Life and Work of John Cassavetes (a packet of essays by Ray Carney previously published in magazines, newspapers, and periodicals and now unavailable). Approximately 130 pages. $15.00

A loose-leaf bound packet of Ray Carney's writings on John Cassavetes is specially available only through this web site. The packet has the complete texts of program notes and essays about Cassavetes that were published by Ray Carney in a variety of film journals and general interest periodicals between 1989 and the present. It contains more than fifteen separate pieces—including the keynote essay commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival for their retrospective of Cassavetes' work at the time of his death as well as the memorial piece on Cassavetes awarded a prize by The Kenyon Review as "one of the best essays of the year by a younger author."

Not for sale in any store. Available exclusively on this web site for $15.00 under the same credit payment terms or at the same mailing address as the other offers.

Other Cassavetes material available directly from Ray Carney:

Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber in London, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York), copiously illustrated, paperback, approximately 550 pages. Available directly from the author for $25.

Cassavetes on Cassavetes is the autobiography John Cassavetes never lived to write. It tells an extraordinary saga – thirty years of film history, chronicling the rise of the American independent movement – as it was lived by one of its pioneers and one of the most important artists in the history of the medium. The struggles, the triumphs, the crazy dreams and frustrations are all here, told in Cassavetes' own words. Cassavetes on Cassavetes tells the day-by-day story of the making of some of the greatest and most original works of American film. —from the "Introduction: John Cassavetes in His Own Words"

Click here to access a detailed description of the book and a summary of the topics covered in it.

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Cassavetes on Cassavetes is available in the United States through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and in England through Amazon (UK), Faber and Faber (UK). It is also available at your local bookseller, or, for a limited time, directly from the author (in discounted, specially autographed editions) for $25 via this web site. See below for information how to order this book directly from this web site by money order, check, or credit card (using PayPal).

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Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies
(New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 48 illustrations, paperback, 322 pages. This book is available directly from the author for $20.

The Films of John Cassavetes tells the inside story of the making of six of Cassavetes' most important works: Shadows, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams.

With the help of almost fifty previously unpublished photographs from the private collections of Sam Shaw and Larry Shaw, and excerpts from interviews with the filmmaker and many of his closest friends, the reader is taken behind the scenes to watch the maverick independent at work: writing his scripts, rehearsing his actors, blocking their movements, shooting his scenes, and editing them. Through words and pictures, Cassavetes is shown to have been a deeply thoughtful and self-aware artist and a profound commentator.

This iconoclastic, interdisciplinary study challenges many accepted notions in film history and aesthetics. Ray Carney argues that Cassavetes' films participate in a previously unrecognized form of pragmatic American modernism that, in its ebullient affirmation of life, not only goes against the world-weariness and despair of many twentieth-century works of art, but also places his works at odds with the assumptions and methods of most contemporary film criticism.

Cassavetes' films are provocatively linked to the philosophical writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and John Dewy, both as an illustration of the artistic consequences of a pragmatic aesthetic and as an example of the challenges and rewards of a life lived pragmatically. Cassavetes' work is shown to reveal stimulating new ways of knowing, feeling, and being in the world.

This book is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your local bookseller, or, for a limited time, directly from the author (in discounted, specially autographed editions).
See below for information how to order this book directly from the author by money order, check, or credit card.

Clicking on the above links will open a new window in your browser. You may return to this page by closing that window or by clicking on the window for this page again.

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For reviews and critical responses to The Films of John Cassavetes, please click here. (Use your back button to return.)


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Ray Carney, John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity
(Boston: Company C Publishing, 1999), 25 illustrations, paperback, 68 pages. This book is available directly from the author for $15.

  • New essays on all of the major films, including Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and Love Streams
  • New, previously unknown information about Cassavetes' life and working methods
  • A new, previously unpublished interview with Ray Carney about Cassavetes the person
  • Statements about life and art by Cassavetes
  • Handsomely illustrated with more than two dozen behind-the-scenes photographs

    Click here to access a detailed description of the book.

