On Cassavetes’ Style

“John Cassavetes’ Faces is the sort of film that makes you want to grab people by the neck and drag them into the theater and shout: “Here!” It would be a triumphant shout. Year after year, we get a tide of bilge that passes for “the American way of life” in the movies.

“We know it isn’t like that. We don’t live that way and neither does anyone we know. What Cassavetes has done is astonishing. He has made a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly examines the way we really live.

“The central characters are middle-aged, middle-class and rather ordinary: a man and his wife. They have everything in the world they desire, except love and a sense of personal accomplishment. They’ve become consumers in the most cruel sense of that word: Their only identity is as economic beings who earn and spend money to sustain a meaningless existence. They don’t do anything, or make anything, or create anything. They use.

“This is not only a crisis but a trap, because society has left them stranded without any means of breaking out. During a long night when their marriage reaches the breaking point, they discover only two ways to kick loose: alcohol and adultery. One of the problems with this class of society is that it provides so few ways to boil over.”

– Roger Ebert.

“Cassavetes wiped away the old vocabulary of doing films. A lot of this came from his New York actors, the street-life sound, and from the ability the new lightweight equipment gave the filmmaker. When I saw Shadows, with the camera right in that house giving such a direct communication with the human experience, with conflict and love and all of this, it was as if there were no camera there at all, as if you were living with these people. Once we saw that, we all realized that you can’t sit around and talk about making a film, you gotta just go do it. He exemplifies independence: Don’t be taken in by them. Do what you feel, what you feel in your heart. Don’t be cut down. He was like an uncle in the way he talked to you about this.”

– Martin Scorsese.

In the following extract from his book ‘Cassavetes On Cassavetes’ the film critic and writer Raymond Carney discusses Faces interspersed with extracts from John Cassavetes discussing his attitude toward the film.

Raymond Carney: American viewers were divided in their opinion. Though many appreciated Faces, at least as many had major problems with it. One frequently voiced objection was that Cassavetes failed to explain his characters’ motives and the causes of their behavior. As early as Too Late Blues he had argued that he didn’t want to explain too much because the work the viewer had to do was an important part of the experience. Faces went even further in this direction – confounding viewers’ expectations, placing them in a problem-solving stance and forcing them to stay in the flow of experience.

John Cassavetes: The first part of the script was structured very carefully to set up a whole new pattern of thinking so that the audience could not get ahead of the film. Most people think, ‘Oh yes, this is what’s going to happen in the next moment.’ What happens with Faces, though, is that the first half of the film really bugs people because it doesn’t fit an easy pattern of behavior. Well, I don’t know anyone who has an easy pattern of behavior. I know people who are just sensational one minute and absolute bastards the next. Terribly funny one minute and morose the next. And these moods come from specific things that I can’t put my finger on because I don’t know their whole life. And we can’t put their whole life on the screen. So I’ve got to depend on the actor to identify with his role enough that he can express those things. And to get it on the screen is something miraculous.

It’s antagonism. With Faces you’re getting so many vibrations from people and you’re seeing people behave so honestly, when they stop you get irritated. You identify with a character and then he does something you don’t want him to do, it becomes personal. You can’t stand for it not to have the answers every moment. You don’t want to waste your time going through their self-exploration. You want them to get right down to it and give you the answers. Other movies make me bored. I want them to go faster, you know. Hurry up. I want it to go faster because I’m not interested in it. I like things that evolve.

Although at the end of the following statement Cassavetes confuses the 183-minute version of his film with the final edit, his point is still valid.

JC: People prefer that you condense; they find it quite natural for life to be condensed in films. And then you discover that people prefer that because they’ve already caught on to what you wanted to say and are ahead of you. So that there’s a sort of competition between them andyou, and you try to shake them up rather than please them: you show them that you know what they’re going to say so as to be more honest than they can imagine. For example, when Faces opens, the couple are lying in bed, laughing. The audience wants to join them but they’re not included yet. The characters dictate the terms to the audience.

Other viewers were frustrated by Cassavetes’ unwillingness to explain his characters’ problems in psychological terms – holding the viewer on the outside of opaque, impenetrable surfaces. Cassavetes felt that tracing behavior back to psychological causes was to simplify it.

