Wednesday 7 February 2018

Bruce Hodsdon on The New Hollywood: John Cassavetes - (Part 2)

This is the second part of the eleventh essay in Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to Hollywood directors and the actors they worked with. This essay digresses from his consideration of classical Hollywood by focusing on one of the first, key American independents.

The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.

The Melbourne Cinemathèque is screening six films by John Cassavetes beginning on February 28. Click on the link for details.

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Sam Rohdie in his book Film Modernism, published posthumously in 2015, identifies an auteur as “someone who creates his or her own system rather than bringing an existing one into play.”  While this attribution is difficult to apply to the oeuvres of all but a relatively small number of directors who spent most or all of their careers working in the studio system, it is clearly applicable to filmmakers like orson Welles and John Cassavetes who experimented with new forms outside the conventions of Hollywood. Their works involved what Rohdie refers to “as an assertion of subjectivity making its presence felt in their work, often brilliantly and remarkably evident” (1)

How might one describe a 'Cassavetes system'? The definition of a system involves a regular interaction or interdependence of elements forming a unified whole. In looking at a filmmaker's oeuvre rather than an individual work it seems a more appropriate concept than form which is more applicable to the organisation of an individual work, or say a genre, to make ideas and emotions intelligible. 

Adrian Martin
Adrian Martin refers to Cassavetes as “an inventor of forms” across a whole spectrum of cinematic style or narration, “each of his films is a distinct strange planet with its own secret rules and hidden lines of force.” This might seem in conflict with the concept of 'a Cassavetes system'. Implicit in invoking this framework is as rebuttal of the criticism that his work, when at its most personal, is little more than indulgent semi-improvised jumble. Cassavetes as a writer-director was continually experimenting with form and working for the freedom to do so. As Ray Carney puts it “the celebrator of pattern breaking kept breaking his own patterns.” Serious engagement with this process as a viewer is to be drawn into the Cassavetes system. As suggested below it is a process deliberately left open to performative productivity in a collaboratively personal way.

Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests that “basic questions about love, identity, and definition are at the root of all of Cassavetes' work as a filmmaker.” To Martin, “Cassavetes' films transform human questions - what it is to be and maintain a couple, a family, a community, an individual-in-society - into, at the same time, urgent questions of representation (with) every phenomenon explored by his work...treated not as a 'given' but as a question, a thing still to exist, a dream to be conjured, a concept to be tested and tried” or, as he quotes Nicole Brenez, his films as “a figural laboratory.” Many of his films Martin suggests are thematically about making arrangements with the system.

In expressing his commitment to and love for his films Cassavetes described them as “straight on, straightforward movies about things that we don't know about, But they're  questions I think people ask themselves all the time.”

Rosenbaum in a review of Woman Under the Influence in Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1976) saw Cassavetes' films from the beginning “at once limited and defined by their anti-intellectual form of humanism, an unconditional acceptance of the social norms of his characters that exults emotion and intuition over analysis” (2)

The intensity and authenticity of human emotions and interactions in Cassavetes' films are often fixed upon as spontaneous and unplanned even as it is generally understood that in varying degrees his films were scripted, rehearsed, staged and blocked.  He did not give his actors much direction. They were, Jeremy Carr suggests, “given ownership of their characters.” He went to great lengths to get their responses almost never telling the actor what he wanted from the scene or character. He did not favour group rehearsals. In response to assumptions by critics about actors improvising their lines, he told an interviewer that “the emotion was improvisation, the lines were written.”

Ray Carney considers that style and form are not adequate terms to describe Cassavetes' system given the way he “cultivates different ways of seeing and hearing” the meanings in his films emanating “from the faces, bodies and voices of specific performers.” He sees Cassavetes as “pioneering a new conception of what film can be and do. His vision was of film as a personal exploration of the meaning and lives of the people around him.” Carney speaks of pure emotion and being free of what Cassavetes referred to as “the game play” in the realisation of conventional narratives. 

