Faces: The Masks We All Wear
by Erix Antoine
What is most striking about Faces when viewing it 45 years later is how contemporary it remains. You could argue that Shadows also has a contemporary vibe to it, but it is clearly dated; and much of its central conflict is a product of the time. Faces certainly has some dated elements, though they are mostly of an aesthetic variety in the fashion and cultural references of its period. I would have to concede, also, that one element of the film’s plot deals with male emasculation at the start of the Women’s Lib movement, which is a theme Cassavetes would explore more directly in his following film, Husbands.
But, really, the central theme of Faces is middle-aged conformity. The customarily frank way Cassavetes illustrates this with his characters still rings true today. Because if we look at Faces as the story of a failed marriage, then its dramatization of this is extremely contemporary. In an age where young marriages invariably end in divorce before the age of thirty, while many people simply choose to not get married at all, the film seems almost prescient in its accurate depiction of this breakdown. For those people, it might even operate as a horror film.
For Cassavetes, it was one more step on his exploration of humanity through film. Though technically not his second film, it may as well have been. He had spent the first half of the 1960s attempting to be a Hollywood director. He made two films: Too Late Blues, which was essentially a “remake” of Shadows, chronicling the life of a jazz musician; and A Child is Waiting – a severely compromised star vehicle for Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster, which led to Cassavetes punching legendary producer Stanley Kramer on the face after a screening in which he demanded his name be taken off this re-edited, studio approved version of the film.
Not surprisingly, punching Stanley Kramer on the face was not well seen by the Hollywood elite, and Cassavetes found himself essentially blacklisted. He would continue working as an actor on film and television but would be unable to direct another film.
Faces was born out of the refusal to surrender to the Hollywood machine. Initially written as a two-act play, it was eventually refashioned as a kind of “home movie,” shot on 16mm black and white (again) and on real locations (again). This time, the locations were Cassavetes’ own California home as well as his mother-in-law’s apartment. He surrounded himself with friends and family as his cast and crew. Most notably, it was the first of many collaborations with his wife Gena Rowlands.
And that’s where the film begins. With Rowlands, as a call girl named Jeannie, escorting two middle-aged businessmen back to her apartment for some presumed frolicking.
It is an extremely strange scene, almost grotesque, and it goes on for approximately 20 minutes. The two men, played by John Marley and Fred Draper, alternate first between being jovial and spirited, then confrontational with each other as they compete for Jeannie’s affections. They sing, dance and pantomime like children all over her living room, until the mood eventually deteriorates and both men go home alone. I can’t think of any other movie that begins quite this way. We are thrust into a situation already in progress, involving three people we know nothing about, and are asked to sit there and contemplate them in this revelry for 20 minutes. The point being, of course, that by the end of those twenty minutes you have met them and understand who they are. Then, the “story” as it were can begin.
It is that sort of indulgence that confounded so many film critics at the time of the film’s release. These are respected film critics and many of them, such as Pauline Kael, who basically referred to the film as pointless in her review published in The New Yorker, never really “got” Cassavetes. They didn’t understand that this indulgence and excessive contemplation was the point. Life does not unfold in convenient three-act plots with tidy resolutions. People don’t have character arcs. Life is chaotic, often appearing meaningless. It is up to us to find that meaning. Faces, like all of Cassavetes’ films, is charged with meaning. Though, it may mean different things to different people, and that would be just fine with Cassavetes.
But whatever scattered meanings you may find in repeated viewings, the central conceit of middle-aged conformity is pretty clear cut from the very beginning. Approaching this theme from the point of view of a marriage in collapse is a very effective way of bringing that across. There have been many movies about the suburban middle-class but not before this had they ever been so real.
As illustrated by the film’s freeform opening, this is not a traditional narrative where a plot follows a neat arc to a logical conclusion. Lives are not changed or improved. Lessons are not learned. Most of the film’s scenes consist in meetings between people and conversations that ebb and flow all over the place, as they do in life. People make stupid jokes, they offend and are offended. They storm in and out of rooms… Much like with Shadows, viewers of Faces make the assumption that it is an improvisation. But, again, everything you see was planned and scripted. It’s because Cassavetes allows his actors the freedom to just be themselves that the film achieves this feeling. Because there is not the formalism and blocking commonly found in mainstream films, Cassavetes once again achieves the effect of life happening before your very eyes.
But there is a plot, of sorts, and the film has two main characters. The aforementioned John Marley plays a “captain of industry” named Richard Forst. His wife Maria is the film’s other central character, and she is played by Lynn Carlin (much like the female lead in Shadows, Carlin is a first time actress giving a wonderful, truthful performance). The story of the film is about what happens after Richard decides he wants a divorce. We see how they approach this midlife crisis, and it is approached in perhaps the most sensible and predictable manner anyone could conceive – they each have affairs.
When the story splits and we glimpse each member of this broken marriage proceed with their private midlife crisis, the film then becomes a rather stunning portrayal of male-female/female-male relationships. The title of the film actually refers to the false faces we wear in a relationship. How that mask must inevitably come off and how vulnerable this makes us.
Richard gives in to that vulnerability. Seeking the affections of Jeannie once again, he allows for her to tap into an almost maternal well of emotion for him. And it is only at the end of the one night affair that he must once again put on his gruff exterior and leave her with a tear rolling down her cheek.
Maria, meanwhile, seeks to preserve her youth. She finds the means in a jovial nightclub hustler named Chet, played by Seymour Cassel. Their one night stand is portrayed as a series of knowing glances that eventually result in the physical manifestation of repressed passion. Maria’s mask of stoic strength comes off as she reveals her insecurities at the moment of making love with this younger and vital man.
That the woman’s affair climaxes in a suicide attempt is, in my view, perhaps a step too far. Though it might be Cassavetes making a clear statement on the basic vulnerability of a woman in a man’s world, I wonder just how essential it was, for what is already a powerful film, to go in that direction. While it does give the film a traditional “climax” of suspense, it’s not a climactic beat the film needs. It’s a small flaw in an otherwise excellent work, and the uniqueness of Faces is undeniable.
Although I pointed out that some critics were unkind to Faces, it is important to highlight that it is still one of only two Cassavetes films (the other being A Woman Under the Influence) that found mainstream acceptance in most circles. Many critics were impressed by its raw aesthetic and the reality of its performances. Audiences found that it spoke to them as a vivid portrait of the times. The film was even nominated for some Academy Awards (for Cassavetes’ screenplay as well as Carlin and Cassel in the acting categories). It was considered the most successful independent film at the time of its release.
Considering that most of his subsequent work was essentially done in the same vein (admittedly with varying degrees of success), it is puzzling why he was not able to connect with the mainstream in the same way. But it doesn’t matter because, at the very least, Faces was able to cement Cassavetes as a filmmaker who had found his voice. With few exceptions, he would never compromise that voice and would embark on one of the most unique, exciting and influential careers in all of American cinema.