Review of John Cassavetes: Lifeworks by Tom Charity (London: Omnibus Press, 2001) and Cassavetes on Cassavetes edited by Ray Carney (London: Faber and Faber, 2001)

This essay was originally published in the London Review of Books, vol. 23, no. 16, 23 August 2001.

* * *

“I’m really against nudity in movies,” Julia Roberts has said. “When you act with your clothes on, it’s a performance. When you act with your clothes off, it’s a documentary. I don’t do documentaries.” Quoting this bit of wit and wisdom in a recent New Yorker piece on Roberts, Anthony Lane comments that “it shows. how remote she is from any European visions of cinema – not just from the relaxed, Old World attitude toward sex but from the European assumption (found lingering in the work of Americans like Robert Altman) that the scent of documentary can and should be allowed to flavor a fictional method.” (1) Lane is thinking of American cinema as Hollywood. But there is a strong tradition of American documentary, from Robert Flaherty to cinéma vérité (which despite its name was American before it was French) to Errol Morris. And as for allowing into fiction the scent of documentary, no fictional method has more of a documentary flavor than the way of making movies devised by John Cassavetes. His movies have been more admired in Europe, it is true; they are nonetheless distinctly American.

The connection between stripping and documentary made by Julia Roberts can be extended beyond taking your clothes off. If performance puts on a mask, documentary could be said to reveal, to unmask, to strip bare. From the beginning of his career Cassavetes was preoccupied with masks and unmasking, performance and seeing through performance, in life as in art. When he was running the theatrical workshop in New York where he found the actors and developed the ideas for his first movie, Shadows (1957-59), he told an interviewer that most experiences in life are as “staged” and “artificial” as most dramatic performances, and that the problem “for modern man” is “breaking free from conventions and learning how to really feel again.” (2) I’m quoting from Cassavetes on Cassavetes, edited by Ray Carney, who sees this as “a daring leap: lived experience could be as much a product of convention as dramatic experience, and in fact the one sort of convention could be the subject of the other. It was the first and most succinct statement of the subject of Shadows and all of Cassavetes’ later work.” (3) It wasn’t so much that Cassavetes’ words were daring: what they showed was a man of his time, anxiously calling for freedom from convention and the expression of real feeling – just as the Abstract Expressionists and the Beats were doing. They also announce his lifelong concern with the masks of dramatic and social convention and with revealing the faces hiding behind them. Shadows is about love, race, and identity among the bohemian young in New York. A decade later in Faces (1968), which after a Hollywood hiatus was his next independent production, the characters and setting have changed – the focus is on a marriage falling apart among the affluent middle-aged in southern California – but the preoccupations remain the same. Cassavetes said that Faces could be summed up in the words: “Masks and faces.” (4) His movies don’t strip actors of their clothes but would strip them of their masks and expose their naked faces to documentary scrutiny.

“The film you have just seen was an improvisation,” we read on the screen at the end of Shadows. But this is not true, not of the film we have just seen. It was truer of the first version of Shadows, which had three midnight screenings in New York late in 1958 and caught the eye of Jonas Mekas, a central figure in American avant-garde cinema, whose enthusiasm for the film led to its receiving the first “Independent Film Award” from his magazine Film Culture. “More than any other recent American film,” Mekas wrote in his citation, it “presents contemporary reality in a fresh and unconventional manner. The improvisation, spontaneity, and free inspiration that are almost entirely lost in most films from an excess of professionalism are fully used in this film.” (5) Cassavetes must have found Mekas’ talk of “spontaneous cinema” congenial, but he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of belonging to an avant-garde. He didn’t want to turn his back on the larger audience he had already reached as an actor. Despite the award, he wasn’t satisfied with that first Shadows, which he saw as “a totally intellectual film – and therefore less than human. I had fallen in love with the camera, with technique, with beautiful shots, with experimentation for its own sake. It had a nice rhythm to it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with people. Whereas you have to create interest in your characters because this is what audiences go to see.” (6) He recalled the actors and reshot much of the movie, this time following a script: a script inspired by the earlier improvisations, a script meant to sound spontaneous, but all the same a prepared script, with lines written by Cassavetes for the actors to speak. And, despite a low budget, this reshooting involved many retakes – more than eighteen hours of footage as Cassavetes looked for what he wanted. The first Shadows ran for an hour, and less than half of that was kept in the revised version, which runs for an hour and a half. As Tom Charity remarks in his critical biography of Cassavetes, “Mekas’ ‘spontaneous cinema’ had no sooner been recognized than it was reconsidered.” (7)

