The difference in the two versions is that Stanley’s picture said that retarded children belong in institutions and the picture I shot said retarded children are better in their own way than supposedly healthy adults. The philosophy of his film was that retarded children are separate and alone and therefore should be in institutions with others of their kind. My film said that retarded children could be anywhere, any time, and that the problem is that we’re a bunch of dopes, that it’s our problem more than the kids’. The point of the original picture that we made was that there was no fault, that there was nothing wrong with these children except that their mentality was lower.
— John Cassavetes on A Child is Waiting, in Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes
This particular woman, I don’t think she’s crazy, I think she’s so totally devoted to the concept or the idea that being a good wife means that there’s a reciprocal thing somewhere, but she doesn’t know quite what it is…. More than being crazy, I think she’s socially inept, and emotionally inept. So that we look at that, from our standpoint, she’s at the spaghetti table and she says, ‘I remember you, I remember your wife, I don’t remember you….’ Everything that she does is, in a way, an expression of individuality. She’s trying to be individual in the framework of something that no one can be that comfortable in, and no one really knows the way… none of us know that…. You find your own way, of being socially equipped to deal with other people. But it’s not that easy….
I don’t think she cracks up. I think that she never changes…. A man committed her — she was the same before she was committed. In fact she was very lucid…. [Men] don’t like to be told that we’ve made a fool of ourselves. [Her husband] made a fool of himself. So he came home and the kids were naked. Isn’t that terrible? … He got punched by a neighbor who was being driven crazy by a socially inept woman, who wasn’t doing anything wrong — took the children outside and played Swan Lake, and he was bored! Wasn’t he? He was uncomfortable, and he didn’t know what to expect. And she didn’t know how entertain him, so she acted what we would call crazy. But she didn’t do anything wrong.
— Cassavetes in a 1975 interview with Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson, included with the Criterion box set.
I mentiond briefly in last month’s installment that Cassavetes made a film in the Fifties called A Child is Waiting, about retarded children, whose final edit was taken from him and didn’t reflect what he wanted to say. I think he gets his own back, though, in this month’s film, A Woman Under the Influence. Often described as the story of a housewife who loses her mind due to (pick from the following) spousal abuse/parental abuse/the pressures of the feminine mystique/social expectations, it is, I think, actually a continuation of Cassavetes’ vigorous defense of those society tends to spurn. Without denying that all of those factors are involved in the main character’s agonizing inability to connect with the shared social reality, I think it’s also Cassavetes’ intention to present Mabel Longhetti as someone whose fundamental sanity is not in question, however odd and “inappropriate” her behavior may appear.
Briefly, Woman is the story of Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk), some sort of crew leader for the Public Works department, and Mabel (Gena Rowlands), his wife, whose erratic behavior and tendency to embarrass him lead Nick to commit her to a hospital. When she comes back six months later, she’s calm and seemingly under control, but eerily robotic. Nick, immediately sensing something’s not right, yells at her to be herself. An awkward dinner with family follows, in which Mabel, bombarded with social demands, pleads with her father to “stand up” for her. (With a horrifying and hilarious literalness, he actually rises from his seat.) Eventually she loses her composure, at which point her father feebly, belatedly, and wrongheadedly tries to take her side before the family files out the door and Nick is left alone to try to bring her back to herself — a task made more difficult by that fact that he is half the problem.
Cassavetes is willing to present characters who are so, as he says, socially and emotionally inept that it’s impossible to be around them, and we retreat from them instinctively. And we’d like to put them into more comfortable or familiar categories, even if that makes them more loathsome than they really are. For us, as the audience, it would be easier if these characters were somehow so immoral or beyond acceptability that we could hate them. So, for example, this review at culturevulture.net seems to me very much to miss the emotional and philosophical tensions at play in the film, and to reduce them to easy moral/judgemental categories. The author, Dan Schneider, calls Mabel a “deranged cocktease” and “clinically insane” and a “flaming nut case,” and sees Nick as a “clueless, bigoted bastard,” while unaccountably referring to the children as “bratty.” There’s a real anger to that kind of phrasing that suggests a total alienation from these characters. And they are alienating, but no more so than many essentially harmless but inept people are alienating. They are unable to make others comfortable or to do the right thing — they are terrible at soothing, at the little gliding movements that make social intercourse possible.
This is a film which will fundamentally divide audiences along philosophical lines. Those who see things as Cassavetes do — feeling that the awkward and bizarre are as entitled to their individuality as the socially apt — will be far less inclined to misread certain key scenes and events. Without picking on Mr. Schneider too much, I think it’s fair to say he quite misremembers at least one important moment, and misunderstands a couple others. First, the scene Cassavetes describes in the quote above, in which Mabel encourages the kids to put on makeup and make costumes, which involves them undressing and, in the way of children, ending up naked with a pile of clothes on the floor. Mr. Schneider’s review indicates that Mabel was the one doing the undressing, and says, “What would have happened, if she was not stopped, is hard to predict,” hinting that there would have been some serious harm to the children, possibly sexual abuse. But in fact it’s perfectly obvious that what would have happened is that they would have played pirates and been a little out-of-bounds and wound-up by the end of the day. There isn’t the slightest hint that she would have endangered them. Even the neighbor seems to understand this. Mabel says to the him, as he’s patiently re-dressing his children, “I’m sorry. I really wanted it to be nice.” “Yes,” he acknowledges, “I know you did.”
