"Faces," which opens Friday as the next offering in the monthlong John Cassavetes retrospective in Santa Ana, may not have been this maverick director's best film, but it's probably his most important.
With "Faces," the fourth movie he directed, Cassavetes came a long way toward finding his niche in filmmaking. He not only distilled his scruffy, unorthodox and highly personal style but made the decision to retain his independence, away from the tampering of the big studios.
Cassavetes' directing and writing career first took off in 1961 with "Shadows," a low-budget, gritty look at life in Manhattan. While coarse (it was shot in 16-mm stock with bare plotting and a cast of mostly unknowns), it revved up critics and studio executives who recognized Cassavetes' talents.
Wooed by the studios, he soon made "Too Late Blues" (1962) with Bobby Darin and "A Child Is Waiting" (1963) with Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster, both under the watchfulness of the Hollywood system.
Neither movie was any good, and it left Cassavetes, who said he was kept on a short leash during the filming of both, an angry insider. But he quickly became an outsider again, vowing to go back to doing independent films, either financed by the money he made as an actor or with the help of friends.
His first project was "Faces," released in 1968. Most reviewers welcomed this return to form, and Cassavetes, in interviews shortly before he died in 1989 of complications of cirrhosis of the liver, called it one of his favorite films. He received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay.
Like much of his work, "Faces" has the technical essence of an expert home movie. It's far from a refined product: it's messy, defiantly artless, almost primitive, and honest. There are traces of self-indulgence but no complacency in this sometimes hard, sometimes comic look at an affluent middle-aged couple growing apart in suburban Los Angeles.
The plot is bare and a little cliched, but the film's dramatic scenes, usually shot with a roving camera and lighted in fairly crude ways, are realistically, almost voyeuristicly, staged.
That results in several riveting passages, when we feel like we're peering in on something not really meant for our eyes. Even when "Faces" drags on, it's easy to follow Richard (John Marley) and Maria (Lynn Carlin) as their marriage starts to dissolve and they look for diversions, Richard with a hooker played by Gena Rowlands and Maria with an aging surfer-gigolo (Seymour Cassel).
What: John Cassavetes' "Faces."
When: Friday, July 5, through Thursday, July 11. Various show times.
Where: Edwards South Coast Plaza Village theater, near the corner of Bristol Street and Sunflower Avenue, Santa Ana.
Whereabouts: Take the San Diego Freeway (405) to Bristol and head north to Sunflower, then go west.
Wherewithal: $3.50 and $6.
Where to Call: (714) 540-0594.