JOHN CASSAVETES: The Quintessential American Humanist
The content of this study is a series of critical essays covering the important works in the filmography of John Cassavetes. The approach to these essays is of a critical nature, yes, but more on the level of an appreciation.
Although each film will be given its own separate essay, we will see that Cassavetes’ films do have thematic connections that runs through his entire career. It is important to observe Cassavetes’ work in chronological order to really understand his evolution as a filmmaker.
Many eloquent words have already been written about John Cassavetes and his career. In particular by Raymond Carney, who has given many lectures and written books about the man. I especially recommend Cassavetes on Cassavetes. which is a riveting blow-by-blow behind the scenes look at the man’s career; compiled from actual interviews. It’s fascinating reading and provided much of the background information for these essays.
The essays are written entirely from my own point of view. They comprise a personal appreciation of John Cassavetes and his work. Because Carney has already provided excellent, deep and thought-provoking analysis in his writings, I see no point in being redundant or trying to equal that work. But I hope I can provide some interesting ideas of my own and, above all, encourage the reader to seek out the films and discover one of the great filmmakers of our time.
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PART I – A TRILOGY OF LIFE
John Cassavetes needed three films to express his view of life, and it was expressed organically and progressively. As he came to the specific stages in his life that brought about those realizations, he expressed them through film. We watch Cassavetes come of age and enter into his true adulthood as we view these films.
Watching them in chronological order makes that progression very clear. Although they are different films with different characters, that thematic connection is constant. There is also a clear connection in their aesthetic. Husbands, in difference to the first two, was shot in 35mm and in color. But it still employs the same raw, improvisational style. That’s why it is of a piece with the other films.
Satisfied with his three-film manifesto, Cassavetes would now begin to take his work in different directions; experimenting with genre and even cinematic formalism in ways that these films do not. So, when people talk about a “Cassavetes style”, they are usually referring to what you find in these three films. This is not to say his subsequent work would be more polished (though in many ways it would be) or that he would altogether abandon this aesthetic; and he would definitely return to this cathartic well at the end of his career.
But it’s very important to view these films as a separate entity. They are also the key to understanding what kind of artist he was, as they inform all his future work.
PART II – BRANCHING OFF AND REACHING OUT
The career of John Cassavetes takes an interesting turn. If his initial trilogy was a coming-of-age, then this next facet shows him fully matured into adulthood.
Interestingly enough, however, he approaches his craft with the energy of a young filmmaker – wanting to take chances and experiment in new and different ways that his first three films do not.
While never abandoning his specific, personal point of view, this stage of his career finds him trying his hand at comedy and thriller genres (with varying degrees of success). But it also finds him achieving his greatest success and finally being accepted – however briefly and back-handedly – by the mainstream.
We see John Cassavetes come into his own as a filmmaker, with a keen understanding of the sort of artist he wants to be. We see him willing to take risks, even if they don’t always pan out. And we see him sternly refuse to play by the rules even after being grudgingly accepted by the mainstream.
We see an artist who can still give himself plenty of room to grow and continue exploring new and exciting facets of his art.
It’s also interesting to look at these three films as a Cassavetes “autobiography” of sorts. Each one seems to explore a different facet of the man himself. Minnie and Moskowitz portrays him as a young underdog, falling in love. A Woman Under the Influence portrays Cassavetes, married, struggling to reconcile his particular artistic temperament with his everyday family life. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is very clearly a portrayal of Cassavetes the filmmaker and the sometimes nightmarish experience of keeping his art alive.
These are very different films. But the one thing they share in common is a filmmaker fully in command of the medium, to the extent of how he wants that medium to suit his purposes.
It’s a fascinating journey of self-discovery for both the artist and the viewer.
PART III – EMBRACING SENTIMENT
John Cassavetes was often accused of being cynical and even nihilistic. Because most critics failed to grasp his films or his message, he was labeled a self-indulgent pessimist with a constantly bleak view of life.
It may be true that his films often had bleak undercurrents, and it is definitely true that he refused to ever see the world through a rose-colored filter.
But this final set of films really serves to completely disprove the theory that he was a cynic or a pessimist, and they drive home the point that he was, above all, a realist…and a true humanist. If his films seemed self-indulgent it was because he cared more about the people in the story than the story itself, so he allowed them to carry his narratives; and people tend to be unfocused, disorganized and full of complicated emotions, too vast to be summarized in a tidy Hollywood plot. If he came off as cynical it was because he didn’t believe in false emotions, and frankness is all too often mistaken for cynicism by people who refuse to accept the realities of life.
What Cassavetes’ final works reveal about him is that he was actually a deeply sentimental man, with the same preoccupations about life, love and mortality that plague us all. He just chose to express those concerns with a rawer eye than most.
The final stage of his career, perhaps predictably, finds Cassavetes coping with age and mortality. And he does so with the same honesty that has always characterized his work.
Even while finally conceding to the Hollywood establishment, he refuses to do it on any other terms but his own. And he presents a commercial, mainstream work that still refuses to play it safe or, worse, lie to its audience.
Opening Night, Gloria and Love Streams are very sentimental works. They present complex and real emotions and challenge the viewer to experience those emotions together with the characters. A level of audience participation was always to some degree expected in a Cassavetes film, he always wanted his audience to experience his films rather than simply watch them. Here, with these works, he does everything he can to finally make that possible in as pure a form as he can. He gets theatrical, he aims to please and, in the end, he bares his soul.
Few filmmakers have been as fortunate in being able to completely express themselves through their art. And even fewer were able to exit the stage after having done that so completely, leaving almost no stone unturned.
It is true that Cassavetes died too young. And he had many stories left to tell. But his canon still feels strangely complete despite this.