George Kouvaros teaches film in the School of Theatre, Film and Dance, University of NSW, Sydney.
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With every passing year, the films of John Cassavetes are becoming more and more central to debates on cinema. Moving uneasily between Hollywood and independent American cinema traditions, Cassavetes created a body of work which was sometimes difficult but which has also had a lasting influence on the way independent filmmaking is conceived.
Much has been made of Cassavetes as a biographical figure. His memorable acting roles and labelling as a “maverick” director (he usually worked with the same troupe of actors including his wife Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel) have perhaps generated as much interest in Cassavetes himself as in his films. American academic Ray Carney, for example, who was brought to Australia to introduce the Cassavetes retrospective at the 1999 Sydney Film Festival, engaged the festival audience with numerous personal anecdotes and reflections.
This focus however leaves a number of the more complex issues such as the exact nature of performance in his films, his relation to the development of film studies and the difficulties involved in analyzing the films unaddressed. Ironically, these are the very issues which local writers such as Adrian Martin, Jodi Brooks and George Kouvaros have dealt with in numerous publications. In order to highlight some of this work, I spoke to George Kouvaros, who has taught and written extensively on the work of Cassavetes, about the nature of performance, the preoccupation with the everyday and the rendering of the cinematic object itself in Cassavetes work.
A shorter version of this interview appeared in Real Time August/September 1999.
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Needeya Islam: Why do you think there has been a renewed interest in critical discussion of Cassavetes’ films over the past decade?
George Kouvaros: I think there are a number of reasons for this. The first thing to note is that nearly all the films are now able to be accessed on video. For a long time, the only films available on video were A Child is Waiting (1963), Gloria (1980), Love Streams (1984) and Big Trouble (1986, credited to but disowned by Cassavetes). In the early ’90s, a ‘Cassavetes collection’ became available in France, the US and Great Britain that included Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977) andThe Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1978 version). The British critic Richard Combs, who, along with Tom Milne and Jonathan Rosenbaum, was one of the few English language critics to pay close attention to Cassavetes’ films during the ’70s, wrote a very interesting short article celebrating their release on video in Sight and Sound, and since then there has been a trickle rather than a flood of critical interest.
But that doesn’t tell us the full story of course. An important but more complicated factor is that the study of film has changed and so too have the concerns of a number of key film journals. To tell this story properly would take much more space than we have here. But it is worth sketching some of the key points.
The first thing to remember is that Cassavetes’ most prolific period as a filmmaker was during the decade of the ’70s. (Five of his eleven films were released during this decade.) Now a lot of work has been done on this decade within film studies and some of this work has been quite critical of the prescriptive nature of certain writings that came to shape the agendas of serious film theory journals. I don’t want to replay what often comes across as a clichéd view of a very important period within the development of film studies. For the sake of argument and brevity, however, it is possible to identify a narrowing of focus in terms of the range of films and also the range of cinematic issues that came under scrutiny. Much of the writing in film journals with an explicit interest in theory tended to cluster around either a highly loaded understanding of the classical Hollywood narrative cinema or a model of a politically motivated avant garde.
Cassavetes’ relation to both these models of cinematic form is complex and, in some ways, contradictory. His films are highly experimental in that they are constantly rethinking what the cinema can do, the kinds of situations, stories and relationships it is able to bring into being. Yet having said this, Cassavetes’ films ultimately fail to fit the criteria for a radical cinema developed during the ’70s in at least two key respects: first, the films do not incorporate a theoretical language that echoes the concerns of film theory itself and, second, the relation of Cassavetes’ films to Hollywood narrative cinema is never simply oppositional.
Perhaps the most important and interesting work done on Hollywood narrative cinema during the ’70s was concerned with understanding film as a textual system. I’m thinking here of Raymond Bellour’s writings on the formal structures, dominant paradigms, and narrative patterns that we can use to understand the logic and fascination of Hollywood narrative cinema. Cassavetes’ work, which for a long time seemed to be the most informal of objects, didn’t fit into this project of situating and understanding the textual operations of narrative cinema. His films are governed by a much more unruly economy of narrative and action which pressures the possibility of locating and accounting for a textual system. The late ’70s and ’80s saw a shift in the nature of textual analysis to include a focus on the disruptive potential of cinema itself – the way film form constructs not a stable system of meaning and engagement but an affective landscape open to a range of disruptions. This shift in focus brought film studies much closer to the possibility of critical discussion with the kind of cinematic form found in Cassavetes’ work.
