Critique

John Cassavetes: A Magician of the North-American Improvisation

From the beginning of the seventh art, directors have tried to explore themselves and to rediscover the universe of the cinema with their personal style using the methods that fix into their comfort. George Méliès with his magical sceneries, Charlie Chaplin and his character famous Charlotte; Alfred Hitchcock, the suspense and his appearance in the movies he shot, Orson Welles with his sense of perfectionism and power of persuasion with the producers; or Elia Kazan with his experimental acting group theater – and his consciousness asking for a break since he betrayed and gave several names of the communist party to the government to put in the blacklist – were trying to make innovating films. But all of these directors stuck to the conventional and general way for making films in Hollywood. Their movies were absolutely clever but they followed a familiar structure.   

Then, we had movements in cinema like Cinema Verité, Free Cinema, Nouvelle Vague (which was also influenced in the American way of making movies but with enough power of influence to provide the new cinema with a whole new sense of reality) and within directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard started to become famous as a result of their peculiar style in the movies they shot. Uncommon shots with desynchronized shot editing, broken time sequences, socio-political content, and random –sometimes banal – conversations were shown in the movies.

It was the time when denomination “author films” came to life.

John Cassavetes was one of the first authors in the United States who developed a more independent style of making and producing his movies. Director of twelve movies, Cassavetes worked a lot in television so he could produce part of his movies as well. Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), A Woman Under Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) Gloria (1980) and Love Streams (1984) are most of the relevant titles in his filmography. He was awarded 12 prizes in different film festivals. He was nominated once as a director, once as a screenwriter and once as an actor as well for the Oscar.

One of the main important themes in Cassavetes’ movies is love and relationships. It seems that conventional technical manners weren’t as important for him as they could be to others. It feels like he believed in the spontaneous nature of love endowing the same feelings not only to his camera movements but also stimulating actor’s improvisation to get that feeling with characters too.  

Unlike film directors, like for instance Godard (and other directors with political influence in their movies), Cassavetes appears to be attracted to a more human way of living an ordinary life. Sometimes, it feels like nothing was actually happening in his movies as if improvisation had taken control of everything and the movies were not telling that much. The truth is that there are a few scenes in his filmography where you can start to ask yourself what the plot of the movie is because you can’t detect it, but the plot is found – if you really feel that you need one – once you understand that Cassavetes’ interests were to show emotions, mental states, particular moments, immediate reactions, As well as expose modern society issues in a subtle way.

John Cassavetes’ passion and concern were people and their mental states, not from a perspective that aims to complicate the views more than they already are, but with a treatment which attributed his movies a fluent and natural charming. His movies are not made for a selected or necessarily cult public either.

When one sees Husbands, you might perceive some obvious behaviors on these men which can make the audience reject the movie because of its characters’ insolence that affects their wives, but this annoyance doesn’t develop too much in the viewer since these men also have frustrations, and deep worries about their families with which a person can identify himself; like the ones we witness when they are in London and talking to the women separately; particularly the Peter Folk character’s existential worries – that he cannot even understand – about his own life.

A Woman Under the Influence can be taken as a contrast to Husbands. A woman who hasn’t been able to adapt herself to what everyone calls a regular life. Mabel (Gena Rowlands) hides her unconformity with her mental instability that has no explicit reason in the movie, not even when she goes to a mental institution. This condition has a beautiful response from the public due to its supposed enigmatic origin.  

None of these movies have a real closed ending. Cassavetes was a true believer of open endings and we can perceive it since his first directed movie Shadows, in which the main character turns around a dark corner in New York City listening to that chaotic music called Jazz, because life doesn’t end every day, with every problem solved. Actually, you would hardly ever notice when a chapter in your life has ended completely. After all, and like Sarah Lawson said: Love is a stream, it’s continuous. It doesn’t stop.

This essay is from cinephile and film critic, Daniel Patiño.

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