Reading biographies of filmmakers you admire can be a disappointing affair. Especially American film directors. For all the insights you glean on how they came to develop their work, how they conceived, executed and collaborated on their individual films, the reality is that the economics of the American movie industry makes it difficult for independent filmmakers to survive, particularly for those whose instincts and priorities are not necessarily commercial. I came to reading Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes – a thorough biographical examination of Cassavetes’ life and work, culled from interviews with the director and his friends and collaborators as well as from Cassavetes’ actual published essays – straight from reading David Weddle’s biography on Sam Peckinpah, If They Move . Kill ‘Em, and having recently finishing Bernard Eisenschitz’ Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. It might be true that, as the cliché goes, time had vindicated these men’s work and achievements, but their own lives were blighted by the bitterness of perceived failure. Cassavetes himself tells Carney that in the whole of the 1980s he received fewer than ten requests a year for screenings of the films he had complete rights to. This includes requests by movie theatres, film societies and schools; and the films he had rights to comprised Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, and for my drachmas, one of the greatest American movies ever made, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. There’s a righteous fire in Carney’s belly about how ignored Cassavetes was in his own country, a righteousness that sometimes can seem defensive and contemptuous of any accommodation to Hollywood. At one point in my reading of his The Adventures of Insecurity I started an argument with him in my head which begun, Jesus, Mate, is it an ethical sin to like some Hollywood trash? But his anger is, finally, not disproportionate. Cassavetes work deserved acclaim and the means he used to achieve his art, particularly his commitment to what actors brought to the film process, resulted in a body of work that cannot be bettered for communicating the emotional history of the last twenty-five years in the United States. And maybe not only the United States.
My first introduction to Cassavetes was watching Minnie and Moskowitz late night on the tube in High School. It didn’t make sense, it wasn’t straightforward like Hollywood movies and it confused me, but I still remember clearly thinking, Fuck, these people are so real. I remember a friend trying to explain to anglo mates what growing up in a migrant family was like and just repeating, “See A Woman Under the Influence, just fucking see A Woman Under the Influence“. And I remember finally getting the opportunity to see A Killing of a Chinese Bookie and being gutted: finally someone had communicated something that I had not dared speak. That being a man means knowing gutlessness better than knowing courage, that failure stays with you long after success.
Maybe biography is disappointing because it can feel like a betrayal. I don’t think there can be anyone who doesn’t love film who doesn’t make heroes out of particular directors or actors. I had my own image of Cassavetes, as I did of Peckinpah or Ray or half a dozen others. But Cassavetes was more of a hero than anyone else was. Partly it did have to do with him being a Greek; it inspired me that an immigrant’s child could make movies. But my admiration for him also came from the very specific nature of his filmic practice, that you could fund and support your own filmmaking activity outside the Hollywood economic regime. It is not simply a case of Cassavetes being “independent”. Carney is at pains to make clear that there was an alternative filmmaking process in America before Cassavetes. He was also not a director interested in abstract experimentation; he wanted to tell stories. It’s just that he was not interested in the classic Hollywood genres. Carney calls Cassavetes a spiritual filmmaker and that term makes sense once it is understood that Cassavetes was creating a cinema where human life was portrayed in all its ambiguity, beauty and ugliness. That’s why Husbands still stings harder than In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute, 1997) or Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). Cassavetes captured the messiness of life and to get the mess is to get being human. Genre imposes limits to how far a performer can take a character and convince us of their full humanity, their “realness”, which is another way of saying that the vision expressed is a truthful one. Tarantino can bend and subvert and mine the crime genre for all its worth, fuck it up, but we’re still left with Mr White and Mr Black and Mr Pink. It’s no good looking to Chinese Bookie or Gloria for that. What colour would Gloria be? And what about Cosmo? I’m not taking a dig here at Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) is an exciting, terrific piece of filmmaking. But I made Cassavetes a hero because of something else: that he made emotions and relationships central, that the joy of a truthful performance far outweighed the pleasure in a masterfully executed tracking shot.
But Cassavetes was also a hustler, a liar, a belligerent spoilt sport and a sometimes very cruel man. Carney’s biography does not attempt to hide these aspects of Cassavetes’ personality. What becomes clear, however, is that you need to be a hustler to survive making movies in contemporary America. That’s why the term “independent cinema” is in itself a limiting summation of Cassavetes art: Cassavetes was never free of the financial sacrifices and struggles of making movies. For Carney the term is also increasingly meaningless because of the recent rise of American indie cinema which often functions as an adjunct to Hollywood itself, where budgets are low and the opportunity for subversion is greater, but ultimately where the genre conventions and more importantly the characterisations are fundamentally the same. “Off-Hollywood” Cassavetes jokingly refers to his work at one point. Off-Off-Off Hollywood more likely. But because film costs the earth, he too had to scramble for deals and stock, mortgage his house, tell lies to get favours, or fire people for no adequate reason except that being a filmmaker maybe makes a dictator of everyone. But that’s not why I am disappointed in Cassavetes. It’s because of bloody Frank Capra.