This book is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your local bookseller, or, for a limited time, directly from the author (in discounted, specially autographed editions). See below for information how to order this book directly from the author by money order, check, or credit card.

Clicking on the above links will open a new window in your browser. You may return to this page by closing that window or by clicking on the window for this page again.


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Ray Carney, Shadows (BFI Film Classics, ISBN: 0-85170-835-8), 88 pages. This book is available directly from the author via this web site for $20.

"Ray Carney is a tireless researcher who probably knows more about the shooting of Shadows than any other living being, including Cassavetes when he was alive, since Carney, after all, has the added input of ten or more of the film’s participants who remember their own unique versions of the reality we all shared."—Maurice McEndree, producer and editor of Shadows

"Bravo! Cassavetes is fortunate to have such a diligent champion. I am absolutely dumbfounded by the depth of your research into this film.... Your appendix...is a definitive piece of scholarly detective work.... The Robert Aurthur revelation is another bombshell and only leaves me wanting to know more.... The book movingly captures the excitement and dynamic Cassavetes discovered in filmmaking; and the perseverance and struggle of getting it up there on the screen."—Tom Charity, Film Editor, Time Out magazine

John Cassavetes’ Shadows is generally regarded as the start of the independent feature movement in America. Made for $40,000 with a nonprofessional cast and crew and borrowed equipment, the film caused a sensation on its London release in 1960.

The film traces the lives of three siblings in an African-American family: Hugh, a struggling jazz singer, attempting to obtain a job and hold onto his dignity; Ben, a Beat drifter who goes from one fight and girlfriend to another; and Lelia, who has a brief love affair with a white boy who turns on her when he discovers her race. In a delicate, semi-comic drama of self-discovery, the main characters are forced to explore who they are and what really matters in their lives.

Shadows ends with the title card "The film you have just seen was an improvisation," and for decades was hailed as a masterpiece of spontaneity, but shortly before Cassavetes’ death, he confessed to Ray Carney something he had never before revealed – that much of the film was scripted. He told him that it was shot twice and that the scenes in the second version were written by him and Robert Alan Aurthur, a professional Hollywood screenwriter. For Carney, it was Cassavetes‘ Rosebud. He spent ten years tracking down the surviving members of the cast and crew, and piecing together the true story of the making of the film.

Carney takes the reader behind the scenes to follow every step in the making of the movie – chronicling the hopes and dreams, the struggles and frustrations, and the ultimate triumph of the collaboration that resulted in one of the seminal masterworks of American independent filmmaking.

Highlights of the presentation are more than 30 illustrations (including the only existing photographs of the dramatic workshop Cassavetes ran in the late fifties and of the stage on which much of Shadows was shot, and a still showing a scene from the "lost" first version of the film); and statements by many of the film's actors and crew members detailing previously unknown events during its creation.

One of the most interesting and original aspects of the book is a nine-page Appendix that "reconstructs" much of the lost first version of the film for the first time. The Appendix points out more than 100 previously unrecognized differences between the 1957 and 1959 shoots, all of which are identified in detail both by the scene and the time at which they occur in the current print of the movie (so that they may be easily located on videotape or DVD by anyone viewing the film).

By comparing the two versions, the Appendix allows the reader to eavesdrop on Cassavetes' process of revision and watch his mind at work as he re-thought, re-shot, re-edited his movie. None of this information, which Carney spent more than five years compiling, has ever appeared in print before (and, as the presentation reveals, the few studies that have attempted to deal with this issue prior to this are proved to have been completely mistaken in their assumptions). The comparison of the versions and the treatment of Cassavetes' revisionary process is definitive and final, for all time.

This book is available through University of California Press at Berkeley, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in England through Amazon (UK) and The British Film Institute. For a limited time, the Shadows book is also available directly from the author (in discounted, specially autographed editions) via this web site. See information below on how to order this book directly from the author by money order, check, or credit card (PayPal). The Japanese edition of <i>American Dreaming</i>

Clicking on the above links will open a new window in your browser. You may return to this page by closing that window or by clicking on the window for this page again.

