Stiff-Legged Film Festival Series Presents:
The COMPLETE Films of John Cassavetes
May 14-16, 2004
I have not come to praise Cassavetes, or bury him, but to screen his films in my apartment...
It's true. I know little to nothing about these films; an anecdote here, a fevered recommendation there. I'm not gonna come on like I know the score (daddy-o)! I'm as curious as you about the so-called "father of independent cinema." It's gonna be rough going at times, because these are kind of intense films, but I can't help but wonder about something. At the last festival, the one for Robert Altman, we spent all our down-time between films trying to self-consciously re-create Altman's "nested dialogue" style by initiating multiple conversations simultaneously.
Which makes me shudder at the thought of what kind of role-playing we're gonna whip out for this festival. I mean, I know whiskey will be involved, but beyond that....? I just hope my new neighbors are tolerant people.
ALL START TIMES ARE RIGID!
Unless we're running late, the start time listed is the exact time we start. 15-20 minutes is given on average between films. You want a meal, you gotta get it in that time. Fortunately, there's like ten great takeout places within easy walking distance, and as many that do delivery.
Special thanks to: Dark Star Video, Facets Multimedia, the vendors of Half.com and Amazon Marketplace, Chart Hits Video in Hyde Park, and Stuart Von Stein. Extra special thanks to Don Hicks of Subterranean Cinema for once again hooking me up above and beyond the call of duty. (Visit Don's Subterranean Cinema site, it's beyond jaw-dropping!)
From the earliest days, Cassavetes was an "independent" filmmaker on a level inconceivable to a lot of the young lions of today. Filming literally until the money he made as any actor ran out, then starting again months later, it's any wonder these films got finished at all. After what is arguably considered the first-ever independent film, Cassavetes directed two films for Hollywood, took the money from those and from a host of acting jobs (in TV and film) and poured it into what is widely considered his first masterpiece. Nearly all of Cassavetes films were made under lean circumstances, but these are the starvingest of them all.
Started in 1956, and finally finished in 1959, this was radically different from just about everything around it at the time. It was a big hit in London in 1960, I'm told. Almost entirely improvised, and dealing with contemporary subjects like interracial relationships and the terrible, corrupting influence of bebop, this is a film you should watch with your children and loved ones. Afterwards, talk it over with them. If you truly love them, you'll want to know their feelings and opinions. C'mon, don't be a lazy slob, DO IT!!!
The first of two films Cassavetes directed for Hollywood. Never before released on video! This is a rare one, folks, and though it may not be the best or most representative of his oeuvre, (here comes that ol' tagline again) IF YOU'RE COMING FOR RARITIES, DON'T MISS THIS! (abbreviated from here on as "IYCFR, DMT!")
"Ghost" (Bobby Darin) is an idealogical musician who would rather play his blues in the park to the birds than compromise himself. However, when he meets and falls in love with beautiful singer (Stella Stevens), she comes between him and his band members, and he leaves his dreams behind in search of fame. In the end, his own worst enemy is his ego. - Subterranean Cinema site (http://www.subcin.com/).
Starring Judy Garland! You know, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz? All grown up. According to one review, this is her last dramatic performance. And Burt Lancaster too. The movie is about a home for the retarded, and features many retarded people in the cast (as well as Cassavetes in an uncredited cameo, walking toward the camera, as he was wont to do), more so than you'd find in your average Hollywood picture on the same subject directed by some other guy. This might not be the "typical" Cassavetes, but that's probably all the more reason to get up with it and plop down with beer, popcorn, and no preconceptions, right? I mean, you wanna get the arc of the weekend, RIGHT? The arc, man, the arc. See you there.
The first REAL masterpiece of the group (so "they" say), this one is The Shape Of Films To Come. He funded this with the money he got from acting in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary's Baby. Written tightly to appear totally improvised, like many of his best works. Featuring his wife and principal collaborator Gena Rowlands. I watched five minutes of this, dubbing it while under the influence of a 102 degree fever. It frightened me beyond words, and I turned it off. Now, it's time to face the demons.
I had missed "Faces" until recently catching it by chance on cable. I began to watch it, as though it were a contemporary film. I knew nothing about it nor did I have any expectations. I just decided to stick with it, because it was obviously a piece of art from the beginning. I was fascinated by the middle of the film. I realized how ahead of its time it was. This is where context matters. When this film was made, Andy Warhol was quite the rage. I used to go to art houses to see his grainy, naughty improvs. But Cassavetes was doing this work, which is adult, well filmed and coherent, yet just as radical in its view of a real middle class of its time. (I suggest seeing "Ice Storm"). Warhol got the nod from the radical film set. I think Cassavetes was not as popular at this stage in his career. Well, Time does eventually determine what is great art and what is not. And, frankly, this film is art. I recommend trying to watch two hours of Warhol from the period and then watching this film. Context matters, and Time does indeed decide. - Paul Creeden, review on imdb.com
This is it, the bulk of Cassavetes major work. This is going to be endurance day. Yelling, improvising, uncomfortable situations for one and all. And to think, you could be outside, enjoying a perfectly beautiful spring day in the middle of the most beautiful month of all, May. Instead, you're here in my cramped apartment, swilling beer and hiding your face in a pillow during the uncomfortable bits. My people!!!
Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Cassavetes himself star in what Matt Silcock of Blastitude called "Hell on earth." Three men, who recently laid a fourth friend to rest, go a bit crazy, drink and tell stories, and fly to London. Doesn't sound too hellish to me. What cold go wrong??? Well, you'll never know if you don't join us, right?
Another one with Gena Rowlands in the lead, as well as another Cassavetes regular, Seymour Cassel (for those of you, like me, who are better-versed in '90s films, you might remember Seymore from Wes Anderson's movies. He plays Max Fischer's dad in Rushmore, and the elevator operator in The Royal Tenenbaums). Oh, and whaddya know, it seems he's been in John's films all the way back to Shadows! The start of a string of really really good ones that goes pretty much straight through until 4 a.m. tomorrow morning. Help yourself to the coffee.
This is still early Cassavetes, right after Faces and Husbands. It was described as a 'lighter' movie at the time, but anything would seem light compared to Husbands. Now it seems pretty dark and mean in its own right. The story is of Seymour Moskowitz, a kooky hippie parking attendant played by Seymour Cassel, and Minnie Moore, an attractive but kooky young L.A. woman on the rebound played by Gena Rowlands, and how they meet and marry after a stormy four-day relationship. A lot of the exchanges between characters seem like workshop exercises ('breakup in a parked car," "woman won't introduce boyfriend to her more upper-class acquaintance,' 'man freaks out and punches bathroom wall') that haven't quite evolved into actual stories about actual characters. I think this is mainly due to Cassel's bizarre acting -- while he has his powerful moments, usually when his character is over-excited, his performance seems to me only successful if we're to believe that he's portraying a psychotic. With his flamboyant moustache and barking deadpan gruffness, he's an archetype for the urban grotesques that we see today in the Coen Brothers oeuvre and in Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66. (Brief and fairly monstrous turns by Tim Carey and Val Avery are as well.) But it's still a Cassavetes movie, and even when I dislike his characters (which is often), the Cassavetes approach is always brimming with arrythmic but powerful mise-en-scènes that suddenly feel exactly like real life. And Ms. Rowlands, as usual, floats high and radiant over all proceedings, evoking both Ball and Bacall (the script actually compares her to the latter), while easily holding her own with her contemporaries like Jane Fonda. In most of her scenes with Cassel, you can almost literally see her acting circles around him. - Matt Silcock, Blastitude e-zine
Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands. Family dysfunctions of all shapes and sizes are poked and prodded for what seems like hours (two and a half of them, to be precise). Probably has some moment in it that everyone else in the room will think is funny, but will give you shivers of recognition, and vice-versa. Another peak film in the series, not to be missed.
John Cassavetes makes movies about characters who shout at each other, slap each other around, burst out laughing, break down screaming, and generally live life cranked up to 10, and then he turns everything up to 11, just to make absolutely sure that viewers will be startled out of whatever assumptions they may have brought to the viewing. Then, he films all this madness with an eye for low-key, no-frills realism. The result are movies that are constantly, thrillingly darting back and forth between affectation and harsh reality. Whenever the actors lapse into affectation, you can feel them using it to rekindle their energies for the scenes of harsh reality that are going to immediately follow. As we all know, the final effect is like nothing else in the movies. This is another Gena Rowlands tour de force, still filled with affectation and shouting and strange choices, but also with truly deep drama that had me thinking about my own household and all my friends and my family and all kinds of things. Certain scenes and even just gestures, like Ms. Rowland blowing raspberries and Peter Falk's comeback of "ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba" to his domineering mother, are still playing over and over in my head over and over like an Andrew W.K. song or something. - Matt Silcock, Blastitude e-zine
Ben Gazzara is the owner of a strip club. When he gets into debt with some mobsters, they let him settle the books by...yes, absolutely right, killing a Chinese bookie. It's this sort of movie that gave Gazzara the reputation he has as a master interpreter of the low-life, reptilian entrepreneur personality. It also features a juicy role by the incomparable Tim Carey (director of "The World's Greatest Sinner" and one of the few actors Stanley Kubrick ever let improvise on film), who chews the scenery like few others. This is considered one of the most affected and bizarre of Cassavetes' '70s films.
Gena Rowlands plays an actress in the last stages of alcoholism, which turns her performances on stage (ah, the ol' "Play Within A Play" trick!) into a psychic obstacle course for her fellow actors. Another harrowing bastard. Don't worry, the next one lets up A LITTLE.