Certainly in the last ten years these concerns have shifted once again. There has been a lot more consideration of addressing questions to do with performance and acting in the cinema – those things which are certainly part of the cinema’s textual operations but which are perhaps the most difficult things to discuss in that they are to do with gesture, the body and a relationship to the cinema in which our identification is never straightforward but always moving between actor and character. For me, these concerns with performance and acting are important as they open up an understanding of cinema as more than just an image, more than just a text.
To continue the issue of critical engagement and Cassavetes’ films, at first glance his films don’t seem to lend themselves to being written about. What kind of pressures and challenges do Cassavetes’ films pose for critical interpretation?
I think it is true to say that his films demand a different set of analytical and descriptive skills to those most students, or my generation of film students at least, cut their teeth on at university. Rather than concentrating on obvious formal manipulations in terms of point of view, editing patterns, spectator positions and relating these to broader ideological structures, our attention has to be on a shifting surface of bodily gesture, human relation and emotion. I think Kent Jones articulated this shift of attention very nicely in a recent issue of Film Quarterly. He makes the point that in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie the way the “Chinese bookie closes his eyes and mouth tightly, tilts his chin and shakes his head. . . just before he is shot by Ben Gazzara is as much a structural event as a change of angle in Hitchcock”. To get back to your original question, one of the other reasons why there has been a renewed interest in Cassavetes, is because I think film studies has found itself coming back to the question of formal description via a renewed interest in miseenscène – that somewhat elusive term which calls our attention back to the materiality of the filmic image and the way in which human figures are brought into being, positioned and put under pressure through the process of filming, through the articulation of the cinematic image.
Critical discussions of Cassavetes’ films keep coming back to his concern with everyday people and situations. It seems to me that his films treat the everyday in a particular way that encourages the viewer to look for subtleties and nuances that somehow embellish or complicate it.
While we certainly can say that Cassavetes’ work is about the emotional life of the everyday, it is an everyday rendered dramatic through the act of filming. The mundanities and mysteries of day-to-day life (in A Woman Under the Influence, for example, a spaghetti breakfast, a children’s party, a day at the beach) become subject to a process of amplification and transformation that opens up these events (spatially and temporally) and subjects them to a process of crisis whereby we are no longer sure how things come together or what the proper order of things is.
And the instigator for this crisis isan explicit engagement – on both formal and thematic levels – with the issue of performance and acting out. In terms of their narratives, his films continually return to the question of how to act. Performance serves as a way of unleashing a figurative energy specific to cinema that renders the everyday larger than life or operatic.
To come at this from another angle, Cassavetes’ films not only give us back the everyday, they set about to constantly reinvent it through the act of cinema. Each film seems to mark a process of starting from scratch. Although a script may be in place or a generic point of reference already established (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Gloria), each film constantly negotiates its own coming into being: the step by step, gesture by gesture process through which character, identity and narrative come together and fall apart. Adrian Martin is absolutely correct when he describes Cassavetes’ work as a “cinema which is a kind of documentary event where the energies of bodily performance, of gesture and utterance and movement collide willy-nilly in ways not always foreseen or proscribed, with the dynamic, formal, figurative work of shooting, framing, cutting, sound recording”. The camera is never just a recording device but more like a provocateur or catalyst setting off a performance, scrutinising it, looking for the possibility of something never seen before but which emerges with striking clarity through the act of cinema. Each film serves as testimony to the plasticity and fundamental mystery of human emotions as they engage and are provoked into being by the cinema.
Could you talk a little more about the particular understanding of performance in Cassavetes’ films? It seems that what is being marked out in Cassavetes’ work is a situation where performance is not just a matter of re-production of a script or predetermined character but serves to generate its own meanings and affects.
Olivier Assayas recently put this very well when he wrote: ‘Films take their meaning suddenly. At a given moment, one understands that one has accomplished what one wanted, that is the concrete elements transcend and reveal something which is a little indescribable, that one could not formulate for oneself, but which is suddenly what one was looking for from the very beginning’. Like Assayas – who admires Cassavetes’ films very much – Cassavetes’ interest is in how the unstable factors and experiences that surround a performance or that an actor brings with them to a role produce or transform a situation. Interestingly, both directors talk about the actor as a generator of a sovereign meaning that only arises or comes forth through the work of fiction-making and performance. Hence the importance of allowing the actor a certain degree of freedom in terms of their movements and blocking and also in terms of their responses in a scene. But this freedom places the pressure back on the actor to endure and call upon a set of responses to a situation that may not be predetermined. In Faces and A Woman Under the Influence this pressure is manifested through the use of two cameras filming the same scene from different positions, the preference for long takes and the interest in capturing those gestures and expressions that float uncertainly within a situation. So we see not only the most obvious dramatic events and gestures, but those expressions and gestures that may be to the side of what would normally be considered the dramatic action of a scene. This strategy is crucial to opening up the everyday, situating the everyday within a different kind of dramatic space, a dramatic space open to ambiguity and the most subtle nuances of meaning.
