FOCUS/FRAME: OPTIONAL – John Cassavetes

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With the Oscars breathing down our neck, let’s detour for a moment to observe how the noir auteur recently got The Criterion Collection treatment. Pictured above: his wife (and on-screen muse) Gena Rowlands, in A Woman Under the Influence.

BY A.D. AMOROSI

After having starred in a lackluster television series and his lean mug and staccato delivery paraded misguidedly in a listless lot of Hollywood features, John Cassavetes pretty much invented American independent filmmaking. He had to. Nobody else was doing it. Pretty much in his image, yet; his improvisational dialogue was filled with rambling thoughts and run-on sentences. His guy’s guy male characters (an acting pool of his pals or on-set associates) were full of macho bravado with arguments than went on way too long. His female characters—mostly his wife, Gena Rowlands—mostly seemed ticked off at him. And nobody got away unscathed at each film’s end.

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Not only did the eccentric Cassavetes write (barely) and direct (hardly) his characters (and by this, I mean his oddly shaped team of buds such as Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Seymour Cassell). He shaped them into the man he was: hot-wired, bug-eyed, brusque, and chatty—always smartly chatty—with his films acting as fuzzily blurry and conversationally bleak (yet damned funny, even at their most harrowing) productions where focus and frame was strictly optional.

If Cassavetes’ Five Films within the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray box were albums, they’d be in-the-red and frazzled to the ear, something akin to Royal Trux or the first album from Sonic Youth: revolutionary in their messiness.

Though it would take nearly a decade for him to truly follow up the jazz improvisational, post-Beat gen flick Shadows (1959; trailer is above) with its Charlie Mingus music and its controversial tale of a black woman, a white man and interracial relationships, Cassavetes set his aesthetic in motion there with its trailed-off, unfinished thoughts and scenes that either ended abruptly or continued too long after its climactic moment ended. Like the man himself, Cassavetes’ movies drifted until their weirdly open-ended finale.

Unlike him. No one ever seems to really DO anything or get anywhere in these films (though they do talk quite a bit about doing something and getting somewhere); they are the ultimate slice-of-life flicks, perhaps even Cassavetes’ life. 1968’s Faces was shot in his house with Rowlands and John Marley acting as alienated marrieds, talking about sex and disillusionment with brutal honesty and dating younger mates. I don’t know if Cassavetes and Rowland had this problem, but damn if you didn’t consider such hum-drum heartache between them. Same with A Woman Under the Influence from 1974, a breathless drama where the ultimate suburban housewife (a gorgeous Rowlands, in the trailer above above, who never actually looks the part of an everyday hausfrau) struggles with sanity while tending to day-to-day drudgery. Rowlands, like the film itself, is at once extraordinary and ordinary. Though you crave to see restless males dramedies such as Husbands and the charmingly silly Minnie and Moskowitz (the Next Five Films, perhaps?), the noir-ish and removed-from-real-life The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), with the dignified Ben Gazzara (pictured below) as a strip club owner, is a brawny denouement to the box’s bravura. Only Rowlands’ feline fear and feminine energy as a theater actress stunned into reality after the death of a fan in Opening Night (1977) can top Gazzara’s graceful machismo.

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Be it a male character or a woman, Cassavetes knew to just let the camera run long and the emotions would overflow without sentiment or sap.

This feature originally appeared in issue #14 of BLURT.

 

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