Clocking in at almost 3-1/2 hours, “A Constant Forge: An Exploration of the Life and Art of John Cassavetes” is an exhausting but not quite exhaustive study of arguably the most influential indie American filmmaker of the 20th century. Best suited for cable and homevid, marathon docu is bountifully rich in revealing info and insights provided through interviews with the late filmmaker’s intimates, admirers and artistic collaborators. Better still, from the standpoint of film students who will intensely study “Constant Forge,” helmer Charles Kiselyak includes frequent and lengthy clips from such Cassavetes masterworks as “Faces,” “Husbands” and “A Woman Under the Influence.”
Even though much of docu plays like an “authorized” biography — an impression enhanced by the active involvement of Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ widow and frequent star — pic nonetheless offers a multifaceted portrait of a complicated, even contradictory, individual. “Faces” star Lynn Carlin recalls the time Cassavetes prepared her for an emotionally intense scene by slapping her across the face, then snarling: “Don’t you dare cry!” Another colleague recalls how Cassavetes sought to re-cut “Opening Night,” to make the indie drama less easily accessible, because preview audiences “were enjoying it too much.”
For Cassavetes, longtime friend and collaborator Peter Falk recalls, “There was very little distinction between life and making a film.” Kiselyak expands on this notion by repeatedly emphasizing how Cassavetes’ productions, both films and theatrical projects, usually had the air of a joint endeavor by an extended family — which goes a long way, of course, toward explaining the fierce loyalty and fulsome praise that so many of the interviewees convey.
Kiselyak makes discerning use of such archival material as diaries, home movies and decades-old filmed interviews with Cassavetes. (Actor Lenny Citrano effectively reads from Cassavetes’ journals to provide some semblance of narration.) From these and other sources, helmer is able to construct a largely satisfying overview of Cassavetes’ thematic concerns, working methods and aesthetic philosophy. Late filmmaker’s influence is gratefully acknowledged by, among others, John Sayles and Sean Penn.
Despite its many strengths, however, “Constant Forge” contains some curious gaps. It’s understandable that Kiselyak makes little of “A Child Is Waiting” and “Too Late Blues,” two studio pics directed by Cassavetes yet re-cut by others. But it’s inexplicable that absolutely no mention is made of “Big Trouble,” an ill-starred Columbia Pictures project that Cassavetes took over as a favor to co-star Falk after the original director ankled. Cassavetes reportedly relished the irony of being called in to “save” a Hollywood pic. What makes the oversight so glaring? “Big Trouble” — not “Love Streams,” as the docu implies — was Cassavetes’ final film.
Also conspicuous by its absence is a detailed account of Cassavetes’ acting career and any mention of his limited but highly accomplished work as a TV helmer. “A Constant Forge” paints an impressively big canvas, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.