Cassavetes himself described the differences between “a pre-formulated product” of “a dictated design” and his aspiration for a work which dared to “compulsively go forward, trying to make something out of the moment without preordaining the way the outcome is going to be.” The crux of Carney's analysis would seem to be a radical form of psychological realism in which the actor is a fundamental generator of meaning compared to the prevailing mode in which the actor is more or less the passive recipient of meanings created and manipulated by non-actors (writer, director, cinematographer,etc). What Cassavetes is doing in his films (from writing through to editing) is “leaving the prevailing notion of self-contained and protected identity behind.”

Martin questions Carney's downplaying of formal invention “in the name of pure emotion and 'being'... It is a mistake to see his films as “formless” the form being precisely in the wandering and openness.” His visual sense was intuitive but not uncontrolled. Part of his system was seemingly a lack of system in the sense of pre planned. But Cassavetes more than any of the other directors discussed in this series was into asking for twenty or more  takes and shooting up to a million feet of film per picture.  As George Kouvaros suggests “each film seems to match the process of starting from scratch... constantly negotiating a coming into being.”

Contains Myron Meisel's essay on
Myron Meisel identifies a key element of his expressive talent  “lies in the cumulative power of his images of actors. The keynote is involvement not identification but implicating the audience in the feelings of the characters”(my italics). Meisel also emphasises that “the first the acting - not the actor but the acting itself- and his preoccupation with human behaviour as performance.” A key is that Cassavetes “is the most objective of directors in the use of close-ups.”  Meisel further suggests that a Cassavetes' film can be close to a comedy of manners most apparent with Minnie and Moskowitz – “middle to lower class Lubitsch with a dash of show-off – Jerry Lewis or Chaplin”.

Carney suggests that Cassavetes in his films “asks us to pick through unanalysed perceptual events for which the conceptual understandings are unavailable...a fundamentally different notion of selfhood from filmmakers working in the mainstream American tradition.”  Cassavetes presents us with characterisation and character interaction that is open (not the same as “open-ended” in conventional narrative) rather than closed in what Carney terms “the visionary/symbolic aesthetic” in mainstream narrative. A rebuttal to this might be that overwhelmingly we go to fictional narrative films to be transported into an imaginary analog of a recognisable world. In fact Cassavetes' films are as mediated as films in the mainstream narrative mode but pass through a quite different mediation process which results in a perception of social relationships that is neither the equivalent of those we experience in the everyday nor that experienced in the standard fictional narrative.

Contains George Kouvaros essay
George Kouvaros sees the uncertainties in Cassavetes' films - their refusal to explain characters' motivations and their fractured exposition - make it difficult to categorise them. Rosenbaum's speculative proposal of “ a kind of instinctive, unsystematic modernism” as part of his work is problematic in its falling back on the notions of both 'instinctive' (intuitive is more apt) and 'unsystematic' (his method was nothing if not the application of deliberate process). The man himself said he hated the idea of both 'political' and 'art' cinemas. Yet Cassavetes intuitively based filmmaking practice confirms his films' modernity when compared to the conventions of mainstream storytelling. His films “not only give us back the everyday but set about to constantly reinvent it through the act of cinema” (Kouvaros)

Concern has been expressed in the recent past about the “mediating roadblocks” set up by critic and academic Ray Carney on Cassavetes studies since the 80s (see Adrian Martin).  Carney has given us valuable biographical information published in his book length 500 pages of interviews in Cassavetes on Cassavetes (1999) for example.  He describes it “as the autobiography that Cassavetes never lived to write.”  As much as half the book is taken up with Carney's own commentary filling in the informational gaps mixed with his critical judgements. His analytical writing, while often insightful, seems to read at times more like a lesson in how the films are to be read. It could be said that he has reinvented Cassavetes' films in the image of Carney's own philosophical, literary and cinematic frames of reference which is not necessarily, in itself, a problem. There is more of a problem in the way Carney presents his lucid analyses as acts of definitive reclamation rather than tentative discovery.

The tenor of Carney's advocacy is that he seems to be reluctant to recognise the growing body of other approaches to the polysemic openness of Cassavetes' cinema. This would seem to reflect the enormous amount of time and intellectual energy Carney has invested in recovering and writing about Cassavetes' work. It would also seem to reflect an understandable impatience with what he sees as the ill-informed negativity of much of the American critical establishment to Cassavetes' work.

