On Cassavetes

Before my friend and now frequent collaborator Aerlan Barrett waxed poetic to me about the merits of John Cassavetes one day in the murky, wonderful equipment room at the Film And Video Arts Society – Alberta, I’d only seen two Cassavetes films. I’d seen Shadows in an experimental film class at university and sort of dug it, and watched  Faces in my East Van basement suite during film school and sort of hated it. I remember thinking that Faces was so self-indulgent, that Cassavetes was too in love with actors and didn’t know when to cut them off. It seemed to me that far too much time was spent holding on actors just laughing hysterically or singing for no reason, and I had no idea what this was supposed to convey. Aerlan suggested I watch A Woman Under The Influence, one of his favourite pictures and easily his favourite Cassavetes. I rented it that week, and really disliked it as well. Again I felt it was self-indulgent, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how I was supposed to feel about the characters. They were so interesting, and yet they could be so AWFUL to one another. Every time I started to fall in love with one of them they would do something that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to accept them. I didn’t really know how to love, I think.

People can be pretty judgemental. I think, like most personality traits that hurt others, this judgement comes from the ego; people want to feel like they’re better than others because it makes them feel good. And I think when looking at people on a screen, it’s even easier to sit in judgement of them; they’re there to be examined by you, after all, literally brought into tight focus by a lens for closer inspection. I think people generally want to see characters who look and behave like they do, except in a funnier, smarter, sexier way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of indulgence, I think, so long as we remember that that is not all movies are. On the making of A Woman Under The Influence, Cassavetes said:

“Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are… Idealized screen families generally don’t interest me because they have nothing to say to me about my own life. Usually we put film in such simple terms while being endlessly involved in talking about our personal experience. We admit how complex it is. But it’s as though we never look into a mirror and see what we are. So the films I make really are trying to mirror that emotion, so we can understand what our impulses are why we do things that get us into trouble, when to worry about it, when to let them go. And maybe we can find something in ourselves that is worthwhile.” (From Cassavetes On Cassavetes)

Learning to accept people who are in pain, confused, lost, angry, alone,  or at times cruel means accepting the potential within yourself to be in pain or confused or angry or cruel to someone else. This is a very difficult thing. No one really wants to admit that they have the potential to be horrible to someone else. But we all do, of course, and we all are, sometimes. We hurt other people and we don’t know why. We hurt people we love more than anything. Why? I don’t think anyone really knows. Maybe it just comes down to whether you’re interested in asking yourself over and over again. Maybe that’s the only way to find out.

Cassavetes was also a pioneer in the logistics and aesthetics of independent filmmaking. He made Faces in his own house over a number of years, financing the movie with his personal funds  and those of a few friends who were also involved in producing the film. Sometimes they couldn’t afford to get their processed film out of the lab.To raise the funds to make  A Woman Under The Influence, Cassavetes and his wife, the incomparable Gena Rowlands, mortgaged their house. It took that level of commitment to preserve absolute authorship and final cut. The materials were still very expensive. The lack of resources, along with the way that Cassavetes worked: favouring more general, open lighting set-ups to give actors complete freedom in their blocking, gave the films a pretty unique aesthetic, and really set them apart from their Hollywood-produced contemporaries.

I think about Cassavetes a lot now, about his commitment to trying to understand people above all else, certainly above the conventions or aesthetics of filmmkaing (and in so doing, of course, defining a whole new series of conventions and aesthetics). Cassavetes is consistently my biggest inspiration to grab a camera and go make a movie, and not get bogged down in paralyzing self-conversations about whether it’ll look or sound good enough. We are so spoiled in this day-and-age; for a fraction of the cost, filmmakers today have access to resources that can produce stunning images and sounds. I like to think that if John were still alive today, he’d be chasing Gena around the streets of New York with a 7D, yelling at her over the traffic, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, his hair a mess, his eyes with that crazed, passionate look he seemed to hold all the time. And I now count Cassavetes’ films as some of my favourites, especially Faces and Opening Night. I no longer see them as indulgent – they feel too true now to be indulgent. Nothing’s changed about the movies of course. Just had to live a few more years, make a few more mistakes, and ask myself a few more tough questions before I could watch them and actually see what’s there.

Until next time.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

PS Back in Edmonton now, of course. This Wind is nearly finished!