"Seen any good movies lately?" has gone from a conversation-opener to a wail. I can't, personally, remember any moviegoing period as dispiriting as the first five months of this year, but a great solution is at hand: the John Cassavetes collection, with us at least through the month of June.
They're guaranteed to infuriate. Either because they remain the damnedest, most haunting and most confrontational movies ever made or because watching them we glimpse what's missing from roughly 95% of our movies today and it's almost too much to bear.
Cassavetes' subject, always, was love. His gaze was resolutely inward, his attitude was profoundly compassionate. To believe, as some did, that he made movies only about men was as off-kilter as the persistent idea that his films were improvised. Cassavetes scripted rigorously, exhaustively, then cut his movies to cover any traces of artfulness. He also created an unrivaled gallery of women's roles, each vividly different; women of every age were the prime moving forces of his films. Even in the moments when they weren't being treated well, he created a protective feeling within us so that \o7 we\f7 felt what was being done was wrong--not an attitude much in evidence today.
Among the stories swapped at the Sundance Festival's tribute to Cassavetes, a few weeks before his death in January of 1989, was the one of him as a young man, announcing to his father that he wanted to be an actor. His Greek-born businessman-father, already not happy that his son was leaving college, took the news gravely. "Well, John," he said, "that's a very important job. You will have a tremendous responsibility, because you are going to be representing \o7 the lives of human beings.\f7 "
Bless the Greeks and their historic sense of the essence of things. Has any American filmmaker ever acted so consistently on such sound advice? Cassavetes began as an actor--a powerful one--but quickly knew he wanted to direct even more. And from "Shadows" which he began when he was 27, through "Love Streams" in 1984, he represented the lives of human beings, as we'd never seen them before: fragmented, inarticulate, chaotic, painful, hilarious.
The chaos was absolutely intentional. As Cassavetes himself said: "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 radically changed the way American movies were shot, listened to, understood. The acknowledged father of independent filmmaking in this country, he wrote, produced, directed, co-edited, photographed, acted in and even--in some cases--distributed eight seminal, intensely personal features: "Shadows," "Faces," "Husbands," "Minnie and Moskowitz," "A Woman Under the Influence," "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," "Opening Night" and "Love Streams." In addition to their daring, what links these films is their absolutely contemporary and personal quality: We know these characters because their interior struggles are exactly the ones we wrestle with every day.
And still, as they have for 34 years, Cassavetes' films can send audiences up the aisles and out the door before the first reel is over. I can empathize. "Husbands" still does that to me; I've seen a little more than a third of it three or four times and I've never made it past Peter Falk's Archie throwing up in the men's room. So I understand that especially television-raised audiences, conditioned for so long to conventional storytelling techniques, might be pushed beyond endurance by Cassavetes' methods.
However, the real problem has been getting the chance to \o7 see\f7 a Cassavetes film, to slip into one for ourselves and find out where, or if, it fits. None of those eight cornerstone films have been on cassette, although there's now talk of it before the end of the year, and they're rarely on television. All of this makes the mini-retrospective now at Laemmle's Royal (schedule below) the great chance that it is; a cross section of the freshest, most pertinent and relevant films anywhere.
There remains an extraordinary record of Cassavetes' thoughts as he made his films: Cassavetes on Cassavetes, an unpublished manuscript of the filmmaker's own, outspoken words taken from interviews, transcripts, private conversations and letters, and about 2,000 pages of unproduced plays, screenplays, novels and essays. They were painstakingly collected for the 1990 retrospective tour by Boston University Prof. Ray Carney.
Pungent and unsparing, these notes are the absolute manifesto by which Cassavetes lived and worked. Read these excerpts remembering the force of Cassavetes' sardonic smile, his watchfulness, his palpable intelligence, his precise, mercurial shifts of mood--and his enveloping gusts of laughter: