Art House Bootcamp: John Cassavetes, Grandfather of Indie

John Cassavetes review

Caution – Flammable

When I started listening to Death Grips, I had some explaining to do. Some of my friends just didn’t see the value in harsh noise industrial hip-hop. And that’s fine.

But to me, the music was so instantly likable, not because it was pleasant or accessible, but because it spoke to something inside me, something that I usually try not to think about.

I listen to Death Grips because I’m angry, I’m confused, and I’m unhappy.

I’m not any of those things all the time, but they come up. And those feelings are only amplified when the state of the world as a whole starts to feel a bit wobbly.

There was something in this music that I could identify with immediately.

And that’s sorta kinda how I felt when I watched my first Cassavetes movie.

No, it wasn’t speaking to anger and confusion, but it did speak to a huge emotional range. And even though the movie was long and a bit difficult to watch, I was completely hooked.

Let’s try to figure out why.

A Shoddy Little Biography

If you really want to know all the details of John Cassavetes’ life and work, there’s a whole documentary about him called A Constant Forge. It’s over three hours long, which is probably too long, but it gives you plenty of info on the guy.

I’ll try to give a much-shortened overview so that we can all save some time.

John Cassavetes was born in New York, to a Greek family. He didn’t do all that well in college and he pretty quickly shifted to theater work.

Live theater heavily affected all of his movies, but his first movie, Shadows, definitely feels like a bunch of theater kids messing around.

He continued to act, sometimes pulling down big-time roles in major productions (he famously appeared in Rosemary’s Baby). He used most of his earnings to fund his own movies, which featured his friends and to-be wife, Gena Rowlands.

He directed 12 movies in all, independent productions, sort of creating the independent film movement in the process.

Then he died. And later, people like me started watching his movies.

Those are the facts, and the kinds of details that show up in Wikipedia articles. But what you learn about him by seeing the movies, watching the documentary, or listening to interviews, is that he was kind of a wild man. He was full of life, and that dictated his triumphs and failures.

He wanted to love and drink and yell and fight. He worked hard and bowed to no one and he was quite possibly an asshole.

But the work stays powerful. In fact, I once tried to describe his movies as the closest we’ll ever get to making movies without cameras.

Hell if I know exactly what that means, but I think it was an attempt to talk about how natural the movies feel. Immersion is enormous. These are just real people, with none of the hesitancy of documentary subjects.

The Movies

Let’s talk about my favorite Cassavetes movies, all of which would be an excellent starting point for checking out his work.

Love Streams – 1984

For a time, Cassavetes and his buddies rented out a theater space in L.A., a pretty nondescript part of L.A.

This movie is based on one of the plays they put on there. It’s about a brother and a sister, annnnd that’s about it for story. They’re both trying to find love in their lives, trying to believe in it.

Cassavetes stars across from his wife, Gena Rowlands, as the both of them go through some stuff.

It’s long, it doesn’t follow traditional structure, and there are no real A-HA moments. But the movie leaves absolutely everything out on the field.

It just doesn’t stop. The emotional weight of the movie just keeps lurching forward, hitting you with things you’ve felt many times before, even if these specific situations and characters seem a bit unfamiliar.

A Woman Under the Influence – 1974

This was the first Cassavetes movie I ever watched, and it definitely serves as a decent introduction to his work.

We watch a family as the mother/wife starts to decline, both mentally and emotionally. And that’s it, for roughly two and a half hours.

And like I mentioned earlier, it can actually be tough to watch this one. Not because it’s boring but because it does feel real. And you have to live through these scenes right alongside the characters.

But good lord, it’s so compelling. The acting, the visuals, the realistic lighting: it’s all just perfect. Other movies just don’t feel like this movie feels. It is an experience, man. It is a thing to be reckoned with.

Husbands – 1970

Three buddies bum around after attending the funeral of a mutual friend. That’s it. Again, if you’re looking for intricate plots and story-driven action, you’re not gonna find a lot of it here. That was really Cassavetes’ thing. He was more interested in nailing an emotional range with incredible force.

He said that this movie was loosely based around the experience of losing his older brother at the age of 30.

And you know what? This might be one of the most accurate portrayals of grief in the history of film. It’s maybe not the healthiest form of grieving, but it’s definitely honest.

They don’t really talk about their friend being gone. Instead, they try to distract themselves with absolutely anything, doing their best to act happy and fulfilled, ready to return to their normal lives.

The Bar Scene

I’m gonna talk about one specific scene in detail, because what could be more exciting than describing a visual medium?

The three friends end up at a dark, smoky bar somewhere in the city. Which city? New York, probably. They have a big table going, with a bunch of strangers hunched over their beer. Everyone is blasted.

Our protagonists are standing on the outside of the circle, serving as ringleaders while, one by one, each person has to sing a song from memory.

We never hear the rules of this game, we just see it happen. When each person finishes singing, everyone claps with genuine admiration.

Until it comes to a small, old woman who tries to sing her song and is shouted down by the three friends. They tell her to sing it again. Then they shout her down again.

This happens roughly 2,000 times. Then you, as the viewer, start to understand. They never say what they want, but what they want is to believe her when she sings about a past love. They don’t want to be able to see through the song. It needs to be real and it needs to be honest.

When she finally sings it just right, they hug her and kiss her, and the audience can breathe again, the tension finally diffused.

I bring it up now because, for one, it might be my favorite scene in a Cassavetes movie. But it’s also a pretty good summation of Cassavetes’ whole deal.

That’s exactly what he wanted, from himself and everyone around him: emotional honesty and the guts to say how you feel.

The Legacy

Well, I guess we’ve already talked a bit about this. Cassavetes certainly had a major influence on the independent film movement, which would rise to greater prominence in the 90s and then explode in the 2000s.

He also made use of a version of cinema verite that would go on to have an effect on dramas in general.

He also often put women in starring roles, and while his work isn’t strictly feminist, he wrote parts for women that respected them as complex human beings. But given how low the bar was set in the 1970s, this was revolutionary.

Cassavetes’ movies also said some very interesting things about the American experience, as well as commenting on the American family and just what it feels like to be alive, restless, and uneasy.

In Other Words

If you like movies and you like them to hit you like a truck with the brake lines cut, then it might be a good idea to watch some Cassavetes movies.

Even if you don’t like them very much, they are different, and I can more or less guarantee that you’ll have a strong reaction one way or the other.

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About Jim Tillman

Jim Tillman is a Seattle-based writer, animator, and musician. He watches too many movies and then writes about them for this very website.

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