A STUDY OF LOVE – CASSAVETES’ FACES AT METRO CINEMA

For the last year or so, I’ve sat on the Programming Committee at The Metro Cinema in Edmonton. This month, I had the opportunity to curate a mini-retrospective of the films of John Cassavetes, five of which are available in DCP for the first time. Of the five, we were ultimately able to screen three in July. I selected my three favourites: Faces (1968), A Woman Under The Influence (1974), and Opening Night (1977). It’s been a real thrill, a chance to express my enthusiasm for this pioneering director whose filmmaking and attitude towards art-making in general are a consistent source of inspiration for me.

At the recommendation of the head programmer at Metro, I’ve been introducing the screenings to give people a bit of context and expound my love for these unique movies. This is my introduction for Faces.

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Hello, I’m Dylan Rhys Howard. I’m an independent filmmaker here in Edmonton. I do a lot of commercials. The one where the little dog chases the covered wagon underneath the kitchen sink? That one was mine.

First of all, thank you all for coming out and supporting our local community cinema. The Metro Cinema Society is a not-for-profit organization that prides itself on offering a diverse array of films, from the best of Hollywood to what I guess we would call World Cinema (isn’t it all World Cinema?), back to Silent Cinema and everything in between. I hope you all agree that by coming out and sharing a movie together in a space like this, in open defiance of the on-demand culture of streaming everything, we create a unique artistic experience each and every time, an experience that is much less disposable and much more celebratory.   

“Art. Meaning we will enjoy ourselves and expresses ourselves freely.” This quotation, accompanied by a picture of John Cassavetes, was my desktop background for years while I was making my first films. It’s a definition of art you don’t hear very often, and it’s one that I keep coming back to: the idea that art should be about joy, especially, is perhaps more important than ever, because we tend to think about it as this grave and solemn responsibility — likely because we’ve so firmly entangled it with commerce —- and we need to remember art’s inherent ability to create connection and wonder. 

Probably best known as an actor in films like The Dirty Dozen or Rosemary’s Baby, John Cassavetes was also one of the most dynamically independent filmmakers in the history of American movies. Eschewing the Hollywood system and self-financing many of his films allowed Cassavetes to achieve complete creative control and ostensibly create a new kind of cinema that he explicitly stated over and over was not about entertainment. Not even about story, necessarily. So what was it about? Expression. A fanatical belief that film has the potential to record and preserve the beauty and tragedy of human emotional experience, and that indeed it is the responsibility of filmmakers to concern themselves with this endeavour above all else.

While it’s fairly common now, in the digital era, for people like me to pick up a DSLR for 1500 bucks and start making movies with my friends, I can’t stress enough how radical it was in the ‘60s for someone to shoot and edit an entire feature film on 16mm in their house. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, in 1960s dollars, just to create an image.  How dedicated you’d have to be…how fundamentally convinced that this craft, this record of human experience, was worth giving your whole life to.

The film we’re seeing tonight, Faces, is Cassavetes second feature length film. Shot on black and white 16mm film stock over a period of months mostly, as I alluded to, at the house where Cassavetes and his wife Gena Rowlands (who plays Jeanie) lived, the film plunges us into the malaise and ennui of a middle class Los Angeles couple who are reaching their breaking point. Simply put: this is a film about love, as all of JC’s films are films about love. The name of this series, A Study Of Love, comes from a documentary excerpt where John says:

I don’t think a person can live without a philosophy. Philos in Greek means “friend or love.” They’re synonymous. And any “ophy” is “the study of.” So it’s the study of love, and to have a philosophy is to know how to love, and to know where to put it… So I guess every picture we’ve ever done has been in a way to find some kind of a philosophy for the characters…and that’s why I have a need for the characters to analyze love, discuss it, kill it, destroy it, hurt each other, do all that stuff, in that war — in that word polemic and picture polemic of what life is…I have a one-track mind…all I’m interested in is love.

The dialogue in this film was not improvised, as is often misreported. The actors worked very faithfully from a script written by John. What is improvised is the blocking, the way the actors move within the frame. This, combined with the handheld camera work, gives the film a very loose style, like documentary yet somehow more impressionistic, that I think many people have tried to imitate but never quite matched; no one can push themselves quite as far outside the limits of the craft of conventional photography (the rule of thirds and so on). Fascinating how when one attempts to eschew the aesthetic conventions of traditional filmmaking, one ends up inevitably inventing a new set of conventions. A piece of technical trivia about this film that occasionally gives me nightmares (any editors in the house?): the location sound recorder they used during the shoot was really old, and the tape slowed down over time. So as they rolled these long long takes for these long long scenes, the sound would gradually fall out of sync with the film. Cassavetes went to every professional sound post-production house in LA and they all told him it was going to be impossible to sync the sound back up perfectly, that he’d have to reshoot the entire movie. But he wouldn’t accept that and instead spent months staying up late in his garage excruciatingly re-syncing the audio frame by frame. You can tell there are still a few moments, particularly in the parlour scenes with Jeanie and the two men, that are far from perfect. But I hope you’ll all join me in suspending my disbelief for these moments.

