Wednesday, July 20, 2011

John Cassavetes: A Sovereign of Space

THE 19th century French writer Charles Baudelaire once compared the plight of the poet to that of the albatross. A sacred bird which would "nonchalantly chaperone a ship across the bitter fathoms of the sea", it sometimes suffered the boredom of sailors who would capture and torture it, "a sovereign of space... exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered, he cannot walk because of his great wings".

John Cassavetes had something of that grace and futility in him every time he chose to occupy a screen, whether as a director, actor, or often both. A strange, subtly erotic presence that hinted at an existential update on Bogart's tough charm, he went for a realism in his films that kept him mostly alienated from mainstream success.

"Nowadays, the big question is: Can a picture make $100million? Who the hell cares? If you're thinking that way, you're making money. If that's what it's come to, let the audience look at pictures of money. Put money on the screen, and then rape it, shoot it, defecate on it - because that's basically what everyone is doing."

Eschewing the materialism of success, and with it Hollywood's smooth aesthetic codes, Cassavetes's films were long and winding, populated by middle-aged, complex characters, and rarely resolved in a pat or comforting manner. Love, loneliness, madness, and the struggle for identity were his themes, unbalanced in tensions between private and social worlds, as if the latter's imprisoning rituals somehow bullied the former's visionary fragility.

His death on February 4 this year from complications incurred by a three-year battle with cirrhosis of the liver, was not a surprise. During the making of Lovestreams (1984) he'd been warned he could die at any moment, perhaps the reason why it is suffused with an intensity that is almost hallucinogenic, reality-in-overload, as a dissolute writer tries to cope with his loneliness and mortality.

Regarded as the father of a New Hollywood, Cassavetes was one of the first to rebel against the studio system and prove that independent filmmaking could force its way past American cinematic values bound to the chauvinism of the 1950s.

Cassavetes had built a reputation quietly as an actor in live television drama as well as low-budget social conscience films. But it was his starring role in the television series Johnny Staccato (1959-60) that put Cassavetes on a celebrity map he only ever saw as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Playing the part of a jazz pianist in Greenwich Village who moonlighted as a private eye, he immediately found himself touted as a sensitive sex symbol with his lean, Greek, good looks, clear intelligence, and coolly-disposed execution of one of TV's first hipster roles.

Born on December 9, 1929, to immigrant parents, Cassavetes' father was a Harvard-educated businessman who made and lost millions. Consequently, Cassavetes knew the middle class territory of Long Island (a world whose infidelities he explored in Husbands in the 1970's) and the much tougher, more ethnic Bronx area (whose compassionate and murderous loyalties he would celebrate in Gloria, a delicately-humoured, Latin-paced thriller in the 1980's) - experiences that caused him to mature as a leading man with a distinctly New York blend of the urbane and the savage.

But rather than accept a careerist momentum that cast him as a sex symbol or an American rebel, Cassavetes ploughed his earnings into directing an inter-racial love story called Shadows (1961). The film sprang out of improvisational acting classes he had been running, and took away a major award at the Venice Film Festival, establishing him on the international arthouse circuit. For the next three decades, though, Cassavetes never really belonged anywhere except in his own, almost capriciously obsessive, milieu.

His days as an independent film-maker were launched when the big studios filmed on sets and dubbed their sound. Instead, Cassavetes used his garage, warehouses and the streets, incorporating extraneous elements like traffic noise and passers-by with a stylistic freedom considered absurdly crude, even outrageous. The likes of Martin Scorcese would be grateful for these technical liberations, let alone the new visceral possibilities they unleashed.

By the time Hollywood was catching up with the counter-culture, in films like Easy Rider and Woodstock, Cassavetes was busy taking his hand-held camera into the malaise of suburbia and to an older, disenchanted and lost generation. He was questioning what was driving society in places where people weren't looking, confronting the burgeoning 1960s myths of youth and freedom with portraits of age and doubt.

Wary of being stereotyped, he once angrily said, "I'm not an intellectual. I'm not an intellectual film-maker"; a feeling borne out in the way he approached one of his greatest films, A Woman Under The Influence (1974), which featured his wife, Gena Rowlands, in an Academy Award nominated role as woman struggling with mental instability against domestic inertia and the dumb romantic faith which cruelly underpins it.

Mortgaging his own house to finance the kind of film he's been repeatedly told over the years there was no market for, Cassavetes split the costs with the help of its co-lead, Peter Falk, a close compatriot who used the earnings he'd made from the popular television detective show Colombo. Cassavetes then rejected conventional wisdom that would have had it distributed as an arthouse release, opting instead to book the film into blue-collar working-class neighbourhoods where it became a box-office success.

Cassavetes had always explored relationships with an unflagging sense of the insoluble. In his films it's just when you think you hate someone or have them boxed that their capacity to be human shakes you, just as his heroines or heroes invariably display problems or moments of horror so convincing you can understand the pain they draw, the negative gravity they've somehow set in motion.

Interestingly, Cassavetes' own relationship with Rowlands, personally and creatively, thrived since 1958, and they had three children - Nicholas (also an actor), Alexandra and Zoe. Reflecting on A Woman Under The Influence, Rowlands only remarked, "I'm a little crazy. We all are. And sometimes I let things go. It was a question of taking that small, wild, desperate feeling we all get and raising it to the highest pitch."

Born into a Welsh community in America that still speaks its own language, Rowlands still returns home every year. An intense and uncompromising actress, her eccentricities clearly charmed Cassavetes, particularly her jumping from hobby to hobby - from diamond cutting, to studying languages, to mechanical engineering.

It was the positive quality of his relationship with Rowlands that inspired Cassavetes's scouring journeys into love. In Faces (1968), which was typically financed from his leading role as Mia Farrow's husband in Rosemary's Baby, he bemoaned the lack of truth at the core of America's love life.

"I was bugged about marriage. Not my marriage. Gena and I have always disagreed out in the open, we never hold back. But I was bugged about the millions of middle-class marriages in the United States that just glide along. Couples married 10-15 years, husbands and wives who seem to have everything -big house, two cars, maid, teenage kids - but all these creature comforts have made them passive. Underneath, there's this feeling of desperation because they can't connect.

"What's worse is most couples aren't even aware they can't communicate. The whole point of Faces (and much of Cassavetes's work before and after) is to show how few people really talk to each other. These days everybody is supposed to be so intelligent. 'Isn't it terrible about Nixon getting elected?' 'Did you hear about the earthquake in Peru?' And you're supposed to have all the answers.

"But when it gets down to the nitty gritty - like 'What is bugging you mister? Why can't you make it with your wife? Why do you lie awake at night staring at the ceiling? Why, why, why do you refuse to recognise you have problems and deal with them?' - the answer is that people have forgotten communication. There is no communication between people.

"Instead it's long-winded stories, or hostile bits, or laughter. But nobody's really laughing. It's more an hysterical, joyless sound. Translation: 'I am here and I don't know why.'

"Nobody knows how to use himself or love himself. That's the tragedy of our age."

- Mark Mordue

* First published as 'Sense of Grace and Futility', Sydney Morning Herald, 5th May 1989.