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John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes

With such films as Faces and A Woman Under The Influence, John Cassavetes brought a new strain of realism to American film, profoundly influencing independent cinema as we know it today. Film4.com lays out what you need to know.

WHO IS HE?

Uncompromising modernist. Actor turned director of intensely personal cinema dealing unashamedly with the frailties of the human condition and the eternal frustrations of men and women in relationships.


WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

Because his films are honest, pure, and perfectly flawed. Hailed, mostly in retrospect, as the spiritual father of American independent film-making (all that remains of it).


WHAT SORT OF FILMS IS HE FAMOUS FOR?

As an actor he is best known for his appearances in Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), for which he earned an Oscar nomination. As his directorial career took off he became more complacent about his acting, often getting into explosive confrontations with other directors, seeing it as a means to an end in order to finance his own personal projects. Along with Orson Welles, he set a precedent for taking large sums of money for acting in Hollywood genre movies and ploughing the cash straight into his own unique, non-mainstream style of cinema.


WHEN WAS HE WORKING?

Born in 1929, Cassavetes began his career with supporting roles in Edge of the City (1956) and Crime in the Streets (1956) before landing the title role in Johnny Staccato, a detective show about a jazz loving private eye, which helped pay the bills on his freewheeling directorial debut Shadows (1959). After two compromised studio pictures (Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child is Waiting (1963), the long-in-gestation Faces (1968) earned him kudos at the New York Film Festival. A run of half a dozen masterworks followed, from Husbands (1970) to Love Streams (1984). He died in February 1989 from cirrhosis of the liver.


WHO DID HE WORK WITH?

He befriended Ben Gazarra and Peter Falk specifically so that their buddy relationship would have more credibility during the shooting of Husbands, and worked constantly with them both from then on. Likewise he would help out Seymour Cassel, one of his closest friends - getting him bit parts on movies he was appearing in, such as Don Siegel's The Killers (1964), hiring him as his assistant, before finally writing Minnie and Moskovitz (1971) specifically for him. Cassavetes cast himself in four of his movies, and his wife Gena Rowlands in seven, most notably Opening Night (1977) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974) - for which they both gained Oscar nominations.


ROMANTIC LIFE

Cassavetes married Rowlands in 1954 after a four-month whirlwind courtship. "One of the great things about America is that when two people fall in love it erases all that's gone before. Love's the great eraser". He remained with Rowlands until his death.


WHAT DO THEY TELL YOU AT FILM SCHOOL?

Depends which school you go to. Most jaded lecturers would argue that, whilst he is to be admired, it is not possible, in the current climate, to make films like his anymore, and that his status has been regulated to the arthouse ghetto. Certain students may try to emulate, or rip off, his toughness, but ignore the crucially ponderous, bleak and tender moments of respite in between.

With the industry's current appetite for endless DIY screenwriting books, Cassavetes scripts do not happily lend themselves to conventional textbook scrutiny of narrative arcs and sympathetic protagonists. There is little or no 'satisfying' resolution in his films, and no easily identifiable character goals. Robert McKee would probably identify them as mini-plot, or anti-plot, to be (slightly condescendingly) admired rather than inspired by.

FILMS YOU SHOULD SEE

  • Husbands

    Husbands

    A comedy about love, death and freedom. Three married, fortysomething New Yorkers suffer a mid-life crisis after the death of a friend - they get hideously drunk and take an impromptu trip to London to go gambling and pick up girls. Many people walked out. Cassavetes said it didn't matter whether audiences liked it, it mattered whether they felt something, and judged its success on those terms.

  • The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie

    The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie

    At an early preview screening Cassavetes felt the audience liked the film too much, so he recut it. An ironic self-portrait, Gazarra plays Cosmo Vitelli, owner of a fledgling strip club. In order to pay off his debts and keep the club running, he agrees to do a hit for the mob. Gazarra excels as the laid back, permanently grinning Cosmo, seemingly reluctant to keep up with the plot  ultimately what Cassavetes himself was accused of. He re-edited the film from its original 135 minutes down to 108 minutes and re-released it two years later. Again, it failed to find an audience.

  • Love Streams

    Love Streams

    The freedom that the three hapless husbands in his earlier film crave is embodied here in writer Robert Harmon, played by Cassavetes in his final role: a successful writer of novels about women, a carefree romantic who shuns all notions of responsibility in his search for creativity and truth. In direct contrast is Gena Rowlands' woman under the influence some ten years on  still slightly unbalanced, and going through a custody battle with Seymour Cassel. When her daughter chooses to live with Cassel instead of her, she turns up distraught at the doorstep of her brother (Cassavetes) and asks him why he doesn't write books about love. Produced by Cannon's Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who at that time were keen to combat their image as makers of exploitation films by backing a handful of prestige filmmakers including Godard, Altman and Mailer.

INFLUENCED BY

Frank Capra: "Like Capra, I make films about the individual who asserts himself or herself in the face of a multitude. I want my films to reflect a truly democratic spirit and I find myself siding with the lone minority. To change the world we must start with human behaviour, the human spirit. I see a terrific country that is so capable of feeling. To me its Capra country and will always be Capra country - that's the way I grew up. At the same time I don't emulate Capra. I've never been able to make anything except these crazy, tough pictures. It's not intentional. You just are what you are".