For Faces, which runs a little over two hours, Cassavetes shot around 150 hours of film. That’s an awful lot of footage, an exceedingly high shooting ratio. And for his next film, Husbands (1970), which runs just a bit longer, he shot almost twice that, a ratio higher than a hundred to one. More usual in documentary than in fiction, a high ratio of shot footage to edited film became part of Cassavetes’ fictional method. In documentary a high shooting ratio has to do with the problem of what to include out of material gathered from real life. In fiction, where things are not gathered from life but staged for the camera, a high shooting ratio usually means a desire to get the staging just right. Another actor turned director, Charlie Chaplin, also shot a lot of footage for his films, doing scenes over and over again in search of perfection. But Cassavetes seems to have been looking for imperfection. That, according to Carney, was his “stunning originality”: “He pioneered a new form of art – an art liberated from unearthly ideals of beauty, heroism, purity or virtue. He was the poet of imperfection.” (8) Carney makes the point that Cassavetes exhibited in his life, with regard to himself and those around him, the same nonjudgmental acceptance of “moral and emotional untidiness” found in his “radically unidealized works.” (9) Yeats posited a choice between “perfection of the life, or of the work,” to which one may respond with Auden that perfection is attainable in neither, but Cassavetes wholeheartedly embraced imperfection in both. “The process of making the films was of a piece with the world depicted in the films,” Carney writes. “Cassavetes and his characters equally were given the task of making something of an imperfect world populated with imperfect figures.” (10)

The notion that a work representing untidiness should itself be untidy, that art should be messy because life is messy, comes under the heading of the fallacy of expressive form. But the idea of a fallacy of that kind depends on the assumption that art must keep a distance from life – an aesthetic distance – and Cassavetes’ films are not alone among works of modern art in rejecting aesthetic distance and aiming to break down the boundaries between art and life. The first Shadows, which no longer exists, seemed to William Pechter “closer at times to being that elusive entity, a true slice of life, than almost anything else I can think of which claims the name. There is, in effect, no beginning or end to the film – just middle.” (11) But Pechter found that “this quality was increasingly lost in subsequent versions,” (12) and the Shadows we can see today, though still a rambling film without beginning or end, couldn’t be described as a slice of life. Rather it is a slice of acting, often bad acting. Its imperfections, which are many, belong not to real life but to acted and filmed performance. The performance may be taken to represent life, but, here as in Cassavetes’ subsequent films, it comes closer to a kind of allegory, a symbolic transposition of life into the realm of actors acting, than to a lifelike representation. Rather than an imitation of reality, in these films the actors acting are themselves the reality. It’s not so much that the world is a stage as that Cassavetes knows only the staged world.

Once in a television talk show, when “the interviewer asked him about the difference between movie-acting and stage-acting,” as Dave Hickey reports the occasion, Robert Mitchum

said the difference was that the audience watching a movie believes what they’re seeing is real. “Not the story,” he said, waving his hand, “but the setting and the props, the mise en scène. If I’m on location, shooting a scene where I’m leaning against a tree, the tree is real; the sky behind it is the real sky; the ground I’m standing on is real dirt. Everything is real, in other words, except me, my character. That’s fake. So you have to use the audience’s belief in the setting and the props to make the character real. On stage, it’s just the reverse. The setting and props are fake.” (13)

On stage, Mitchum is saying, it’s the actors that bring reality to the fiction, whereas in a movie it’s the mise en scène, the real tree and the real sky and the real dirt, the documentary detail making up the world in which the fiction is seen to take place. So for Mitchum, that very American actor, the scent of documentary is essential to the fictional method of the movies. Cassavetes’ movies have a different documentary scent and a different fictional method, closer in some respects to the method of the stage. These movies are lacking in the realism of setting and props that seems native to the medium. They are pretty thin in their rendering of detail and milieu but quite thick with the reality of actors acting. Here, as on the stage, it’s the actors who are expected to bring reality to these fictions. But on the stage the actors are actually there before the audience. What we have before us in these movies is a peculiar documentary of performance.