Kouvaros argues that Cassavetes' films “are concerned with thinking about performance as a temporal process...marked by a deliberate attempt to open out and pressure the space and time through which character and scene emerge.” He used improvisation to workshop his script with the actors in rehearsal encouraging them to make suggestions. He went through a script in this way dozens of times, making changes before shooting, an indication of the priority he gave to such collaboration. This was then extended into the filming of the script in his deliberate policy of over-shooting with dozens of re-takes, “a technique,” Kouvaros suggests, “ designed to open the moment of filming to those gestures, actions and movements not determined in advance by the script...An extreme attentivenes to unexpected surprises and discoveries...transforming the moment of filming into a productive event.” Jean-Louis Comolli described this use of cinema not “ as a way of reproducing actions, gestures, faces or ideas but as a way of producing them.”

Kouvaros adds that these forms of improvisation are “a deliberate attempt to open the film up to questions and points of view which cannot be answered or contained by the narrative.” The policy of over-shooting is also linked to the allowing “a sense of the performers before the scene and after it passes” placing the standard representational economy of character and scene in doubt. Cassavetes thus ignored the dictum that “a film shows only those things that are important” in other words, that move the narrative forward (3).

Kouvaros's observations about performance in A Woman Under the Influence carry over into other of the films in noting that the “characteristic where meaning of words spoken between the characters is often less important than the way they are spoken.” Performance in Cassavetes' films epitomised by Gena Rowlands (but not so much by Ben Gazzara in Chinese Bookie for example) has a theatrical play of gestures, codes and sounds, part of a distinctive pattern of “performative excess” which together with the use of music (eg opera in Woman) surprises while maintaining the illusion of narrative space. This involves our participation in “the unfolding of a performance rather than the gradual evolution of a character or individual psychology.” Kouvaros further notes that “in Cassavetes' films crises of emotion and identity are never located within individuals... (but) are always configured in the spaces between the characters. 

1.  Rohdie ventures to describe a classical system “as primarily imitative (of nature, of existing forms) and the great classical artist is someone great for his or her ability to imitate not innovate, who obeys the rules with grace and style...If classical forms are remarkable for their objectivity, rules and clarity modern forms are celebrated essentially for their subjectivity, an artistry that goes beyond the norms and establishes a new set of forms and language.”

2.  Rosenbaum in his 1989 obituary for Cassavetes in Sight and Sound, while again noting the anti-intellectualism informing Cassavetes' work, refers to his reinvention of tenets of modernism such as unorthodox continuity and exposition, fractured narratives and dissolution of personality and even of psychology.  A couple of years later Rosenbaum refers to the notion of “a radical humanism” most evident in Cassavetes' work as a playwright and director on the stage and his concern in his films only with “what they show and we see and hear,” a disregard for audience expectation that backgrounding be included in the narrative. Rosenbaum also refers to Cassavetes liking for characters that are mediocrities which can be off-putting. “Yet he loves, respects and defends them with such unqualified fervour that the very expression of this sentiment becomes a political act.”

3.  It should be noted that the corollary to Cassavetes 'over shooting policy' was a lengthy editing process in which he would often prepare multiple versions (see note on Husbands in part 1). What should further be emphasised is how integral to the system was the writing of the script.

Main Sources  Ray Carney Cassavetes on Cassavetes 1999; The Films of John Cassavetes 1994; Interview with Carney by Jake Mahaffy 2001  here    George Kouvaros “Improvisation and the Operatic: Cassavetes' Woman Under the Influence, essay in Falling For You : Essays in Cinema and performance, ed. Lesley Stern & Kouvaros 2001. See also interview with Needham in Senses of Cinema      Myron Meisel, essay on Cassavetes in American Directors Vol 2 ed. Jean-Pierre Coursodon 1983.   Adrian Martin “Myths that Stand in the way of the Proper Appreciation of John Cassavetes on his highly esteemed personal website Jonathan Rosenbaum notes on Cassavetes, Placing Movies 1995. See also in part 1 reference to online essay by Jeremy Carr on Cassavetes in Senses of Cinema .

My thanks to the staff at the AFI  Research Collection at RMIT Melbourne ( ) for their assistance.

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