You got embarrassed and you made a jerk of yourself. That’s all. I make a jerk of myself everyday…

 

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.

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Arthur said they’d wait for nightfall to do the job, thus respecting the tradition of bad B pictures…

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before we begin I feel I need to get one thing straight; Godard IS God. To begin a film blog without starting with one of the greatest auteurs of the medium, who influenced the direction of Modern Cinema, would be like making an omelette without an egg. It just wouldn’t work! And so, I will introduce Godard as he would one of his characters, narrating over a scene; Wealthy Swiss family…aimless boy in Paris…Left Bank…Marxist radical views…a meeting of film obsessive minds…birth of a revolutionary film movement…a Danish girl…enigmatic…iconic black shades and trilby hat…Legend.


Godard’s seventh film feature is his most accessible to date, adhering to his own dictum that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. So typical of his sweeping statements that hold a truth within them – to reduce the essence of public appeal to sex and violence but also the opportunist ability for anyone to make a film with very little money. Bande a part (The Outsiders), filmed in 1964, is a loose adaption of the pulp novel ‘Fool’s Gold’ by Dolores Hitchens, in which a trio of disillusioned and bored youths plan a robbery that is doomed to fail from the start. It is Godard’s homage to the American gangster B-movies that he and his friends from Cahiers du Cinema (a famous film magazine) adored and waxed lyrical about. But this is Godard we’re talking about and so nothing is at all straightforward. Many critics believe the film to be one of his lesser efforts but in my view it is probably the best introduction to his style and is his most linear narrative, but still the plot is more secondary to the characters and mood. It is a film which follows two petty criminals Franz (Frey), a shy, hesitant young man and his friend Arthur (Brasseur), a self-assured rogue who hatch a plan to rob loot from the house where Odile (Karina) lives with her aunt. Odile is a confused, insecure girl who they meet through English class and begin a torturous love triangle with.


There’s always a wonderful dynamism in Godard’s films and a witty humour (which is often overlooked by many who fixate on the intellectual genius able to quote Baudelaire and Zola in the same breath.)The opening title sequence flickers between close-up shots of the three characters whilst a jaunty ragtime piano plays which lends an immediate comical effect that never fails to illicit a smile. The camera occasionally freezing upon either Karina’s, Frey’s or Brasseur’s face as a letter from the film’s title punctuates the screen in time with the music temporarily halting before rattling on again. And then suddenly the music cuts out and the audience is launched into the streets following Franz and Arthur as they drive around in their Simca convertible. It is an example of one of Godard’s trademark effects to disorientate the audience by disruptively jump cutting between scenes, never easing the audience into the differing scenario or mood. This is due in part to Godard’s rebellious determination to undo the traditional conventions of Hollywood films and play with the possibilities of film but also to employ the alienation devices of Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright.


Godard was greatly influenced by Brecht’s belief that a play should not make the audience emotionally identify with the characters but should instead provoke self-reflection, engaging the mind to question one’s views. The devices that Godard uses is to film characters from behind as they talk; jump cuts to disrupt the editing flow; characters address the audience directly (ie. when Karina turns to the screen and proclaims ‘A plan? What for?’as Arthur directs the gang to a cafe to prepare for the robbery); the repetition of dialogue from a different camera angle and throwing the audience by including irrelevant details with no connection to the story (ie. Odile feeding a tiger on her way to visit the boys.)

 


Bande a part is also a study of the boredom of life in the Parisian suburbs. Unemployment is alluded to at the beginning when Franz says there are no vacancies at the factory. Odile’s aunt sends her to English class to improve her prospects. They all appear to be aimless, with crime a casual distraction to relieve them of the dreary surroundings and dull routine. But there is also a hope that with the money from the caper they can escape to America where life will surely be better.