For reviews and critical responses to Ray Carney's book on the making of Shadows, please click here.

Ray Carney, American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985). $20.

[From the original dust jacket description:] John Cassavetes is known to millions of filmgoers as an actor who has appeared in Rosemary’s Baby, The Dirty Dozen, Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, Tempest, and many other Hollywood movies. But what is less known is that Cassavetes acts in these films chiefly in order to finance his own unique independent productions. Over the past 25 years, working almost entirely outside the Hollywood establishment, Cassavetes has written, directed, and produced ten extraordinary films. They range from romantic comedies like Shadows and Minnie and Moskowitz to powerful, poignant domestic dramas like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence to unclassifiable emotional extravaganzas like Husbands, The The Hungarian edition of <i>American Dreaming</i>Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Gloria.

This is the first book-length study ever devoted to this controversial and iconoclastic filmmaker. It is the argument of American Dreaming that Cassavetes has single-handedly produced the most stunningly original and important body of work in contemporary film. Raymond Carney examines Cassavetes’ life and work in detail, traces his break with Hollywood, and analyzes the cultural and bureaucratic forces that drove him to embark on his maverick career. Cassavetes work is considered in the context of other twentieth-century forms of traditional and avant-garde expression and is provocatively contrasted with the better-known work of other American and European filmmakers.

The portrait of John Cassavetes that emerges in these pages is of an inspiringly idealistic American dreamer attempting to beat the system and keep alive his dream of personal freedom and individual expression – just as the characters in the films excitingly try to keep alive their middle-class dreams of love, freedom, and self-expression in the hostile emotional and familial environments in which they function. His films are chronicles of the yearnings, desires, and frustrations of the American dream. He is America’s truest historian of the inevitable conflict between the ideals and the realities of the American experience.

"By far the most thorough, ambitious, and far-reaching criticism of Cassavetes' work has been accomplished by Raymond Carney, currently Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University. Carney wrote the first book-length study of Cassavetes, who languished in critical obscurity until the publication of Carney's American Dreaming in 1985.... In Carney's view, to settle the accounts of our lives, to decide once and for all, is, for Cassavetes, to tumble headlong into the abyss of nonentity upon which we incessantly verge. Carney argues that Cassavetes has re-invented the craft of filmmaking in ways that drastically alter our casual habits of film viewing. To adapt William James' terminology (which Carney is indebted to) Cassavetes' works are concerned less with the events and finished episodes that make up the 'substantive' parts of our experience and more with the moments of insecurity, the 'transitive' slippages during which our habitual strategies for understanding and stabilizing our relationships with ourselves and others cease to function in any useful way.... Carney's work with Cassavetes, placed within the context of his later book, American Vision, on Frank Capra, can be viewed as an attempt not only to further the understanding of American film, but to forge a new synthesis of understanding in American Studies, making his critical works valuable not only to film scholars, but to students of American culture generally."Lucio Benedetto, PostScript Magazine

American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1985), the first book ever written about Cassavetes' life and work, in any language. It has long been out of print but is now newly available through this web site for $20 in a Xerox of the original edition. You may order with a credit card through PayPal or through the mail with a money order. See below.

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In addition, two packets of Ray Carney's writings on John Cassavetes (material not included in any of the above books) are also specially available through this web site. These packets contain the texts of many of his notes and essays about the filmmaker. Each packet is available for $15.00.

Collected Essays on the Life and Work of John Cassavetes (a packet of essays by Ray Carney previously published in magazines, newspapers, and periodicals and now unavailable). Approximately 130 pages.

A loose-leaf bound packet of Ray Carney's writings on John Cassavetes is specially available only through this web site. The packet has the complete texts of program notes and essays about Cassavetes that were published by Ray Carney in a variety of film journals and general interest periodicals between 1989 and the present. It contains more than fifteen separate pieces – including the keynote essay commissioned by the Sundance Film Festival for their retrospective of Cassavetes' work at the time of his death as well as the memorial piece on Cassavetes awarded a prize by The Kenyon Review as "one of the best essays of the year by a younger author."

