“Money is not a culture.”
“We made eight million mistakes. But it was exciting, and fun.”
— John Cassavetes in interviews with the French TV program Filmmakers of Our Time
John Cassavetes’ second independent feature, Faces, was released almost a decade after his first. He directed two Hollywood features in between, Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting. The first is rarely mentioned even in Cassavetes literature and may have simply dropped away as forgettable; the second is discussed by Cassavetes in some detail in an interview. He describes, with no especial bitterness, how the producer of the film recut it after his involvement to change the meaning of the film. (Briefly, the film that was eventually released suggested that retarded children would be better off in institutions, while Cassavetes maintains that his original cut suggested that the problem resided with us and our discomfort with their differentness.) Cassavetes’ good humor about the recut and his subsequent decision not to make any more films in the studio system seem to suggest that he knew from the start that he was going to have to go his own way.
He and his wife, Gena Rowlands, worked for several years as actors, saving money until the mid-’60s, when Cassavetes wrote a script about a couple whose tedious, forced marriage disintegrates in an evening. They spent several years on the self-financed project, from inception to theatrical release. Most of that time was spent editing, reworking, re-shooting, but video interviews with the cast and crew (included on a supplemental disc with the Criterion set) indicate that Cassavetes was willing to take an extremely unorthodox and results-oriented approach to shooting, shutting down for the day if he wasn’t getting what he wanted out of the performers. He was a little under the gun in the principal shooting of the film, because his lead female performers were both in the early stages of pregnancy, but he refused to work to the typical, “disciplined” shooting schedule.
David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, and Peter Bogdanovich joked for several minutes in an interview on the DVD of the first season of that show that the director is the least important element during a shoot — that, in essence, if the director fell over dead the crew could keep shooting and finish the film.
This is the assembly-line, business-minded, disciplined approach in Hollywood filmmaking. It has its virtues, chiefly budgetary, and most independent filmmakers work on an even more scheduled, tightly planned basis than do Hollywood directors. When I was on the independent scene in Atlanta, I heard people speak with reverence about a guy who had shot an entire film in a single day, using a single location and breathtaking logistical finesse, shooting several scenes at once on the same location and hopping around so he could shoot one while changing setups on another. I also once heard a guy bragging that he would shoot at a ratio of 1.5 or 2 to 1, never allowing himself more than two takes per setup.
There’s an astrigent virtue to this kind of exacting planning and control, and I sometimes used similar methods in my own video work. I was able to shoot movies for less than $100 a minute, and the exercise was useful in teaching me to go in with a plan and think things through, especially on the technical side. But there was another kind of filmmaking that I think we in the Atlanta scene didn’t do enough of (I only remember it happening once in my group), the kind where on Monday somebody says, “We should make a movie,” and on Wednesday somebody throws out a scenario and on Saturday afternoon you’re making props and on Saturday night you’re shooting in somebody’s apartment, and you don’t have a schedule — you just have an idea of some things you want to see on screen. Sometimes planning a film too completely can kill it, and sometimes giving it some space can bring out some surprising things. Bogdanovich, in the same interview with Chase, mentioned a conversation he had with Orson Welles in which Welles said that “a director is someone who presides over accidents.” Cassavetes’ great virtue, apart from the cooperative, familial atmosphere he seemed to generate with his cast and crew, was that he knew how to get out of the way of the accidents.
Faces, briefly, is the story of an aging businessman and his younger wife who spend the night apart, tempting themselves with other lovers. The way they go about finding these lovers are reflective of their sex roles as well as their relative positions in society — Richard, a rich man, experienced in back-slapping and charming strangers, can walk confidently into a bar alone and make friends (this is made clearer in an alternate cut of the opening provided in the bonus materials), while Maria camouflages her search as a “night out with the girls.” On parallel paths, both of them retire from the clubs to private homes in small drunken groups. But each group is sexually asymmetric, and competition turns drunken “playfulness” into ugly explosions of desperation. Eventually, the losers are winnowed away, and the winners reap their rewards. Which is when things really start to unravel.
I’ve started to notice some things about Cassavetes’ films, trends that run through them, based on having watched, on this project, Shadows and Faces, as well as having previously seen several of his other films.
First, although Cassavetes once joked that he wanted to make “One musical — only one!” — and that was to be an adaptation of Crime and Punishment — he also said “I like all music. It makes you feel like living. Silence is death.” And his films are all full of music, especially music performed spontaneously by the characters. There is some scoring in Shadows. but there’s also a great deal of diegetic music, mostly in nightclubs; one of the major plotlines is about a singer who feels degraded when he has to act as emcee and comedian in a strip club. One of the most arresting moments, however, doesn’t take place in a nightclub at all, but in the singer’s apartment. He and his manager are singing a tune, a rather boring tune, arguing over it, when all of a sudden his sister’s date breaks in and sings the song in a completely different but much more exciting way. It’s a humiliating moment for the aspiring singer, but it’s a magical moment for the viewer.
In Faces, there is little to no scoring, but music all over the place. The characters drift through bars and nightclubs listening to jazz and popular music, then retire to their homes and sing drunkenly to one another and dance to blues records. Music is used as a weapon, to banish silence and cover the emptiness of the mostly artificial relationships created for a single night by alcohol and desperation. It’s just another kind of performance, like telling jokes and flirting. Cassavetes is fascinated by sweaty, overwrought, failing performances, by the embarrassingly enthusiastic attempts to connect.
