Review: ‘Cassavetes on Cassavetes’

Cassavetes on Cassavetes

In this era of "Final Fantasy," "Moulin Rouge" and "Run, Lola, Run," John Cassavetes' disdain for stylized artifice and love of improvisation stands out in startling antithesis. As this fascinating but frustrating book reminds us, Cassavetes (1929-1989) successfully mimicked everyday reality onscreen better than any other American fiction filmmaker.

In this era of “Final Fantasy,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Run, Lola, Run,” John Cassavetes’ disdain for stylized artifice and love of improvisation stands out in startling antithesis. As this fascinating but frustrating book reminds us, Cassavetes (1929-1989) successfully mimicked everyday reality onscreen better than any other American fiction filmmaker. In his powerful indie classics, including “Shadows” (1960), “Faces” (1968) and “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974), Cassavetes captured the quotidian more authentically than the Italian Neorealists, the Free Cinema British and the French nouvelle vague, all of whom could be too entertaining for their own good (ditto Dogme 95). Paradoxically, the man who gave birth to truth on American screens — at least white, petit bourgeois truth — was himself deceitful and evasive. “Cassevetes on Cassevetes” stumbles upon this striking conundrum, but never explores its artistic or personal ramifications.

Since the book consists entirely of questions and answers with the late director, conducted in part by editor Ray Carney over the last 10 years of Cassavetes’ life, the format leaves little room for further inquiry or analysis.

Instead, Carney does his valiant best to set the record straight, while the reader is often left to guess when Cassavetes is improvising the facts. Carney tells us at the outset that he fixed deliberate falsehoods, but we’re never sure what information remains untrue. No, Cassavetes didn’t write “Too Late Blues” (1962) during a “drunken weekend” (Carney clears up that one), but how do we know just how “devilish” he was as youngster, how “broke” he became financing his films, or how “marvelous” he felt when people walked out of his films en masse?

Cassavetes is hardly the first artist not to live up to his folklore, but it seems like Carney, already the author of two books about Cassavetes and a monograph on “Shadows,” misses the real story here: that Cassavetes was less an outsider against the establishment than a rebel without a cause.

Yet, in an odd way, the book’s biggest flaw becomes its greatest strength: Carney creates a less romantic image of Cassavetes by inadvertently exposing the director’s lack of aesthetic and personal purity. He poorly masks the dichotomy between Cassavetes’ life and work, never reconciling the contradictions.

In his asides, Carney typically says Cassavetes wouldn’t “compromise an inch,” presenting a man willing to fight with studio bosses, production co-workers, and film critics — who found his work indulgent — at the expense of his art and career (one episode finds him throwing Pauline Kael’s shoes out of a moving taxicab during an argument); on the other hand, many examples reveal compromise or something darker.

To wit, Cassavetes’ angry behavior squelches negotiations for him to direct “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Barbra Streisand’s “A Star is Born.” Yet, early in his career, by fawning over Hedda Hopper et al., it is evident the actor-turned-director knew how to play the Hollywood game of getting assignments. A disturbing story even shows him “selling out” (according to Jonas Mekas and his own cast) by recutting “Shadows” in order to please his distributor.

Cassavetes urges his actors to “author” their roles, then employs old-fashioned, non-Method director tricks to get the responses he needs, such as turning friends Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland against each other on the set of “A Child Is Waiting” (1963), in order to create more tension in their scenes, and keeping veteran Joan Blondell insecure between takes on “Opening Night” (1977), so that she might make her character nastier.

Unquestionably, Cassavetes broke free from many Hollywood conventions — he wrote loose, open-ended narratives, cast non-professional actors and hired documentary cinematographers (handholding the “wild camera” himself at times). Yet, Cassavetes praised classical movies like “All About Eve,” used post-synch sound, and chose to make MGM’s gangster pic “Gloria” (1980) strictly for the money (no shame there, but it came immediately after he proclaimed himself “just not capable of” taking studio money). He even felt squeamish about female nudity, allowing his actresses to remain fully clothed in their strip scenes in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976).

Cassavetes claimed to love Frank Capra and identified with Capra’s idealistic heroes, but the Greek-American, Depression-era protagonist of this book comes across more like a film noir anti-hero — self-absorbed, paranoid, passionate, even violent. (The man who disdains screen violence chases Lynn Carlin with a butcher knife around the set of “Faces,” and he isn’t much nicer to his wife and regular leading lady, Gena Rowlands.)

This book, then, is not for people who want to feel good about Cassavetes, nor those who want to hear about the secrets that give his films that natural look. Reading will only spoil their viewing of the films.

But for those who revel in the juicy tidbits about Cassavetes’ volatile personality, his tricks of the film trade and the apparent disparity between the man and his myth, “Cassevetes on Cassevetes” delivers even more than it promises.

Cassavetes on Cassavetes

Faber and Faber; 526 pgs.; $18


Edited by Ray Carney
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