This packet also contains the text Ray Carney contributed to the "Special John Cassavetes Issue" of PostScript edited by Ray Carney, including "A Polemical Introduction: The Road Not Taken," "Seven Program Notes from the American Tour of the Complete Films: Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams."

The Collected Essays on the Life and Work of John Cassavetes is not for sale in any store, and available exclusively on this web site for $15.00 under the same credit payment terms or at the same mailing address as the other offers.


"Special Issue: John Cassavetes." PostScript: Essays in Film and the Humanities Vol. 11 Number 2 (Winter 1992). Guest editor: Ray Carney $10.

Handsomely illustrated. 113 double-column pages (50,000 words).

A memorial tribute to the life and work of John Cassavetes. Essays by Ray Carney, George Kouvaros, Janice Zwierzynski, and Carole Zucker. Interviews with Al Ruban and Seymour Cassel by Maria Viera. A history of the critical appreciation of Cassavetes' work and a bibliography of writing in English by Lucio Benedetto. The issue is illustrated with more than 40 behind-the-scenes photos of Cassavetes and his actors and contains many personal statements by him about his life and work.

This issue includes eight essays by Ray Carney about Cassavetes' life and work: "A Polemical Introduction: The Road Not Taken," and "Seven Program Notes from the American Tour of the Complete Films, about Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams." But note that Ray Carney's contributions to the special Cassavetes issue of PostScript magazine are also available as part of the packet, The Collected Essays on the Life and Work of John Cassavetes, which contains many other pieces by Prof. Carney as well. The Collected Essays packet is listed separately above at a price of $15. But if you would like a Xerox copy of the entire PostScript magazine issue (which includes the other additional material by the other authors listed above), the PostScript issue is available separately for $10. You may order it with a credit card through PayPal or through the mail with a money order. See the instructions below.


In addition, a packet comparing the two versions of Shadows is available: A Detective Story – Going Inside the Heart and Mind of the Artist: A Study of Cassavetes' Revisionary Process in the Two Versions of Shadows. Available direct from the author through this site for $15.

This packet contains the following material (most of which was not included in the BFI Shadows book):

  • An introductory essay about the two versions of the film
  • A table noting the minute-by-minute, shot-by-shot differences in the two prints. (In the British Film Institute book on Shadows, this table appears in a highly abridged, edited version, at less than half the length and detail presented here.)
  • A conjectural reconstruction of the shot sequence in the 1957 print
  • A shot list for the 1959 re-shoot of the film
  • The credits exactly as presented in the film (including typographical and orthographical vagaries indicating Cassavetes' view of the importance of various contributors)
  • An expanded and corrected credit listing that includes previous uncredited actors and appearances (e.g. Cassavetes in a dancing sequence; Gena Rowlands in a chorus girl sequence; and Danny Simon and Gene Shepherd in the nightclub sequence)
  • Notes about the running times of both versions and information about dates and places of early screenings
  • A bibliography of suggested additional reading (including a note about serious mistakes in previous treatments of the film by other authors)

Very little of this material was included in the BFI book on Shadows due to limitations on space. This 85-page (25,000 word) packet is not for sale in any store and is available exclusively through this site for $15.



The five books, two packets, and issue of PostScript magazine may be obtained directly from the author, by using the Pay Pal Credit Card button below, or by sending a check or money order to the address below. However you order the book or books, please provide the following information:

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Checks or money orders may be mailed to:

Ray Carney
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If you have questions, comments, or problems, or if you would like to send me additional information about your order, please feel free to email me at: raycarney@usa.net. (Note: Due to the extremely high volume of my email correspondence, thousands of emails a week, and the diabolical ingenuity of Spammers, be sure to use a distinctive subject heading in anything you send me. Do NOT make your subject line read "hi" or "thanks" or "for your information" or anything else that might appear to be Spam or your message will never reach me. Use the name of a filmmaker or the name of a familiar film or something equally distinctive as your subject line. That is the only way I will know that your message was not automatically generated by a Spam robot.)

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