He's made a lot of movies, and I haven't seen 'em all, but this has got to be Cassavetes' masterpiece. I haven't seen all of Gena Rowland's performances either, but this has GOT to be her masterpiece. She plays an actress of apparent renown, who we immediately meet in yet another classic Cassavettes cold opening, about fifteen seconds before she takes the stage in front of a packed house. Before we know it, Cassavetes has us sitting right in the audience, all the way back around the 30th or 40th row, and whaddayaknow, we're watching a play instead of a movie, a quirky tragicomic play featuring Cassavetes himself as the male romantic lead and Gena Rowlands as the female romantic lead. This single stationary shot goes on for at least six, maybe ten minutes...and then the titles and brief credits are superimposed! See how movies can still be interesting? As the movie progresses, details accumulate: we have just seen the opening night of a practice run that a play is having in New Haven before it opens on Broadway. The lead actress, played by Gena Rowlands, is having a fairly serious emotional breakdown because she's playing an older woman right about the time she's starting to feel like an older woman herself. She lets the breakdown infect her acting and her acting infect her breakdown. She's way into the "derangement of the senses" thing due to a habit of binge-drinking. Unable to get into character because she already is that character, she has no choice but to be herself and improvise everything. In a spellbinding climax -- the New York City opening night -- Cassavetes the actor figures out how to work with her intensely personal approach, right there on stage. Say what you will about 'improv acting' but this is an example of people doing improv in order to save each other's SOULS. And you want genre fun? Not only is it a play-within-a-play-within-a-film and a romantic dramedy, it's also a GHOST STORY. Masterpiece. - Matt Silcock, Blastitude e-zine
And...CHANGE UP! Another Gena Rowlands lead, but this time an action film! Of sorts. The old "hit man is saddled with a little kid" story, but with Gena Rowlands. Sharon Stone later remade this film, for whatever that's worth.
For all intents and purposes, Cassavetes final directorial work (the last one he both wrote and directed) before his prolonged illness (cirrosis of the liver) preveted further projects. Although we're going to watch his final film tomorrow, most would consider this his finale, and from what Matt has to say below, with good reason.
What a fucking film. Somehow way overlong without having a single superfluous scene, this is Cassavetes at his most aggravating, achieving one of his grandest overall gestures: simply, a man saying goodbye to his loved ones and the rest of the world from inside his house. Hes holed himself up for good, physically and spiritually, and that's really all this epic is about. The house theory isnt mine, I just read it a couple weeks ago at sensesofcinema.com, in an essay by Adrian Martin called "John Cassavetes: Inventor of Forms," which says, "The house in Love Streams....is all at once a home, a club, a menagerie, the set for Prospero's imaginings, and Noah's Ark during the great flood. The house is the film's generative space: the entire course of the story follows the uncertain lineaments of this architectural, habitable marvel into hallucination, reverie, madness." I think Love Streams is Cassavetes' best film. Until I saw this, my pick was Opening Night. The canonical choice would be probably be Faces....Okay, call Love Streams the third best Cassavetes film. With a bullet. - Matt Silcock, Blastitude e-zine
Just as quckly as it begun, it's now all over. Well, not quite. One more film technically "directed" by John C, and then...yep, just as you heard, about eight hours of documenatry films, including some very rare ones, and a 3.5 hour behemoth! Cliff's Notes addicts might wish to skip the first two days and just come to this one for the condensed version.
A disastrous comedy which Cassavetes stepped into the director's shoes for at the last moment when the original director ran away screaming. He later admitted that "the title was apt." Still, I figure we gotta stay with the arc, see 'em all, you know? Maybe you'll just wanna sleep in on Sunday instead. See you at noon for the big 3 and a half hour thing.
Great trailing clouds of hysterical glory!! A THREE AND A HALF HOUR documentary, made for the Sundance Channel, spanning the entirety of Cassavetes career. Unless you're kickin' the mad-phat DirecTV and TiVo stylee, something tells me you aren't going to stumble on this one by accident in reruns, and you sure as heck won't find it in the video store! So forego that bulky brunch, grab a fritter for the road, and join me for a leisurely Sunday afternoon of learnin'-about-stuff. If I were an accredited organization, you would get one full credit hour for watching this!
Straight from the BBC vaults, shown only in England, timecoded and everything, VERY RARE. IYCFR, DMT! For real. I watched the first minute of it, and not to give anything away, but this stuffy British narrator says, in a beautiful deadpan, "...after the death of their friend, the boys go on a bit of a bender." Believe me, you DON'T wanna miss this one! After the previous 200 minute juggernaut, this film's slim 48 minute running time makes it an Atkins-friendly alternative to bread.
Another one-hour documentary, this one filmed during the making of Love Streams. Although it covers the whole career, you get a bunch of behind-the-scenes shots of Cassavets pulling his hair out and playing tennis and cracking wise.
According to the Subterranean Cinema page on John Cassavetes, this one is "An early career overview, originally produced by Bravo Channel. Lots of great film clips and rare interviews."
Ah yes, and to flesh things out, we end the fest on a nice, mushy note. An hour and a half of John's friends and artistic collaborators saying nice things about him, and what a fine soul he was. This is probably a good time to borrow my phone to pre-emptively call in sick for work tomorrow and start getting REALLY drunk with me. Because you know what?
WE MADE IT!
Stay tuned for "Tarkovsky-Mania 2005," coming soon to a cramped apartment near you....
The Tarkovsky thing is just a joke. Really.