One of Cassavetes’ European admirers, Jean-Luc Godard, has said that every film is a documentary of its actors. That may be true – besides playing a part in a fiction, the actor is a real person before the camera’s documentary eye – but it is not true of every film in the same way. The non-professional recruited from the street in the manner of Italian neorealism is not the same as the movie star, though in both cases the actor’s personal traits as rendered by the camera inform the image on the screen. In his own films Godard brings on a split between the documentary of the actor and the performance of a character, between the real person and the fictional impersonation. This is a kind of alienation effect; Godard can be seen as a Brechtian filmmaker. Cassavetes was of the opposite persuasion, the school of Stanislavsky: he believed in as close an identification as possible between the actor and the character. Although he never attended the Actors Studio, he imbibed the same theatrical culture in his formative years. It’s not a mistake but a sign of deep-seated conviction that, as Carney notes, Cassavetes tends to talk about his actors as his characters and his characters as his actors. So close is his identification of actor and character that he identifies performance with character, performance not as the mimic but as the maker of character, character not as the referent but as the product of performance. The documentary of the actor in Cassavetes’ films doesn’t just have to do with a matter of the actor’s person, passively there for the camera to observe; it isn’t merely a matter of the actor’s traits entering into the portrayal of a character: it’s a matter of the actor’s acting, of keeping track of the activity through which character is seen to come into being, of watching what the actor does as it gives rise to what the character is. The focus is on the process, the often tortuous process, of performance. One reason I go to the movies more often than to the theater is that the imperfections of performance, when I see them right there on the stage in front of me, tend to make me feel embarrassed for the actors. I had thought this was because I am in the actors’ presence at the theater. But in his movies, with his documentary of performance, Cassavetes succeeds in making me feel the same kind of embarrassment for the actors even though they’re not there.


In Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), his attempt at a screwball comedy with Gena Rowlands (his wife) and Seymour Cassel as the leads, Cassavetes shows little gift for the kind of playful, extemporizing rapport between actors that animates such classics of the genre as It Happened One Night (Frank Capra was Cassavetes’ favorite director) or The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby. Part of the fun of those movies comes from the sense they give that the actors themselves are having fun. An actor having fun with a part, playfully embroidering it, makes us aware of the playing and opens up a certain distance between actor and character that goes against the kind of identification sought by Cassavetes. The acting in his movies usually looks like hard work. When he allows his actors to relax, however, the moments of fun can be memorable: Lelia Goldoni being flirtatious in Shadows; Lynn Carlin laughing in Faces; the ending of A Woman Under the Influence (1974), where at the last minute the tone lightens and a heavy melodrama is brought to a surprisingly satisfying comic conclusion; much of the strange Love Streams (1984), his last film, with himself and Gena Rowlands as the leads, and maybe his best. But the male horseplay, the back-slapping, hard-drinking, whore-hugging male bonding, of which there is plenty in Shadows and Faces and especially in Husbands, is not much fun – which may perhaps be the point, that these men are incapable of being at ease with themselves and one another, but the strenuous non-fun goes on and on and gets to be quite tiresome for the viewer if not for the actors/characters. It seems that Cassavetes in real life was much like the character he plays in Husbands alongside Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara; the three men, who didn’t know one another very well before the filming, became buddies just like their characters in the film. Husbands may be taken as an auto-critique; it is also a self-indulgence.

