At one point in “I’m Almost Not Crazy…” John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work (1984), Michael Ventura’s documentary about the making of Love Streams, Ventura’s camera lingers on a written message pinned to the refrigerator in Gena Rowlands’ and John Cassavetes’ kitchen: “If this refrigerator-freezer is turned off for sound or whatever it must be turned back on after shooting. It was off all Thursday, Thursday night and Friday and by the time I found it after work on Friday it was really horrible so please don’t forget”. The name “Gena” appears at this note’s end, under a drawing depicting a frowning skull and crossbones.
So much of John Cassavetes’ cinema is present in this image, which suggests that visionary ambitions must find a way to negotiate with the practical demands of everyday life: consider Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and his attempts to shape an artistic dream world (the Crazy Horse West) while satisfying financial obligations generated by his Mafia sponsors. Yet Gena Rowlands’ note also points towards an aspect of her husband’s work that has frequently been privileged by critical commentators (including many passionate defenders and, to a certain extent, the director himself), namely the idea that Cassavetes was a wild home movie-maker, shooting improvisational and self-indulgent slices of autobiography in his own house, enlisting friends and family as collaborators, paying little regard to aesthetic or formal concerns.
It is this image of John Cassavetes that George Kouvaros sets out to challenge in his splendid new book. Courageously determined not to take Cassavetes at his own word, Kouvaros’ very title, Where Does It Happen?, seems deliberately intended as a provocation, attached as it is to this study of a director who privileged the “who” over the “where”, and once insisted that “audiences go to the cinema to see people…the only important thing is a good actor” (1).
But the word “where” in Kouvaros’ title refers equally to that place where his book “happens”, namely the arena of film theory. It is here that Kouvaros excels, since he has clearly read everything there is to read about Cassavetes, and puts his research to good use. Where Does It Happen? is, then, as much a history of critical trends as a study of one man’s oeuvre, and in this it differs radically from the work of this filmmaker’s most prominent English-language defender, Ray Carney, who has been outspoken in his hostility towards theoretical formulations. Carney’s status in the world of Cassavetes studies is so overwhelming that even someone as influenced by him as myself (2) has little difficulty understanding Kouvaros’ need to repudiate Carney before embarking on his own project. Nonetheless, some of the author’s comments are based on what I regard as misreadings of Carney’s books, which Kouvaros insists are “overwhelmingly moral rather than political in nature” (p. 25). It is difficult to imagine a moral judgement which was not also political (or a political judgement which was not moral), and, as with the early work of Robin Wood, Carney’s supposedly reactionary writings often provide a greater challenge to the status quo than those of more overtly leftist commentators. We are free to disagree with Carney’s rejection of formalist approaches, but not to label this rejection as conservative: in his own words, “Ed Meese’s or Ronald Reagan’s implicit belief that whereas politics is serious business, art is a frivolous game played by sissies in which nothing is really at stake and in which nothing that matters is actually affirmed or denied, ironically meets contemporary deconstructionist efforts to insulate the text within the hermetic boundaries of its own margin of textuality and the attempts of formalist and most genre critics of film to treat the text as existing within a self-contained artistic realm of self-referential signification” (3).
Thankfully, Kouvaros is far more sympathetic towards other critics whose work on Cassavetes equals Carney’s in terms of quality (if not quantity) – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Nicole Brenez, Richard Combs, Adrian Martin, etc. – and his book provides a fine overview of approaches to the director, dealing with these writers’ complex ideas in a manner which is always comprehensible yet never reductive.
Which is not to say that Kouvaros’ book adds nothing new to the debate. On the contrary, chapters dedicated to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Love Streams (1984) provide a series of sustained insights which made me eager to watch these masterpieces again. Indeed, my only complaint is that I would have liked the book to be longer, thus enabling Kouvaros to expand upon several fascinating remarks he makes concerning films he does not discuss in detail. This brevity is all the more regrettable in that Kouvaros’ comments suggest he may (at least potentially) be one of the few Cassavetes specialists willing to actually say something about Big Trouble (1986) (as opposed to simply dismissing it out of hand). This poor little orphan film has been subjected to so much critical bile (not least of all from its ostensible creator) that I have actually grown rather fond of it: surely its central relationship – which matches a “conventional” individual with an anarchic improviser – can be traced back at least as far as A Woman Under the Influence (1975) (with Peter Falk now cast in the Gena Rowlands role). For all that it has never been fashionable to discuss Cassavetes in terms of his relationship with Hollywood genres (unless it be to point out how thoroughly he has rejected them), the difference between these two films is essentially that between melodrama and screwball comedy, and I strongly suspect that hostility towards Big Trouble has something to do with a lingering intellectual distrust of the genre to which it belongs. It may well be that “the identification of an authorial signature” is here swamped by “a range of competing influences and pressures” (p. 159), but surely this is all the more reason for devoting more space to this film rather than less (4). As far as I am aware, nobody has even attempted to discover which scenes were shot by the project’s original director (and pseudonymous screenwriter) Andrew Bergman, or precisely how Cassavetes’ cut was reworked by the producers. It is to be hoped that Kouvaros’ book will contribute towards the creation of a critical climate wherein such tasks will be regarded as eminently worthwhile rather than hopelessly frivolous.
Where Does It Happen? John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point, by George Kouvaros, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004.
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- Quoted in Ray Carney (ed.), Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Faber and Faber, London, 2001, p. 72.
- Carney’s writings greatly influenced my book Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision (FAB Press, 2004) – particularly my thoughts on the various incarnations of Tony Coca-Cola in Ferrara’s films – as well as the Two-Lane Blacktop chapter in Monte Hellman: His Life and Films (McFarland, 2003), though it should be noted that Carney has little interest in either of these directors.
- Ray Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986, p. 267.
- It would also be nice to read an analysis of those short pieces Cassavetes made for television between 1959 and 1963. “Solomon” (1960), the final Cassavetes-directed episode of Johnny Staccato, is nothing short of sublime, with Cassavetes’ mise-en-scène being used as a critical tool to undermine a screenplay he did not write, and whose assumptions (particularly those concerning gender and patriarchal law) he felt actively hostile towards.