JOHN CASSAVETES: FIVE FILMS
Review by Ed Nguyen
Cassavetes has often been described as the father of American independent film.
During a directorial career that stretched from his 1959 debut Shadows
until his death in 1989, Cassavetes was steadfast in his determination to create
films his way, with complete control and outside the Hollywood studio system.
By self-financing a majority of his films, Cassavetes was able to remain
true to this vision rather than compromising between a studio's box office
aspirations and his own artistic concept. His
independence afforded him much greater freedom of expression in his films, most
of which he not only directed but also scripted.
Cassavetes was certainly not the first American auteur, but his
undeniable influence upon subsequent generations of up-and-coming young
filmmakers and his championship of artistic individuality has made this
iconoclastic director virtually synonymous with independent cinema, even more
than a decade after his passing.
career began in acting, with one of his first roles being in 1954's The
Night Holds Terror. Over the
ensuing years, he would appear in numerous further TV and film productions,
garnering a solid reputation as an intense and fine Greek-American actor.
His most memorable early role was perhaps that of Johnny Staccato, a
detective on the popular television show of the same name.
Cassavetes would eventually use the income from his various acting stints
to finance his true aspiration - directing.
a young actor, even in the 1950's, Cassavetes had become increasingly cognizant
of the flaws of the studio system. Cassavetes
had arrived during a period of great flux in the American film industry.
The Hollywood studio system, under pressure from television, was slowly
collapsing, and a new opportunity for self-expression in films was arising. During this time, the European film industry was caught in
the excitement of the New Wave, and this energy inevitably made its way to
may well have been influenced by the New Wave, for his own directorial debut, Shadows,
was hailed as an exciting, new kind of film that moved American cinema into
challenging, fresh directions. Cassavetes
was considered an American Godard, and Shadows
won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival, leading to a big studio
contract for Cassavetes. However,
Cassavetes quickly became very frustrated by studio-imposed limitations and
interference during this period and thereafter decided never to work with
another studio again.
subsequent films were remarkable character studies which delved deeply into the
human psyche and interpersonal relationships.
These films were less concerned with technical perfection than with
spontaneity and vitality. Cassavetes
wanted to "capture a feeling" in his films, and his actors were given
a liberal amount of freedom to develop their characters and to explore the full
realm of raw human emotions. Cassavetes
became widely recognized as an actor's director, and certainly the women in his
films - Lelia in Shadows, Maria in Faces,
or Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence - represent some of the boldest, most
startling honest portrayals of women in 1960's and 1970's cinema.
These characters were three-dimensional women, with their honest
insecurities and adult emotions, not the simplistic, adolescent cardboard
cutouts of typical Hollywood productions.
for the first time, Cassavetesís finest films have been assembled together in
a DVD box set by Criterion. Comprised
of eight DVDs, this five-film set contains the three films mentioned above along
with the rarely-seen The Killing of a
Chinese Bookie and Opening Night.
All five films in this set are quite remarkable, with A
Woman Under the Influence generally being considered Cassavetes' finest
film. Each film is a penetrating
dissection of relationships, whether within the family or between friends and
colleagues. Each delivers a strong
visceral punch and can easily be exhausting at times to watch, akin in their
thematic density and complexity to a typical Ingmar Bergman film.
It is this strong resonance of authenticity that lends Cassavetes' films
their strength and which ultimately differentiates them from most other American
films of their day.
overview of some of the supplemental features included with this box set is
included below. Click on any of the
links provided at the end of this introductory page to read more about the
astonishingly vivid, humanistic relationships that are the focus of John
has really done a tremendous job on this extensive box set.
Each of the five films in this set is accompanied by a wealth of extra
features which will be discussed in greater detail in their respective DVD
reviews. However, there is also a
fine bonus supplemental disc and a large booklet, both of which merit mention
supplemental disc contains the huge 200-minute documentary A Constant Forge (2000). This
documentary briefly covers Cassavetes' career from his early acting days and
then explores in great detail many of his films.
There are numerous clips from the films (and various plays) as well as
archival footage from acting sessions with Cassavetes.
Furthermore, there are a large number of interviews and reminiscences
from Cassavetes' favorite regulars, including Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, Ben
Gazzara, Peter Falk, Lynn Carlin, and Lelia Goldini.
