Fallen Creatures in a Fallen World: The Films of John Cassavetes

This essay was originally published at Sojourners.

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Superficiality is the curse of our age.” So begins Celebration of Discipline, Richard J. Foster’s classic defense of traditional spiritual practices such as meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, and solitude. Published in 1978, Foster’s book offered a corrective to America’s increasingly alienating and shortsighted cultural values – values that had inevitably infected the life of the church as well. Three decades later, Foster’s critique of the “doctrine of instant satisfaction” is more vital than ever, for technology now mediates all aspects of our lives, putting gigabytes of information in our hands (or handheld devices) but offering us little incentive to process it meaningfully. As a result, we are a people driven to distraction by trivia – by facts and figures, sound-bites, and rhetoric divorced from meaning or human consequence.

The traditional Hollywood cinema is a direct contributor to this superficiality. Most films playing at your local multiplex – like most television shows, political speeches, and pharmaceutical advertisements – actively reinforce the comforting notion that all determining forces, whether social, political, economic, or biological, can be overcome through some combination of will, effort, and, if need be, superhuman or transcendent goodness. The assumption is that a narrative can and will be written that will discover a perfect order amid the filmed world’s chaos. Think of the standard comic book blockbuster, murder mystery, courtroom drama, or police procedural. The clues will all add up in the end. The dissonances will all be resolved. And in two hours or less.

John Cassavetes, best remembered for his starring performances in such films as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, countered Hollywood’s lazier, dehumanizing tendencies in a series of landmark films made between 1959 and 1984. Serving variously as writer, director, actor, financier, and all-around master of ceremonies, Cassavetes crafted a handful of films that, collectively, give lie to Hollywood’s faith in melodramatic plotting. Instead of stock character types, his films are populated by people who exist in constant flux, defining and redefining their social roles in relation to ever-changing circumstances. Rather than plotting a traditional narrative arc, Cassavetes’ films resist resolution (and often exposition, climaxes, and denouement as well), offering us poignant glimpses of recognizable lives, messy details and all.

The Criterion Collection’s recent release of a Cassavetes DVD box set offers the perfect opportunity to discover five of his most important films: Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977). The collection also features an impressive, if regrettably uncritical, assortment of DVD extras, including a new documentary, interviews, and archival materials that provide further insight into Cassavetes’ working methods and his defining preoccupations.

CASSAVETES WAS BORN in New York City in 1929, the son of Greek immigrants. After graduating from the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts and finding moderate success on stage, on television, and in the movies, he opened a method-acting workshop in Manhattan that attracted a core group of young talent. Recognizing the dramatic potential in his students’ improvisations and eager to explore alternative approaches to filmmaking, Cassavetes scavenged $20,000 and over a two-year period developed Shadows, a jazz-scored, Beat-infused document of disillusioned youth and race relations. In doing so, Cassavetes essentially gave birth to America’s independent cinema.

Shot with a handheld 16mm camera, Shadows feels at times like a documentary, and indeed Cassavetes’ early methods owe more to the work of documentarian Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North) and to the Italian Neorealists (Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti) than to the classic Hollywood studio system. Shadows achieves additional verisimilitude by means of its improvisatory nature. Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney offers a useful distinction between our typical understanding of “improvisation” – that is, an actor spontaneously inventing dialogue – and Cassavetes’ approach, which, though meticulously scripted, captures the performative nature of our daily lives, those moments when we improvise conversations, struggling to find the right words and too often stumbling upon the wrong ones instead. His characters, Carney writes, “are not denied moments of zaniness, inconsistency, or improvisatory inspiration because these would violate some tidy, coherent, package of ‘character’ – an entity, it is easy to forget, that exists only in certain forms of art and almost never in life.”

This preoccupation with capturing the complex rhythms of “real life” extends to the structure of Cassavetes’ films as well. The average movie is composed of 50 or more brief sequences, each typically lasting less than five minutes, and each is designed with a particular end in mind – say, to move the plot from point G to point H or to develop a significant aspect of a character or relationship. Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, both starring Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, throw off this traditional plotting and are instead built from a relatively small number of extended scenes. The result can be disorienting for the first-time viewer. Without the familiar tropes of melodrama (good vs. evil, love triangles, comedic relief, etc.), viewers are freed to explore the film without bias. As Carney writes, “every moment becomes as potentially important, interesting, and worthy of our attention as every other.” The multiplex is where we go to “lose ourselves” for a few hours at a time. Films like A Woman Under the Influence deliberately frustrate this tendency at every turn, forcing us to participate actively in the lives depicted onscreen.

The films of John Cassavetes will never be accused of being “mindless entertainment.” His characters are, like the rest of us, fallen creatures in a fallen world who suffer the consequences of their behavior, deserved and undeserved, but who hold out hope despite it all, egged on by occasional encounters with love and something like grace. That makes them rare finds among American movies: characters deserving of our time, our patience, our empathy. “I am a moralist,” Cassavetes once said, “in that I believe the greatest morality is to acknowledge the freedom of others; to be oneself and to not be in judgment.” He extends that freedom to his audience as well. It is a powerful corrective to Hollywood’s superficiality.