Cassavetes Remembered by Those Who Knew Him
As John Cassavetes’s cameraman on A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, and Mikey and Nicky, I have some thoughts on David Sterritt’s review of Criterion’s release of Husbands (Cineaste, Fall 2020).
Mr. Sterritt joins a long list of writers who would know John Cassavetes, an irresistible artist who defies explanation. His critics, like his films, are at opposite extremes. Pauline Kael, not a fan, sees exploitation in his writing and directing. Others can only feel raw emotion witnessing his primitive attempts to articulate the incomprehensible in life. In 1974 Paul D. Zimmerman wrote of A Woman, “Cassavetes is the biggest gambler around, betting that he can make...magic ...after two and a half hours...battered, exasperated but close to tears, we surrender.”
John Cassavetes could be confusing. After John’s funeral we gathered at his house where Peter Falk, happily beyond pain, spoke these immortal words, “I knew the guy for twentyfive years and I never understood a word he said!” A reason he was confusing was because he didn’t know the answers to the questions his films asked. But he did know if he tried hard enough some answers might sneak through.
Sterritt searches for details of Cassavetes’s “filmmaking techniques” quoting Husbands DP, Victor Kemper, who mentions marks actors weren’t required to hit. Well, Ben Gazzara was right! John never used marks. Kemper’s crew were members of the “Hollywood” system that demands marks. Cassavetes’s films are not visually harmonious. His images are hard-edged like the passions they display. John’s first concern was for an actor’s freedom, key to understanding his “techniques.” Cassavetes allowed actors unrestricted movement to go where they might...say what they might, a reason he was so esteemed by those who worked with him.
situation. His answer was classic Cassavetes. “How the hell would I know? You live with Mabel. You know her better than anyone. You tell me!” Cassavetes’s unorthodox, original, and inventive language gave his actors the emotional freedom to join him in his search for answers to life’s mysteries.
Michael Ferris Malibu, California
David Sterritt Replies:
I certainly agree that Cassavetes could be inscrutable, and that very quality was a driving engine of his utterly idiosyncratic greatness.
On the matter of blocking marks for actors, I have no reason to think Kemper was making up his comment—more likely his crew laid down the marks (contra Gazzara, who says there were no such things) and Cassavetes and company then totally ignored them, which the look of the movies certainly bears out.
On the matter of alcohol, after his death Gena told me he would live for months on nothing but scotch and cigarettes—clearly a hyperbolic statement, but one gets the idea. She also asked me if “people knew John drank,” meaning the sort of East Coast critics and programmers I hung out with. I gave her some diplomatic answer, but the question points both toward and away from what Michael Ferris says. John drank a great deal but people didn’t see him drunk because it didn’t show.
Speaking for myself, I think his handling of booze was of a piece with his handling of the prodigious, explosive creativity that erupted from him every moment of his waking life. His demons and his angels were one and the same, and he negotiated them like the true genius he unquestionably was. His actors and other collaborators reaped the benefits as they worked with him, and his multitude of admirers will reap them as long as movies are shown.
Sterritt’s booze on the set theory doesn’t consider John’s madcap, zany personality, a constant whether shooting was going well or not. The Dick Cavett Show, with Gazzara and Falk in his thrall, was a perfect outlet for his high jinks. He enjoyed a drink, but no one ever saw him drunk; he worked too hard to be a boozer.
Finally, addressing the Cassavetes actress/ director dynamic: while shooting the finale of A Woman, where Mabel and Nick express their mutual rage, there was a lull. It was night, everyone was tired after four months work. Suddenly, Gena began shouting at John. He shouted back. Life began to imitate art. We were a close-knit family by then; John had seen to that, so, no holds barred. Gena had asked John what Mabel would do in this
An Animated Issue
The cover of your spring issue, taken from Tex Avery’s 1943 animated cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood, is both retro and radical: Retro in depicting a concupiscent wolf eyeballing a coy, curvaceous cutie; radical by foregrounding animation to create a particular trajectory through a typically dense issue.
Although pegged to Darragh O’Donoghue’s review of the new Avery Blu-ray—a piece so concentrated one need only add water to produce a monograph or even a book—it also relates to another important piece in the issue, discreetly placed as the last item in the book reviews, namely Christopher Small’s assessment of Hannah Frank’s Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons.
Avery, for me, is the Manet of Vulgar Modernism who used direct address, interpolated placards and sundry distancing formal devices to oppose Disney-style sentimental naturalism and character identification, while hyperbolizing the medium’s freedom from physical constraint. Mr. O’Donoghue’s review is also a form of direct addresses in that it faces up to Avery’s problematic sexism, racism, and propensity for mayhem, while making the case (underscored by the cover) for his centrality as a motion picture artist and innovator.
The emphasis on Avery’s “cartoon-ness” segues directly to Mr. Small’s review of Hannah Frank’s Frame by Frame. I can only echo his assessment of this lucid and original book—the most stimulating work of film theory I’ve read since David Rodowick’s The Virtual Life of Film. Frank’s originality lies in turning Bazin on his head, challenging his dictum that cinema’s realism is a factor of its basis in photography by counterintuitively positing the individual animated frame as a photographic record of a particular moment.
Frank namechecks Avery over in the course of her argument, a case for a reconfigured canon of cinematic theory and praxis that persuasively demonstrates the centrality of Eisenstein’s posthumously discovered essay on Disney, Robert Breer’s oeuvre, and the anonymous inkers who labored on the assembly-line of studio animation. In a concluding tour de force, she devotes her last chapter to an analysis of One Hundred and One Dalmatians—a movie that could not have been made without xerography.
Would Cruella De Vil have made Cineaste’s cover? Methinks not—Avery putting quotation marks around male lust is a far more provocative way to direct attention to the question of animation which, more and more, a quarter century after the digital turn heralded by Jurassic Park, seems central to the history as well as the nature of motion pictures.
J. Hoberman New York, NY
Compliments from Positif As long as I can remember, back to its first issues many decades ago, I have always read Cineaste. I very quickly thought that it was one of the best film magazines in the world for its in-depth analysis of films and its long interviews. I think this is even more true today, with the decline of film criticism (apart from film studies), reduced in length and marred by trendy choices, ideological narowmindedness, ignorance of the past, and lack of curiosity. None of these pitfalls can be found in Cineaste, which I always considered
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CINEASTE, Winter 2020 3