For John Cassavetes, his 1976 neo-noir The Killing of a Chinese Bookie marked a departure. Up to A Woman under the Influence (1974) he described his films as coming from “plain, simple feeling” (1). Some of his earlier works, such as Shadows (1959) and Husbands (1970) grew directly out of his personal experiences. By 1975 he felt he had exhausted this approach and consciously went in pursuit of “a more intellectual and less emotionally demanding” cinema. What emerged were two closely connected studies of characters at the centre of what might be roughly termed show business situations yet isolated from these worlds through personal trauma. Chinese Bookie and Opening Night (1977) are set in the worlds of a strip club and the theatre respectively. Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), owner of the Crazy Horse strip club, runs up a large gambling debt with gangsters and is coerced into killing a Chinese bookie to repay them. While carrying out this mission he is fatally wounded and spends the rest of the film trying to ensure the show at the club goes smoothly while slowly bleeding to death. In Opening Night Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) is an actress going through a mid-life crisis exacerbated by the death of a teenage fan in an accident involving Myrtle’s car. In her professional life, she is rehearsing a role in a play about ageing and, as preparation for his role opposite her, her lover (played by Cassavates) is refusing to see her.
Key to both these films are questions of identity. The aloof, enigmatic Cosmo seems to be living out an ideal of a rather tacky elegance. Surrounded by “his” girls, he has used his club to construct a world that he can control and that can contain this fantasy. He is living an idea of life, rather than the real thing. This idea of life comes from an idea of himself. It is a tribute to Cassavetes’ and Gazzara’s courage that Cosmo remains a very remote character even to the audience. We do not know if even Cosmo knows who the real Cosmo is. In preserving this persona right up to the moment of his death, he becomes an oddly heroic figure.
If Cosmo is hell bent on escaping the real world at all costs, Opening Night presents us with an often terrifying portrait of a woman clinging on to it for dear life and clutching at straws. Frightened of becoming like the character she is playing, that is frightened of ageing, and haunted by apparitions of the fan who died in the accident and has come to represent her lost youth, her grip on sanity gradually loosens. She seeks but receives no support from those around her, whereas Cosmo withdrew from others. For her the struggle is not to become a character, whereas Cosmo is constantly hiding in character. Paradoxically, the reason she has such an aversion to this character is that it is closer to her than she would like to think. Perhaps accepting this character would equal accepting herself as she has become, rather than as she was which has now become simply an idea of herself. In this way she might be closer to Cosmo than is immediately apparent.
In dealing with these characters’ at best ambiguous relationship with reality, Cassavetes opted for a more abstract filmmaking style. Similar questions of identity in relation to a character’s milieu had been dealt with as far back as his first movie, Shadows. It tells of three black siblings, two of who can pass for white and the decisions they make or fail to make as to which social world they will best fit into. The youngest brother, Benny (Benny Carruthers), is the most extreme case. A nervy, brooding figure who seems to avoid facing his problems by constant movement and agitation, the teenage Benny’s alienation is at least as extreme as the middle aged Myrtle’s, taking the form of a pure, visceral resentment that seems to animate and torment him like an electric charge.
The big difference is that in Shadows, Benny is part of a vibrant, vividly energetic and even impressionistic picture of New York City at the end of the ’50s. Cassavetes’ camera is on the streets, documenting the interplay of a variety of characters with a revolutionary rawness, capturing with an almost unprecedented physicality (for a fiction film) the impact of real events observed. Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, on the other hand, occupy a completely different space. The objectivity of Shadows has given way to a subjective space that brings to mind Antonioni’s statement “I want to put my camera inside my characters and film their emotions.” Cassavetes shoots Chinese Bookie with the extreme detachment of Cosmo’s relationship with the world; the claustrophobic backstage world of Opening Night, with its dim passages, oppressively cavernous apartments and sudden apparitions, perfectly reflect Myrtle’s sense of disorientation.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance in Cassavetes’ work of this change in emphasis to immerse the audience in one character’s point of view because up until this point his great films had all worked around the interaction of different characters against comparatively objectively rendered backgrounds. The freewheeling style of Shadows tightens and moves indoors for Faces (1968), the most starkly appropriate title any movie ever had. The ennui and anxiety that eats at the ageing, middle class lead characters’ marriage seem to affect most of the other characters as well, a general malaise rather than Cosmo or Myrtle’s specific troubles. His camera takes us into the middle of the struggle, combat footage from an emotional war with the viewer as a witness tugged this way and that with the pervading emotional currents. The trauma of a mutual friend’s death is also a shared problem for the three Husbands, whose attempts to deal with it are seen from a more detached visual standpoint in wonderfully long, lucid takes. Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) deals with loneliness, but again affecting a range of characters. If Shadows, Faces and Husbands in some way reflected Cassavetes’ own experiences, Minnie and Moskowitz is an attempt at a sort of modern take on the screwball comedy, which even includes a happy ending. Along the way, however, this supposedly more audience friendly work contains some of the most violent and upsetting scenes Cassavetes ever shot.
A Woman under the Influence tells the story of the fraught relationship between a blue-collar worker played by Peter Falk and his mentally unstable wife, Gena Rowlands at her most spectacular. In it, Cassavetes takes the emotional intensity of Faces to new heights. The frightening energy of the performances and the stylistic rawness of the film mark it as very much in the tradition of that film. However its opening minutes contain a haunting shadow of things to come. Having promised his wife that he will be home, an emergency causes Falk to have to work through the night. For a few moments this kinetic tour de force slows to a contemplative stop as we observe Rowlands alone in her house, waiting. One long shot, followed by a series of medium shots show her wandering around and then sitting down. It is not that the rest of the film is entirely in close up, but there is so much movement and action in the wider shots that the impression given is of a constant close up. For probably the first time in Cassavetes, stillness and silence invade the frame and come to the fore. The audience is invited to partake of the character’s loneliness and alienation at first hand, rather than the chaos caused by its results. There is a sense of a world existing objectively, outside the emotional dynamics of the drama. This sensation is carried over into the next scene where she wanders into a bar, out into the street again and then into a second bar, where she picks a man up. As soon as Falk arrives the next morning, we are back in the emotional whirlwind, but those few minutes set the tone for the “more intellectual and less emotionally demanding” films to follow.
The constant thread that unites all Cassavetes’ best work is its unprecedented emotional complexity. Even at its most abstract, it is an actor’s cinema. Even The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, probably the film which comes closest to being an exception to this rule, moves in time with the haunting inscrutability of Ben Gazzara’s performance. It is not the emotional flare-ups that are memorable here, as in the earlier films, but the eerie silences that have gone from being an isolated incidence in A Woman under the Influence to engulfing the entire movie.
The cause of this shift may simply be a move from studying the relationship between characters to the isolation of one individual. It is worth remembering that the character Gazzara played in Husbands was the odd one out of the three pals (the others being played by Falk and Cassavetes). He is the most alienated of the three, the constant, paranoid butt of his friends’ jokes and the only one of them not to return to his family at the end of the film. While it would be wrong to suggest that he plays the same person in both films – his angry, sometimes violent performance in Husbands is miles away from the self-contained, self-satisfied Cosmo – it seems Cassavetes pictured him as an aloof character all along. Perhaps if Husbands was made in 1975 it would centre on Gazzara’s isolation, as opposed to the interplay of the three characters that, if anything favours the viewpoint of the other two.
Chinese Bookie keeps the rough and ready, almost semi-documentary style of the previous films, but this time with as much of an emphasis on location as faces: night streets full of mystery, glaringly bright daylight, the disorienting patterns of light in Cosmo’s never-never land strip club – it is probably the most vividly atmospheric film Cassavetes ever made. Opening Night has a more formal, controlled look. In fact it is shot very much like the horror film it often comes close to being, with its genuinely frightening scenes of Myrtle’s visions of the dead fan. The camera seems to be positioned with constant reference to what might be lurking just outside the frame, whether in claustrophobic big close ups, or isolating wide shots. David Lynch would have been proud of the mood of unease Cassavetes summons up.
With the obvious debt to film noir in Chinese Bookie and the horror movie aesthetic of Opening Night, the question arises as to what Cassavetes would have been like doing a straight genre piece. It was answered by his next film, Gloria (1980). An attempt at commercialism on Cassavetes’ part (which, nevertheless, failed), this extremely unusual movie is fascinating chiefly in that it reveals him to be a very interesting stylist. In contrast to the roughness of his more personal films, it is put together with a great formal precision.
When gangsters murder a young boy’s family, he falls under the unlikely protection of a tough, ageing ex-gangster’s moll inevitably played by Gena Rowlands. They go on the run together. The story is formulaic and the film is best appreciated as an exercise in style. Gone is the terrifying spontaneity of his best films, the emotional complexity. Instead he opts for a dreamy, mysterious vision of New York, an almost fairytale atmosphere. From the children’s drawings over which the opening credits are played, followed by aerial shots of New York as glamorous as anything in Woody Allen to the miraculous re-appearance of a presumed dead Rowlands in the final scene (or is it simply the boy’s imagination?), Gloria is permeated with what Ray Carney calls a “spiritual” quality. The images have a clean-cut, luminous precision reminiscent of Edward Hopper (or the Wim Wenders/Robby Müller collaboration). Cassavetes’ rejection of naturalism for such an abstract style was probably an attempt to see the story through the eyes of an innocent child.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the film in relation to his other work is his use of Gena Rowlands. After pushing her to her limits as a frail straight-man to a bunch of lunatics in Minnie and Moskowitz and masterminding two spectacular breakdowns for her in A Woman under the Influence and Opening Night, he presents us with an iconic image of her as a tough, capable, wisecracking girl with a gun, Bogart and Bacall in one deadly package. An alternative Rowlands as well as an alternative Cassavetes. The fundamental difference between Gloria and the other films is that while they come from life, Gloria comes straight from the cinema, almost a flirtation with post-modernism. Perhaps it was ahead of its time. In many ways it would have fitted perfectly into the ’90s craze for post-modern crime thrillers. The great difference, of course, is its tone: in place of Tarantino’s smartness, Woo’s naïve heroics or Kitano’s deliciously deadpan nihilism, Cassavetes delivers a sometimes rather eerie gentleness.
His next and last film (not counting Big Trouble , a comedy he took on as a favour to Peter Falk when the original director dropped out), the wonderful Love Streams (1984) saw a wholehearted return to charting the shifting patterns of emotional chaos, with Gena Rowlands again playing an off-centre character, a woman abandoned by her husband on account of her instability. Cassavetes plays her brother, an alcoholic, womanising writer. In terms of style, it harks back to the earlier, pre-Chinese Bookie look, yet somehow filtered through the later work. The sense of distance of Chinese Bookie is still perceptible, yet it takes the form not of existential detachment but deep melancholy. As in Opening Night dreams and visions play a prominent role, something I suspect the Cassavetes of Faces would have been very resistant to.
Whatever stylistic changes his work went through, Cassavetes remained true right up until the end to his one constant, self proclaimed theme: love. Finding love (Minnie and Moskowitz, Gloria), expressing love (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Love Streams), surviving love (Faces, A Woman under the Influence), love and prejudice (Shadows), love and age (Opening Night). Whatever techniques he employed, they were always at the service of what he believed in most, what he trusted to carry his films, in fact what his films were there for in the first place: human emotion.