Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Opening Night

Opening Night (1977)
Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes, Joan Blondell

Some times you just want to punch Cassavetes in the face. His actors always give their all, but Cassavetes, as director, has a very hard time focusing his films. I’d hate for it to be my conditioning by contemporary cinema to be keyed into a storytelling formula, I have to say I enjoy a lot of the less plot focused directors of the independent cinema (Terence Malick comes to mind). However, Cassavetes has a big problems shaping his films into some thing at all. Its like a sculptor who keeps changing their mind as they chip away at large stone monolith, and the end product is more like the rock he started with than an enjoyable film. Rowlands is great, she always is, but in the end the film is a few moments of genius mired in a pit of dragging.

Myrtle Gordon (Rowlands) is working the kinks out of her new play, “Second Woman” in New Haven, Connecticut, and in a few days it will premier on Broadway. One night, after a preview performance, Myrtle meets a young fan of her’s, Nancy. After their encounter, Nancy is hit by a car and killed, and Myrtle begins to have a nervous breakdown. On stage, she is forgetting lines and showing up drunk to rehearsals. The rest of the cast are either infuriated with her or employing different methods to get her back on track. Maurice Aarons (Cassavetes), her co-star, treats her with cruelty while the play’s director, Manny Victor (Gazzara) works to fix Myrtle more for himself, than her.

The concept of the film is an incredibly relevant one today; the aging actress dealing with the fact that she isn’t going to be the first picked anymore. The play she is in is getting attention, and she’s still recognized, but there’s a sense that Myrtle’s time has passed. She’s terrified of the idea of no longer being relevant. The film ties right in to Rowlands’ last great work with her husband, A Woman Under the Influence. In both pictures we have women relegated to a single role (wife, actress) and when the time comes that they feel constrained by these labels there’s no effective support system to help them explore their options. Those around them grow frustrated and angry at these women for not simply continuing down the path. Rowlands plays the hell out of these roles and I always have to wonder if this came from her own life with Cassavetes or if she was simply a great actor who could key into the mindset of her characters. I know that the artist is not necessarily their art, but I think every artist has some part of themselves present in the work.

Cassavetes meanders way too much. The film clocks in at two hours and thirty minutes, and feels like it drags on for forever. A lot of moments are improvised and he just lets the camera run and see where the actors go. I wish he would have edited more, though. I am all for not holding the actors feet to a script where every line and moment is plotted, but after you have the footage it seems that chopping it down the moments that are the truest would be beneficial. I believe Cassavetes released films that he wasn’t always happy with. Shadows has a first cut that he pulled and replaced with the current, shorter version. And The Killing of A Chinese Bookie’s shorter, 1978 director’s cut is the version Cassavetes approved. It’s a novel idea, to produce a film and then recut it after some time has passed. George Lucas has been accused of ruining his work by doing just such a thing, but I like that an artist can continue to work and reveal something more. I just wish Cassavetes has returned to this particular stone to chip away again, so that Opening Night might be a film with a clearer trajectory.

Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey

Cassavetes was doing for cinematography and story pacing what Mamet attempts to do with language: try to make it so real it can be almost unbearable some times. Stories are not told in beats and there are no real “plots”. Cassavetes is interested in character studies, without any real arcs. Just a slice of this characters life, and in his later works the slice included a definitive moment. Here Cassavetes is reunited with Ben Gazzara whom he last worked with on Husbands. Gazzara is giving an understated performance to match the understated filmmaking of Cassavetes. When I watched this film I went with the Director’s Cut, released in 1978 and preferred by Cassavetes himself. The original cut was 134 minutes compared to the DC’s 108 minutes. When it comes to Cassavetes more is not necessarily better because he is always allowing his camera and scenes to meander until they figure out where they want to go.

Cosmo Vitelli (Gazzara) is a strip club owner and chronic gambler who is in the midst of paying back his debts to the mob in L.A. He’s so excited to have this debt gone that he spends an expensive night out gambling and ends up $23,000 in the hole. His debtors come up with a creative way for him to pay it off, they tell Cosmo to kill a bookie in Chinatown that has been giving them trouble. The mob refrains from telling Cosmo the whole truth about this man and sends the sad sack in to do their dirty work. Of course some things go wrong and we follow Cosmo for the rest of the night as his life is altered forever. There’s no moments of suspense or climax, but just the camera following this man. Where the film ends is abrupt and we can assume what becomes of Cosmo, but still open to interpretation.

