The degree to which the Criterion Collection has exceeded Judge Dan Mancini's expectations with this release almost left him speechless, but he's managed to muster a few words about this eight-disc box set devoted to the father of America's independent film movement.
"I've never seen an exploding helicopter. I've never seen anybody go and blow somebody's head off. So why should I make films about them? But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest way. I've seen people withdraw. I've seen people hide behind political ideas, behind dope, behind the sexual revolution, behind fascism, behind hypocrisy, and I've myself done all these things. So I can understand them. What we are saying is so gentle. It's gentleness. We have problems, terrible problems, but our problems are human problems."—John Cassavetes
Revolutionaries come along regularly in art. Most of them work in the intellectual ether, dissecting and reassembling form. Their art is valuable in its challenge to the status quo, even if it tends to be self-indulgent, largely void of powerful or meaningful content. Rare is the revolutionary whose reinvention of form is slave to his or her need to express something inexpressible when playing by the old rules—think James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, or John Coltrane. In the world of cinema—American cinema, specifically—John Cassavetes is just such a rare revolutionary. The look of his films is raw and sloppy, with shots sometimes awkwardly framed and shifting in and out of focus. It's an unsettling style for viewers raised on clean and controlled Hollywood photography, but the perfect vessel for expressing Cassavetes's view of human beings as messy, contradictory creatures. The director's style isn't shaped by technical incompetence or a lackadaisical attitude, as it might appear on first glance, but by his need to capture the sloppy, wild vitality of human beings in the act of living. The result is a body of work whose freedom from the stricture of Hollywood convention is either refreshing or maddening depending on the viewer's willingness to give himself over to what Cassavetes is doing, what he's about.
Cassavetes's countercultural aesthetic and his relentless drive to free himself and his work from the reductive, numbing formulas of commerce by financing his own films and rejecting studio involvement, proved a major inspiration for the New Hollywood generation working inside and outside the studio system in the late 1960s and throughout the '70s. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, and the many other filmmakers of that generation would still have made movies absent Cassavetes's example, but they wouldn't have made the movies they did. Certainly those directors were heavily influenced by European movements like the French New Wave and Italian neorealism, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and Akira Kurosawa in Japan, but Cassavetes proved personal films could be made in America, where Hollywood's power and allure had a long history of squelching individual expression. In the realm of American independent cinema, no name is more seminal than John Cassavetes. "Hollywood is not failing. It has failed," he said in a 1959 issue of Film Culture. His movies prove he meant it.
A serious DVD treatment of Cassavetes's work has been long overdue, and the Criterion Collection has finally remedied things with this eight-disc box set, boasting five of his films and a boatload of supplements.
Facts of the Case
The five films offered are:
• Shadows (1959)
• Faces (1968)
• A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
• The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976 / 1978)
• Opening Night (1977)
"I never imagined it could be so awful."
The enduring brilliance of John Cassavetes's Shadows hangs on those eight words, spoken by Lelia after losing her virginity to Tony. The jazz hipsterisms may have gotten quaint and the civil rights movement may have made the racial storyline a bit passé in the decades since the film first blew the minds of critics and art house audiences, but that line of dialogue remains as searingly honest as anything in cinema today or at any other time. Hollywood's vision of interplay between the sexes in the late 1950s is perhaps best exemplified by the fluffy, sterile, Technicolor world of 1959's Pillow Talk, a breezy romantic farce whose Eros is sublimated in witty banter. Showing husband and wife in bed together was verboten, let alone an unmarried couple, and the unspoken idea of sexual consummation was as dreamy and perfect as Doris Day and Rock Hudson's hair and wardrobe. That Cassavetes had the audacity not only to show us an unmarried couple post-coital but to suggest a young woman's sexual initiation could be something other than a romantic ideal, is and continues to be a stunning commitment to the truth in a cinema whose established categories are designed to avoid the messy, uncomfortable parts of life.
Lelia's eight-word observation, spoken with a stunned emotional detachment, encapsulates Cassavetes's cinematic journey: a close study of life's small difficulties; the dichotomy between reality and our deluded expectations; our desperate need to be known by others, and our shock at discovering how perilous, confusing, and terrifying it is to meet such a seemingly simple need.
Shadows is a product of the free-form acting workshop run by Cassavetes and Burt Lane in the mid-1950s. Its end credits declare, "This film was an improvisation," but that's not accurate in the strictest sense. Cassavetes used controlled and guided improvisation to form the characters and scenarios, and shot the film when the actors had found firm footing in both. In this sense, the movie is akin to its jazz score: The actors had done the hard preparatory work of discovering and shaping the piece's form long before Cassavetes cut them lose to riff. The film was originally completed in 1957—a full two years before the French New Wave's official launch with the nearly simultaneous release of Truffaut's The 400 Blows and Godard's Breathless—and exhibited in New York to mostly apathetic critical and audience response. Cassavetes himself wasn't happy with the film, saying later it was technically precise and arty but lacked soul. He pulled together funds from his salary from the Johnny Staccato television series, and shot for an additional ten days. According to Cassavetes, the second shoot yielded all the best scenes in the final version of the film, which found limited release and a much more enthusiastic critical response in 1959.
This box set offers the 1959 version of Shadows, and it's a gritty, free-form, mesmerizing affair. The movie has a modicum of plot in the form of Lelia's relationship with Tony and the rising tensions over her race, but it's mostly a mess of character interactions connected emotionally and thematically rather than narratively. The interracial romance is certainly forward-looking from the vantage point of the late '50s, but it continues to work today because Cassavetes treats it as a human problem, not a political one. In a way, all the film's characters are an extended family, united by their connections to one or more of the three siblings. Lelia and Tony's relationship fascinates because of the attentive eye and deep compassion with which the director views all of the characters. Tony's shock and withdrawal at the revelation of Lelia's race makes us squirm, stirs our disapproval, but it doesn't cause us to dislike the kid; Lelia's trauma is heartbreaking; the harsh reactions of both Hugh and Ben are noble, true, and somehow laced with humor. It's Cassavetes's ability to demonstrate how events ripple through a family that sets him apart from the crowd of filmmakers. His startling empathy for each and every character enables him to plumb truths left unaccessed in most movies.
Near the end of Shadows, Hugh and his agent Rupert are in a train station, near the end of their ropes because Hugh's singing career is stalled. "Do you believe in me?" Hugh asks Rupert repeatedly, then tells him, "Because I believe you're the best agent in the world." In a way, Hugh's words represent John Cassavetes's attitude toward both his actors and his audience. He challenges us to believe in him, trust his instincts and stick with him, though his movies defy our expectations and sometimes cause us discomfort. And he was able to make such films because he believed in himself, his actors, and his audience.
After Shadows, in addition to acting in the likes of Don Siegel's The Killers, The Dirty Dozen, and Rosemary's Baby, Cassavetes ventured into Hollywood to direct Too Late Blues (1961) starring Bobby Darin, and A Child Is Waiting (1963) with Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland. The experience of making both films left a sour taste in his mouth, and he vowed to return to the homemade approach of his first film, which brings us to the next movie included in this box: 1968's Faces, one of Cassavetes's most celebrated and influential films.
A simple tale of the slow dissolution of a marriage, Faces hits the viewer at gut level as a close observation of a plethora of characters, many of them secondary players who'd be toss-away types in a more conventional film. Fred Draper shines as Richard Forst's doughy, pathetic, middle-aged buddy, fragile and full of phony bravado in the presence of Jeannie Rapp's youthful and aggressive femininity. Equally impressive is Maria's clutch of matronly friends, desperate for Chet's attention and sexual affirmation. Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel bring a marvelous emotional depth to their call girl and gigolo characters that belies their objectification by the film's other characters. But it's John Marley and Lynn Carlin in the lead roles who really shine. The Forsts are complex and unpredictable, their marriage emotionally hollow and dissatisfying but also, like most long-term relationships, a vessel of safety, predictability, and stability. Marley's performance is impressive for all its sublimated emotion. On the surface, Dickie Forst is as brash and confident as Marley's Jack Woltz character in The Godfather, but there's an underlying existential terror and fear of death that seeps out of his pores throughout the picture. When he finally gives voice to his angst near the end, his epiphany feels organic.
John Cassavetes was known to deny his own talents as a director, but Lynn Carlin's astounding performance in Faces contradicts his modesty. Carlin had never acted professionally before Cassavetes cast her as Maria Forst, but you'd never know it. Her emotional range in the film is breathtaking, and every moment of her performance is entirely naturalistic and convincing. It is Maria more than any other character who is shocked out of her old, sleepwalking life and forced to choose a new life consciously and purposefully lived in the face of trauma and pain. That's a lot of weight and responsibility to lay on the shoulders of an untrained, inexperienced actor but Carlin, with Cassavetes's help, carries the load with remarkable grace and skill.
Apropos of its title, Faces is about the dichotomy between people's public and private selves and the false, hollow forms of communication said dichotomy necessitates. Cassavetes and cinematographers Maurice McEndree and Al Ruban push in close to the actors' faces, allowing us to study them, giving us no option but to do so. Casting the pock-marked Marley in the lead, as well as refusing to hide the rest of the cast's moles, zits, errant hairs, and other imperfections beneath pancake make-up, creates a deep sense of textured naturalism that influences our reading of the story itself. One of the picture's major motifs is giddy laughter, the camera lingering on the laughers in close-up. The source of their breathless joy is usually dumb knock-knock jokes, tongue-twisters, or inane comic observations: the empty, shallow stuff that comprises the vast majority of human communication. The laughter is infectious but false, a way for the characters to fill time, to blunt the real dissatisfaction at the center of their lives. The extensive use of the close-up allows Cassavetes to draw a direct comparison between faces twisted in laughter and those twisted in agony—the visual similarity between the two is remarkable, though the laughter represents a façade and the tears a painful revelation of the characters' true selves: "Tears are life, baby!" the gigolo Chet exhorts Maria when she breaks into sobs after a failed attempt at suicide. Only when the characters face their pain instead of blunting it or hiding from it are they authentic human beings, truly alive and capable, perhaps, of reaching their full potential.
Criterion's box set passes over 1970's Husbands and 1971's Minnie and Moskowitz in favor of 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, placing it appropriately at the center of this five film collection. Building on the themes established in Faces, Husbands, and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence is probably the most fully-realized and successful exploration of Cassavetes's concerns. It trades the white-collar Forsts of Faces for the blue-collar Longhettis, but maintains the examinations of the phoniness of propriety and social niceties as well as the frustrations of communication between the sexes.
Cassavetes's delicate and intelligent handling of Mabel Longhetti's mental illness gives the film its unique quality and elevates it to the top of his oeuvre. He succeeds in treating her mental condition both symbolically and naturalistically. Her erratic behavior manifests as an inability to maintain propriety and polite social distance—she pesters Nick's coworkers to dance with her when they're sharing a casual dinner, or waits with barely-contained jubilation for the school bus to deliver her children, berating passersby who, freaked out by her odd manner, refuse to give her the time. Unlike every other character in every other Cassavetes film, Mabel is simply Mabel; there is no distinction between her public and private selves, and the social consequences of her mental illness tell us something about ourselves: We don't necessarily want to see other people's true selves because they're messy, chaotic, emotional, and often overly or prematurely intimate. Honest, substantive communication, a true connection between two human beings is exhausting and scary. While Cassavetes uses Mabel's condition to say something about the universal human experience, that sense of danger and pained embarrassment we experience watching her antics grounds it all in realism. This isn't mental illness as fodder for quirky comedy à la Benny & Joon. Like Nick Longhetti, we're charmed by Mabel's free-spiritedness but also terrified by the practicalities of an unstable woman, ill-equipped to function in the real world, raising three small children.
