John Cassavetes: Maverick = unorthodoxy + independence
Stories & Ideas

Tue 06 May 2008

John Cassavetes: Maverick = unorthodoxy + independence

Film Retrospective
Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas


Rediscover the daring and emotionally raw films of the quintessential actor's director and defining figure of American independent cinema.

There's this word, that gets talked about a lot, that is a concept, an aesthetic, a niche and a marketing tool. That word is independent and the first thing to know about the cinema of John Cassavetes is that his cinema is of a different order of independence to that which defines our contemporary understanding of the word. Cassavetes' films were largely created outside the intervention of the major studios: no "independent" arm of Hollywood gave him his funds, there was no Sundance to pitch his ideas to, his films were not created with the interference of distribution agents, marketing departments and international sales arms. The independence of his cinema does not require quotes around the word, does not need extenuating parentheses. Independence does convey something of the production, creation and aesthetic of his films but it might well do to leave the twenty-first century market-ridden notion of "independent film" behind and understand his body of work as maverick instead. That means unorthodoxy plus independence. That is the point where a filmmaker creates their own rules, jettisons the rules and formulas of both the academy and of business and makes something called art. Welcome to the cinema of John Cassavetes.

The first Cassavetes film I saw on the big screen was Husbands. There is a jolt that you receive when confronted by the new that rends apart the world, that splits the atoms of your consciousness and changes the way you view the possibility of film. This is probably the experience that all of us who love film are chasing. It is an intoxication akin to the euphoria of a drug. I came out of Husbands shaking, wanting to engage in a thousand conversations at once. What was it about this deceptively simple film, a story about a group of men, husbands, which seemed to offer a view of the world that rung both authentically true and defiantly a singular artistic vision of intent? It started a conversation and a thinking about cinema that has not abated for me to this day. How do you make films, create stories, define a practice in a medium that seems to offer endless compromise and defeat? How do you remain true in an art that is dependent upon "show me the money"? This is why the voice of Cassavetes remains pivotal, transformative and necessary years after his death. This is why his films still strike us as relevant and contemporary. His body of work is a path that inspires us. After watching Husbands I wanted to make films. There are few filmmakers I know who have not talked of a similar reaction after seeing a film by John Cassavetes. Watch Shadows, watch HusbandsThe Killing of a Chinese BookieLove Streams. Your hands will be itching, your mind will be spinning, your body will feel electric. You will want to make something exciting and alive. You will want to be a filmmaker. The cinema of John Cassavetes is a drug worth main-lining.

Husbands - John Cassavetes

Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes in 'Husbands' (1970)

There is no way to talk about Cassavetes without also talking about his love of actors: the collaborations with Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel. If his cinema is maverick, it is important to note that it is not experimental. After the release of Shadows in 1959 a critique was espoused, most famously by Jonas Mekas, that Cassavetes' faith in story and in performance somehow undermined the value of his work. But the cinema of John Cassavetes is nothing if it is not about performance. The experiments with light, sound, form were conducted elsewhere. His cinema, I think, is prose not poetry. The formal qualities of his films are dependent on humans, requiring the spark of collaboration with others, with the art of the actor. In this sense, the spirit of his work is closest to Ingmar Bergman. That at first might seem absurd. What does the rigid puritanism of the Protestant Swede have to do with the virile swagger of the Orthodox Greek-American? The love of the actor, the essential role of performance in defining the art of film. Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night and Cassavetes' Opening Night contain similar pleasures and delights: an awe of the actor, films made to celebrate the voice and body of the women and men in front of the camera. There are moments of misogyny, an ugly Madonna-Whore dichotomy that can blight parts of Cassavetes' work. And though I am loathe to use the term, I can't help but want to describe his cinema as joyfully heterosexual, not as a limitation or as an indicator of identity, but rather as a way of describing this celebration of both men and women. Even in a so-called studio film like Gloria – which flees and rolls and moves with an energy and verve rarely sighted in studio films – the adoration of Gena Rowlands is part of the pleasure of the work. It is a star turn, a chance for Cassavetes to give the woman he loves an opportunity to create a classic Hollywood broad on film: dynamic, sexy, tough. Just as in A Woman Under the Influence they created one of the most bleak, revealing portraits of the kind of woman – working-class, suburban, ordinary – who never gets represented by Hollywood. This cinema, of course, is an American cinema. Hollywood dreams have infected all our consciousness and it must be harder to work outside the belly of the beast if the beast is all around you. Cassavetes funded his cinema through working in the beast itself, as an actor, in both film and television, in both Hollywood and Cinecitta. He is also, often, a terrific actor. The avatar of the devil in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, a deliriously mad, ruthless Prospero in Mazursky's reworking of The Tempest. State subsidies and the ethical and linguistic concerns of national cinemas are not a concern for Cassavetes. His films are reveals of American consciousness, tough, free-spirited, full of vigour. Even when his subject is the middle-class, as in Faces, or the artistic class, as in Opening Night or Shadows, there is little of the bourgeois aestheticism that dominates European film of a similar era. There is also chutzpah in his method and his determination, a recognition of the dislocated, migrant experience that is an integral part of American culture. Europe, the tyranny of the English; they do not exist in Cassavetes' cinema. The Americans killed the father, dealt with that, a long time ago. Rewatching his films is a reminder of a lesson that Australian cinema has yet to learn.

There are so many pleasures to be had in his cinema. These are some of my favourites: the recreation of jazz-world bohemia in Shadows, made a half-century ago but still resonant, a representation of black identity on American screen that Hollywood still struggles to achieve even in this age of Barak Obama; the vivisection of middle-class, middle-aged blokes in Husbands; the purest expression of existential being in American arts and letters which is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; the bitter-sweet ode to marriage and love of Love Streams; the love letter to theatre and to actors which is Opening Night. As an Australian, I can't help but think that part of my love for Cassavetes' cinema comes from his Greekness. Is it an accident that the two Australian filmmakers who most diligently take up his mantle, his practice and daring, are Bill Mousoulis and Alkinos Tsilimidos, both Greek-Australian? There are two Greek words that embody something about the Cassavetes I adore. Poniria, or cunning, not in its negative connotation, but in the sense of knowing how to take on an opportunity, a quality so essential to the film artist. Then there's kefi, a word maybe untranslatable, the love of life, joi de vivre. Poneria, kefi, chutzpah, a maverick. The American cinema of John Cassavetes.

This essay was a companion piece to the 2008 film season Focus on John Cassavetes.