Tuesday, October 02, 2007

John Cassavetes: A Woman Under the Influence

Though I saw John Cassavetes' Faces only last year I now remember absolutely nothing except that I slept through most of it. A Woman Under the Influence is much better as compared but even then I think his film making style doesn't really work for me, although this film did make me appreciate it. I also understand why he is so beloved of the young and passionate independent filmmakers. He showed that to make films you don't really need much except passion and dedication to the work. His films are made on ultra-low budget, shot with ordinary cameras with no effects, in ordinary looking interiors with the cast and crew consisting of his family and friends.

His cinema is basically an actor's cinema. He is not interested in taking "a beautiful shot" or manufacturing a performance by manipulating the reaction shots of the actors. In his films director with all his tools and techniques is slave to the actors, their gestures, their body movements and dialogues. It is also far from a static theatre though. His camera is always there inside where the action is, in the bed, on the dining table, wherever the characters are, the viewer is right in with them.

My main problem with his films is that it is so profoundly anti-intellectual. In its quest for freedom and spontaneity, what it ends up with is chaos and emotional hysteria. This particular film tells the story of a middle-aged suburban housewife losing her grip on reality but Cassavetes isn't interested in any intellectual analysis of a woman's experience of alienation and problems with adapting to a role which is emotionally repressive and unfulfilling. Gena Rowlands is marvelous in the role (she deservedly got an Oscar nomination) but still without a context she remains uninteresting and unproductive as a character. She makes the viewer feel her pain but that doesn't help him understand her situation any better.

Still I think the film works because the small and minor domestic scenes are so naturally setup and acted. Even minor humiliations and emotional troubles that the characters have come alive on screen. Apart from Rowlands the other actors are very good too, including Peter Falk as the husband. This film actually reminded me of Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which I actually like much more. It is similarly setup - a woman slowing losing her grip and everything shot inside one apartment.

A nice appreciation in NYT here. Another essay argues for its feminist credentials and along the way accuses Altman, Kubrick and Scorsese of misogyny.

7 comments:

puccinio said...

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My main problem with his films is that it is so profoundly anti-intellectual. In its quest for freedom and spontaneity, what it ends up with is chaos and emotional hysteria. This particular film tells the story of a middle-aged suburban housewife losing her grip on reality but Cassavetes isn't interested in any intellectual analysis of a woman's experience of alienation and problems with adapting to a role which is emotionally repressive and unfulfilling.
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But what Cassavetes shows is something far superior and much more important than any intellectual analysis. He's showing you that ''women'' or ''people'' under the influence are actually not that far away from the so-called ''normal'' people as we would believe.

And in any case I don't understand how exactly you can intellectually analyse the boring domesticity of working class life.

What Mabel goes through is basically what every housewife goes through...people who love their husbands and kids but find a lack of purpose in doing the daily routines...any Cassavetes is taking an intellectual ground...my not giving any weight to that affair she has, simply removing it out of the thread of the film.

He doesn't look down at his characters or talk down to them but simply displays the utmost sympathy and love for them which by the way is the highest quality any film-maker can achieve. A quality by the way present in two of Cassavetes' favourite directors - Carl Dreyer and Frank Capra.

Alok said...

The film does convey his sympathy and understanding of his characters but still the style feels like too full of gimmicks, specially grating because the film aims at the exact opposite.

He liked Dreyer and Capra? Surprising... I think it will be more interesting to compare him with the french new wave guys, the same free flowing style, the tentative scene compositions, spontaniety and freedom when it came to acting. Only thing is he removes all the intellectual references and fills them with his own overheated emotional hysteria.

I will have to think about it sometime and may be read up a bit too.

puccinio said...

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The film does convey his sympathy and understanding of his characters but still the style feels like too full of gimmicks, specially grating because the film aims at the exact opposite.
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Ah well I guess then that's not your fault. Cassavetes' films really are meant for people who are around 30 i.e. who've had fair experience in life or kids who came from less than happy backgrounds because to them it's practically a documentary.

And it's also about blue-collar life, people who work in quarries(like Falk in the film), construction sites, factories, oil rigs and whatnot. It's about people growing up in that lifestyle.

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He liked Dreyer and Capra? Surprising...
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Not really, Dreyer and he share a sensitivity towards closed interiors and heightened emotions,
I mean ''La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc'' is the most emotionally charged film ever made as is ''Dag Vredens'' and ''Ordet'', you can see Mabel in ''Gertrud'' slightly('course you can see every woman in ''Gertrud''). Dreyer despite being placed alongside Bresson is actually not an intellectual film-maker at least not in the way Eisenstein and Godard or Bresson are.

As for Capra, Cassavetes shares the same taste for small town folk as Capra does and even the sense of realism he showed in his films of the 30's and ''It's A Wonderful Life''. Of course to appreciate the connection people will have to get rid of their complacent notions about Capra as an unabashed sentimentalist and see his films without jaundiced eyes.

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I think it will be more interesting to compare him with the french new wave guys, the same free flowing style, the tentative scene compositions, spontaniety and freedom when it came to acting. Only thing is he removes all the intellectual references and fills them with his own overheated emotional hysteria.
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The French New Wave appreciated Cassavetes precisely for his emotional hysteria. Godard once stated that he didn't have any talent to make even the worst of Cassavetes films. To them Cassavetes was comparable to Picasso(one of French criticism's most beautiful things to make exagerrated comparisons like that).

In any case it's wrong to compare Cassavetes to French New Wave since they're extremely different. The French New Wave aren't a singular entity and within them you have so many different styles and themes. Rohmer is completely different from Rivette is completely different from Truffaut is completely different from Godard.

Alok said...

"who've had fair experience in life"

lol! and I am already thinking i have had enough of life and its experience and I am saying the same to everybody else all the time!!

Well I did empathise with her suffering and pain and the feelings of her her husband too. My comment was about the style of the film.
Mabel is a readily identifiable type. Specially in our conservative Indian societies (I am guessing you are from India too). This kind of mild, discreet madness (or whatever you call it) is so common. I haven't seen Gertrud but I agree he is a very emotional filmmaker. This is what I like about his films. Complex religious and philosophical questions are explored in the context of private human emotions, not through impersonal discussions or commentary. Will check Gertrud soon too.

puccinio said...

Well my family motto is, ''He who believes he has experienced life has known it the least of all.''

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Mabel is a readily identifiable type. Specially in our conservative Indian societies (I am guessing you are from India too). This kind of mild, discreet madness (or whatever you call it) is so common.
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Not to be rude but don't look at film characters or characters as types especially in a film this realistic and beautiful. Look at them as people.

Mabel isn't mad at all which is the point of the film. For someone like Cassavetes conventional ideas of normality is a mask, a facade which not only hides a person's true nature but actually destroys and represses that person. Mabel reacts that extremely because she's at heart a person who wants higher meaning, her fondness for opera arias as well as her drinking problem is expressive of that. But at the same time she does love her husband and her children very much. So that's why she acts slightly eccentric which seems very odd to passer-by's and bystanders and even let's admit it, you and me.

The resolution to this is well love and compassion which is what the final scene suggests but then it's not an ending since the way the credits are arranged suggest that things continue and maybe their relationship will improve since they seem to understand one another better now or maybe not but then that's not important.

What's important is that they're able to come to there as Falk's character is able to understand how difficult raising children is as he tries to do so in her absence and himself does extreme things which his wife would never do like give his own children beer.

As for whether I am Indian...lol...I am very familiar with the Indian masters of cinema definitely but no that doesn't make me Indian.

And I am not sure about conservative either since that doesn't come into play here. To me it's something every marriage or relationship deals with regardless of social structure and foundation.

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I haven't seen Gertrud but I agree he is a very emotional filmmaker. This is what I like about his films. Complex religious and philosophical questions are explored in the context of private human emotions, not through impersonal discussions or commentary.
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Well ''Gertrud'' isn't a religious film, in fact the character is a non-believer...what Dreyer wanted in this film was to make a fim about love(though not in the tradtional understanding of it) and basically talk about life in a world that doesn't care about religion(as Europe in the Post World War era had become).

Alok said...

By "type" I just meant true to life... Of course there are particularities but then women like are quite common. I also think that it was a comment on the life of domesticity and how it doesn't leave too many opportunities for an authentic emotional expression. This becomes specially difficult for emotionally needy and insecure people, people who find it difficult to be themselves (as her husband continues to tell her, "just be yourself") and feel guilty of not conforming to other people's expectations of being a good mother or good wife etc and as a result go out of way to do the same and embarrass everybody and yourself in the process and in the end find themselves stuck deep in that spiral of emotional instability. This film very successfully represents this kind of situation, which is quite common. That's why I said it could be seen as a template.

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