On the surface, the relationship between Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands) and Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel) doesn’t seem like a normal romantic engagement – which is just as well, because John Cassavetes was never interested in the surface of things, and he couldn’t have cared less about normal. The realisation of this imperfect, authentic worldview is what gives Minnie and Moskowitz its chancy, refreshing unpredictability. Cassavetes’ 1971 screwball tour-de-force is an overwhelming experience, with overwhelming noises, movements and emotion; and yet, somehow, developing from the chaos is a surprisingly approachable portrait. Like much of the director’s work, the picture can be exhausting, even flat-out repellent for those disinclined to entertain Cassavetes’ peculiarly boisterous form. Once his films end, however – and this is certainly the case with Minnie and Moskowitz’s jubilant, celebratory denouement – one senses the method behind the madness, the affection behind the distress.
It takes a considerable degree of trust to get behind Cassavetes as an authorial guide and to follow his unruly protagonists as he transfers a singular devotion to the patiently receptive audience. It certainly takes a leap of faith to get behind Seymour, an enthusiastic parking-lot attendant who approaches the unsuspecting world around him with the same zest he unleashes through his job (for better or worse). The inherent geniality of Seymour – played by a curiously charming Seymour Cassel, nearly swallowed up by his bushy caterpillar mustache and ponytail mane – is often contested by those less affable: see his encounter with rambling Morgan Morgan (embodied by a disturbingly droll Timothy Carey), for instance. While Seymour is unnerved by Morgan’s nihilism, he is also a little amused – in a “get-a-load-of-this-guy” kind of way – and even entertains the stranger by giving him a bite of his hot dog (Seymour’s order of a hot dog, coffee and beer baffles the waitress). At the same time, Seymour can push it a bit himself. Buzzing about in a neighbourhood bar room, he has a hard time holding back (if he tries at all); as with any brash Cassavetes character, his eager sociability frequently broaches borders of acceptable physical proximity. His candidness comes from his mother (played by John’s mom, Katherine Cassavetes), as is seen near the end of the picture, during an acerbic meeting between her and Minnie’s mother (Gena’s mom, Lady Rowlands); his spontaneity is a gift from Cassavetes; and both qualities set Minnie and Moskowitz in motion. “I’m going to California,” he abruptly informs Mom; and, with that – cut – he’s on a plane bound for the coast.
That’s where Minnie has been unconsciously waiting. A Los Angeles County Museum curator, played with classic grace and humility by Gena Rowlands, Minnie spends her evenings with friend Florence, going to the movies, getting tipsy on wine and, echoing Morgan’s disdain for the act of film-going, deriding Hollywood’s impractical fantasies: “Movies are a conspiracy,” she pronounces. Little wonder she is jaded, given her abusive affair with adulterer Jim (an uncredited Cassavetes) and a disastrous blind date with erratic Zelmo Swift (Val Avery), who tries to charm with a toast to the “human heart” but ends their date in a vicious brawl. When disenchanted Minnie meets Seymour, his fulsome enthusiasm throws her for a loop – “Before I met you,” Minnie sardonically admits, “I thought I was in trouble.” She hesitates to confide in him; he asks, “What do you have to think for?” She searches for a suitable declaration of love; he comes up with, “I think about you so much I forget to go to the bathroom.” This good-natured quixotic folly is contagious and pervasive. Meeting at a mutually amorous impasse, Minnie cathartically confesses her loneliness, while Seymour revels in born-again benevolence.
There is danger in this behaviour, though. After an impromptu date at Pink’s (more hot dogs!), Seymour struggles to appreciate Minnie’s reticence. Their first few hours together are coarse and aggressive, unrestrained and bristling with insults and threats. Yet there it is, that odd Cassavetes magnetism. Before long, Minnie has taken off her sunglasses, easing her resistance and letting down her guard. Such heartfelt anarchy may be too much for the outside world to handle (not that one notices much of life beyond the sphere of Cassavetes’ staunchly self-centred characters), but there is something privileged about people so unabashed and impetuous, so wacky and endearing. Not everyone is articulate in a Cassavetes film (in actuality, few are), but they have an undeniably warm – no, scalding – dedication to expression by whatever means necessary. It’s a volatile way to live, gleefully eschewing social decorum, but what they lack for in subtle pronouncements, they make up for with an abundance of passion. And when everything is going right, Seymour and Minnie inspire impulsiveness, vitality, and confidence, characteristics of Cassavetes’ cinema that can sometimes take similar cajoling for audiences to accept.
Balancing rhapsody and restraint, Minnie and Moskowitz is Cassavetes at an intriguing formal juncture. Episodic and loose, the film ruptures with exposed intensity and wildly oscillating emotions. The camera is nimble and natural, and close-ups fill (and, at times, exceed) the frame; the editing is jagged and often unprompted, cutting mid-scene, mid-sentence, even mid-word. But against the consequential restlessness, there is an unexpected rigour. Though it contains the anticipated uncontrived dynamism of a Cassavetes feature, Minnie and Moskowitz also displays his capacity for delicate lighting and precise composition (indeed, much about the film feels exceptionally tender). Cassavetes wrote Minnie and Moskowitz in about three weeks, receiving a Writers Guild of America nomination for his efforts. That there was any sort of script at all may come as a surprise to some, yet the resulting film is among his lightest and most accessible. It is committed to romantic optimism, to the possibility that love can win out against the odds – that it can endure as something pure and idiosyncratic, in a way that only Cassavetes could conceive. There’s no way of knowing if the story of Minnie and Moskowitz ends happily ever after, but it’s at least happy for now. That’s a start.
Minnie and Moskowitz (1971 USA 114 mins)
Prod Co: Faces Music, Universal Pictures Prod: Paul Donnelly, Al Ruban Dir: John Cassavetes Scr: John Cassavetes Phot: Alric Edens, Michael D. Margulies, Arthur J. Ornitz Ed: Frederic L. Knudtson.
Cast: Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, Val Avery, Timothy Carey