Ray Carney has been keeper of the Cassavetes flame in the American academy. He thinks Cassavetes is the greatest and sees himself as the only one saying it. So he shouts it, he grabs you by the lapels and insists that you hear it. He habitually overstates his case, and you back away even where you might agree. It may be fair to say that Mabel, the mad housewife in A Woman Under the Influence, represents a reach for freedom, an individual spontaneity knocking up against the society around her; but it’s quite a stretch to say, as Carney does in American Dreaming, that Mabel “is a visionary and a dreamer in the Emersonian tradition, a heroine with a freedom of consciousness and a richness of imagination that Henry James would have appreciated,” and that “the astonishing thing Cassavetes does with this Emersonian, this Jamesian figure is to thrust her into the center of a world of pressures, influences, and circumscriptions as relentless and inescapable as anything Theodore Dreiser or Edith Wharton might have imagined.” (14) Surely Henry James would have had no time for a character like Mabel; surely Cassavetes gives us nothing like the picture of a society that we find in Dreiser or Wharton. Carney comes from a training in American studies, a field founded on that Emersonian tradition Mabel is said to embody. In American Dreaming, published in the mid’80s, and in a second full-blown study of Cassavetes he produced a decade later (15), Carney approaches the filmmaker and his characters in terms of the conflict between self and society, between the Emersonian dream of individual freedom and the pressures and demands of social life. The approach would be more fruitful if Carney did not keep making such large claims for Cassavetes, invoking the great names in the American tradition, drawing slanted comparisons with other filmmakers in which he always comes out top, and paid more attention to specifics, both the specifics of his filmmaking and those of the self and society. In Cassavetes on Cassavetes Carney has usefully put together what he calls “the autobiography John Cassavetes never lived to write.” (16) This is not simply a collection of interviews with the filmmaker but a coherent chronological narrative of his life and career, arranged by Carney, with extensive commentary by him, out of things Cassavetes said on different occasions, stories he related at different times over the years. The commentary might have been briefer; there should have been an index, and footnotes for those who want to know when and where the things were said. But all those interested in Cassavetes will be grateful.

Tom Charity’s critical biography is the first book on Cassavetes in English not by Carney. Charity is as much of a fan but he wears his fandom much more lightly; unencumbered by the self versus society dichotomies of American studies, he gives a clearer account of the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic way of working. There are tributes and appreciations from several fellow filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch (“Your films are about love”) (17), John Sayles (“Watching a Cassavetes movie was never a safe place to be”) (18), Gary Oldman (“At first I thought it might be a sixties documentary – the people were that real. The film was Faces“) (19), Pedro Almodóvar, Peter Bogdanovich, and Oliver Assayas.

“He thinks not like a director but like an actor,” wrote Pauline Kael, (20) and the remark was not intended as praise. But Kael was aware that what can be said against Cassavetes can also be said for him:

Cassavetes’ method is peculiar in that its triumphs and its failures are not merely inseparable from the method but often truly hard to separate from each other. The acting that is so bad it’s embarrassing sometimes seems also to have revealed something, so we’re forced to reconsider our notions of good and bad acting. (21)

Cassavetes thought like an actor who resented the rule of the director. As a writer he didn’t provide stage directions for the actors, and he didn’t think the director should provide them either. It wasn’t the lines that were improvised in his films: it was the stage directions. He wanted the actors to be the characters, and it was the actors’ characters he wanted, not the writer’s or the director’s. He would give the actors their lines and talk to them about their parts, but he wouldn’t tell them what to do. He would tell them when he didn’t like what they did, he would have them do it again, but he wouldn’t tell them what to do. He wanted them to play their parts in their own way and allowed them wide latitude of movement and expression. One might say he didn’t direct them; one might say he did away with the director. His actors didn’t play to the camera as movie actors are usually made to do; instead they played to one another and the camera followed them, without knowing ahead of time where they would go, able to respond to their gestures and their movements, but not to anticipate them, rather like a documentary camera capturing life as it happens. Of course there would be many retakes: life would be made to happen over and over again until something happened. But Cassavetes didn’t know in advance what he was after: the actors had to perform it before he could recognize it. Rather like a documentary filmmaker, he was out to discover something in performance. “I want you to be patient with me,” says Gena Rowlands to the driver as she gets into a cab in Love Streams, “because I don’t know exactly where I’m going yet.”

