Under the Influence of Cassavetes

De Balie’s month-long retrospective of John Cassavetes films is a primer in Cinéma vérité.

By Steve Korver, 26-05-2004, Amsterdam Weekly

cassaveteWhat would life be like living in a John Cassavetes film? Well there’s one advantage: you’d almost always have a strong drink in your hand. But alas there’s a catch: you will eventually get drunk. Stupid drunk. In fact, chances are that you are an unsympathetic middle-aged alcoholic simmering with raw emotion but forever incapable of expressing it. And that’s always a bummer.

Life would seem fragmentary, unpolished and often overlong (if not downright boring). There would be few easy answers and plenty of open endings. Many things will be in close-up – especially when you are moaning after being punched, bleeding from getting pricked or experiencing loneliness like a kick in a place where it hurts the most. The dubious lighting will either have you glowing in over-exposure or disappearing into a shadow. The equally shitty sound quality would only have one advantage: background noise may sometimes cover up the fact that you are continuing to talk even though you have nothing to say.

Perhaps the worst of it all occurs off screen: an edgy and intense guy – wild eye-browed Cassavetes himself – is forever pointing a handheld camera in your face patiently goading you to be tragic in the most realistic way possible. Happily, there is occasional payback: sometimes it will all come together for a celluloid moment perfect in its believability.

John Cassavetes has become the icon of the “director’s director”, the poster boy of independent cinema, and is perhaps the most under- and over-rated names in film history. While Cassavetes’ stauncher disciples – Jim Jarmusch, Lars van Trier, Wong Kar Wai, John Sayles, Harmony Korine, Sean Penn, Steve Buscemi, PT Anderson and of course Cassavetes’ son Nick Cassavetes to name but a few – are forever namedropping him as a formative influence in interviews, they often neglect to mention other contrasting influences that taught them how to also appreciate the value of editing and humour in maintaining an audience’s attention.

But Cassavetes remains a touchstone for all that is fiercely honest and grittily real – or “vérité” for you more continental, nouvelle vague, types. The prestigious Independent Spirit Awards even includes a special John Cassavetes Award for the best feature made every year for under $500 000.

Emotions and relationships, rather than plot and momentum, were the fundaments for his films. He always chose truth over the perfectly framed shot. Of course, for contemporary viewers this “truth” may sometimes come across as a tad hammy but understandable since he and his regular stable of actors were the first generation to be directly inspired by the yet hammier likes of Dean and Brando.

Given the choice, it would probably be much better to live John Cassavetes’ life (1920-89) than to live in his movies. Certainly, your life would more resemble the Hollywood stories you were rebelling against in your films. You’d bare an uncanny resemblance to Bogey. Your life would follow a near perfect story arc: beginning as a 1950s TV actor playing badboy rebel parts, you’d end up becoming a badboy rebel auteur. You’d be writing and directing for such mind-blowingly talented actors like your beautiful wife Gena Rowlands and your witty buddies Peter Falk, Ben Gazarra and Seymour Cassel, and working with a big happy extended family who are equally committed as you in making films that reflect real life.

And of course, you can always return to suck on the teat of the Hollywood system whenever your “independence” needed some extra financing. (Indeed: just like the role he played as Mia Farrow’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby, Cassavetes had to regularly sell his soul to the devil for personal success…)

But Cassavetes was also ultimately Hollywood in the way he built his own myth. While his directorial debut Shadows (1960) transcended all cliches by telling a story of inter-racial love by focusing on the human problems and not the racial ones, the film’s many off-screen stories are almost all blockbuster material. For instance, Cassavetes always enjoyed telling the story of how he got the initial funding. During a radio interview when he was supposed have been promoting a commercial film he had just starred in, he boasted he could make a much better film “about people” if listeners would just each send in a dollar or two. By the next day, he had $2 500.

Cassavetes also claimed that he’d developed his realistic shaky camera style because he couldn’t afford a tripod. He also lied outright by adding a title card that claimed that the film was completely improvised. While the story did evolve from improvisations from a workshop for unemployed actors he was running, it was in fact, like all his films, tightly scripted. In fact, he reshot 80 per cent  of the movie after screening an initial version to lacklustre audience response (though later he would become famous for saying that he would reshoot a film if the initial reactions were too positive…).

Certainly the off-screen story has the ultimate happy Hollywood ending: Martin Scorcese rates Shadows, along with Citizen Kane and Along the Waterfront, as one of the three best films ever made – and not merely because it is mercifully shorter and funnier when compared to his later films but because of the stellar performances he coaxed out of his characters. And the films that followed – or at least the ones he made outside the studio system – cemented his mythical status as an uncompromising, maverick maker of personal films.

John Cassavetes died at 59 from cirrhosis of the liver. Perhaps real life is like a Cassavetes movie after all…

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