COPYCATS

Martin Scorsese: Cassavetes took a young Scorsese under his wing in the early 70's, letting him sleep at one of the locations used on Minnie and Moskovitz and giving him an assistant sound editor's credit. After Scorsese went on to work for Roger Corman, Cassavetes took him aside and warned him not to get hooked on the exploitation business, and to make films he really cared about. Scorsese then went ahead and shot Mean Streets (1973). Scorsese has always maintained that the two films that inform his work the most were Citizen Kane and Shadows. The former he is said to have scrutinised frame by frame over a hundred times, the latter he only needed to see once. At the end of the seventies Cassavetes accused Scorsese of stealing his ideas, particularly the explosive improvisatory interplay between DeNiro and Minnelli in New York, New York (1977).

Steve Buscemi: His directorial debut, Trees Lounge (1996), a slight observational drama about small town barflies featuring Seymour Cassel, led one critic to label him "the bastard son of John Cassavetes."

Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, both of whom have appeared in superficial big budget blockbusters and used the cheque towards funding their own personal filmmaking.


OTHER PEOPLE SAY...

Harmony Korine: "Husbands is like a life experience. There are things in the film that go on for so long it feels like you are dying, and 90% of people would walk out, but, if you maintain it, it becomes more than a film".

Gary Oldman: "When Cassavetes came along a hard line was drawn. Suddenly there was film as commerce and film as art. He filled a niche as commentator. Cassavetes understood that when an art form is run by committee, preoccupied with making money, chasing Oscars and wanting to please everybody, it becomes safe, generic, corporate and soulless. I'm convinced he picked up his camera out of a moral imperative to these preoccupations. He challenged the status quo. His talent demanded it. The result was revolutionary. He gave us films of such stark authenticity and pained awkwardness; characters so deep and complex, that he hurled a firecracker in amongst his fellow peers."

John Sayles: "Watching a Cassavetes movie was never a safe place to be; it always threatened to come and get you. In A Woman Under The Influence, Gena Rowlands made audiences queasy with embarrassment for her mad housewife, a mass of moviegoers breaking out into symptomatic flop sweat as she began to unravel in public. If the traditional Hollywood hero is 'the man who knows,' Cassavetes' heroes were the men and women who doubted".


HE SAYS

"Its not enough to be a success, to get good reviews, or to make more movies. You need to do something important to yourself. You need to study life. I don't deal with the life of others but with my own life. That's all I know."

"I'd rather work in a sewer than make a film I don't love. If I directed a picture like Return of the Jedi or even worked on one, I would faint -- I'd faint and never get up again I'd be so ashamed. If I did The Towering Inferno, it'd be all black leader. I'm not interested in starting fires. I don't want to frighten people by showing them tragedy. I've never seen an exploding helicopter, I've never seen anybody go and blow somebody's head off. So why should I make films about them?"

"You're not an artist until you find out you are, you know? Until you can't live any other way. You try everything else and then, if you can't do anything else, you become an artist. It's the last choice on everyone's list. The last resort."

"To give people what they expect is the ultimate rip off in film. I like to make films that are difficult, that make an audience scream, make an audience walk out. And, in that sense, our work is not like a movie. A movie tries to pacify people by keeping it going for them so that it's sheer entertainment. Well, I hate entertainment. There's nothing I despise more than being entertained."


CRITICISED FOR

See above. Cassavetes was intensely derogatory about the term 'professionalism', seeing it as a refuge of the talentless, a cloak that mediocrity hid behind, a suppression and negation of risk taking. He rarely worked with teams of more than around 5 or 6, actors would often double as assistants or technicians, and Cassavetes himself regularly operated the camera, caring little for stylish angles or if the focus was occasionally soft. He clashed with many established cinematographers over these spontaneous, guerrilla methods, and even fired DOP Caleb Deschanel from A Woman Under the Influence, claiming "anybody can shoot".
Throughout his career, American critics were harsh. Molly Haskell called A Woman Under the Influence "the biggest piece of garbage I've ever seen". Haskell, along with jury members Andrew Sarris, Richard Roud and Susan Sontag, originally rejected it for the New York Film Festival, claiming it had no ending. It took the intervention of Scorsese, then the critics' darling, to get him in: he pulled his own documentary, Italianamerican, from the festival, leaving a slot free for the Cassavetes film. Despite more bad reviews from New York critics (John Simon called it "muddle-headed, pretentious and interminable," while Pauline Kael thought it "a murky, ragmop movie"), A Woman Under the Influence would prove to be Cassavetes' biggest success.


PRAISED FOR

As Jim Jarmusch wrote, in an open letter to Cassavetes: "Your films are about love, about trust and mistrust, about isolation, joy, sadness, ecstasy and stupidity. They're about restlessness, drunkenness, resilience and lust, about humour, stubbornness, miscommunication and fear. But mostly they're about love, and they take one to a far deeper place than any study of 'narrative form'. But what your films illuminate most poignantly is that celluloid is one thing, and the beauty, strangeness and complexity of human experience is another".

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