For a short man, John Cassavetes stature has grown at an exponential rate over the past few decades. The recent availability of his films on DVD have allowed him to be re-discovered by a new appreciative generation of film-goers, filmmakers and critics. During his lifetime however, Cassavetes’ films were often met by a perplexed public and dismissive critics. They were accused of being too long, too boring and too depressing. But it is precisely because of Cassavetes’ uncompromising determination to film his vision at any cost (emotionally, physically as well as financially) that has made him revered by budding filmmakers and rightly earned him the title ‘Godfather of American Independent Cinema.’
Although Cassavetes’ commercial success was neither consistent nor on the same scale as contemporary Hollywood films, he was still greatly admired and influential. In an interview during the late ’70s, Jean Luc Godard declared of all the current filmmakers (including himself in the list) the only person who could be described as a’ truly great auteur’ was John Cassavetes. And thanks to Martin Scorsese (who became a life-long friend), Cassavetes’ most critically acclaimed film ‘Woman Under the Influence’ was released to the general public. Cassavetes would have continued clasping the reels of film under his arm as he traipsed from film theatre to film theatre for distribution if Scorsese hadn’t intervened with great verve. He threatened to withdraw his own film ‘Alice don’t live here anymore’ from the 1974 New York Film Festival if they didn’t show Cassavetes’ film. The organisers relented and the rest is history.
To watch A Woman Under the Influence is to watch human beings at their best and worst, at their most fierce state and most fragile. A family home in the suburbs of Los Angeles becomes an increasingly claustrophobic battleground for husband and wife, Nick (played by Peter Falk) and Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands). It is a painful observation of a couple who tear at each other, only to end up clinging desperately to the seams. Cassavetes’ film has been seen by many to be a literal look at a woman and her decline into mental illness. However it is more appropriate to say that it is an examination of a socially inept woman, unable to fulfill the role that her husband, family and society demand her to be. Her outlandish behaviour is misunderstood by outsiders as her ‘going crazy.’ Nick’s behaviour is unpredictable and volatile, but because he is seen to be reacting to Mabel, he is not the one deemed mad. But both of them are victims and both of them are guilty for the vicious circle that ensues.
What is extraordinary about Cassavetes as a director is his ability to coax such impressive and believable performances from his actors. A Woman Under the Influence was shot six days a week for 13 weeks. It was an exhausting and emotional experience for cast and crew – so much so that they when they finished filming for the day they’d just go back to their hotel rooms, avoiding bars or parties. They were too drained and this created an intense and weary atmosphere on set, which is integral to the interaction of actors. Cassavetes also liked to mix his cast of his actors with non-professionals and even his own family members (his mum plays Nick Longhetti’s mum and his kids play the Longhetti children.) He did this purposefully so that the non-professionals reminded the actors of naturalistic performances and realism. Whereas the actors inspired the non-professionals with their skill. It was a brilliant symbiotic relationship which plays beautifully on screen, best illustrated in the Spaghetti scene where the construction workers try to have a meal, warily whilst Mabel and Nick have a domestic.
When Mabel pleads with Nick ‘Tell me what you want to – how you want me to be,’ it is a phrase that would probably ring true with the actors pleading to Cassavetes. He was a director notorious for not giving direction.An example of this is when O.G Dunn who played Garson Cross (a stranger that Mabel picks up in a bar one night)would constantly beg with Cassavetes to tell him how he wanted him to play the character for this scene. But Cassavetes would just stare at him for a long time and then utter a vague answer which was of no use. Dunn kept repeating and pleading with Cassavetes for a hint of information about his character, growing more exasperated at Cassavetes’ silence and humiliated at the whole crew watching this scene unfold. Then Cassavetes turned his back and began filming. Garson Cross was a wonderfully quirky, hesitant and nervous man. Cassavetes knew that if he had told Dunn directly to play Cross as a hesitant, nervous man, he would not have gotten the performance he did. He deliberately created a state of insecurity in certain actors for certain scenes. He wanted to encourage their hesitancy and frustration to help play their characters.
He was also a generous director, respectful of his actors. He allowed them to interpret their characters as they felt. Even though he had written the script he never imposed his ideas on others. He allowed actors freedom too in how they were filmed. A scene would be roughly marked for an actor to move to a certain point and then to another, but when the cameras rolled actors could move out of shot if they liked and it was the job of the cameraman to try to keep up and capture them in the frame. This helped in scenes to add a sense of chaos and immediacy, like when the doctor is called over to try and sedate Mabel and she tries to resist. The camera would zoom in fast for a close-up, making the action become slightly blurred adding a sense of claustrophobia before re-adjusting the focus and letting the audience catch their breath. But camerawork is never central to the film as Cassavetes rarely wants to detract from the emotions playing out on screen.
A Woman Under the Influence is also made up of mostly long takes, Cassavetes’ rarely wanting to break up the mood of a scene or break away from a character’s face. The camera will linger over Mabel’s face, allowing the audience to note every minute movement that Rowland’s makes to reveal her character’s internal emotional journey. The curl of a lip, a dismissive batting of the eyes, an apologetic lifting of one eyebrow. So much is revealed without a sound leaving her lips.
Cassavetes also uses music sparingly but to devastating effect, from an impromptu Verdi aria sung at the dining table by one of the construction workers, to piano chords being played as the morning after dawns on the couple to music from Puccini’s La Boeheme as they embrace one another in bed.
So what influence is Mabel Longhetti under? Cassavetes leaves the answer ambiguous and wisely so. As the man said himself ‘I won’t make shorthand films, because I don’t want to manipulate audiences into assuming quick, manufactured truths.’ Not only was he a creative renegade who enabled himself to have full artistic control over his visions and in the process gave the finger to the Establishment. He also showed us what we feared, what was personal, what was real and therefore universal for all to see. He made us voyeurs of what lies beneath.