A Woman Under the Influence provided Gena Rowlands the platform for the performance of her career. She's completely over-the-top, yet the context of her work and Cassavetes's delicate observation of character and the demands for truth he placed on his actors prevents her from ever coming off as self-indulgent or hammy. Peter Falk is equally impressive, handling a role that evokes both our pity and anger. He makes it look easy. Nick Longhetti is a guy whose marriage has him in way over his head emotionally and intellectually. He struggles to understand Mabel, to make her understand him, to live peacefully with her. More often than not, he fails, lashing out violently, yelling at her, sometimes striking her. His brutish behavior angers us, yet we also empathize. Despite his frequent failures, he's trying as hard as he can, and his intense love for Mabel is never in doubt. It's quintessential Cassavetes: there's no such thing as a simple life if one wants to live authentically, feeling, loving, experiencing joy, sorrow, and genuine connection with other human beings.
This set next offers The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, two films in which Cassavetes combines his usual concerns about human relationships with a deconstruction of the entertainment industry. Bookie is one of the filmmaker's more problematic works because it purports to be one part genre piece, one part art film. Cosmo Vitelli's adventures certainly have the flavor of film noir, but the piece's engine is character and the plot never gains enough forward momentum to feel like a true genre piece. No, Bookie is best read as an indictment of Hollywood and the dehumanizing effects of consumerism. Vitelli is the dark side of Cassavetes, writ small. His chintzy strip club the vessel of his artistic musings, he writes and directs the amateurish song-and-dance pieces performed by haggard, washed-up actor and emcee Mr. Sophistication and the strippers. Vitelli is a hollow, shallow man, capable of being strong-armed by gangsters into an act as depraved as murder because commerce and exploitation are at the center of every relationship in his life. Because his girlfriend is one of the club's strippers, there is no delineation between his business and this most personal and intimate relationship. It's Cassavetes's harshest indictment of what he considered the shallow, false sexual liberation of the Playboy culture—aped by Hollywood's mostly crass presentation of women—in which sexual union is stripped of intimacy and reduced to a business transaction. So far as Cassavetes is concerned, this objectifying of human beings and lustful pursuit of money for its own sake kills creativity (or procreativity), and renders human beings something lesser—soul-dead automatons. And, so, Bookie ends in keeping with the established dynamics of film noir, at least on an existential plane if not in terms of plot mechanics. In standard noir (think Wilder's Double Indemnity), the consequences of the lead's moral perfidy land with karmic precision, bringing death or a long jail sentence. Cosmo Vitelli's fate is worse perhaps: Achieving his financial goals costs him whatever remnants of his soul he possessed at film's beginning, leaving him entirely alone in the world and standing on a sidewalk outside his club with a gunshot wound to remind him his efforts haven't freed him from his own mortality even if the bullet inside him doesn't cause his death.
In Opening Night, Cassavetes moves from the strip club milieu to the legitimate stage and explores the sometimes ill-defined border between actor and character. Again, Gena Rowlands is given an outstanding role in which she shines. Actress Myrtle Gordon teeters on the brink of self-destruction as she struggles to reconcile the uncomfortable similarities between herself and the character she plays. Her efforts are bent toward finding a truer more complex rationale for the character's pain than the script's menopausal musings. And Cassavetes closely studies how the play's producer, director, and writer allow and sometimes encourage Myrtle's emotional and psychological teetering because it may be in the play's best interest. Conversely, they panic and have fits when her heavy drinking—meant to squelch her pain—threatens her ability to perform, or when she breaks from script in the middle of performances, allowing her real self to invade and usurp the drama. Cassavetes made his films with close friends and family, and certainly he must have mused about his own penchant for exploiting his loved ones in the name of his art. He was known to elicit the performances he wanted from his actors by any means necessary, railing, cajoling, and having fits of temper is that's what it took. Lynn Carlin reports that, during a particularly challenging scene in Faces, he slapped her hard in the face, ordered her not to cry, and rolled camera in order to get her to go emotionally where he wanted. His films are full of incredibly dynamic performances, but such antics must have given him pause, particularly since he was blurring the lines between the emotional worlds of characters he'd written and real people he loved. When does the search for truth cross the line into exploitation, and does it sacrifice its nobility when it does so? These are the questions Cassavetes explores in Opening Night, a fitting finale to the thematic explorations covered in this box set.