The film was nominated for three Oscars in 1968: Best Original Screenplay; Best Supporting Actress for Lynn Carlin, in her first ever acting role, as Maria Forst, the chain-smoking housewife; and Best Supporting Actor for Seymour Cassel for his role as “Chet,” the mischievous hustler.

Finally, I messaged my favourite film critic, A.S Hamrah (check out his book The Earth Dies Streaming, it is some terrific film writing) and asked what he would tell a room full of people about to watch Faces. He wrote back: “I’d clear up the idea that’s it’s all improvised [check!]. I’d emphasize that it’s in black-and-white [check?]. I’d relate it to the breakdown in society reflected in events in the US in 1968, a mood of violent confusion Cassavetes and his actors captured before the fact in the film’s portrayal of a seemingly successful middle-class American couple. [articulated by A S much better than I could!]”

My friend Aerlan Barrett , who introduced me to Cassavetes’ work, had this to say: “Faces doesn’t pander. It doesn’t exposit. Nobody says what they feel but they communicate everything that they are. It doesn’t try to BE something it IS something. It’s about failure. It’s about narcissism. It’s about delusion. It’s about lying to yourself most of all. It’s about youth. It’s about age. Most of all, it’s about letting go. It’s screaming at you. Let go. Please, Trust me. Just let go.”

Thank you all for being here, and I really hope you enjoy the film. If anything about the movie speaks to you, please send me an email about it. You can find everything about me at dylanrhyshoward.com. Thank you!

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If you’re in Edmonton, please consider coming to see A Woman Under The Influence on Saturday, July 20th at 6:30 PM and/or Wednesday, July 24th at 9 PM at The Metro Cinema.

Until next time.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB

CASSAVETES ON BEING AN ARTIST VS. BEING A PROFESSIONAL

Whenever I’m feeling burned out with filmmaking, I go to the well of Cassavetes. Maybe he was a megalomaniac, maybe at some points he was a borderline compulsive liar. Certainly he alienated a lot of people, according to some of the anecdotes reported in  Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes. But whatever else he was, he was someone who believed in the power of art and self-expression with more passion, fire, and tenacity than most of us have the strength to muster in the face of propriety, economics, and social order. His movies have a cutting, inescapable honesty; he was always fighting very hard to achieve this, at the expense of film stock and some of his closest relationships. But the vitality of his films is unparalleled. His characters are often flawed and floundering, but you get the sense that all of them are truly living, feeling every emotion with a profundity and passion that sometimes seems as though it’s constitutionally outlawed in a staunchly polite, externally inoffensive seeming society like Canada’s.

Anyway, I finally got my hands on a copy of Cassavetes on Cassavetes and naturally within the first 50 pages he starts speaking to the exact issue that Lizzie and I have been emotionally hot-potatoing all year: how to make art while also having a career. He’s talking primarily about actors, because that was his experience, but you can apply what he’s saying to anything that gets lumped into that awfully over-simplified conglomeration we call ‘the creative industries.’

“Actors come into the business and have great enthusiasm because they think they’re going to make it. They think they’re going to be great. Then people tell them they’re not so great, and they feel they’re not so great. And the one thing they’ve always wanted in their lives — to be great — they realize they’re not going to be. Their own vision is crossed out and replaced by the vision of the way other people see them. They have no dream anymore; they only have a profession. They are businessmen. They are looking to make a dollar; looking to enjoy themselves the best way they can; looking not to make too many enemies in meeting people because then they won’t be working. They are looking to please the public, please the writer, the director, everybody — so that they are not concentrated, they’re not contained. Working for money and working under pressure they can no longer spin the dream for an audience…

…An actor must really believe what he’s doing, and he mustn’t care whether he’s good or bad at the moment, it’s only the creative effort that counts. And you can’t have that if you have some ulterior motive, like making money, pleasing people, enjoying yourself at a cocktail party that may lead to a bigger job. The great danger for actors is this success drive…

…Actors keep on driving for that big opportunity, selling everything in their past just for that one big opportunity. That opportunity comes again, but by that time they’ve sacrificed all the things in which they really believed and they feel like hypocrites. They get in a group of people that haven’t done quite as much, and they talk a creative game. They talk about ethics and creativity — but they’ve perjured themselves all through their careers. It’s not their fault. It’s just the society in which we live and the nature of the business and the nature of the need to express yourself.”

Lizzie and I have both been so focused on making money this year, trying to get out of the debt we’ve accumulated over the course of our twenties by affecting a middle-class lifestyle without a middle-class income. And we’ve done well, and it’s been exciting. But what happens is that it becomes impossible to see a choice as anything but a commercial choice. You cannot separate the joy of writing from the punishment of corresponding missed commercial opportunities, time spent in what could be labelled ‘self-indulgence’ when it could’ve been spent directly making money for yourself and other people. I believe in a balance of art and commerce. With filmmaking, often you don’t have a choice — the materials and labour are so cost-prohibitive, you need to reconcile the degree to which how you decide to spend money is going to influence the art that you make. But how easy it is to fall into a trap of understanding ‘success’ in purely commercial terms, the terms under which you tend to receive the most validation from your friends and family, and how pervasively this can corrupt your opinion of yourself and your art.

Feel free to take this opportunity to revisit the greatest rant in the history of filmmaking.

Be kind to each other out there.

Dylan – Edmonton, AB