Ragged Glory

"Cinema Cassavetes"

Oak Street Cinema

Tuesdays through October 1

           We have to move beyond the current obsession with technique.

--John Cassavetes

           JOHN CASSAVETES IS sometimes referred to as the prototypical indie filmmaker. But his films remain controversial and widely unseen. He never had a big financial success. Nor has he ever been a critics' darling. His 11 films have been the subject of retrospectives--the Walker Art Center sponsored an early one in 1989, the year of his death, and Oak Street Cinema will show five of his works over the next month--but plenty of people loathe them. Pauline Kael was notoriously unappreciative of his oeuvre, accusing it of "muddiest confusion" and commercial compromise. (Huh?) At the risk of sounding immodest here (I love Cassavetes), acceptance of his films might depend on the viewer's willingness to be forced into self-reflective or uncomfortable states. More than any other American feature filmmaker, Cassavetes represents the polar opposite of escapism, as defined by the Hollywood movie. His films blatantly accentuate everything that mainstream fictions aim to conceal. They hit home.

           Hollywood films, on the other hand, process the world for us: They introduce problems and resolve them; they suggest we can't handle our lives; they reach conclusions more tidy than those we make do with in real life (which is their appeal); they threaten, or promise, to keep us pliable, dependent on authority. So pervasive is the Hollywood model that its agenda can be hard to recognize or resist. And so precious is the commodity of "entertainment" that many of us don't want the experience ruined. Cassavetes's movies, on the other hand, withhold solutions. They aren't entertainments, they're provocations. They're exercises in preparing for life. They're hardly "upbeat," but they are, ironically, more likely to inspire. Acting in his film Husbands (September 10), Cassavetes's first line is, "Don't believe truth."

           Hollywood films are concerned with pacing and "drama." In Cassavetes, narrative momentum matters not at all. In fact, his films do away with the myth of intent. They remain baffling after repeated viewings. They deliberately elude familiar methods of interpretation. Their "action" doesn't usually involve actions per se; more often it's exchanges of dialogue or expression. Striking exceptions are the killings in Gloria (October 1) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (September 24). Cassavetes said his movies are composed entirely of the moments that would be left out of Hollywood films--and vice versa. In A Woman Under the Influence (September 17), after Mabel (Gena Rowlands) brings a stranger home from a bar, the film abruptly cuts away as soon as things appear to become sexual. But it does show the entirety of a long dinner scene, when Mabel serves spaghetti to her husband's co-workers. Neither scene is more important. There are some things we can't know.

           Hollywood films feature written characters. They are helped by their authors to be more beautiful, heroic, articulate, and revealing than we are. Cassavetes merely observes flawed, inconsistent behavior. At one point in Woman, Mabel stands atop the living room couch and waves her arms like a ballerina. But she's never proven to be clinically unstable. How could she be, the movie seems to ask, and who are we to diagnose or judge? Is being different necessarily bad
or intolerable? (Mabel might be the personification of Cassavetes's art.) Relationships in Cassavetes amount to a series of negotiations, sacrifices, sudden rewards. Mabel and her husband (Peter Falk) love each other, but their ways of showing it are so different that neither is satisfied. The husband seems at least as mercurial as Mabel, with fewer consequences. In all his films, Cassavetes depicts tensions between expressers (usually women) and repressors (usually men). Sympathetic to both, he nonetheless favors expressiveness, intensity, impulsiveness, improvisation, and childlike creativity. The "crazy" characters often appear the most highly evolved.

           Even the cheapest Hollywood films cost a fortune. Cassavetes's suggest that anyone with a camcorder and a point of view can make a film. To fund his personal projects, Cassavetes, like Orson Welles, took jobs acting in movies he wouldn't have gone to see. In his own work, the conflict between formula and iconoclasm permeates both form and content. Shadows (September 3), his debut, is a coming-of-age film whose abstract discontinuity predates Godard by at least a year. The movies don't orient the viewer, they yank us in. Deemed a "home movie" by Leonard Maltin, Bookie begins with an abrupt shot of Cosmo (Ben Gazzara) exiting his strip club--no establishing shot, no larger sense of place. The movie is not about this guy; this guy is the movie. (The director's surrogate, Cosmo is a show-biz "artist" under financial pressure from the mob.) Husbands screeches to a start with a still picture of its four buddies at a pool party, and the sound of splashing water. Albeit motionless, the film is born kicking and screaming.

           Hollywood films strain to appear confident, dazzling, seamless, coherent. Cassavetes's are proudly imperfect works-in-progress. They contain shots that are out of focus. They demand the viewer's participation. Their courage can be measured by their reluctance to hide beneath technique, their refusal to make things impressive. Like Cassavetes's characters, his films risk failure. They dare to be honest and ugly, and thus they're beautiful. Oak Street's calendar is absolutely right that his work is "fuelled by obsessive energies," but less so that it "arrogantly proclaims its own rhythms and themes." The arrogance is ours in presuming to know his films, our own lives.

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