Bookie is very much the American cousin of French gangster films, and I was constantly reminded of Le Samourai with Cosmo’s stoic calm during his assassination of the Chinaman and the resulting fallout. There’s the same slapdash style Cassavetes employs in all his work. Along with Cosmo, there is are some very interesting characters decorating the fringes of the picture. The dancers in Cosmo’s clubs are briefly glimpsed and a few feel like they have histories well beyond the walls of the club. The most fascinating figure in the club is Mr. Sophistication, the master of ceremonies who is a pathetic sort of showman. His nightly shows are themed around exotic locales and he sings pitifully as the women emerge from behind the curtain and undress. Mr. Sophistication is at times angry at his circumstances and others broken by them. A common theme with every character in the film, wanting to get out but eventually giving in to what they see as fate.

While Bookie is far removed from the suburban ennui Cassavetes typically followed, Cosmo is really no different than those characters. Everyone is a person fighting against an overwhelming tide. It might be their failing marriage, mental stability or a bullet, but every person is face to face with inevitability. But Cassavetes forces us to question whether these people are out of control of their lives or the ones completely responsible for their circumstances.

Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Minnie and Moskowitz

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Starring Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, Timothy Carey, Val Avery

The first time I ever remember being aware of Seymour Cassel was in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. When I look back, I realize it was one of those instances where an actor has an incredibly distinguished career in film, but, because its not mainstream cinema, you don’t discover them until they appear in a contemporary movie. In Anderson’s films Cassel is so muted, always a background player, with not much to do. In Cassavetes’ Faces, Cassel plays a young hipster, and this is that same character a few years down the road, a little older, but still full of energy and oddity. This is also the first (but definitely not last) film where we get to talk about Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes wive and figurehead of independent cinema in her own right. This is a film where we start to see the cinéma vérité elements pushed away for just a little bit more structure.

Seymour Moskowitz (Cassel) is a parking garage attendant in New York City who not only enjoys his job, he loves it. Moskotwitx happily jogs from one care to the next, bringing them to their owners. He visits his mother on ocassion and, as the film opens, borrows $400 to move to Los Angeles on a whim. In L.A. he meets museum curator Minnie Moore (Rowlands). Moore’s most recent relationship has been with a married man and her personal life is a shambles. Moskowitz is the last guy you would expect her to end up with, but through their bickering and frustration they see the better parts of each other and very strange romance takes root.

With Minnie and Moskowitz, Cassavetes took the bickering couple sub-genre made popular in the 30s and 40s and recast it with a 1970s filmed on the fly aesthetic. Moskowitz is his mother’s angel but lives as if he is a ramblin’ hippie. Minnie is a woman who has had nothing but problems with men, and when she meets Moskowitz its during a fight with her overly aggressive and manic date (Avery) in a restaurant parking lot. It’s Moskowitz who is the fickle one in the relationship, Minnie is typically exasperated by him. And then, through trial and error, after working through their problems everything clicks. Its a romantic comedy done in non-cliched manner, it ends on a happy note, but it also ends on an honest note.

Once again, Cassavetes is not a filmmaker who would ever appeal to a mass audience. But for people who feel that today’s romantic comedies are being spat out of a screenplay factory, his work can provide a fresh breath of air that keeps you surprised and presents characters who behave just irrationally as we all really do. There’s also great little side moments that have nothing to do with the overall narrative but still work. In particular, Moskowitz visits a diner at the beginning of the film and has a conversation with a vagrant (Carey). This scene alone could be cut out and framed as its own short film and the homeless man is a rich character unto himself that never gets fully explored.

Next up: A Woman Under the Influence

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 8

35) The Wedding of Kermit and Piggy (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984, dir. Frank Oz)

It will never be a canonical great moment in cinema, but for me as a little kid it was the perfect ending to the Muppet film trilogy. You get an insanely large cast of characters, including those from just around the block on Sesame Street. Also, Piggy’s laugh when Kermit asks about Gonzo still cracks me up.

36) Pure Imagination (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971, dir. Mel Stuart)

Gene Wilder in the 1970s is always perfection. And this song works perfectly to introduce us to the inner working of the fantastical chocolate factory.

