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JOHN CASSAVETES:  FIVE FILMS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Box Set ****

John 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.

Cassavetes' 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.

As 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 American shores.

Cassavetes 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.

Cassavetes' 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.

Now, 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.

An 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 Cassavetes' films.

Supplemental Features ****

Criterion 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 here.

The 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.

Among 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.

The 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 Cassavetes' films.

As 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' principal actors.

Two 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.

Two 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.

The 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).

Three 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.

ďAn 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 documentary.

Finally, the booklet wraps up with three tribute articles about John Cassavetes.  One is by director Martin Scorsese (who had worked as a sound editor for Cassavetes and who had received invaluable advice for his film Mean Streets from Cassavetes).  Another is by Elaine Kagan, an author/actress who was once Cassavetesí secretary for many years.  The last article, by Jonathan Lethem, is the longest in the booklet and provides a fine closing tribute to one of America's most iconoclastic and fiercely independent directors.  At the very end of the booklet, there are listings for the cast and crew details of each film in this set as well as acknowledgements and technical information concerning the discs.

Click on the links below for reviews of the individual films!

Shadows

Faces

A Woman Under the Influence

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Opening Night

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