The son of two Greek immigrants in the USA, John Cassavetes is one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorcese, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 movement, are among the filmmakers who have been heavily influenced by Cassavetes’ call for a ‘poor’ cinema, which is dedicated to discovering things during the filmmaking process rather than simply reproducing a script.
Furthermore, Cassavetes cinema has exercised a huge influence on the directors belonging to the School of New York, who left the studios to capture indexical images of the urban environment. Cassavetes’ films are shot on location and they never reduced the urban environment to a dramatic backdrop. In his films the urban landscape is given equal value as his characters.
In this DVD collection, BFI introduces two of his major films, Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968). Shadows is one of the most radical films in the history of American cinema. The story follows the problematic and conflicting relationship between a young mixed race woman, Lelia, and Tony, a white man who reveals his racial prejudice when meeting Lelia’s brother (though he doesn’t know he’s her brother at this time), a jazz singer struggling to make ends meet. Shot on location in New York, the film is largely improvised and it can be argued that it has a ‘jazz’ structure – it’s not accidental that there is plenty of diegetic jazz music. This ‘jazz’ structure does not follow the logic of dramatic continuity and psychological character portrayal. By contrast, each action on the part of the characters defies dramaturgical consistency, showing preference for moments that are unexpected and not necessarily structured.
The film’s script is minimal and as George Kouvaros explains, the director valorises the performance of the actors and blurs the boundaries between the diegetic and the meta-diegetic level (Where Does It Happen? John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004). The use of the hand-held camera gives a sense of raw authenticity and registers the actors’ responses, which are not based upon a method-acting interpretation of their roles. His characters don’t have the dramatic stylization of Hollywood films, but they respond to the stimuli given by Cassavetes’ unusual shooting style, which doesn’t let the actors know whether they are on frame or not.
Certainly, the most tense scene is the moment that Tony ends up realising that Lelia is of mixed race. Rather than sentimentalising the scene, Cassavetes’ camera is busy capturing material and trying to investigate, to explore the characters, making the characters justify the actions and the other way around.
In Faces, Cassavetes tells the story of a successful career man Richard and his wife Maria, whose marriage is disintegrating while both are seeking solace in the arms of other lovers. The film follows Cassavetes’ practice of making ‘buddy’ movies, having his friends such as John Marley, Seymour Cassel and his wife Gena Rowlands in the lead roles. One of the American Independent cinema masterpieces, this was shot in a minimal budget, showing preference for an edgy form which employs the camera as a provocateur of gestures, emotions and performances, and not simply as a story-telling tool. Again, the story in itself is not important, since for Cassavetes what matters most is the process and not the finished product. Gilles Deleuze has brilliantly captured this in the following quotation:
“The greatness of Cassavetes’ work is to have undone the story plot of action, but also space, in order to get to attitudes as to categories which put time into the body, as well as thought into life. When Cassavetes says that characters must not come from a story or plot, but that the story should be secreted by the characters, he sums up the requirement of the cinema of the bodies: the character is reduced to his own bodily attitudes and what ought to result is the gest, that is, a spectacle a theatricalisation or dramatisation which is valid for all plots. Faces is constructed on the attitudes of bodies that presented as faces going as far as the grimace, expressing waiting, fatigue, vertigo and depression.” (Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. by Hugh Tomlinson, London: The Athlone Press, 1989)
Pure reproduction is not what interests Cassavetes and his films demand a more productive audience which is not content with consuming, but with producing meaning, too. This beautiful DVD collection is accompanied by some invaluable extras, such as an interview with Seymour Cassel, and two full illustrated booklets that feature new essays on Cassavetes from Michael Atkinson, Brian Morton, Tom Charity, and Al Ruban. Furthermore, there’s a rare and alternative open sequence of Faces and a commentary by al Ruban and Peter Bogdanovic discussing the first cut of the film.