Four Myths that Stand in the Way of the Proper Appreciation of John Cassavetes


Myth 1: Cassavetes’ Films Are Largely Improvised by the Actors.


How many times have we heard young directors, all over the world, say: ‘I’m going to use improvisation in my film – Cassavetes-style’? This remains the most widespread misconception about the work of John Cassavetes (1929-1989) as writer-director. No matter how many times the truth is pointed out – that only the first, largely unseen version of Shadows (1959) employed full improvisation, whereas the revised version (the one we all know) already includes carefully revised and scripted material – the myth keeps going around.


And it’s easy to see why. Everyone who loves Cassavetes’ work fixes on the intensity and authenticity of the human emotions and interactions within them. It can all seem so spontaneous, so unplanned, so magical. What spellbinding acting, what ‘in the moment’ truth!  Yet the next logical step after this initial thought is so rarely taken: the fact that Cassavetes was able to depict all of this, so regularly and systematically, in a way that is unlike anybody else’s films, should point to his genius as a writer and director – not an abnegation of his artistic contribution.


Cassavetes, for his part, was always perfectly clear about this. It was all written down, all thoroughly rehearsed, all staged and ‘blocked’ – although Cassavetes’ blockage, his mise en scène, again looks like nobody else’s (even those who most slavishly try to imitate him). It wasn’t ever the words that were improvised by the actors, he insisted – it was the emotions. Of course, even this is a catchy exaggeration of the truth. But it points to that part of the mystery-zone in human behaviour – and the performance of that behaviour – which Cassavetes entrusted to his great ‘family’ of actors, from his wife Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, through to Seymour Cassel and a vast troupe of friends and relatives.



Myth 2: Cassavetes’ Films are Formless; the Camera Just Follows What’s Going On.


Plots that meander. Scenes that go on forever. An endless series of interpersonal encounters, explosions, arguments, breakdowns, entrances, exits. The longer DVD version of Husbands shows this whole ‘drift’ of Cassavetes’ work at its anarchic peak. But does this make his films ‘formless’?


Quite the contrary: the form is precisely in this wandering, this openness, this incredibly rich network of comings and goings, fusions and separations. Olivier Assayas put it well: Cassavetes, like all the greatest artists, invented his own form. And the form encompasses far more than just hyperactive actors and a perpetually on-the-shoulder camera. Cassavetes’ work on light, on rhythm, on sound (noise plus speech plus music), on montage, is frankly experimental, opening new doors for cinema, then and now.


Like F.W. Murnau or Boris Barnet, like Vincente Minnelli or Max Ophuls, like Stanley Kwan or Werner Schroeter, Cassavetes explored all the fundamentals of cinema: physical, concrete, architectural, public and domestic space as something that is inhabited and lived in; time as something that is endured, resisted, bent out of shape; human gestures and postures as that infinitely malleable melting pot of somatic life, both reflecting every social pressure and deforming them, triumphantly. Like so many cinematic artists, he was fascinated with the ambiguous crawlspace between objective, photographable reality and the internal, mental realm of dreams, memories, hallucinations (as with the matter-of-fact ghostly apparitions in Opening Night).



Myth 3: Cassavetes’ ‘Hollywood’ Films are Far Inferior to His Independent Productions.


Has anyone seen Too Late Blues (1961) lately? I have, and I can tell you that, like the somewhat more troubled production of A Child Is Waiting two years later, it contains content, structures, blinding moments of intensity, and image-sound relations, that bust through every Hollywood convention. Yet these two films – like, later, the sublime Gloria (1980), or the odd, final comedy assignment Big Trouble (1986) – are dismissed, or simply ignored altogether, as Cassavetes’ ‘Hollywood’ films, his genre films. Compromised, broken, mediocre. Whole tracts on Cassavetes scarcely mention them – only the independent productions are stood up (and today, happily, widely distributed on film and DVD) as the monuments of his career.


