Film

John Cassavetes at His Most Intense, Searching and Experimental

Faces (1968)

Cassavetes' aesthetic, both in front of and behind the camera, was less Method immersion than mad (as in gleeful) exploration, skirting the emotional edge without tripping into or wallowing in cathartic excess.


A Constant Forge

Director: John Cassavetes
Cast: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassell, Lynn Carlin
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: Unrated
Release date: 2013-10-22

At a time when the term “maverick” has become diluted by mis- and overuse, it's thrilling to witness a true embodiment of the word in action. John Cassavetes, the long acknowledged “father of American independent filmmaking” was, by far, the most mavericky of all so-called ciné-mavericks.

Working miles outside the studio system, Cassavetes made the most personal kinds of films, utilizing as actors family (wife Gena Rowlands, mother Katherine) and friends (Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassell), and often using his own homes as locations.

Like that other true film maverick, Orson Welles, Cassavetes financed his own close to home filmmaking endeavors with above-board acting jobs. Some of his earliest stints involved playing badass characters in The Night Holds Terror (1955) and Edge of the City (1957), and the title role on the short-lived television series Johnny Staccato (jazz pianist by night, private detective by day). Despite this work-for-hire approach, he always delivered the goods, whether in his Oscar-nominated performance as screwy convict Victor Franko in the The Dirty Dozen (1967) or soul-sellout actor Guy Woodhouse in director Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

The John Cassavetes: Five Films collection, newly released on Blu-ray by Criterion, showcases the filmmaker Cassavetes at his most intense, searching and experimental. His aesthetic, both in front of and behind the camera, was less Method immersion than mad (as in gleeful) exploration, skirting the emotional edge without tripping into or wallowing in cathartic excess.

Shadows (1959)

That said, the films are tough, and oftentimes tough to watch. The earliest, Shadows (1959), is an urban race-riff that is a full-on experiment in acting, lighting and handheld camerawork. Shot in gritty black-and-white on actual urban locales, the film captures the seedy, meaty allure of New York City and the off-the-cuff thrills of acting class improvisations let loose. It also reflects, more than many or even any films of its era, the highwire energies inherent in '50s modern jazz music and Beat Generation literature. Free and loose, without a safety net in sight, Shadows is thus the ideal indicator for Cassavetes entire subsequent filmmaking career.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

This safety net-less quality carries right through to the later films in the set. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) stars Cassavetes’ friend Ben Gazzara (it helps when your friends are actors of this quality) as a sleaze-ball nightclub owner tricked into killing the wrong man. Gazzara’s deep tenor growl, nice-guy eyes and Cheshire cat grin -- now you see it, now you don’t -- provide dubious cover for a confused inner killer who believes he’s velvety suave when he’s merely grease slick. With pints of blood that often look more like house paint, the film is violent, nervy and gruesome.

Opening Night (1977)

Opening Night (1977), also with Gazzara, Cassavetes himself and his real-life wife Gena Rowlands, is a kind of ghost-in-the-wings/aging actress story. Rowlands plays Myrtle Gordon, a famous actress who, after witnessing the death of a Number One fan, becomes emotionally haunted to the point where her entire life devolves into a performance whose authenticity she questions.

The film explores, in the most unflinching manner, how, in both theater and cinema, age is often indelibly, sometimes fatally linked with popularity. Also, in its treatment of reality versus theatricality, the film predates key themes from the more recent film Black Swan (2010), wherein Natalie Portman’s ballerina becomes consumed by frightening, even horrifying self-doubt. Here, it seems less and less clear whether the ghosts Myrtle encounters are actual or mere products of her prodigious talent and just as prodigious insecurity. The film also stars longtime Hollywood actress Joan Blondell in one of her final roles.

The standouts here are Cassavetes’ masterpieces Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974). The former is a study of marital dissolution and suburban ennui. A dissatisfied husband (played by the wonderfully crag-faced actor John Marley) falls for a prostitute (Gena Rowlands), while his wife (Lynn Carlin) has her own ill-fated night -- stress on the "ill" -- on the town, and in bed, with a young hipster, played with infectious grooviness by Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassell (a scene involving Cassell’s Chet attempting to rouse a clutch of uptight housewives into dancing is just one the film’s highlights).

Despite the completely improvisatory feel of the dialogue, the script itself was nominated for an Academy Award, and the film went on to quadruple its initial million dollar or so investment. Painful, moving, funny and frustrating, Faces captures the many hard facets of a free-falling marriage.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Where Faces details, in close-up, a marriage on the rocks, A Woman Under the Influence depicts a marriage on the ropes. Delivering one of the most harrowing performances ever committed to film, Gena Rowlands plays Mabel Longhetti, a housewife and mother losing her marbles under the apish “influence” of Peter Falk’s completely oblivious husband. As with Faces, and really most Cassavetes films, scenes seem to meander on the brink of nothing only to reveal everything; just as you think, “What’s the point”, you’re jolted into “Why aren’t all movies this honest?”

Rowlands submerges herself so deeply into the role of Mabel that one begins to worry about the actress's own sanity. She develops for Mabel a kind of dismissive thumb gesture and sound -- pfft! -- a clear outer signal for an inner short-circuiting.

The transfers of these originally intentionally gritty films are outstanding, while the extras for the collection are beyond copious: Alternate and restored versions, actors workshop footage, a French television special devoted entirely to Cassavetes, audio commentaries, documentaries (including the important A Constant Forge), as well as filmed interviews with Cassavetes himself, and the actors, technicians and friends who worked with and loved him best; and a dense 60-plus page booklet filled with interviews and essays by the likes of critics Gary Giddins, Stuart Klawans, Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate, novelist Jonathan Lethem, and self-professed Cassavetes student Martin Scorsese.

John Cassavetes: Five Films is essential not only for Cassavetes fans, or cinema fans in general, but anyone interested in experiencing the work of a true maverick, rather than just someone claiming to be one.

10

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image