Cassavetes, John: Leading Director of American Independent Cinema

John Cassavetes’ film output still stands as a monument in the independent cinema canon. One of the first modern American filmmakers, Cassavetes shared many concerns with those of the French New Wave. In fact, he was the American New Wave, with one basic difference: Instead of bringing a critic’s perspective to his films, as the French did (Godard and Truffaut were critics before embarking on directorial careers), Cassavetes brought an actor’s viewpoint.

For three decades, Cassavetes held a unique position in American film, maintaining a dual careers as a respected actor in Hollywood movies and a fiercely iconoclastic director. Acting gave Cassavetes the financial security to make personal and eccentric films, many of which explored the art of acting, not least because his best friends and wife–Gena Rowlands–were distinguished thespians.

Like Orson Welles before him, Cassavetes fused his various roles in a way that exerted tremendous influence on a younger generation of actors-directors.  This group includes Tim Robbins, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Sean Penn, all of whom have first distinguished themselves as actors before turning to directing.

Cassavetes began his experiments in 1957 with a hand-held camera, shooting in 16mm and in black and white. He used the earnings from his TV series “Johnnie Staccato” to finance Shadows, a semi-improvised film about a love affair between a white boy and a black girl, which he made for $40,000.

A cast of then unknowns brought a new dimension of realism. When shooting was over, United Artists gave him only two weeks to edit, after which the studio did further editing, resulting in a compromised picture that did not reflect his singular vision.  Shadows taught Cassavetes a lesson: He decided that in the future he would have to be his own master, even if it meant waiting years before making another picture.

Still, even a conservative critic such as the N.Y. Times Bosley Crowther appreciated Shadows as “fitfully dynamic, endowed with a raw but vibrant strength, conveying an illusion of being a record of real people.”

After two frustrating Hollywood films (Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting), Cassavetes made Faces (1968), a brutally intimate look at a marriage whose partners can’t communicate with each other. The narrative was based on a single day and night in the life of a middle-aged couple (played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin) whose marriage is on the verge of collapse.

Like Shadows, Faces was shot in black-and-white and in 16mm, which was later blown up to 35mm. It took 8 months to shoot (in sequence) and 2 years to edit. Cassavetes encouraged his actors to freely interpret the emotions suggested in his script, resulting in a work that was spontaneous in form and “the realest dramatic movie ever produced,” according to Crowther.

In Faces, and later Husbands, Cassavetes depicted marital problems with harsh realism and hand-held camera. Manifesting his directorial signature, these movies were overlong and perhaps self-indulgent, but the excess was motivated by honesty, not greed. Cassavetes’ pictures, which dissect relationships from different perspectives, deal with the kinds of feelings people are not always able to express verbally or coherently.

Some of his films are thoughtful celebrations of the art of acting, centering on the bonds that define a family of players. Arguably no American director has so powerfully illuminated the complexity of these relationships as they prevail, both on stage and off.

A powerful realism informs Cassavetes’ work, putting raw material on the screen that gives it the look of cinema verite. His characters are obsessive talkers, sometimes on the brink of hysteria or breakdown, who reveal themselves through their small worlds.  Cassavetes dwells on the “messy” feelings and relationships that limit individual freedom, showing the confusion and clutter that tend to riddle the yearnings and frustrations of the American experience. Distrustful of fixed style, Cassavetes’ films violate Hollywood’s invisible style–elegant framing and smooth pacing.

His films are often mistaken as improvisational, but they are usually shot from precise scripts with rough camera techniques and long takes that are meant to expose the shakiness of middle-class life.

At a time when American movies were becoming increasingly standardized, victims of the box-office rule, Cassavetes succeeded in maintaining a singular voice. To the very end of his career, he moved in uncharted territory, refusing to work in any identifiable tradition.

As a result, his films were not easily categorized or liked–they shared no thematic or stylistic concerns with those of other filmmakers.  As disturbing as they are erratic, his films leave no one indifferent: Critics and audiences alike either embrace or reject his work.  Amazingly, over the years, Cassavetes was able to garner a much wider audience for his films than one would expect, in large part due to the support of major critics.