JC: I’m a very literal man. I never look for anything underneath. I don’t know why people always want to understand, work out hidden meaning and motivations. Surely the only reason for trying to work out someone’s motivation is if you’re scared of them. Otherwise you just feel for people, don’t you? You love them or you hate them. This is a film about people’s surfaces, isn’t it?

Another issue for many viewers was what they felt to be Cassavetes’ toughness or cynicism, at least in part because of his avoidance of the stock-in-trade of Hollywood filmmaking: swoony, romantic relationships between characters and between the viewer and a character. Cassavetes readily acknowledged this aspect of his style.

JC: The movie hates ‘sensitivity’. Sensitivity is hypocrisy in the self-pitying way. True sensitivity should be truly honest. That’s what we strove for: brutal, unsentimental honesty.

A related issue was that Cassavetes’ characters almost never verbally expressed love or affection for one another. (Later in life, Cassavetes said he actually went through the scripts of both ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ and ‘Gloria’ and deleted lines of dialogue where a character used the word ‘love’.)

JC: I really resent being liked openly. I don’t find any challenge in being liked. It’s a form of agreement and very often agreement doesn’t really get anywhere. I always feel that when someone says ‘I love you’, they really mean ‘I hate you’. It seems to me something’s wrong when someone has to express that or wants to hear it. It expresses some fear or doubt.

In a parallel vein, the highest compliment Cassavetes could pay his characters was to say that they weren’t ‘sentimental’ – meaning that they didn’t feel sorry for themselves, or stop and bemoan their situation, but gamely ‘went on’, doing the best they could with the hand they were dealt. (He would later argue that that is what made the central character in ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie‘ admirable.)

JC: In Faces there’s this scene with Florence, the middle-aged lady, and the hippie. I get a lump in my throat every time I see it. Gets me every time. Here’s this beat-up broad out to seduce a young guy she picked up at a discotheque and she tries everything and doesn’t care how ridiculous or pathetic she looks. She wants this guy and she wants to get him in the sack. I think she might have succeeded if that younger chick hadn’t been there too, all cool and available. The point is the middle-aged lady tried. She fought; she struggled; she wouldn’t give up. Isn’t it better to fight to see your fantasies realized – fight and lose, rather than suffer and dream away in silence? What I love about all of the characters in Faces is that they don’t quit. They will make jackasses of themselves but they try to keep going. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong if you try.

The excitement of watching Faces is to see a different point of view, not a romanticized point of view like a Hollywood movie would make it or a self-justifying point of view as some other filmmakers might make it, but to see totally unedited behavior, to look at a life experience without any point of view outside of the people themselves. I think that is some- thing different from other movies. It’s fascinating to me. And painful too. I sit there not as the maker of the film. I’m looking at the film as an outsider. Not as a film. I’m relating to certain characters in the thing that are part of me. Some of them behave as I behave. And some don’t. But I like or dislike them not on the basis of my writing, but on the basis of their acting, on the basis of what they mean to me. I don’t think thedirector creates anything. I liken it to a reporter’s function – if it happens, something’s going to come out, and if it’s dull, nothing in the world is going to save it.

Even at the peak of ‘Faces’ success, Cassavetes understood that popularity was a trap.

JC: My films are about personal things – marriages breaking up, love transformed by mutual treachery, the difficulty that two people have in communicating even though they live together. These are the problems which I have tackled and which concern me and concern others. Some- times people find this painful to accept or they think that my ideas are wrong or simply they’re not interested in the difficulties which exist in communicating with others. But I am very interested in this. With my actors I try to explore it and try and relate it to their daily lives. I can’t ask people who are comfortable with their lives, with no problems, to be spectacularly interested in my work. It’s not made to please people. Many press agents told me, ‘For God’s sake, don’t sell the movie on middle age.’ But I’m sure there are some middle-aged people around. I always feel left out of most other movies. They have nothing to do with me.

I don’t care if people like our films or not. As long as I can make these films and say what I want and work with people I love and who are not afraid to express themselves, whether it’s popular or not. If we want to give Faces away to universities, we will do that. If we want to bury the film and never let anyone see it, we can do that. In other words, it’s ours. So that if it plays in a festival, fine. If it doesn’t play in a festival, fine. If people love it, fine. If they don’t, OK too.

– Extract from Cassavetes on Cassavetes, by Raymond Carney.

SOURCE: http://diaryofascreenwriter.blogspot.com/

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