These darker undertones of restlessness are beautifully reflected in Raoul Coutard’s cinematography. Coutard’s prominence in Godard’s work cannot be underestimated – he has been director of photography for 17 of Godard’s films. He had fallen into film by accident. He was first and foremost a war photographer, a photojournalist and on learning of his background, Godard de-moted his appointed cinematographer. It was a collaborative effort in which Godard asked Coutard to shoot his films like a reportage, using hand held cameras and natural lighting. Tonal greys and blacks seep onto the screen, giving the desolate and bleak landscape a faded quality. Capturing the stark outline of the bare tree branches against a threatening cloudy sky, or using specific stock film to create raw, saturated colours for night scenes and the breathtaking sequence on the Metro. The camera language is also very fluid. Running alongside the characters as they chase through the Louvre or vibrating as it rests on the car bonnet observing the characters as they drive through town. It wanders like a roving eye, for example, when Arthur instructs Odile to remove her tights, the lens follows her hands as she fiddles with her suspenders and unwittingly flashes her pale, white thighs to Arthur and us, the audience.

The film is also enhanced by Michel Legrand’s musical score. His use of haunting brass horns, unfinished melodic phrases and unresolved chords add to the sense of foreboding, a precursor to the shoot-out between Arthur and his uncle. Legrand also sneakily weaves in strains of the theme of an earlier Godard film that he composed for ‘Une femme est une femme.’

Referencing are a huge component of Godard’s films, whether it be through music, particular shots, character names (ie Arthur us named after the author Rimbaud) or literary quotes. In an earlier scene at the English class,the teacher chalks up on the blackboard ‘classic=modern’, at once a contrary equation but it also reads as the Nouvelle Vague’s notion that to create fresh, modern Cinema one must refer to the classics that have gone beforehand.


Even though there is an inevitable dark mood that surrounds the film, Godard interjects scenes with light-hearted decadent indulgences that are so exhilarating to behold. The famous scene when on a whim Odile, Franz and Arthur run through the Louvre to break an American record is a delight to watch. There’s the minute of silence which Odile insists upon in a crowded cafe and on the count of three Godard cuts out the music and background noise forcing the audience to participate, although they get bored very easily and only manage 40 seconds. The exquisite dance sequence in the cafe where the characters dance the Madison, isolated from one another but dancing with such detached charm as Godard’s voice intersects and cuts out the music as he describes the thoughts running through each character’s mind. Franz and Arthur’s playful re-enactment of the shooting of Billy the Kid on the streets. The glances in the English class where the camera follows Franz’s longing for Odile and Odile’s stand off towards him, Franz’s warning look to Arthur and Odile’s infatuated look to Arthur and Arthur’s returned indifferent look to both of them, is like a delicate ballet of camera work intertwined with the character’s emotions.

But probably my favourite sequence is on the Metro where such tenderness is played out between Arthur and Odile. She believes marriage is the answer for them and Arthur questions her thinking. They converse about perception, Arthur argues that the same image can be given a different understanding; a man looking sad on the metro carrying a package could be carrying a teddy bear to a sick child in hospital which would make him kind and sympathetic or he could be a terrorist carrying a bomb which would make him evil. This is a key issue for Godard, growing up in Switzerland he had the unique position of being able to view both German and English newsreels, using the same images but often accompanied with two completely differing soundtracks. Karina sings a melancholy poem of Louis Aragon’s verses, her girlish voice wavering over a montage of images of varying loneliness ( a homeless man, a woman waiting for her date…)and then her heart shaped face turns to the camera and directly says ‘It breaks my heart’ and as the tube slowly pulls into the platform the word ‘Liberty’ draws into our view. Karina’s expressive face illustrates how desperate Odile is to have freedom from anxiety, a need for hope that ends with her ensconced, safely in Arthur’s embrace in his bed. It is an unbelievably touching sequence, delivered by a master who at once is thought provoking,arrogant, anarchic and beguiling.

‘Jean – Luc Cinema Godard’ as the director so modestly declared in the opening credit titles really is. Godard truly equates Cinema – no other director tested or relished the form of film more than he.