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Clothes as well as masks come off in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976; recut and rereleased in 1978), whose protagonist, Cosmo (Ben Gazzara), runs a strip joint in L.A. with connections to the Mob. A Woman Under the Influence had been an unexpected box-office success, and now Cassavetes expected to keep that up with a movie in the popular gangster genre, but he was badly disappointed. This gangster movie looks like it was shot by a documentary camera that was able to capture only snatches of the plot. Cassavetes spoke of it as a less personal project, but Carney is right to see it as a portrait of the artist. Cosmo is a figure of the director; he takes pride in the shows he puts on at the Crazy Horse West. On that stage he’s not performer; he’s director behind the scenes. In his daily life, however, he performs with a mask of cool style, an affectation of class, which we have to admit he maintains with a self-possession not easily shaken, even though we see through it. But this performance has another director behind the scenes, the Mob, which treats him as a puppet and makes him enact a script in which it allows him no say. It’s a role he cannot refuse, but Cosmo manages to play it his way, to become his own director, which enables him finally to wear with real feeling the mask of grace under pressure. The stripping of a mask leads to the wearing of another, or in Cosmo’s case to his wearing much the same mask made his own. It’s for the sake of his performance that he becomes his own director; it’s not as director but as performer that Cosmo commands admiration.

The most peculiar thing about Cassavetes’ method – and a striking departure from the Method of the Actors Studio – is that he would discuss their parts with his actors one on one but not together, not as a group or even a pair. It’s part of the director’s job to have the actors work as an ensemble, and it’s part of Cassavetes’ abdication of the director’s job that he would leave them on their own. He wanted them to work as individuals, to come into the scene without knowing what the others might do. This, it could be said, is the individualism of the Emersonian tradition – except that Cassavetes has no time for the dream of individual transcendence and puts his actors, his characters, always in a social situation, always in give and take with others. In real life, it seems, he was the type who likes to have people around him all the time, and certainly his characters have people around them all the time. If character, for him, is defined in performance, the performance is unceasingly a transaction with others. If performance, the staged world of actors acting, is in Cassavetes an allegory for life, the allegory is of atomized individuals thrown together, having little idea of what others are about and yet forced to come to terms with their pressures and demands. It’s an apt allegory for American life.

Cassavetes died at fifty-nine of cirrhosis of the liver. A few years earlier, at the time he began filming Love Streams, he had been diagnosed with the disease and given six months to live; he quit drinking for a while but soon started again. It’s curious that Charity tries to deny or at least to qualify the fact that Cassavetes was an alcoholic.

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  1. Anthony Lane, “Smiley Face,” The New Yorker, March 26, 2001, p. 88
  2. Ray Carney, ed., Cassavetes on Cassavetes (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), p. 51
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p. 53
  5. Quoted in Raymond Carney, American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 34; and in Tom Charity, John Cassavetes: Lifeworks (London: Omnibus Press, 2001), p. 23
  6. Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 80
  7. Charity, John Cassavetes, p. 26
  8. Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. 146
  9. Ibid., pp. 145, 146
  10. Ibid., p. 146
  11. William S. Pechter, Twenty-four Times a Second (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 13
  12. Ibid.
  13. Dave Hickey, “Mitchum Gets Out of Jail,” in O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors, ed. Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), pp. 16-17
  14. Carney, American Dreaming, p. 192
  15. Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)
  16. Cassavetes on Cassavetes, p. ix
  17. Charity, John Cassavetes, p. vii
  18. Ibid., p. 112
  19. Ibid., p. 138
  20. Pauline Kael, Going Steady (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), p. 197
  21. Ibid., p. 196

About The Author

Gilberto Perez is Professor of Film Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of The Material Ghost: Films And Their Medium, which has recently come out in paperback from the Johns Hopkins University Press. He is currently working on a rhetoric of film.

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