Second, after Mabel has returned home from the hospital, there’s a terrible, exhausting scene in which she tries to cut herself, Nick comes after her violently, and the childen rush to defend her, gently holding their father a safe distance away. Mr. Schneider argues that this is implausible, though Cassavetes mentions in an interview with Judith McNally that the children on the set reacted that way spontaneously, which, he says, he could never have directed them to do. I don’t know whether it’s “realistic,” exactly, but I do think that children in that kind of household, ironically, develop quite sensitive social skills, and learn early on how to manage their parents. But the most interesting thing about the scene is the way the two parents finally return to the role they’re actually good at, putting aside their own destructive impulses to tend to the children. (Again, this undermines the idea that Mabel is in some way dangerous or abusive to them.)
Finally, in the very last scene, Mr. Schneider sees the ringing telephone, which Mabel and Nick cheerfully refuse to answer, as a symbol of the sane outside world, which they have turned their backs on. But that’s a bizarre read, given the entirely loving, gentle, and sane way they’ve just reassured the children and carefully put them to bed, returning them to some kind of normalcy. (Not to mention the jaunty kazoo-band music that plays over the end, which seems to me genuinely celebratory, rather than some sort of ironic commentary.) Peter Falk, on the other hand, guesses in an interview with Gena Rowlands that the phone is probably Nick’s overbearing and intrusive mother, whom he is finally learning to ignore. And this, to me, is the right understanding. Nick and Mabel are weird and difficult — she is just plain odd, while he’s easily embarrassed and therefore easily wrothful — but their priorities, when they’re left to their own devices, are just fine.
This film is rightly called a masterpiece, and its concerns are not confined to Mabel and Nick’s troubles. It’s also got things to say about the helplessness and the dignity of blue-collar workers, the overwhelming surfaces of earth and water that they tame for our benefit, the discomfort of race relations (even among friends), the astonishing, humanizing wonder of song. Nonetheless, Cassavetes’ focus is impressive — he’s known more for his actors’ meticulous and unpredictable performances, but as a writer and an editor he knows how to construct a story — there’s not one element in this film that doesn’t contribute to our overall understanding of this family’s near-rupture.
One possible reading of the film, often overlooked, is that much of what happens here stems from an incident of adultery at the beginning of the film. Angry with Nick for ditching their date night for an emergency call and freed, for the evening, from the kids, Mabel goes to a bar, picks up a good-natured stranger, and takes him home. Is this the first time she’s done something like this? We have no way of knowing. But her obvious remorse is a potential clue, and it goes some way towards explaining everything in the film. Perhaps Mabel is acting even weirder than usual because she can’t quite stand herself for what she’s done. And perhaps Nick’s rage comes in part from a sense that there’s something wrong, that a crime has been committed, even though he can’t put his finger on it. Certainly the linger traces of the adultery explain why Nick makes the wrong assumption about the neighbor, which leads directly to just about everything else that happens. And of course, because she’s ashamed of herself, Mabel, who’s got precious few resources to begin with, is simply unable to cope or in any way help herself.
Cassavetes is not that interested in helping us draw a through-line from one act to the other; the adultery is never, ever mentioned again in the course of the film. But its existence comments on the main body of the film, colors it, and perhaps even explains it. It’s a fascinating subtext that almost seems unnecessary, yet it plays its part in this clockwork emotional plotting like everything else.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how beautiful this film is. Cassavetes generally gets shorted when it comes to his technical craft, because he himself deprecated it and insisted that the performances and the characters were the important thing. Nonetheless, this film assembles an incredible roster of technical talent: Caleb Deschanel, a noted cinematographer, does “additional photography,” as does Gary Graver, a longtime Welles collaborator, while Bo Harwood, now well-known for sound work in major Hollywood films, here composes a startling score that veers from jazz to classical to free jams.
Cassavetes and his partners create a convincing, if bizarre, lower-middle-class home with its own peculiarities both human (why do they sleep in the dining room?) and spatial — indeed the movement from space to space within the house becomes a major element within the film, and the house itself becomes an important character. Its large windows invite in gorgeous, if not technically “correct,” daylight during the early scenes, while in later scenes its dark wood trim and traditional furnishings add to Mabel’s claustrophobia. Its stairs, ordinary plain carpeted stairs, are made explicitly the site of several transformations, including the “I’m with you!” scene (shot in an almost completely abstract silhouette) and the story’s final resolution and release.
As has been true of the other films in this series, I find I have more to say but have to end this somewhere. I still haven’t mentioned the weird ultra-feminization of the wardrobe of the one female child in the family, or Cassavetes’ ongoing interest in performance (Mabel’s one successful moment at her homecoming dinner is a small comedy routine improvised with a table napkin), or the great performances of the supporting cast, including the incredible Fred Draper as Mabel’s father. We haven’t had time to get into how interesting it is that Cassavetes has cast his own wife, children, and mother as Nick’s wife, children and mother. But this will have to do.