Just as we'd expect of Criterion, the five films in this set are offered in beautiful audio/video presentations. Each is fully restored and presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio with the clearest possible restoration of their mono audio sources. Shot on 16-mm black-and-white stock, Shadows and Faces are the lowest in quality on an absolute scale, but a restoration demonstration on the Shadows disc and the "Shooting and Lighting the Film" featurette that accompanies Faces explain in detail how Cassavetes used his technical limitations aesthetically to underpin the themes and emotions he was exploring, and how meticulously Criterion worked restoring both films. Their goal was to remove the dirt and damage that had accumulated over time without artificially stripping the films of the source-based "flaws" that Cassavetes had accepted as part of the limitations of the equipment available to him, and had expertly used to elicit a particular feeling from his audience. The three films from the 1970s were all shot on 35mm color stock and have been cleaned up and transferred with appropriate amounts of grain, smooth images that avoid too much edge enhancement, and mostly accurate colors. Some slight source deterioration remains here and there, but nothing to complain about. The five films have never looked better in any home video format.
Whew. So that's a quick rundown of the films offered in this set. As if they weren't enough for a fan of independent cinema, Criterion also offers one of the most impressive array of extras I've ever seen in a DVD release. The centerpiece of the supplements is Charles Kiselyak's 200-minute documentary on Cassavetes, A Constant Forge—The Life and Art of John Cassavetes. Despite its extended running time, the movie is little more than a high-level overview of Cassavetes's films, philosophy, and life, expressed in anecdotes by long-time collaborators like Rowlands, Cassel, Gazzara, Al Ruban, Bo Harwood; actors Carole Kane, Sean Penn, and Jon Voight; and film scholars Annette Insdorf and Ray Carney. It offers a fairly detailed introduction to Cassavetes for those unfamiliar with his work, but only an introduction. Kiselyak's choice of talking heads produces a too-rosy view of the filmmaker, though. Lost in all the talk of Cassavetes's love of life, art, and human beings are his sometimes explosive temper, his abuse of alcohol, and the broken relationships they produced. His own contradictory nature goes far in explaining the complexity of his characters and films, but Kiselyak's documentary only offers half the picture. Ironically (and fittingly), glimpses of the darker side of Cassavetes are revealed by way of actor Lenny Citrano's (Suicide Kings) narration. Acting as the filmmaker's voice, he reads excerpts from Ray Carney's interview book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, and some of the passages capture Cassavetes ruminating on his own bad behavior and character flaws. Kiselyak and his entourage of contributors may want to recreate Cassavetes as a brave and saint-like artist, but that isn't the way the man saw himself. Still, there's value in capturing for posterity the opinions and recollections of John Cassavetes's friends, loved ones, and collaborators, even if they're being less than entirely candid and forthcoming. Kiselyak's picture does just that, and in compelling fashion.
In addition to Kiselyak's feature-length documentary, which comprises Disc Eight of the set, the individual films are each packaged with supplements specific to their production, including retrospective video interviews with actors and crew members; lengthy audio interviews with Cassavetes; stills galleries; and trailers. Faces is given two discs with the film on the set's Disc Two and a broad array of extras on Disc Three. In addition to the previously mentioned "Shooting and Lighting the Film" featurette, Disc Three houses a 17-minute alternate opening for the film, a documentary on its making, and a full-length French television exposé on Cassavetes.