It is certainly true that all these films I have just listed are not as free, not as radical as Faces or Killing of a Chinese Bookie or Love Streams. But they are still, every one of them, in diverse ways, remarkable works. Aren’t we missing out on an important dimension of Cassavetes’ cinema if we confine him to the role of the eternal maverick, the guy forever outside the system? In fact, many (if not all) of his films are precisely about the agony of making necessary arrangements with the system – and struggling with, living with the consequences. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose … and Cassavetes’ characters, far from being existentially free, have everything to lose: their identity, their support structures, their family, their fragile sanity …


There is something more, something quite crucial and mostly ignored, in these Cassavetes films made ‘in the system’. And that is his close relationship with many forms of popular culture. Cassavetes was not (only) some jazz-ghetto Beat poet standing entirely outside the mainstream of cultural life. He loved comedies, thrillers, musicals, film noir, Old Hollywood stars, melodrama, television, hit music. All of these influences permeate, in varying combinations and to various degrees, his entire output. We ignore this at our peril.



Myth 4: Ray Carney is the World’s Greatest Expert on Cassavetes.


A critic – or group of critics – has the ability to ‘invent’ a director, to present him/her in such a powerful light as to influence an entire generation (or two) of cinephiles in the way they view the films. This is what Thomas Elsaesser meant, for example, when he referred to ‘the French Fritz Lang’ – meaning, not the work Lang fleetingly made in France en route from Germany to America in the ‘30s, but the Lang that we came to appreciate through the eyes of George Franju, Claude Chabrol, Luc Moullet and others from the ‘40s to the’60s, in Cahiers du cinéma and elsewhere.


A filmmaker invented – or reinvented – by critics can be a fine thing: an epiphany, a rallying cry, the badge of a particular generation in their particular time and place. But it can also be a trap, a prison. Other critics, with different perspectives, must fight to shatter the monomaniacal dominance of those who have made the filmmaker into their own property, their own territory – otherwise said, the projection of their own very specific fantasies.


This is the problem with the American Professor Raymond Carney of Boston University. Author of many books, essays and pamphlets on Cassavetes since the ‘80s, curator and presenter of many retrospective screenings around the world, indefatigable researcher who has investigated so many leads, he has none the less single-handedly become a major obstruction standing in the way of a proper (or, at least, new) appreciation of John Cassavetes.


There are two aspects to this forbidding problem. One is intellectual, and the other is material. Intellectually, Carney brings all his own philosophical baggage to bear, and dumps it right on Cassavetes. He turns the director into the mirror-image of his own all-American obsessions: with the Self, with pragmatism, with the ‘path of the artist’ in a dirty, commercial world. In a sense, it’s true, every critic inevitably does something like this. ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’, as Ingrid Caven – via Oscar Wilde and R.W. Fassbinder – immortally reminds us!


But Carney – as almost every text by everyone who has come after him testifies – has become the de facto authority, quoted ad nauseam and genuflected to as the gatekeeper to wisdom about Cassavetes. By selectively editing the filmmaker’s public writings and pronouncements, Carney has also made himself the shadowy biographer of Cassavetes, pretending to know his subject better than that subject could know himself! (And better than even his wife and closest collaborator, Gena Rowlands, knew him.)


The gatekeeping part of this sorry situation brings up the material problem. Those readers who were lucky enough to be in Rotterdam in 2004 saw the extraordinary film document Carney presented: the original version of Shadows. All these years on, where is it? What could have been easily disseminated via DVD or on the Internet for the pleasure and elucidation of all was been locked up tight by Carney. And that is only the tip of the research iceberg: he has managed to salvage dozens of rare script drafts, videotapes, and other material. (And not only pertaining to Cassavetes: he has the Mark Rappaport collection, too.) The exclusive ownership he exercises over all this bounty is disturbing and counter-productive. (Letters to Carney’s supremely narcissistic website – eventually frozen by his Boston University bosses – requesting scholarly access to this material always receive the same evasive answers: buy my books, come to my classes, and in the meantime blame Rowlands and others close to the Cassavetes family.) Carney has blocked the way to future researchers – especially those who take issue with his interpretation of the work. And, in fact, he has made very little, objective, historical use of these amazing archival materials in his possession; he merely skims off the top of it to reinforce his already-held ideas.


And that is what we need right now: new ‘takes’ on Cassavetes, new perspectives. The old critical interpretations (by Carney and others) had their uses, but they have largely dried up. The same is true of those six-thousand shapeless ‘indie’ digital films that believe they are ’in the Cassavetes style’. We need new moves, new inventions, new forms and gestures – in criticism as in cinema – to live up to rich, ever-surprising legacy bequeathed to us by John Cassavetes.


MORE Cassavetes: Minnie and Moskowitz


© Adrian Martin August 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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