In the audio commentary track on the DVD of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, SNL comedian Bill Hader takes turns doing impressions of unlikely celebrities viewing the film. At one point he takes on Peter Falk and compares Knocked Up to the films of John Cassavetes.
The comment is received merely as a joke by the other commentary members, but the truth of the matter is there’s just as much insight as there is jest in the comparison. The press has been quick to compare Judd Apatow to James L. Brooks and Woody Allen, but the connection between Apatow and Cassavetes is virtually unexplored. Apatow and Cassavetes share some notable traits: their emphasis on improvisation, interest in frank, sometimes bawdy dialogue and their penchant for letting their films run well over two hours.
Cassavetes was an established actor before he made his directorial debut in 1959 with Shadows. His process, taking actors and extensively work-shopping scenes prior to shooting, was designed to achieve a formless naturalism that reflected real life. His directorial output was made almost entirely outside of the studios and he’s often credited as introducing independent filmmaking to America.
Husbands, released in 1970, was his third film and the first one to be released by a studio – Columbia Pictures bought it half-way through shooting. Cassavetes and Columbia struggled over the final version and there are differing accounts of what length was finally released for the theatrical release. For a long time, the only version available for home viewing was a 132-minute VHS (long since out of print). Now Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings it to DVD for the first time using what they proclaim to be the original, uncut 142-minute version.
Husbands stars Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself as three long-time friends who experience a collective mid-life crisis when the fourth member of their group, Stuart, suddenly dies. In the opening two minutes, we see the four friends clowning around on vacation through a montage of still images featuring them flexing, drinking Budweiser and wrapping arms around one another.
The next 50-minutes follows them at the funeral and the following two days of mourning which involves basketball, long subway rides and lots of beer. After which they take an impromptu trip to London; but instead of a romp through Merry Old England, it turns out to be a trudge through a bleak and rain-soaked London.
In execution, the film is far more abstract than the plot synopsis would imply. Characters either talk in circles or in cross-purposes, ignoring a sense of coherent conversation at every chance. Many scenes play out for an excruciating length, feeling akin to the Warholian approach of letting the scene run until the roll of film finishes.
The most notable instance is a 20-minute sequence of the three leads imploring other bar patrons to sing pub songs and then judging how much emotion they incorporate into the song. In the audio commentary track by Cassavetes’ biographer Marshall Fine, this sequence is pinpointed as the element that drove Columbia Pictures crazy. The studio felt it went on too long and didn’t build to a point.
In Cassavetes’ defense, by the time the gargantuan beer-fest comes to a close, the sequence does seem to take on an air of extended metaphor for the viciousness and irrationality of male drunkenness. But even so, I think I might have to side with the studio on this one.
Considering that sequence highlights a major difference between Cassavetes and Apatow. While Apatow fondly regards his loveable losers, Cassavetes takes a more critical eye on the restless male id. He’s more willing to acknowledge them as pathetic, self-absorbed and wielding a frightening amount of power (suggesting Neil Labute as another point of comparison).
But the point, if that is the point and I can’t see any other, is made fairly quickly and we don’t need to suffer through interminable scenes to discover it. It’s hard to tell how much of their behavior is attributed to their mourning as we only get the brief still photograph montage before the funeral – although the macho vanity displayed in those images does suggest a firm foundation for their behavior.
It feels unjust to take the most popular criticism of Apatow (one I resist) and apply it to Cassavetes, but the simple matter is: this film is much too long. On the DVD’s 30-minute, very informative supplement The Story of Husbands: A Tribute to John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara extols a four and one-half hour cut of Husbands. This sounds like torture to me. But it’s not difficult to see why it would appeal to him.
A single look at the three lead actors and you can tell they’re savoring every moment of the production, relishing the freedom and desire for spontaneity and discovery. But it all comes at the cost of coherence. As Roger Ebert put it, Husbands “sounds improvised in the worst sort of way.”
Meanwhile, Pauline Kael accused Cassavetes of making home movies, saying he just turned on the camera and let guys talk (another criticism familiar to Apatow). An unjust criticism when applied to something like Faces or A Woman Under the Influence but apt for the impenetrably coded dialogue of Husbands.
There is still a lot to appreciate about the film: the open-minded camerawork (so much happens outside of the frame), the long, expressive close-ups, the natural dialogue and the very funny moments that it creates and its general unpredictability. But truthfully, these pleasures are on display in Cassavetes’ other films too. And they don’t come with the same self-involvement and frustrating incoherence that permeates Husbands.