In addition to the standard set of interviews and archival material, A Woman Under the Influence (Disc Four) offers a solid feature-length audio commentary by camera operator Mike Ferris and composer and sound editor Bo Harwood.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is also given two discs, with the original 1976 cut of the film (never before available on home video) on Disc Five, and the re-edited 1978 version on Disc Six. The second cut of the film was produced in order to make it better conform to the strictures of the noir/crime genre, but it was a poorly realized effort. Reducing the original cut's running time by nearly 30 minutes while adding scenes previously left on the cutting room floor actually made the 1978 version less coherent in terms of plot. Interestingly, it's difficult to say one cut is superior to the other. They make excellent companion pieces, their differing material and re-ordering of scenes adding insight into both plot and character when viewed in tandem.
If the wealth of video and audio supplements isn't enough for you, the set also packs a 68-page booklet loaded with essays by Cassavetes and film scholars about each of the films. They provide substantive insight into the man and his movies and give anyone coming at these films for the first time valuable context for viewing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Stunning as this box set is, it might have been even better. Over the past few years, the dogged work of Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney has resulted in the discovery of a reportedly pristine print of the 1957 version of Shadows (40 minutes of whose 78-minute running time is entirely unique to that cut), as well as a 147-minute cut of Faces, its differences from the final version more numerous than the alternate 17-minute introduction included in this release. According to Carney, he was hired as a scholarly adviser on this box set but his lobbying for the inclusion of the alternate versions of Shadows and Faces put him in bad stead with Al Ruban and Gena Rowlands—who don't want those versions exhibited publicly or released in any home video format—and resulted in his removal from the project. Departing with Carney were an essay he wrote for the insert booklet, as well as his feature-length commentary for Shadows, which mentioned the newly-discovered 1957 cut. Carney also holds Charles Kiselyak's film in utter contempt, considering it a Hollywood whitewash of Cassavetes and his work, and deriding it on his website as "A Constant Forgery."
The vitriol with which Carney discusses the subjects of this box set and the alternate versions of Shadows and Faces (in addition to the snarky slams on Kiselyak's film, he's fond of likening Rowlands to the deranged Norma Desmond) reduces the entire battle to a barely rational he said/she said for those of us on the outside. Rowlands and Ruban claim Cassavetes had essentially disowned the 1957 version of Shadows, and they are merely honoring his wishes by blocking its release. Carney (credibly) claims that, while Cassavetes made clear he preferred the 1959 cut, he wasn't opposed to exhibition of the earlier assembly. Cutting through the animosity and hurt feelings and speaking selfishly as a Cassavetes fan, I can only say I'd love to see the alternate versions of Shadows and Faces. Knowing they're out there and they might have been included slightly tarnishes this otherwise exemplary box set.
Despite these regrettable omissions, John Cassavetes: Five Films is easily the Criterion Collection's most impressive release to date. And that ain't hyperbole. There's no doubt this is one of the most satisfying and important releases of the year.
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Scales of Justice, Shadows
Perp Profile, Shadows
Distinguishing Marks, Shadows
• Interviews with Lelia Goldoni and Seymour Cassel
Scales of Justice, Faces
Perp Profile, Faces
Distinguishing Marks, Faces
• 17-Minute Alternate Opening Sequence
Scales of Justice, A Woman Under The Influence
Perp Profile, A Woman Under The Influence
Distinguishing Marks, A Woman Under The Influence
• Audio Commentary by Mike Ferris and Bo Harwood
Scales of Justice, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie
Perp Profile, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie
Distinguishing Marks, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie
• 108-Minute Cut of the Film from 1978
Scales of Justice, Opening Night
Perp Profile, Opening Night
Distinguishing Marks, Opening Night
• Conversation Between Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara
Scales of Justice, A Constant Forge: The Life And Art Of John Cassavetes
Perp Profile, A Constant Forge: The Life And Art Of John Cassavetes
Distinguishing Marks, A Constant Forge: The Life And Art Of John Cassavetes
• Biographical Sketches of John Cassavetes's Actors
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.