Cassavetes thought of Capra as the world’s greatest film director. In statement after statement, Cassavetes keeps referring back to an idealistic cinema of hope, a cinema he identifies with Capra, and in particular the Capra of Meet John Doe (1941). The terms in which he speaks of this cinema are highly idealistic but alongside with this comes a highly individualistic, and I would argue a highly American, conception of what is possible in art. On page 118 of Cassavetes on Cassavetes I scrawled in thick block letters “embarrassing pap”. Carney writes that Cassavetes regarded films such as Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) and L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) as “sordid” and “negative” and then quotes him as saying, “I wish we weren’t so hard-boiled. The human spirit is really at a dangerously low ebb. We need to pump adrenaline into our sentimental values, which have become so badly depleted.” I kept being pissed off by the assertions being made that emotion was necessarily opposed to intellect. But after finishing the book, reading Carney’s other work, and returning back to this passage, I found that rather than embarrassing, the passage now struck me as sad. Cassavetes, possibly like many of the great American directors, obviously believed in the dreams of his culture. I’ve never got Capra, but then again I’ve never been American. I am, however, Australian and in our culture too there is an ideological propensity to identify virtue and truth with virility and hard work, to identify superficiality and elitism with the urban, the effete and the educated. Cassavetes never found a popular audience but he never let go of the Capraesque dream that there once existed an American purity that was now sullied by the excesses of materialism. It is a faith that ate away at him as much as it did Sam Peckinpah. That someway, if they could get rid of the moneymen, if they could just get to the “people” their vision and work would be celebrated. But this populist faith in the purity of Americans, or Australians for that matter, only makes sense if you believe that the so-called golden age of American movies, the cinema of Capra if you like, was truly innocent, truly unencumbered by ideology. That’s what I don’t believe: that the individual can do anything, that life is like a box of chocolate and that this is the best of all possible worlds. It’s Spielberg who is the real heir to Capra. It’s not John Cassavetes.
Ray Carney’s work on Cassavetes is passionate and an exemplary case of what the best criticism can do: he has ensured that work too long ignored and marginalised has been given renewed life. His is a labour of love and it shows in the writing and it shows in the incredible care that he has taken to record Cassavetes himself, to allow us access to the man and his thoughts. The Adventure of Insecurity and Shadows can both be enjoyed as introductions to the director’s work, but it is Cassavetes on Cassavetes that is the most important of the three, precisely because it works as both biography and critical study of the man’s work. In particular I enjoyed reading Cassavetes on acting and performance. In an age where the pyrotechnics of film are fetishised, it is great to read about how crucial the process of working with actors was for Cassavetes to be able to make the films he wanted to make. That he prioritised performance above lighting or camera angles or the shot may seem anathema to current filmmakers but it is precisely this commitment to the performer’s art that made the emotional truths of his movies resonate.
If I have a problem with Carney’s work it is an echo of the disappointment I felt when reading Cassavetes’ thoughts on culture, on reading his highly individualistic conception of the artist. Carney accepts that emotional truth is somehow intrinsically more “real” than intellectual truth. But by concentrating on Cassavetes’ cinema as a model study of cinema in general he is led to positions that I find untenable and restrictive. Loving film is much more complex than choosing between the cold intellect of a Godard and the impassioned emotionality of a Cassavetes. And world cinema does not fit neatly into the same “mainstream” and “independent” models that work in the United States. There is no discussion between filmmaker and critic in any of the books that takes into account state sponsored cinema, for example. There is no discussion of film which bridges or implodes the neat divide between emotion and intellect, as does The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965) or closer to “home”, Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995). Carney’s concern to not allow ideological or political positions to intrude into his study of the director are frustrating, particularly in his otherwise fascinating and carefully researched book on Shadows. Cassavetes himself argued that the film was not about race issues but about human issues, a sentiment Carney encourages. He is sniffily dismissive of attempts to give a political reading of the film. Shadows is a world away from contemporaneous didactic social melodramas such as The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958) but one of the main reasons the film has stayed with me is the moment when Tony realises that Leilia is black. That moment was a punch in the gut for me because it was humiliatingly familiar: it is one of those moments that are never found in Hollywood film because Cassavetes allowed actors to explore emotions and go to places not sanctioned by either the marketplace or political rhetoric. Forty years on, Shadows still feels raw and honest, partly because of Cassavetes’ methods, but also because culturally it still remains one of the few American films I have seen that deals with the day to day reality – eating, loving, hanging out – of being black in a large American city. That it concentrates on human experiences above political conclusions is one of its strengths. But to completely distrust political readings of such a film, or any film for that matter, is too fucking reductive. For it means we can’t ask questions like why is it still rare to get African Americans at the centre of American film narrative, why is it that the work of independent black filmmakers like Bill Gunn or Charles Burnett are still rarely distributed, still largely ignored?
There is a contradiction in Carney wishing to strip film of politics, what he calls “ideological” readings, given that he is so acutely aware that one of Cassavetes’ strength as a filmmaker is to include the range of experiences and contradictions that make up a life. Human life is love and art and pain and politics and the social and the personal. You don’t need politics with a capital P to understand Cassavetes’ films but I do think you need an analysis and an understanding of the economic and social relations in which cinema gets made and distributed to understand why his work was marginalised for so long in America. It is due to people like Carney, to their personal and intellectual commitment to championing Cassavetes’ work, that means the director is finally receiving his due. These commitments, I believe, are in part sustained by intellectual and, yes, ideological passions for exploring and making visible a filmmaking practice that happens in the margins of popular culture. Unlike in Capra’s films, things don’t magically get better with big business, in this case Hollywood, having a change of heart.
I think that Carney is spot-on in calling Cassavetes one of the great spiritual directors. It is a spirituality, however, that incorporates a love of pleasure and intoxication that is rarely visible in the austere cinema of Bresson, Tarkovsky or Bergman. I’d like to think that this joy amidst the pain of human life comes to Cassavetes through his Greek heritage, those moments of ecstasy that Greeks call kefi. The word refers to a joy in living that comes out even in the bleakest of his work, and it also comes out in the aspirations and hopes of his conversations with Carney. It’s there in Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence, trying to make it work for her family, never forgetting how to laugh. Cassavetes’ cinema is blessedly free of sinners, or rather, blessedly free of condemnation and moral retribution. Unlike Scorsese, there is no need for redemption in Cassavetes’ cinema; he genuinely loves his characters and performers in all their fucked up humanity.
In William E. Jones’ underrated documentary Finished (1997), the filmmaker undertakes to resolve the mystery of why a seemingly handsome, intelligent and popular young porn actor offed himself. The film begins with Meet John Doe and ends with it: it becomes a lament for the innocence of American culture, the continually betrayed American Dream. Finished suggests that it never was real in the first placed. Cassavetes never quite let go of it. Possibly that’s what makes his films troubled and harsh, painful and disturbing but never despairing. In calling him one of the greatest of American filmmakers I’m not intending any slight by referring consistently to his nationality. As Carney suggests, understanding Cassavetes’ love affair and disappointment with his own culture is not unimportant in understanding the man and his work. He was a populist. He wanted his films to reach an audience and he believed if it wasn’t for the excesses and egos of the movie people with power and money in America, his films would have found this audience. This populist faith seems intrinsic to American culture: a migrant kid like Cassavetes shares it, so does the academic and critic Carney. As I’m writing this in my own country, Australia, we’ve just refused 430 Afghani and Iraqui asylum seekers the right to land on “our” soil, an incident whose only parallel the last century is the refusal to grant asylum to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. It is a decision taken by our government with the seemingly popular support of the majority of Australians. There is an emotional ugly truth to this situation – what it says about our culture, what it exposes as limitations in democracy – but I think it can only be countered by an analytical intellectual fury and resolve. That’s why we need Godard, Pasolini, Marker and Varda as much as we need Cassavetes or Tarkovsky. That’s why I see false as the dichotomy set up between the intellect and the emotional life. Where would that leave Bertolucci’s Besieged (1998) or Makhmalbaf’s Moment of Innocence (1996), two works of recent cinema that have moved me, astounded me, transported me but which have also simultaneously made me question, think and reflect on the legacies of exploitation and history? I’m grateful to Carney’s work, but Cassavetes cinema cannot stand as representative for all cinema. Just as Hollywood is not the alpha and omega of the movies, the American independent cinema is not the only model possible for non-commercial or experimental filmmaking.
That being said, I love the man. He’s still a hero.
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