37) You’re Shit (Happiness, 1998, dir. Todd Solondz)

One of the most funny and depressing movie openings ever.

38) Chance Enters The World (Being There, 1980, dir. Hal Ashby)

In Peter Sellers’ final performance he gave us the best film of his career. The mentally challenged Chance is forced to leave the brownstone for which he gardened after the owner dies. It’s implied Chance was the owner’s illegitimate son, and he never left the house in his life. This scene is gorgeous piece of comedy following Chance on his first day out.

39) Sardine? (The ‘Burbs, 1988, dir. Joe Dante)

This film was watched endlessly in my house as a child, and I think it is still one Tom Hanks’ best comedies and criminally underrated. This is the perfect scene of awkwardness as the characters meet the neighbors they suspect are serial killers

40) Starchild (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

The most hopeful film ending of all time!

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 7

31) Dancing Chicken (Strosek, 1977, dir. Werner Herzog)

The final scene of a very odd film about Germans coming to live and work in rural America. Don’t ask questions, just experience.

32) I Knew These People (Paris, Texas, 1984, dir. Wim Wenders)

This is a slow burning film, but when it hits it emotional peak (this scene) it devastates you. Harry Dean Stanton has never been better, and Nastassja Kinski is perfection. One of the most over looked films of the 1980s. If you haven’t, find this and watch it!

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 6

26) I See Now (City Light, 1931, dir. Charlie Chaplin)

City Lights is so simple and perfect. This final scene showcases the fact that, while Chaplin is remembered as a great comedian, he also could tell a story of great emotional depth.

27) Who’s The Commanding Officer? (Apocalypse Now, 1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

This is the scene in the film that truly sums up the insanity of war for me. It is the last American outpost in Vietnam and it is a waking nightmare.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 5

21) I’m Easy (Nashville, 1975, dir. Robert Altman)

In this ensemble cast film, Altman had his actors write and perform their own songs. Keith Carradine plays the third member of a country folk trio who is a bit of a lothario. The women gathered in the Exit/In all believe the song is written for them, when in reality its for Lily Tomlin’s character a gospel singer and married mother of two who has been having an affair with the singer. The way the camera works in conjuction with the actors’ faces is beautiful.

22)You’ve Got Me? Who’s Got You? (Superman: The Movie, 1979, dir. Richard Donner)

Its by no means the greatest film ever made, but it holds a sentimental place in my heart. And this moment, where Superman makes his public debut is just wonderful. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it doesn’t need to be grim n’ gritty or “badass”. It’s just a perfect superhero moment. And I must admit, I’ve used the flying statistic line many times.

Criterion Fridays – Amarcord

Amarcord (1973, dir. Federico Fellini)

Italy is an incredibly complex landscape. Since World War II they have been through dozens of governmental regimes and even before, there has been a centuries long intermingling of the Vatican and secular government. But these are the issues of adults, and as children we rarely are aware of the intermingling of government and our daily lives. We simply live our lives, and what stands out as monumental to us are those local moments. Federico Fellini returns to the Italy of his childhood here, life on a coastal Italian village where life is told through the observance of the seasons. What he creates is a small town masterpiece, on par with Our Town and Under Milkwood.

Beginning at the start of Spring, Amarcord (meaning “I Remember”) follows the denizens of an unnamed village through the course of a single year. The story is told in a series of vignettes, almost like a collection of interconnected short stories that feature recurring characters. The core of the film focuses on Titta, an adolescent coming of age in this particular year, getting in trouble with schoolmates, dreaming about life outside of the constraints of the village, and lusting after the gorgeous women of the town. There is also Gradisca, the most beautiful woman in the village who is never seriously pursued by any of the men in town. There’s Aurelio, Titta’s father, a local businessman who may or may not be involved in anti-Mussolini activities.

The film is not political, rather anti-establishment of any sort. There is a wonderful series of scenes taking place near the end of the school year where we are presented with a parade of the most outlandish and absurd teachers. This is something Fellini has a real gift for in all his work: casting the most interesting looking actors, who defy the traditional movie star standards. Every actor in this film look like a wonderfully bizarre illustration in a storybook. The flights of fancy the teenaged characters take are also quite amusing, in particular one boy whom dreams of a wedding with his crush during a visit from one of Mussolini’s lieutenants.  They stand before a floral Mussolini head made for the parade and its mouth moves, delivering the wedding ceremony.

