Judge Clark Douglas isn't quite ready for his close-up, Mr. Cassavetes.
Our review of John Cassavetes: Five Films: Criterion Collection, published November 8th, 2004, is also available.
The film where there's no place to hide your face.
Facts of the Case
Richard Forst (John Marley, The Godfather) and Maria Forst (Lynn Carlin, The Ballad of Cable Hogue) are a married couple. Things aren't going too well for them at the moment. Their marriage is falling apart, and each is attempting to find a way to keep their own life together. Richard finds comfort in the arms of a friendly prostitute named Jeannie (Gena Rowlands, Playing by Heart). Maria starts hanging out with a lusty, youthful hippie named Chet (Seymour Cassel, Rushmore). Drinking, drugs, sex, laughter, and fits of broken rage ensue. All the while, director John Cassavetes keeps his camera focused mercilessly on the faces of each and every one of these wounded adults.
Whenever I think of John Cassavetes' Faces, the first thing I think of is the laughter. Laughter runs throughout the entire film in a manner that approaches obsession. There is very little laughter for the audience, but the characters spend a large portion of their screen time laughing. Not because they are happy, joyful, or amused, but because they are using laughter as a weak means of avoiding a social meltdown. They laugh at bad jokes, corny one-liners, slightly odd statements, offbeat stories, and perfectly ordinary everyday things. The laughter feels hollow and forced, because that's precisely what it is, but the need to keep laughing prevents the pain of reality from setting in. Every once in a while, the laughter stops. During those quiet moments, when the spotty facade is finally penetrated, Cassavetes twists the knife.
Faces is perhaps more difficult to watch than any other Cassavetes film, but it is an immensely effective effort and an unforgettable viewing experience. It lacks the improvisational brilliance of Shadows (the director's previous film), and it's not as masterful as later Cassavetes works like A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but it is nonetheless a very brave and ferocious film that plunges fearlessly into the depths of the human soul. Even today, in a "reality-based" era in which one can get away with just about anything, few directors can match Cassavetes' passionate desire to expose the true nature of humanity with such unflinching honesty.
The characters here are deeply flawed and very desperate. They're all looking for some sort of solace and comfort, some way to relieve the pressures and internal struggles in their life. They drink, and have sex, and drink, and have sex, and engage in a lot of hollow laughter. Then they get incredibly frustrated when they realize that there's not another damn thing they can do to drown their sorrows away. Some respond to this revelation with anger and hostility, others respond by attempting to harm themselves, and everything soon dissolves into a puddle of bitter self-pity and weary loneliness.
One of my favorite moments comes late in the film. Marley is laying bed with Rowlands, and they're joking around about various things. He laughs and calls her stupid, and she laughs and says that he can't call her stupid because he doesn't know how to say, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," properly. They laugh and joke a bit more, and finally he stops laughing. "Be serious for a minute," he says. "No more kidding around, just be yourself." Rowlands laughs some more, and jovially responds, "But this is myself." "No, I'm serious," Marley says. Silence. Quietly, she gets out of the bed and goes to get something to drink. She starts to sing, but stops when tears begin to fall from her eyes. She's just been thrown into reality. Marley realizes that he's made a mistake, and quickly starts reciting the Peter Piper poem. The tears dry, the hollow laughter returns, and the empty world of artifice is restored once again.
Performances are superb all around. According to some of the making-of material included on the bonus disc, shooting the film was a very intense experience, but Cassavetes did whatever it took to get the very best out of his actors. John Marley and then-unknown Lynn Carlin expertly handle their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Forst, bringing a gut-wrenching familiarity to their performances. The extended scene detailing their disintegration is nothing short of masterful. Equal praise should go to Cassavetes regulars Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel, both of whom create very unique characters that give the movie a pulse during potentially dull stretches. Cassel in particular lights up the screen with a bizarre energy.
Shot on 16mm, the image is very grainy, sloppy, poorly-lit, and loaded with a lot of flaws. Cassavetes intended the film to look like crap, and Criterion has preserved the artfully crappy transfer faithfully. Criterion could have made it look "cleaner" if they had wanted to, but keeping the image unpolished reflects the director's artistic intent. Likewise, the mono sound is rather miserable at times, suffering from all sorts of volume issues and a bit of distortion. Hiss is kept to a minimum, however. It is what it is, and you're just going to have to deal with it, because that's the way it's supposed to be.
Criterion also supplies the typically generous batch of extras. The best is a 40-minute documentary called "Making Faces," which features interviews with various cast and crew members. It's fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff (did you know that Cassavetes slapped his actresses sometimes?), absolutely essential viewing. We also get the 17-minute alternate opening to the film, which is worth a look. Even so, I like the film just the way it is. "Cineastes de notre temps" is a 48-minute French television documentary featuring some interesting interview footage with Cassavetes. "Lighting and Shooting the Film" is a brief featurette offering some info on the film's unique "unpolished" look.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'll admit that Faces can be absolute torture to sit through if you're not in the right frame of mind. This is a film that takes some serious commitment and attention. You cannot simply watch it casually, or you run the risk of seeing nothing more than 130 minutes of fuzzy-looking people laughing and shouting. Fair warning.
A masterful effort from one of the truly great directors of the 20th century. Personally, I think that if you're going to buy the film, you might as well get the terrific eight-disc Cassavetes box set Criterion released in 2004, but it's nice to have it available as a stand-alone release. The film is a must-see for fans of independent cinema, and Criterion's supplemental package is typically excellent.
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