Friday, 28 June 2019

Peter Tammer writes on his lifelong enthusiasm for the films of John Cassavetes

Peter Tammer
Bruce Hodsdon writes: In December 2017 I had just finished a two part essay on the film work of John Cassavetes the first part of which is here and the second part is here  Knowing of Peter Tammer's enthusiasm for Cassavetes' films I had him read it and, although also knowing he rarely, if ever, writes reviews of films – he makes them – I asked him to put some thoughts into a 'review' of what Cassavetes' films mean to him. 

While it may not literally be the case – Peter writes and lectures about subjects other than film - music and prehistoric cave art for example - the following stands, with his agreement, as his 'first film review' written without intent.              

This will be a rambling email Bruce, not precise, not scholarly, sometimes inaccurate because of the vagaries of memory.

John Cassavetes
As you know from previous conversations we've had, I have followed Cassavetes since he first showed up as an actor in the TV series Johnny Staccato, and with Sidney Poitier in Martin Ritt's Edge of the City. Whenever I have seen him as an actor I have relished his searing intensity,the sort of intensity which Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Brando brought to the screen. Then I saw Shadowsin the early sixties at the Melbourne Film Festival, and I loved it. 

I loved it so much, for so many reasons, not the least being the qualities presented by the actors, a luminous quality, hard to define. I haven't seen it for many years now. However, I was also just beginning my life as a maker of films, a filmmaker, and Shadows was made on a very low budget, "the smell of an oily rag", with borrowed 16 mm equipment,etc. It's all on record in Wiki and I imagine you have reams of material about it. 

I didn't see Shadows until I was working at the State Film Centre after I left Uni to become a filmmaker. I left uni in 1962 and so I guess I saw Shadows in 1963 at the Palais, the same period as I was making On the BallAnd he will rise again and Beethoven and all that jazz. I might have seen Shadows  after I started making those films. I can't say it "influenced" me, simply that it was made on similar terms, ultra low-budget, 16 mm equipment, non-studio, non-mainstream. 

Of course I had none of the background with acting or the film and TV industry that Cassavetes had. I was starting from scratch. So let me say, at that very early time I don't consider it to be a significant influence on my life, but when I saw it, it gave mea great feeling that I was not alone, that so much was possible with such primitive gear, and with virtually no money.

Then later on I saw more films by Cassavetes, Too Late Blues and another Hollywood film I didn't care for, then Faces and  A Woman Under the Influence ... both interesting, impressive. But the one which really blew me away at that period of my life wasHusbands*. I loved that film very much, everything about it, the concept, the storyline such as it was, the luminous performances from all the actors. 

Minnie and Moskowitz
After that came (for me) Minnie and Moskowitz... my God Bruce, that film "blew me away" as they say. A terrific idea, great storyline of an "impossible" love story, two people who have absolutely nothing in common, everything says that it just isn't gonna happen and BINGO, it happens. Of course I knew Gena could do anything Cassavetes asked of her, and I had seen Seymour Cassel as a gigolo in Faces, and I knew he was very good, but I wasn't ready for just how extraordinary he could be. His Moskowitz is a blinder Bruce. 

What these actors do (including Cassavetes in his role as Minnie's boyfriend/lover) is simply amazing to me. The honesty of their performances, the intensity, the shades and nuances of their personae,even in small parts such as when Minnie goes out with one of her fellow office-workers, and an elderly lady who knows how to drink and when they arrive back at that lady's apartment, they drink! Gena performs one of her many falling down drunk performances which will come back with a vengeance later in Opening Night

Also a few moments of film time before Moskowitz leaves for LA, he's in a bar, and there's this nutter sounding off in the same area... Timothy Carey who was one of the three soldiers executed at the end ofPaths of Glory. This fellow is a sensational actor, I can see why Cassavetes would be drawn to him for the veracity of his emotion in unspeakable moments of crisis. BEYOND WORDS! 

Well Bruce,I've shown this film to many people, some of them simply do not get it? While viewing the film with them I am chortling away in the background and they ask me "Why are you laughing Peter?" And I say because it's funny you dummy!  Because it really has much very dark stuff in this film Bruce, but there is a lot of humour. However, many people cannot handle this mixture of darkness and sheer lunatic behaviour where events are horrible, embarrassing, make you squirm and cry and laugh at the same time. 