The scholar and Cassavetes expert Raymond Carney has noted that Cassavetes’ daring experiments with dramatic pacing, duration and complexity of shots supported the double tradition of his work as both uniquely theatrical and distinctly cinematic. His best films were intimate chamber pieces, revolving around a small number of characters, who are engaged in seemingly simple domestic stories. These domestic dramas subject their characters’ behavior to microscopic scrutiny. Cassavetes’ studies of relationships between husbands and wives, lovers and friends work against the systematization of experiences; their interest is in emotional messiness and tolerance for personal and social disorder. A romantic, he searched for signs of love beneath mundane surfaces.

Cassavetes projected the image as if he were wrenching his films out of his gut, rather than his brain or heart.  He favored, as the critic Jim Hoberman has pointed out, performances over scenarios, and actors over movie stars. Cassavetes shot his narratives with inventive mise-en-scene, actor-driven writing, theatrical concerns, and bravura role-playing.

The originality and intensity of Cassavetes’ work qualifies him as America’s most iconoclastic and least categorizable filmmaker. As Carney noted, his films resist static, formulaic ways of ordering and presenting interactions, attempting a new way of seeing and visualizing human experience. A visionary, he managed to keep his freedom and self-expression alive in an increasingly hostile environment of bureaucratic filmmaking.

Cassavetes created vehicles for himself (Husbands), for his wife Gena Rowlands (Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence), and for a select group of actors that he liked. Husbands, starring Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes, is about three suburban commuters who are shocked into recognition of their own mortality when their friend dies during an intense three-day trans-Atlantic alcoholic binge.

In A Woman Under Influence, an insightful essay on sexual politics, Mabel is a housewife who crosses the line into sanity. With a light feminist touch, she is perceived as a victim of a repressive patriarchal order and imposed social roles. Cassavetes saw Mabel as desperate, yet courageous enough woman not to pull back from madness, but descend into it, confronting every facet of life with her husband Nick (Peter Falk). Cassavetes never considered Mabel insane, just a woman who has her subjective way of perceiving the world, insisting on the validity of her feelings.

Cassavetes allowed no distance: Like Mabel’s family, the viewers are forced into the troubling experience of her life.  The critic Michael Ventura has noted that, for Cassavetes that was the meaning of family, refusing to compromise the portrayal with comfortable cuts and smooth scene changes. Even in her worst pain, Mabel possesses a transcendent beauty that affects those around her. This was Cassavetes’ strong point: Love can exist in the most horrible and unexpected circumstances, an idea that would be later embraced by David Lynch.

Contrary to popular notion, the film’s underlying structure is so rigorous that every aspect of Mabel’s conduct receives equal attention. Even so, Cassavetes’ approach depended more on the actors’ personalities than on pre-determined scripts and camera technique. He provided the essential key to his philosophy when he said, “I’m more interested in the people who work with me than in film itself.” That’s why his films go deeper than most in their explorations of the emotional truth of their participants.

A Woman Under the Influence was innovative in another way. Dismayed by the poor distribution of his previous films, Cassavetes, Falk and Rowlands traveled from coast to coast to promote and book their movie directly with theaters. This pattern would encourage other indie filmmakers to take control of the distribution of their movies and often release them by themselves.

Opening Night (1977) concerns more directly the art and life of actors, with Rowlands superbly embodying the complex relationship between actor and character, actor and colleagues, actor and director.

Cassavetes’ final film, Love Streams (1984), provided a free-form, offbeat look at the emotional co-dependence of two siblings, played by him and Rowlands.

Significantly, Cassavetes’ style was so powerful that even his acting vehicles for other filmmakers seem as if they were directed by him. A case in point is Elaine May’s maverick Mikey and Nicky (1976), starring Cassavetes and Falk, which feels like a sequel to Husbands, with a touch of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie thrown in. Though May put her own stamp on the material, the gritty, improvised observations have a Cassavetes-like realism. Relying on evocative dialogue and intense acting, the narrative weaves a love-hate bond between two men during one fatal night in Philadelphia’s lower depths.

In Paul Mazursky’s reworking of Shakespeare, The Tempest (1982), Cassavetes the actor also overwhelms the director.

If no one in today’s cinema works directly in Cassavetes’ tradition, it’s because the style is inimitable.  But a number of leading filmmakers were influenced by him: Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Elaine May, John Sayles. Ang among the younger generation, Sean Penn, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Alexander Rockwell, and his own son, Nick, owe a great debt to Cassavetes.