There are also moments of reality that have an equally magical effect. At one point, the townspeople migrate to their small rowboats to go out a few miles from the coast for a chance at glimpsing an massive Italian ocean liner, symbol to all of them in this moment of Italy’s hollow power. Another powerful moment occurs during the winter when, during an impromptu snowball fight,  large male peacock swoops down from the sky and perches on a fountain in the square. The way the bird is filmed was in such a strikingly brilliant way I found myself unsure of how such a shot was achieved. Amarcord has moments of great humor and aching sadness, and because of its honest love and criticism of its characters it stands as one of the more moving cinematic experiences I have had.

DocuMondays – Dogtown & The Z-Boys

Dogtown & The Z-Boys (2001, dir. Stacy Peralta)
Narrated by Sean Penn

As anyone who knows me well can tell you, I am by no means a sports enthusiast. However, even I know the names Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, and Jay Adams. I can’t say I knew a lot about them before I watched this documentary, but I did know they were big names in the world of skateboarding. In the early 1990s, skate culture was a big deal. I was about 9 or 10 years old and in all of child-focused media you had skateboard bound characters; from Nintendo’s Skate or Die to the skateboard bound Michelangelo in TMNT. There was an entire aesthetic movement backing it as well: Chicano graffiti inspired neon clothing is what I remember most vividly. All of that started back in 1971 in South Venice Beach, California.

The story of the Zephyr Skate Team is the story of the class divide in America. The young men and women who skated on Zephyr were children of broken homes who lived in the “wrong side of the tracks” part of Venice Beach. The shoreline there was not one tourists ever visited and its most prominent landmark was the decrepit hulking skeleton of an abandoned theme park. The figures in the film began by surfing amongst the treacherous collapsing roller coasters and pier, and were forced to seek recreation elsewhere as the waves only came in at a very specific time of the day. As a lark they took up skateboarding, which had faded away as a fad in the mid-60s. The invention of polyurethane wheels, replacing the easily chipped and locking up clay ones, allowed the boards to grip the pavement and provide a smoother ride. Thus, many surfing techniques were brought in by the skaters. Basically, the modern skateboarding aesthetic is a direct result of the play these young people engaged in day after day.

The economic conditions of the key figures seemed to be one the largest driving forces. Many of the young men who skated on Zephyr came from homes where the fathers had left or, poor economic conditions resulted in, aggressive and abusive fathers. They found the Jeff Ho Surfboard Shop as a second home, where proprietors Jeff Ho, Skip Engblom, and Craig Stecyk encouraged the skaters to develop their own individual styles of the riding the boards. South Venice was a community envious of the North Venice mansions, and as fate would have it, a heavy drought struck California during the early 1970s. This left a lot of dried out pools and some of the more inventive skaters began to see the similarities between the flourishes and curves of the cement pools and the waves they were used to riding. And so, vertical skateboarding was born, skaters attempting to leave but one wheel touching the very rim of the bowl they rode in.

Much like a VH1 Behind the Music episode, we’re given a traditional Rise and Fall story, but what makes it so remarkable is that the key players were all teenagers for both the Rise and Fall portions. Stacy Peralta came out as the most successful, going on to champion and mentor skaters like Tony Hawk. Tony Alva struck out as a very successful entrepreneur, becoming the first skater to break away from the companies and start his own. The saddest of the lot was Jay Adams, whom all the interviewees agree could have been the best in history, but he got caught up in a drug lifestyle that included crystal meth that sent him to some rather difficult places. The film does an excellent job of structuring its narrative, and does everything I want from a good documentary: It causes me to have interest in a subject I have thought little about, tells me an interesting story about very human people, and leaves me wanting to know more.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 3

11) Rhapsody in Blue (Manhattan, 1979, dir. Woody Allen)

New York is one of the great mythical cities, in that there is the New York that is real and there is the New York that is a fantasy of our minds. Allen captures this magical New York perfectly in the opening of Manhattan, using classic black and white photography as well as the signature George Gershwin tune.

12) Please Don’t Tell My Mother (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1969, dir. Milos Forman)

This was one of the first films to showcase the acting chops of Jack Nicholson, but I like this scene because of the performances Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif bring to the table. It is rare you see a scene so perfectly acted. All of these actors are at the top of their game.