Additional interviews are included with various crew members and some of
his stage actors, such as Sean Penn and Jon Voight, director Peter Bogdanovich,
and film historian Annette Insdorf. These
segments all reveal much about Cassavetes' directorial technique and style and
the characters and themes in his films.
the revelations in this documentary are various deleted scenes from his films,
and the Cassavetes regulars also reveal practical jokes or happy accidents which
occurred on the sets. One
particularly hilarious anecdote, recounted by Jon Voight, describes how
Cassavetes once played a dead chicken! The
documentary ends on a somewhat poignant note as Cassavetes' friends reflect on
his final days (he died of cirrhosis). I absolutely recommend this documentary as a wonderful
starting point for anyone unfamiliar with this highly-influential director.
DVD includes a cast section and a poster gallery, too.
The cast section contains biographies and photographs for twenty-five of
the most recognizable Cassavetes regulars.
Each entry also lists the actors' roles in Cassavetes films.
Interestingly, many of these actors appeared exclusively in Cassavetes
films only, while some also had roles in various Columbo
TV episodes. The poster gallery
contains twenty-five entries covering a range of promotional lobby artwork for
for the booklet included with this set, it is a handsome 68-page overview of
Cassavetes' career as covered in over a dozen articles.
The articles are partitioned into chapters relating to the five films in
this DVD release and are generally quite engrossing, although I would recommend
watching the films prior to reading their respective articles.
That said, first up is an introduction, "What's Wrong with
Hollywood," by John Cassavetes, in which the director describes what he
considered a stagnation of the Hollywood film industry circa 1959.
He calls upon the artist to express himself creatively without regard to
commercialism in order to keep American cinema vital. "...And the Pursuit of Happiness," also by John
Cassavetes, is a 1961 article in which the director discusses his debut film, Shadows,
and its evolution. He mentions the
two differing versions and the improvisational workshop method used to fully
realize the film's storyline. "Eternal
Times Squares," also about Shadows,
is film historian Gary Gibbins' dissertation on the film's context within
American cinema and its examination of interracial relationships.
Gibbins also mentions some of the later film roles for Shadows'
articles pertain to Faces.
First is "Introduction to Faces,"
Cassavetes' original introduction to the published screenplay for Faces. It gives a nice
little synopsis of Cassavetes' career up to Faces
and then discusses early treatments and ideas for Faces. "John
Cassavetes: Masks and Faces," by
film critic Stuart Klawans, describes the DVD restoration of this landmark film
and presents a very good overall of its themes.
more articles concern A Woman Under the
Influence. "An Interview
with John Cassavetes" is a long 1975 interview conducted by Judith McNally
with the director. They discuss his
film A Woman Under the Influence and
particularly his directorial technique. "The
War at Home, " by Kent Jones, editor of Film Comment, discusses the
slowly-disintegrating family relationships in the film.
next three articles relate to The Killing
of a Chinese Bookie. First is
"Cassavetes on Cassavetes," a brief excerpt from Monthly Film
Bulletin, July 1978, in which the director examines the potential impact of one
pivotal scene from the film. More
interview excerpts appear from Positif, April 1978, and Cahiers du cinema, June
1978, in which Cassavetes defends his film and comments further on his own
unique style. Lastly, "The Raw
and the Cooked," by Phillip Lopate, discusses the film's avant-garde
elements which alienated critics and audiences nearly thirty years ago but which
today feel right at home. He also
comments briefly on the differences between the theatrical version (135 minutes)
and the re-edited version (108 minutes).
articles relate to Opening Night.
More 1978 interview excerpts, from Monthly Film Bulletin and Positif,
appear in "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" and "An Interview with John
Cassavetes." In both articles,
Cassavetes discusses the film's main character, a theatrical actress in the
midst of a career crisis. "The Play's the Thing," by Dennis Lim, discusses
the inseparability of actor and character in the film; itís quite a
descriptive essay and one of the best in this booklet.
Ideal Combustion,Ē by Charles Kiselyak, is the sole article relating to the
documentary A Constant Forge.
As Kiselyak also directed the documentary, he is able to provide some
background into his interest in Cassavetes and how it led to the creation of the
Click on the links below for reviews of the individual films!
A Woman Under the Influence
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie