Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Love Streams

Love Streams (1984)
Starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel

As I’ve talked about before, Cassavetes focuses a lot on the psychological fragility of his characters. Often his main characters feel like Kerouac characters, they live life to self-destructive extremes, exploding like roman candles and inevitably fizzling when they can’t handle things. In Love Streams, he spends the first half of the film exploring two separate figures that fit this bill, then bringing them together for the last sad, heartbreaking hour. And, as with so many of his films, Gena Rowlands is the force of nature that powers things forward. Cassavetes also holds his own and looks much older than his appearance in 1977’s Opening Night. While I don’t know the details, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was when his health problems were starting.

Robert (Cassavetes) is an alcoholic writer who lives in a labrynthine mansion in the Hollywood Hills, populated with a parade of call girls. He finds women to obsess about, charms them, then reveals his true nature of drunken hopelessness and they leave. Sarah (Rowlands) is a women going through a divorce and trying to cling desperately to her teenage daughter, while her ex (Cassel) argues that Sarah’s history of mental illness makes her unfit to be the primary custody holder. These two figures come together and share an interesting connection that leads to a sad and rather bleak ending.

The film does wander as Cassavetes is wont to do, though it wanders into some interesting places. In particular is a segement of the film devoted to Robert’s meeting his son, now about 10 years old, and being pressured to take him for the weekend. Being the horrible figure that he is, he frightens the kid off with the bevy of women lounging around his house, chases the kid down and brings him back, then gets him drunk. Impulsively, Robert decides they are going to Vegas, where he drops the boy off to go carousing with women. When he shows up the next morning, the boy is weeping and saying he wants to go back to his mother, which pisses off the drunken Robert off and he berates the boy for not being a man. This is very interesting as we have seen what a grown up child Robert is for the majority of the film. Love Streams stands as one of the more captivating works by this director, with some strong artistic moments.

Next: we finish things up with the slapstick comedy Big Trouble (not the Tim Allen movie!)

Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Gloria

Gloria (1980)
Starring Gena Rowlands, Buck Henry, Julie Carmen, John Adames

One of the few aspects of Cassavetes’ films that kept his work from falling into self-indulgent tripe was his muse and wife, Gena Rowlands. Rowlands regularly grounds the films she appears in with performances that challenge typical ideas about women. She’s just one of those actresses that its a joy to sit back and watch work. And here, in Gloria, she was given a larger commercial venue to display her skill. And it was thanks to Rowlands that Cassavetes directed this film in the first place. Cassavetes has originally just written the screenplay and sold it to Columbia Pictures, after which Rowlands was cast in the lead. She highly recommended her husband to direct his own script and he was hired.

The story follows the titular Gloria (Rowlands), a woman who grew up around mob types and has the hard exterior to match. She ends up in the custody of young boy (Adames) whose mob accountant father and family are murdered. Gloria uses her mob connections to try and negotiate she and the boy’s freedom from the endless pursuits. Along the way, Gloria clashes with her young charge, leaves him to fend for himself, but eventually chases back after him. Like the majority of Cassavetes’ movies, this is about a character, not necessarily the plot.

Unlike most of Cassavetes movies, this doesn’t have the ploddingly dull feel to it. The pace is very well done and some thing is always happening. Add to that Rowlands, who gives great performances every time and you have a film that actually had a bit of a commercial life. In fact, the premise of this film would be the basis for Luc Besson’s Leon about a decade later.What enjoyed most about this picture was, how the premise could easily have been maudlin crap, but Rowlands never lets her character fall for any “maternal instinct” nonsense. She has enjoyed a life unmarried without a children, and just because she is with this young boy she isn’t going to start treating him like her son. Even in the film’s conclusion we’re shown that she will not change who she is and is going to talk to this child like an adult.

Next up: Love Streams

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 – A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Every film since 1959’s Shadows feels like a warm up act for this masterpiece. Cassavetes frequently played with the themes of infidelity and crumbling marriages, as well as featuring characters whose grip on sanity was weak to say the least. Once again we have Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands as the female lead and alongside her is Peter Falk as the harried husband. Both actors bring the naturalism that Cassavetes strove to have in all his films. This is a film born out of emotional truth, given a framework and allowed to grow and stretch in the directions it finds comfortable. There’s a lot changing aesthetically in Cassavetes’ work at this point, bits of artifice are becoming more apparent, most notably a soundtracks that doesn’t come from music in the environment. The dialogue is delivered with a real tongue though, people stutter, people start into a sentence only to abandon it half way through. In the same way Altman created naturalistic satires, Cassavetes was defining the naturalistic slice of life drama.

Nick Longhetti (Falk) is a construction worker in Southern California who is forced to spend most of the day away from his family. His wife, Mabel (Rowlands), is a frenzy of a mother, both desperately wanting intimacy with her husband but terrified to leave her kids for one night. Over a period of a few days, it becomes more and more obvious that Mabel is suffering from a complete mental breakdown. Her moods are changing on a dime, she is forgetting the names and faces of people she has known for years, and she is so angry with Nick all the time. How this family deals with mental illness is presented in a brutally honest way. There’s no heroes in this film, only very damaged people. While Mabel’s condition is more obvious, it becomes apparent by the end of the film that Nick’s grasp on sanity may be just as weak, he’s just learned how to hide it better.

The core of the film is Gena Rowlands’ performance. Rowlands is one of those beautiful leading women you see rarely in Hollywood now. There’s a lot of pretty faces in the movies that hit your cineplex, but its not often they carry the depth of acting chops Rowlands shows off so effortlessly in A Woman. Not even Nicole Kidman, who has followed a similar career of offbeat films, can rise above the coldness of her portrayals. While it would be easy to make Mabel out as either cold or over the top, Rowlands walks an incredibly fine line with the intent to show that Mabel is a loving wife and mother. She demands that the audience withhold from judging the character and let her stand on her own. The structure of the story starts us in the last few days before Mabel is committed, and Nick has suspected something. Nick uses physical violence to “smack it out of her”. Cassavetes seems to be making a statement against the macho conceit of the time (and sadly even still today) that a woman needed to be handled like a child. If his films are anything to go on, in Husbands he seems to be stating that the true adult children are the men, with their unease when dealing with the pain of reality and mortality.

It’s hard to watch a Cassavetes film and not think about Mad Men. These films of the early 1970s feel like many of the character types from that series and possibly previews of where they might be headed emotionally. Mabel came across as very much in the same situation as Betty Draper, yet the other end of the spectrum. Mabel is very much a blue collar girl, and she has an effervescence of life that makes her a great wife and mother and charming flirt to the workers her husband brings home from time to time. Betty is an East Coast blue blood, who sees the people around her as fitting into a personal caste system established by a cold, intolerant mother. Yet as drastically different as these women’s backgrounds and personalities are, they are victims of the 1950s culture. They were young and pretty then, and were objects for men to have. Their identities revolved around being a wife and eventually a mother. Each of them breaks down in their own way: Mabel literally and Betty through her confrontation and divorce from Don. Cassavetes has to applauded for making a film so complex and honest about women in his society, when from an entertainment standpoint it went against everything that works.

Next up: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie