A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Dir. by John Cassavetes

It took me three tries to make it through John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. I wasn’t bored by the film; I was in agony. Gena Rowlands’s performance as Mabel Longhetti, a blue collar housewife collapsing under the weight of mental illness, is the single most painful experience of my film-watching life. Cassavetes doesn’t make it easy for us. His brand of cinema verite forces us to look on helplessly, passively, as if we were just a few more strangers in Mabel’s life, a few more strangers who refuse to stand up for her. He uses static medium shots to sit us down at the Longhetti’s large, loud dinner table, then denies us an escape route when the tension builds. These moments are balanced with equally painful close-ups that bring us into intimate contact with Mabel, someone with whom such intimacy is a constant threat and danger.

Peter Falk plays Mabel’s husband, Nick, an abusive bastard who, though occasionally capable of stealing our sympathy, is one of the screen’s most loathsome villains. In the final act of the film — an hour-long scene that takes place on the evening of Mabel’s return from a six-month stay in a sanitarium — the depths of Nick’s depravity and the extent to which he has contributed to Mabel’s instability are revealed in a series of devastating sequences that play out in real time. I found myself literally squirming in my seat, gasping aloud and wiping away tears. Because of that I just can’t accept Roger Ebert’s take on the final image: “Only by the end of the film is it quietly made clear that Nick is about as crazy as his wife is, and that in a desperate way their two madnesses make a nice fit.” Calling that fit “nice” is a disgrace. I don’t get it.

As he would be the first to point out, Ray Carney is the authority on and champion of John Cassavetes’s films. A professor of film and American studies at Boston University and director of the film studies program there, Carney is best known for being something of a polemicist and provocateur (and a damn fine film critic, to boot). I like to browse through his impressive Website when I’m feeling pessimistic about the current state of academia. Doing so certainly doesn’t cure me of my condition, but I find it strangely comforting to read such articulate and well-informed rants on the subject. It also helps that the guy seems to lack any kind of internal censor. Carney doesn’t pull punches, and it’s damn refreshing.

In “‘A herd of Independent Minds’: Or, Intellectuals Are the Last to Know,” Carney sits down with an unnamed interviewer and skewers contemporary film criticism, Hollywood, the intellectual influence of the New York Times, academic biases against film art, and Citizen Kane. God bless him. The whole piece is worth a read (as is much of the other writing collected at his site), but I think Carney is at his best when he talks about the incestuous relationship between art, academia, and the cultural forces that shape critical opinion.

Journalists and the things they write about have become part of the celebrity culture, which means that once someone or something appears in The New York Times or The New Yorker, he, she, or it is taken seriously. If someone’s name appears in the New York Times or The New Yorker a certain number of times, that’s all that it takes to constitute importance. And the people who appear in The New York Times or The New Yorker the most are journalists. So they are taken the most seriously. They become the cultural definition of what it is to be a thinker. If a journalist is merely a bit clever verbally and shows up on the breakfast table long enough, most academics and intellectuals mistake him or her for a thinker. No one ever asks if you are really important. Are you really smart? . . .

My understanding of being an intellectual is that it is to be given a unique opportunity to stand just a little outside our culture’s system of hype and publicity. It is to be someone who refuses to be pulled into the muddy undertow of advertising, journalistic sensationalism and celebrity worship. While more or less everyone else is paid to sell something, the academic is paid to be independent. Or not paid. But is independent anyway. But what has happened in our culture is the opposite. At least in film, the intellectuals line up to sell out to the culture’s values. And for the people giving out the grants and prizes, the celebrity tail wags the intellectual dog. Our universities are no different.

But academics, obviously, aren’t the only people getting wagged by that celebrity tail.

This applies to every group. What is it Joyce says in Finnegan’s Wake? “We wipe our glosses with what we know.” For literary critics, a movie is good if it has clever dialogue or is a faithful adaptation. It’s no different from why multiculturalists judge a film in terms of how many minority characters are in it or what their income level is, why Jewish viewers like Schindler’s List, World War II vets like Saving Private Ryan, teenage girls like Titanic, and teenage boys like The Matrix. It’s identity politics. People enjoy seeing themselves and their own views represented — not their real selves and views of course, but a flattering, idealized version of them. It’s not a terribly sophisticated view of what makes great art. Yet how many times do you hear something like “Holocaust survivors said that Spielberg’s movie was accurate” invoked as proof that Schindler’s List is a great movie?

Carney offers some advice for film-viewers — tips and tricks that he’s learned over the years as he’s tried to empower young film students and complacent professors alike:

I do a lot of things to lever them out of their old ways of knowing — including deliberately destroying a lot of the pleasure of the screening, by calling things out during it, or stopping the film at a climactic moment and asking questions about it—so that they can’t just sit back and relax and watch the movie. I am reprogramming their brains, teaching them new sets of responses, new things to look and listen for. Sometimes I talk all the way through a film to prevent them from “dropping into it” even for a minute. I have to play a lot of mind games and sprinkle a lot of fairy dust to keep them motivated. Students really have to put themselves in my hands, and there may be a certain amount of resistance for the first couple months, but that too becomes part of the learning process—a lesson in how we resist change and hold onto past viewing habits. But the best ones stay with it because as the challenges get greater, the trust and personal bond grows. I can’t do any of that when I am showing the film to a professor. The relationship is entirely different. With twenty-year-olds who are malleable and open to new experiences it’s not that hard to orchestrate the changes, but for someone older and more set in their ways it’s much less likely to happen.