Another film which I love in this sort of genre is Scorsese's After Hoursand in that film also I have had people asking me "Why are you laughing?" And I simply cannot fathom that they can't see the duality which is in it.

Moving on a bit we come to two favourites of mine... Gloria and The Killing of a  Chinese Bookie.  I love both of these movies, despite the fact that they are incredibly different in genre and style, even though they share the similarity of being about "the mob".

Let's start with Gloria.  Cassavetes makes a "standard formula criminal adventure story", with a woman as the hero and the little boy, Phil, as the protagonist. He sets story in the environment of the grimy shadow world where  a book-keeper for the mob steals a book which contains all the accounts. It's a fast, racy, pacy film which could have been made by many other directors, (in this case he wrote the script as well), and in some respects it is not characteristic of his films of this period. 

But there are other qualities which permeate the film even while the chase is on, even while Gloria is pulling off her heroic feats, in among all of that there is thisastonishing relationshipbetween an adult middle-aged woman who is childless, a child whom she doesn't want, except in a Freudian sense. She doesn't want to be around this because she knows he is going to be killed and that the mob will never give up... he's upsetting her nice quiet peaceful middle-age, her security! But also because a part of her really doesn't like this little fucker, and he doesn't like her either, and then of course it is another crazy love story, they both have to find each other because they each have NO ONE ELSE in the whole world. Pretty basic Bruce.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Now Bruce, we move on to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
WOW, what a film! What a title for a film! On the face of it it could be just another "action adventure mob-type film" like Gloria, thrills and spills and blood and gore! But it is NOT at all like Gloria. It is not like any other film I have ever seen which relates to the crime genre. It's storyline is not too complex. Certainly not as complex as Gloria's is. It's pretty sparse. Fairly simple yet gruesome. The performances, the quality of the actors aspersonson the screen have a veracity like we find in observational documentary and in this case I mean all the actors, the wonderful Ben Gazzara, the sexy gals, the sad-looking MC, the Barman... the mob guys, including Seymour Cassel (as Mort and soon he will be "mort") and Timothy Agoglia Carey ... and the Chinese man who plays the Bookie, what  a simple wonderful unassuming presence he has as the targeted victim.

Why is this film so different? Well for one thing it demands that we "read the storyline" from what is revealed in the images, not wall-to-wall dialogue. What the images contain is a sleazy world with sleazy characters who eke out their days in a sort of limbo, waiting for a Heaven or Hell, neither of which is likely to come! No redemption, for anyone. No happy ending. Just more of the same, as long as there is society there will be such people doing such things to each other, betraying each other, selling each other into crime and misery. As Dylan Thomas wrote: "For as long as forever is!"

And the images also contain these people, these faces, forlorn, lost in their forlorn-ness, not comprehending why they find themselves in the position they have allowed themselves to fall into, to become what they have become. This level of "story-telling" is achieved by the actors and the mise-en-scene, the choreography... all enabling the actors to "BE" the story.

The story is in them, the genius of Cassavetes is to invent a style of cinema  in which the actors are not just required to carry out the moves required by the plot, but who have the space, the time and the willing participation to reveal the plot through their craft, through the "being" which they take on, and it allows the film to unfold through them.

Compare this Bruce... I recall an anecdote re Hitchcock and Vivian Merchant from the filming of Frenzy  when she requested of Hitch that he let her do another take on a scene. It seems that she was unhappy with her performance of that scene and felt she could do it better. So Hitch did a retake, I think to please her, and then he "printed" the first take. Why? Because his story required "this" or "such and such" but "not more than this". 

In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Cassavetes is in some way the polar opposite of Hitch ... he invites his actors, acting associates whom he trusts beyond measure, to help him flesh out a story which he has initiated, in a film style which allows them maximum freedom, asking a great deal of the camera crew to permit that to happen.

And he asks the audience to involve themselves in "reading"the film without the assistance of explicatory dialogue. The audience will have to read the film via the actors in their scenes, the events in which they are placed, members of the audience are asked to create the film in their own minds! They are not being "spoon fed".

Editor’s Note: Bruce Hodsdon’s first film reviews have been published on the Film Alert 101 blog and can be found if you click here

A new restoration of Cassavetes Husbands screened this week at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. You can find the program notes by Jonathan Rosenbaum if you click on this link

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.