In Cassavetes’ films there is a sense of a cinematic world continually being re-made. Human figures, situations and emotions in his films are continually undergoing a kind of transformation. This is not about improvisation. A script is in place. There might even be a generic framework, for instance, in Killing of a Chinese Bookie the gangster film, in Minnie and Moskowitz the screwball comedy, in Gloria the chase film. But these structures and generic frameworks are subject to the same kinds of transformative qualities that arise through Cassavetes’ attention to the way in which the camera works upon the body, the way light falls on a face, the way that speech sounds when it is not in the service of dialogue, the textures that it makes when there is uncertainty about which direction to take.
In each case what is valued is the performative quality that is part of that moment of enunciation when cinema gives the impression of watching itself coming into being. There is a kind of attentiveness at work within the film by the filmmaker, the cameraman, the performers that requires from the audience an equal measure of attention to those gestures that in other films may seem marginal but in Cassavetes’ work are absolutely central.
Perhaps the transformative nature of the performances in Cassavetes’ work is related to a certain indiscernibility of narrative intention that arises from each character seeming to act out of their own internal logic. By this I mean as characters primarily, rather than as conduits in the service of plot.
I think what you’re trying to describe here is the way that the films withhold access to an interiority that often functions to explain a character’s behaviour. The performances certainly create a powerful sense of inner turmoil and psychology depth. But the impact is due to the fact that the films never psychologise the characters. Sylvie Pierre puts it best when she describes Faces as giving the impression of “being a thorough investigation which, however, reveals nothing at all”. She goes on to note that Faces ‘makes us aware of one of the weaknesses of the cinema: its right and proper inability to explain the inner world, since all it can literally grasp are external signs as being not unrelated to inner turmoil’. What Pierre points to is cinema’s unsurpassed ability to record and capture the fluctuations of emotion as they pass across the surface of a face. Cassavetes’ work is distinguished by a highly sophisticated understanding of how cinema engages with emotion via the image, an image that draws its meaning from the skin, the face and light, rather than some false interiority.
I have this sense of each of his films being an exploration of a particular world, despite the spilling over of each film into another through the ongoing exploration of character. I’m interested also in what is suggested by his almost Hawksian shifts from one generic space to another, from the gangster film to the screwball comedy to the family melodrama etc.
I think that his antipathy to Hollywood narrative may have been overplayed. I think that Hollywood is too much a part of Cassavetes experience for it to simply be renounced. And this can be seen in how he takes up certain genres, like the gangster film in Killing of a Chinese Bookie . At the same time that he takes up these genres he is interested in what happens to these conventions and situations when they are subjected to a different kind of performative rhythm and narrative logic. For instance, in Bookie, it is those detours, obstacles and stumbles on the way to the hit that are made central. The encounters Cosmo (Ben Gazzara) has as he’s trying to arrive at the house are given as much play and time as what happens when he gets there. So this continual process of taking up and detouring is crucial to Cassavetes work. In Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) he renders the emotions of the screwball comedy and expands them, opens them up to all sorts of uncertainties, doubts and questions. So the relation to genre in Cassavetes’ films is very much about emotional expansion and transformation.
Perhaps there is a Cassavetes system that we are identifying here, a kind of performative energy or system that identifies the work. Richard Combs has written about this in relation to Gloria. He argues that at the beginning of the film one can see two kinds of performative systems at work: one that is familiar, involving the establishment of certain generic conventions, for example, the blowing away of the family, the quick elaboration of the central scenario. And at the same time there’s another more subtle kind of logic of performance whose style and temporality is not so much at odds with the first but engages with it in a way that forces an expansion of the first. This is something one can identify immediately with Cassavetes’ work.
Cassavetes seems to have been positioned outside of any cinematic tradition, as though his methods emerged without a history and he worked with his ensemble in a vacuum. What other influences played a part in the formulation of Cassavetes’ approach to cinema?
