On their 1999 debut, the band Le Tigre repeated the lyrics: What’s YR take on John Cassavetes? Alcoholic? Misogynist? Alcoholic? Messiah? Their take was left ambiguous, though these questions raised by Cassavete’s films from the ’70s could all too clearly be answered by Paul Mazursky’s 1982 film, Tempest.
Mazursky casts John Cassavetes as a New York City architect struggling through a midlife crisis in Tempest, working with some of the themes of aging, personal crisis, and alienation from Cassavete’s highly regarded earlier films. The film is loosely based on the Shakespeare comedy, a context which gives you an idea of the sense of importance Mazursky gives his protaganist.
But any romance that may have surrounded the depressed, alcoholic antiheroes created by Cassavete’s legendary acting and directing has long soured here, and Tempest is hard to stomach. As for misogyny, it’s a fair accusation; the women surrounding Phillip suffer the most, although the misogyny is an outgrowth of the pointless solipsism at the center of the film. Phillip’s unwavering view of the people in his life as an extension of his ego and his inability to consider how his actions affect others makes it hard to care about him, and any suspense about whether he will recover or be redeemed drains at his first drunken rampage.
A scene in the first third of the film shows Phillip stumbling home to his wife’s cocktail party, which he quickly destroys in a cruel, drunken rant. At two and a half hours, Tempest feels a lot like that drunken party guest who has long overstayed his welcome; heavy, unpleasant, and demanding without reward.
Philip abandons his career and wife (Gena Rowlands) and brings his daughter Miranda to a gorgeous Aegean island to accompany him while he finds himself. He starts an affair with a free spirit named Aretha (Susan Sarandon). She is the most interesting character in the film, and also the happiest and least complex, though in the end she remains more or less opaque. Her lightness makes it easy to see why he likes her. It’s a mystery, though, why she would want to be with him, especially since his soul-searching has manifested in part by an unexplained commitment to celibacy.
Meanwhile, Miranda has nothing to do and no one to talk too. It’s unclear why he took her with him, and she is openly miserable, which he barely bothers to notice. Kalibanos, a local goatherder (Raul Julio), hangs around to spy on her while she skinny dips, in a creepy scene that is supposed to be funny. These characters correspond loosely to those in Shakepeare’s The Tempest, though the connection seems superficial. It seems that the director’s use of the play as a template hindered the development of his own characters, who never seem to take on a life of their own.
The film takes place in one day on the island, though it’s an endless one, fragmented by innumerous flashbacks to Phillip’s opulent though soulless big city life in New York. These vignettes are supposed to trace his progression from stable adulthood to depression, alcoholism, and the dissolution of his marriage, though they are tediously repetitive rather than revealing as a linear narrative. The film’s structure is so sprawling you loose track of parts of the story and it becomes disjointed. The conflict loses momentum, and in the end, it feels as though there is not enough substance left to carry the story.
Cassavete’s performance is so assured that it takes time to realize how generic his upper middle class professional dabbling in philosophy really is. He plays alienation with wry sarcasm that sometimes gives way to explosive anger. But there’s nothing in between, and he holds back so much that he becomes boring. Tempest ultimately forgoes introspection anyway, returning to the surface for a climax that is linked in plot to the shipwreck at the beginning of the Shakespeare play. It wraps things up neatly and pays back very little of your time.
The most interesting thing about the film is the way it looks. The flashbacks of New York City look as sunny and stark as life on the island. The unyielding blaze of the sun in both settings seems more objective and mundane than idyllic, a look reinforced by some abruptly edited transitions. It’s empty without feeling bleak, and supports the spiritual lethargy of the theme. Even though Phillip felt that he needed a drastic environmental change, things ends up looking the same. The problem, of course, is within.