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Stop Name-Dropping John Cassavetes, And Start Actually Watching Him

Illustration for article titled Stop Name-Dropping John Cassavetes, And Start Actually Watching Him

As any film-studies student (or, to evoke that near-extinct species, any video-store clerk) will tell you, director John Cassavetes is the Father of Modern American Independent Cinema, a touchstone for all up-and-coming cinéastes. The actor whose mug graced classic Golden Age fare like Rosemary's Baby and The Dirty Dozen had already begun writing and directing his own films with money straight out of his own pocket, beginning with 1959's Shadows and continuing through to his troubled final film, 1984's Love Streams.


Any serious moviemaker (or movie buff) at least claims to love him. A totem for the most important American directors working today (from Martin Scorsese to Steven Soderbergh), he's constantly name-checked by the likes of Spike Jonez and Wes Anderson as well. Watch the lecherous ad execs and suited professionals behaving badly in films like 1968's Faces and 1970's Husbands, and you'll see the roots of Mad Men, his love of anti-heroes and -heroines evident now even on the small screen. He's even gotten love beyond independent cinema, with underground punk acts like Fugazi and Le Tigre immortalizing him in song. But as tirelessly as acolytes and imitators drop his name, his turbulent and emotionally jagged films themselves are rarely even approached. Everyone talks about him; all too few people get around to studying him.

Last month, the Criterion Collection finally released Love Streams—starring the director himself alongside his wife, Gena Rowlands—on DVD and Blu-Ray. A peculiar love story that follows alcohol-soaked novelist Robert Harmon and his mentally unstable sister Sarah Lawson as they teeter on the edge of madness, it flamed out upon its initial 1984 release, back when there was no American independent cinema to speak of.

Indeed, excessive bombs like 1977's Sorcerer and 1980's Heaven's Gate had all but snuffed out any notion of the Hollywood Auteur by then; in an era of blockbusters, the landscape for such smaller fare was bleak indeed. The Utah U.S. Film Festival had just re-branded itself as the Sundance Film Festival, but was not yet a force. And while Jim Jarmusch had just won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for Stranger Than Paradise, future indie icons like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Hal Hartley didn't have a feature credit to their name yet. Love Streams was savaged in the press (both Pauline Kael at the New Yorker and Vincent Canby at the New York Times routinely ground their axes on Cassavetes's films) and only lasted a few weeks in theaters. For more than 30 years, it wasn't available on any format in North America.

For his swan song, it deserved a better fate, even if the film itself was star-crossed. Right before production started, Cassavetes learned that he was dying, but didn't share the news with his friends and family. And mere weeks before filming began, lead actor Jon Voigt (who played Robert Harmon in Cassavetes's theater version) bolted, leaving the director to take on the role himself, despite his haggard face and evidently declining health.

It's not quite the best introduction to his oeuvre (Mad Men fans might try Faces or Husbands, while those seeking one of the finest performances by a dramatic actress of that decade should watch Rowlands's harrowing turn in 1974's A Woman Under the Influence). For devout fans, Love Streams is bittersweet, the director's own take on Shakespeare's late-life play The Tempest, right down to the storm itself. It recalls his previous films in small ways, from Seymour Cassel rocking the same handlebar mustache he had in 1971's Minnie & Moskovitz (now Cassavetes's lone film not available on DVD) to the way Rowlands seems to be channeling all her previous characters at once.

This is also his strangest film, filled with confusing dream sequences, drunken slapstick that draws blood, labyrinthian emotions that never quite resolve, a cover of Bob Marley's "Kinky Reggae," and a transmogrifying dog. At film's end, Cassavetes even waves goodbye to his audience, perhaps knowing this would be his final performance.


Even so, since his death due to cirrhosis of the liver in 1989, his volatile films have increasingly allegedly inspired new directors, even those who avoid emotional complexities like an Ebola outbreak. He proved that a film could be made without a studio, a union crew, or a seven-figure budget. The results were invariably gritty, emotionally raw, and jagged, as best exemplified by A Woman Under the Influence, in which a suburban housewife has a nervous breakdown, the camera never turning away.

For first-time viewers, his films can appear to be improvised and off-kilter and plotless, or at least action-less. Oftentimes, Cassavetes resorted to jittery handheld cameras to establish a scene's mood; even in a late effort like Love Streams, he eschews standard visual composition, shooting from behind a lamp or filming a crucial bit of dialogue between the siblings with one completely out of the frame. It can take nearly 90 minutes into the film to work out that they're even brother and sister, rather than former lovers.


Revisiting a film this unsettled, it's incongruous to compare it to a new generation of visually precious, emotionally bereft directors who cite him as an influence. In a Times profile during the making of his Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze cited him as a major influence on the dialogue, which, as the article noted, "may be exciting news if you're a fan of avant-garde cinema, but might not sound quite as good if you're the president of Warner Brothers," adding that "Cassavetes, who once said that he found scenes with crisp dialogue 'corny and boring,' is arguably one of the most brilliant American filmmakers of all time, but his movies never made much money, and he was effectively banished from Hollywood." The amount spent on Wild Things' puppetry alone most likely outstripped all of Cassavetes's shoestring, piecemeal budgets.

Even stranger was Wes Anderson's praise in a 2009 New Yorker article, wherein he discussed the similarities between Husbands and his own The Darjeeling Limited: "They're all on the cusp or in the middle of some kind of meltdown," Anderson noted of his characters, "Jason [Schwartzman], Roman [Coppola], and I watched Husbands together, and we really felt connected to it."


But where Husbands is a drunken, tumultuous film about three men grieving the death of a friend and enacting the bender to end all benders, Anderson's own film is effete and lily-livered. Rather than explore what said "meltdown" might entail, we instead get the usual twee visual shorthand: face bandages and fancy Louis Vuitton luggage to stand in for emotional bruising and familial baggage.

Really, it's hard to think of a less emotionally engaged director currently at work than Wes Anderson: While his set design is meticulous and pristine, with better efforts like Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel being visual confections of the highest order, emotional nuance has never been his strong suit. Over the course of eight movies, Anderson has never proven that he can write a substantial female lead, usually failing the Bechdel Test even with great actors like Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton, and Anjelica Huston at his disposal. Compare their characters against Gena Rowlands's body of work in her husband's films, and they pale.

Even Cassavetes's own children have their work cut out for them. His daughter Zoe made the promising Parker Posey feature Broken English in 2007; meanwhile, his son Nick has played the Hollywood game far better than his father ever could. He brought one of John's screenplays to life in the 1997 film She's So Lovely, and was responsible for telling the greatest Alzheimer's love story ever told (and re-told and re-told) while introducing most of America to some Canadian guy named Ryan Gosling in his adaptation of The Notebook. John probably wouldn't have thought too highly of Nick's The Other Woman, though.


All the reverence aside, the elder Cassavetes's stature is out of reach for most filmmakers. The emotional turbulence he captured onscreen isn't easily won and is hard to replicate, no matter the cast or budget. And he knew it. "Everyone says they want to work the way I do … but they don't really want to," he told film scholar Ray Carney in his book Cassavetes on Cassavetes. "They don't want to go all the way to work this way. In the end, they want to protect themselves. They are afraid. They don't really want to take a chance."

Andy Beta writes at Pitchfork, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal, and tweets as @betaworldpeace.


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