A key influence (one that Cassavetes’ himself acknowledged many times) is the work of Shirley Clarke, who along with Lionel Rogosan, formed part of a maverick strand of American direct cinema that was very concerned with the line between fiction and documentary styles and the figurative capacities of the cinema. This was particularly the case with Shirley Clarke’s films The Cool World (1963), The Connection (1961) and Portrait of Jason (1967). In each of these films the camera is never just a recording device, it is a provocateur, a catalyst, working on performers, provoking them, engaging them but also being effected by them. This is the other side of the question of what happens to the Cassavetes camera, what it does. It isn’t just an instrument effecting the performers, it too is open to a passage of affect that comes back, that is drawn out of the situation. It can take on an uncertainty, almost an intoxication at times. It is a question of the circulation of affect in Cassavetes’ work – never simply recording or manipulation; but something that flows between the characters and between camera and actor, maybe even character and actor.
It’s also worth mentioning Cassavetes’ relation to the tradition of American experimental cinema. A tradition that we have to be careful about locating Cassavetes work within because of his falling out with Jonas Mekas and Film Culture in the late ’50s because of the re-editing of Shadows. It is well known that Mekas branded the second version of Shadows as a betrayal or, more damning, as “a bad Hollywood film”. The standard line for so long has been to oppose Cassavetes to the work of American experimental cinema – thus replaying the same logic of oppositions that positions Cassavetes at odds to Hollywood. I think it’s more productive to see that Cassavetes may have also been influenced by filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Robert Frank, Jonas Mekas in this concern with creating an affective space between camera and subject.
This affective space between camera and subject is given further complexity and depth by the way the films are always setting up allusions to previous films. So what is in question is always a body of work, never just an individual film. But this body of work is one that is continually spilling over into real life through Cassavetes’ use of family members and his own home. He is undoing the notion of film as a discrete entity or practice, in other words, the idea of film as ‘a reserved area in space-time, a privileged enclave. . .’. (Jean-Louis Comolli.) The performance we see in a particular film is one which has a history of other performances, and in itself is not a final rendition, but part of a continual movement of repetition and difference.
So there is a sense of it always being in process. It’s a very theatrical concept. What do you think Cassavetes was trying to do by transferring this idea to cinema?
He’s drawing from theatre this notion of performance being always contingent, never being a final act. Film theorists have always pointed out that one of the key divergences between film and theatre is that once a performance is given, recorded and edited into film, it’s fixed, it never changes, except in terms of how the audience responds to it. Cassavetes seems to pressure this cinematic idea of performance by going back over the situations, by returning to certain scenarios, but also in his tendency to re-edit, circulate different versions of his films. (The two versions of Bookie for instance.)
This seems particularly true in terms of how Opening Night approaches the question of theatre.
It is important that when Cassavetes seems to be closest to reflecting on his own work he is actually looking at the theatre – and in Opening Night, but also in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, he actually turns to a much more impure form of theatre: the striptease and burlesque show. Bookie also marks a shift from the figure of the female performer in crisis found in Opening Night to a specifically masculine form of performative crisis. In both Bookie and Opening Night we’re never quite sure how chaotic things are or whether it’s controlled chaos. Bookie is one of the great films about how performance operates through a process of disfigurement. There is a thread, a logic to the show that we and Cosmo seem to be struggling to put together. Cosmo is always checking up on the show, and every time he does this he finds that something else is taking place, something other than he expected. He is always referring to style – he tells the loan shark that he has no style. This whole question of style is very interesting because it’s one based on impurity, different traditions of theatre that are blended, confused, disrupted.
He says at one point that this is not your average stripshow.
Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) – Cosmo’s on-stage double – is continually saying we’re going to take you somewhere special. He sees the strip show as a space of art. Like Cosmo he has a total commitment to the performance. But he’s also completely vulnerable at the same time to the chaos that surrounds him. After Cosmo finally kills the bookie, he succeeds in getting the show back on the road. But the film doesn’t end on Cosmo, it goes back to the performance and to Mr. Sophistication. At the end of the day, not even Cosmo can determine or have the final word in terms of performance. The film’s ending says something about how performance can’t be contained within a single figure or entity.
How do you think this relates to the idea of reinvention and the performative, both on a micro and a macro level? I was thinking particularly of the opening scene in Faces where you’re not really sure of what is going on, who the Gena Rowlands character is and what her relation to these two men is. It’s as though the characters and situations are always becoming, always one thing and then something else. So both the character and the situation are whatever they fleetingly seem to be; we are not privy to any sense of authenticity but rather a playfulness. I was wondering about how this operates also in terms of the recurring themes or preoccupations in Cassavetes work, how they are perhaps reinvented with each film.