Music may make us “feel like living,” but if we try to wring that feeling from it, it loses its power and becomes something frankly hideous. Cassavetes would come back to this theme in his later films, especially in one of the most celebrated scenes in A Woman Under the Influence, next month’s film.
The second thing I’ve noticed about his films is that he’s fascinated by ineffectual violence. Violence in his films seems very realistic to me — sloppy, slow, and cowardly. The violence also seems to derive largely from male pride — the silly back-alley brawl in Shadows, the near-fight between Richard and another businessman in Faces — in which cases it’s humorous, even when it’s exciting and tense. But when a character tries to commit suicide near the end of Faces, the “violence” of the aftermath is almost unbearable. The two kinds of “realism” here couldn’t be more different, but they go back to Cassavetes’ fascination with failed performance — violence as a posture or show of strength is comical, but real violence committed out of desperation is tragic.
The other interesting trend in Cassavetes’ films so far is an approach to cutting between scenes that leaves ambiguous exactly how much time has passed, and how events in sequence are connected to one another. The beginning of Faces, for example, starts off with Richard at work, attempting to sell a film project to investors. As the trailer for the proposed project rolls, Cassavetes cuts to credits for the actual film, a rare moment of metacinematic cutesiness that, fortunately, gives a little thrill without intruding too much. After the credits we are immediately taken to a bar, which Richard, a friend, and a woman (Jeannie) are leaving together. There’s an awkward 12 or 15 minutes at Jeannie’s house, in which the friend is basically forced out, but Richard fails to consummate things. He leaves, and then he arrives home — presumably these scenes are in immediate sequence. He and Maria joke and chat for a while before falling into argument. Maria goes upstairs , while Richard is seen racking billiard balls in some unknown part of the house. Cassavetes then cuts to them having bizarre non-sex in bed, but it’s not 100% clear that this is even still the same night. Next he cuts back to a tight shot of Richard in the billiard room, only the gentle clacking of the balls subtly cuing us that the bed scene might have been a flashback. That’s followed by a scene in the kitchen, where Richard asks for a divorce, then plays it off as a joke, then doesn’t. He goes to the phone and calls Jeannie, arranging to meet her at the same club they were seen leaving in the earlier scene.
From that point, the cutting settles down to fairly conventional parallelism, chronicling the respective activities of Richard and Maria over the course of a single night. But what night? By the time Richard, Fred, and Jeannie leave the “Loser” nightclub at the beginning of the film, they are already clearly quite wasted, and it seems quite late. To imagine that everything that follows happens in a single night strains credulity. It’s possible that there’s a break between the bed scene and the kitchen scene, but it’s in no way clear. And the alternate beginning shows clearly that although each of the key scenes existed during shooting, Cassavetes himself hadn’t decided at the time of shooting what the chronology would be. (On the other hand, the chronology in that alternate footage is actually more sensible, seeming to show Richard at the bar during the day; presumably an important film executive doesn’t necessarily work 9 to 5.)
The scene changes aren’t nonsensical, exactly — a case can be made for a reasonable timeline for the film. But emotion tones can shift so radically from scene to scene that where in a more conventional (and emotionally “flat”) film, we might assume temporal continuity, in Cassavetes I find myself constantly questioning even fairly obvious transitions, wondering whether two such divergent moments can really lie side by side in time.
Cassavetes’ storytelling technique and his eruptive dialogue also, at times, render his characters somewhat ambiguous. Consider this exchange between Richard and Maria:
R: All we [men] ask for is peace, to give us our daily feeding of three square meals a day, bread and water, and we’ll just sit staring at the sun, going blind, okay?
M: Oh, I’m so sorry! Do we emasculate you? Poor little boy, losing his virility….
R: Well I don’t have it anymore! What happened to it, huh?
M: I just don’t appeal to you.
R: Oh, you appeal to me, all right. When I come home, you appeal to me, when I ‘m at the office, you appeal to me!
M: I am not a sex machine!
R: No, you want to go to the movies.
M: I’m bored!
R: That’s how you get your jollies!
M: Don’t be crude!
R: Crude, schmude — I’m crude!
M: The minute you get home you want to jump into bed.
R: That’s the general idea!
Now, is Richard impotent, or does he demand sex all the time? What’s going on here?
Similarly, although every review I’ve been able to find of Faces calls the Jeannie character a prostitute, she’s a damned queer one if she is. She considers any reference to the occupation an insult, she forms a clinging attachment to Richard in the space of a single evening, and she entertains men at her house that she knows she isn’t going to sleep with. On the other hand, she tells Richard at a fragile moment, “I haven’t got a heart of gold,” and when one of the businessmen briefly retires to her room with her, not to have sex but to pour his heart out for a few minutes, he nonetheless musses his hair and pulls out his shirt to make his friend think he’d done it.
She is a prostitute — it seems impossible, given the things that ultimately transpire, that she’s not. But because Cassavetes never dramatizes the technical details of her trade — no money ever changes hands, we never see her “walking the streets” or directly soliciting — we are forced to react to her in a less categorized way. The film does not give us a comfortable, established role for her, and so we are forced more to view her as a woman who is occasionally treated like a prostitute than someone who fundamentally is a prostitute.
There’s more — much more — to this movie, but I need to finish these notes and mail this DVD out to someone else. Next month: A Woman Under The Influence.