Faces and Masks: the films of John Cassavetes

Faces and Masks: the films of John Cassavetes featured image

By Marc Glassman

Faces and Masks: the films of John Cassavetes
Retrospective on Cassavetes
TIFF Bell Lightbox
Reitman Square
350 King Street West

Films discussed, all of which are still to be screened:

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976); directed by Cassavetes and starring Ben Gazzara (Cosmo Vitelli);

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) directed by Cassavetes and starring Gena Rowlands (Minnie), Seymour Cassel (Moskowitz)

Gloria (1980), directed by Cassavetes and starring Rowlands (Gloria Swenson) and John Adames (Phil);

Opening Night (1977), directed by Cassavetes and starring Rowlands (Myrtle Gordon), Cassavetes (Maurice) and Gazzara (Manny).

The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to… As an artist, I feel that we must try many things – but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad – to be willing to risk everything to really express it all.”–John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes was America’s Method acting maverick, a leading man, scriptwriter and director who deliberately followed his own controversial path rather than grabbing Hollywood’s brass ring of success. Trained like Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman in an acting style that was all about reaching the inner core of a character, Cassavetes’ artistic credo centred on personal expression.

Artists of his generation, who reached adulthood in the Fifties, were rebels without a cause, searching for truth by any means necessary. In the Greenwich Village where he made his first film Shadows, Cassavetes rubbed shoulders with jazz musicians like Charlie Mingus, beat poets and writers like Ginsberg and Burroughs, painters and photographers like Larry Rivers and Robert Frank.

Taken up briefly by Hollywood in the early Sixties, Cassavetes couldn’t adapt his methods to a system based on cut-and-dried professionalism. Not that he didn’t want the best results; he did, and the brilliant performances he drew from actors ranging from the immensely gifted Peter Falk to the limited but exuberant Seymour Cassel testify to a dedication to his craft. But Cassavetes wanted to create authenticity in his films and he could only do that in an atmosphere of cooperation and friendship, on shoots often with limited budgets, multi-tasking crews and actors who didn’t feel demeaned when asked to carry equipment or stay overtime to complete the day’s shoot.

“Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are… In this country, people die at 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe younger… My responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21… The films are a roadmap through emotional and intellectual terrain that provides a solution on how to save pain.”John Cassavetes

When Shadows was released in 1960, the film got much praise from critics and even won a prize at the Venice Film Festival but there was no system in place for it to be distributed widely in cinemas. But when Faces–a film that truly mapped out a mature emotional and intellectual terrain–was released eight years later, the Hollywood studios were panicking and independent films had a chance to achieve some measure of financial success.

Cassavetes rode that wave, buoyed in part by the notoriety he gained for playing leading roles in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, and sustained a career as a writer-director-occasional actor for 15 years. From 1970 to 1984, he created Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Gloria, Opening Night and Love Streams. They are, by definition, uneven–Cassavetes never wanted to make carefully constructed narratives, with every detail worked out to perfection. But in their very messiness, there is genuine art and emotional truth. It’s a body of work that deserves respect and a new audience.

Happily, TIFF’s Cinematheque has mounted a thoughtful and engaged retrospective of Cassavetes’ art. Still to be screened this week are the often comic and emotional Minnie and Moskowitz, featuring an unlikely romance between Moskowitz, a crazily happy bohemian parking lot attendant and Minnie, a conflicted curator; the noir thriller Killing of a Chinese Bookie; the mob girl-with-a-heart-of-gold surrogate mom romance Gloria and the haunting thespian character study Opening Night.

In a dialogue specially shot for the DVD of Opening Night, Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands reminisce about Cassavetes and what it was like making films with him. Gazzara points out that there must be a new generation of actors, writers and directors making movies with their friends now. And indeed there are. “But not as talented as us,” Gazzara says to Rowlands, with a self-deprecating smile.

What hits me seeing these films again after many years is how talented Cassavetes and his immediate core of collaborators truly were. Gazzara originated the role of Brick for Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof‘s initial Broadway success. One of the great Method actors, Gazzara gives depth and style to Manny, the arrogant, conflicted theatre director in Opening Night and a vast sense of interiority and pain to the role of Cosmo, the nightclub owner in Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Rowlands, Cassavetes’ wife and muse is brilliant as the nearly psychotic actress Myrtle in Opening Night and makes Gloria into a successful film by turning what could have been a clichéd part into something that feels real. (Her best film A Woman Under the Influence has already been screened; interested viewers should at least see it on DVD). Of course, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes are wonderful performers, too, and the surrounding cast and crew–Seymour Cassel, producer-cinematographer Al Ruban, the dancers/strippers in Bookie, etc.—rise to the challenge of working in an atmosphere of creativity and truth.

At the time of the release of these films, Cassavetes was hailed as “anti-establishment,” a tough “counter-cultural” figure. Now, it’s obvious that he was the first true American Indie. He wanted to tell stories his way, with his friends and lovers accompanying him all the way. If the narrative had holes, who cared? Cassavetes only cared about emotional truth–he let chips fall wherever they felt like falling. As a result, films like Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night look better than ever. You can practically smell and taste the freedom that nourished them. Young filmmakers emerging from Sundance and Tribeca can look at Cassavetes and these films and see where they came from: it’s still a beautiful place.

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