I think that micro level is the level of role; in Cassavetes’ work role is never fixed, it’s always open to be reworked. In the opening scene of Faces, you’re not sure what the relation between the characters are; we’re not sure what the roles are, what roles they have. Role is something that is contingent and also relational; it is something that is always being refigured. It’s like emotion; it resides in the spaces between characters.
My favorite example of this is in Love Streams with the character of Margarita (Margaret Abbot), the mother of Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes)’s first girlfriend Susan (Diahnne Abbot). In the first half of the film she is situated as Susan’s mother, but what happens during the course of the film, during the dance with Robert, is that she becomes something else. The key thing is the flux and movement of becoming which is constituted across the film and effects each role. A lot of it has got to do with the question of relations. There is the sense that role is not understood on an abstract level of narrative, but in the to and fro of relations that are always open to transformation and the passage of affect and emotion.
Do you have any thoughts on the significance of Love Streams as Cassavetes ‘last’ film?
Referring to Love Streams as a last film is a problem as it negates any consideration of Big Trouble and its place within the body of work. This is something which, along with Ray Carney, I have been guilty of doing in the past. Love Streams is for me Cassavetes’ greatest film and his most mysterious. My attachment to this film may have something to do with the sense that something has changed by the time that you get to this film.
Through the relationship of Robert and Sarah (Gena Rowlands), Cassavetes is returning to the bond between siblings – the very thing with which he begins his filmmaking career. As with Shadows, Love Streams is about the mysteries of a familial connection where the mother and father are absent. And like Shadows, Love Streams is a film in which the question ‘what is a family?’ is being asked in each encounter, in each shot. Robert’s family life is in tatters. Sarah’s family has also fallen apart. Whereas the earlier films seem to deal with the moment of crisis within a marriage or relationship, there is a sense that in Love Streams Cassavetes is dealing with what happens after things have fallen apart. Love Streams is about the effort of recovery, a belated effort, rather than an attempt to hold something together.
And there is also a sense that the energy associated with Cassavetes’ characters is also quite different. Love Streams is a film where energy is spasmodic, where performances seem to stall at the very point where they are about to begin. Nearly every performance in the film is interrupted. The dance between Robert and Sarah in front of the jukebox is broken off by Robert just when there’s this sense that they are coming together. Robert’s dance with Margarita is interrupted by the arrival of Susan. There are other instances of these short circuits. In Cassavetes’ earlier films there is a tendency for performance to become elongated, for example, Mabel (Gena Rowlands)’s terrifying breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence. By the time we get to Love Streams, things are much more truncated. This might have something to do with Cassavetes’ illness at the time. Something is passing across from the body of the actor to the body created within the film (two things impossible to separate). The kind of energy that we associate with his other films can no longer be sustained. And that lends a certain sense of things being post-facto.
But this of course is not the full story. What makes the film so mysterious is that the energy previously associated with his central characters now seems to be transferred to the world around them, and this leads to the creation of a kind of magical space where anything is possible. I’m reminded of the flow of taxis coming up Robert’s driveway, the stream of visitors, the collection of animals Sarah brings home and the hallucination. The sense of magic also marks the grandeur of Sarah’s dream of reconciliation. The final image of Robert/Cassavetes standing behind the window looking out onto an environment which is storm ridden, doffing his hat and exiting the frame echoes the final image of Cosmo in Chinese Bookie. In both instances there is a suggestion that performance is something that can’t be contained within the individual figure. It is much more poignant in Love Streams because of the sense of exhaustion that hangs over the film.
Olivier Assayas, ‘Apropos of Maggie’, Metro No. 113/114 1998.
Richard Combs, ‘Hell Up in the Bronx’, Sight and Sound, vol. 50 no. 2, Spring 1981.
Richard Combs, ‘As Time Goes By’, Sight and Sound. Vol. 1 no. 12. 1992.
‘Movie Mutations: Letters from (and to) Some Children of 1960’, Contributions by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, Kent Jones, Alex Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour, Film Quarterly vol. 52, no. 1, Fall 1998.
Sylvie Pierre, Jean Louis Comolli ‘Two faces of Faces‘ in Jim Hillier (ed.),Cahiers du cinéma: 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1986.