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Criterion: Opening Night

OPENING NIGHT, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1977

opening night

At times while watching Opening Night, it felt like I was watching the ideological sequel to A Woman Under the Influence. Gena Rowlands again plays a woman going out of her mind, only this time it is not her immediate family that suffers, but the production staff of the play of which she is the star. Cassavetes explores her character a little deeper, focusing less on the peripheral characters, and more on her internal breakdown. We see what she sees, mostly from her perspective. She is primarily haunted by an autograph seeker who died outside of a playhouse, and sees images of this dead, young girl as she continues with the production.

It is probably unfair to compare the two movies despite the similarities, because Opening Night is more abstract and deeper in how it approaches its central theme, the aging of a famous actor – something certainly close to home in the real lives of Cassavetes and Rowlands. Age is the subject of the play, and it is overtly part of Rowlands’ hallucinations of this younger girl, who she at first feels sorrow for, which eventually transforms towards resentment. As she descends further into madness, her downfall has less to do with any feelings of guilt towards the girl’s death, and more as a wrath for her representation of youth. The character looks like a younger Rowlands, and as she rejects the script of a play that characterizes her as older, she takes out her wrath on this phantom youthful ideal.

If anything, age was too much of a central theme, and even if it was approached creatively, it was not portrayed with much subtlety. I felt that too much of the lengthy running time was dedicated to exploring this theme, but the message would have been just as clear with a lot less.

With the utmost respect for Cassavetes and his craft, and some people that I regard highly consider this his best work, but I had some problems with Opening Night. Part of this has to do with the heavy-handed treatment of aging. Another part was that I felt the independent nature of a Cassavetes production did some damage to this film. Sometimes answering to a producer can keep someone accountable with their ambition.

Realism went out the window, and I’m not referring to the hallucinations. The plot became unbelievable as the producers of the play continued to abide by someone who they could tell was losing it. I don’t expect they would have kept this person in the lead role and risk disaster during opening night. Or they would have delayed the open until they got the situation under control, resolved, and the star actress became comfortable with the material, which she clearly wasn’t. I also had problems with the final scene with Rowlands and Cassavetes playing off of each other, obviously improvising, and the audience gushing at them. The scene itself was entertaining simply because of the magnetism of two experienced actors. The problem was that the play did seem all over the place, and an actual audience would have trouble enjoying it. A real broadway audience would have problems with this play within a play. The final scene continues for awhile and expresses very little, and I feel the audience would have become impatient.

Film Rating: 5.5/10

Supplements:

Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara: There was a similar conversation after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It’s enjoyable to hear these two talk to each other and reflect. They discussed how disappointing it was that this movie essentially flopped after Bookie did as well, and that the final scene was mostly improvised.

Al Ruban: This was a short interview yet was one of the more revealing interviews of the entire disc. He said that Cassavetes gave his crew almost carte blanch to work based on their own interpretations of the script. He also revealed that John could be difficult to work with, and during one period of the shoot they ran out of money and had to go on hiatus for two weeks. Ruban had a falling out with Cassavetes and considered walking off, but Gazzara convined him to finish his work.

Criterion Rating: 5/10

Criterion: A Woman Under the Influence

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1974

What I love about Criterion is that they tend to canonize the most important films. When something is added to the collection, it’s for a good reason (even if I disagree on occasion, and let’s not get into Armaggedon). That’s why when I revisit a Criterion film that I thought was poor or mediocre, I will often re-evaluate. Sometimes the supplements or commentaries will help guide my opinion by pointing out things that I missed, or sometimes it is simply giving the film another chance and watching it a second time. The latter is what happened here.

The first time I saw the film, I was blown away by the performances, but felt that Cassavetes got a little carried away with himself. He let scenes go on too long, far past when the point was made. He seemed so proud of the performances, and rightfully so, that he did not want to interfere.

After a second viewing, I still have that feeling, yet I’ve come around to Cassavetes’ way of thinking. Part of this is because I’ve also fallen even more for Gena and Peter’s performances, and I found that I almost didn’t want the scenes to end. The fact that they sustained their characters for such lengthy and powerful scenes speaks volumes about their dedication and what they brought to the characters. The spaghetti and doctor scenes were where this was more apparent. They go on a long time, but the acting is magical, even if what happens is awkward and unsettling. At 2.5 hours, Cassavetes could have still trimmed a couple scenes or tightened a couple others up, but I am a little more forgiving of that now.

Another reason why I am more enamored of the movie now is because I’ve looked at it in proper context. Shadows was concurrent with the French New Wave and Faces was inspired by it, while this version was on the heels and owes a slight debt to the American New Wave. However, like his other films, it is wholly original and distinctively a Cassavetes. He is imitating nobody, although plenty of people who try (and mostly fail) to imitate him later. For the time period, this type of independent character exploration was revolutionary, and is probably one of the key origins for the indie movement that would follow in the 80s and 90s.

Film Rating: 8/10

Supplements:

Commentary: Unlike the usual commentaries with directors, actors, or historians, this was unique because it had the sound recordist and the composer. That worked well given the Cassavetes method. They described a lot of the inexpensive techniques with a lot of fascinating stories about the cast and crew. The most interesting part was hearing them describe seeing Gena and Peter give their performances, how they were when not in character, and simply seeing such amazing performances as they happened.

Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk conversation: Even though they had both aged, especially Falk (RIP), you could see they had a rapport and fond memories of their experience with this movie. They shared some neat anecdotes, like how Cassavetes would call theaters in big cities that were showing films he liked. Some would turn them down, but they would all take his call.

1975 Audio Interview with Cassavetes: I’m not crazy about it when Criterion places audio recordings on the disc. It’s not that the content is not interesting. Usually it is the opposite. The problem is that DVD is not the best method for audio only. I listened to only a little bit of this recording.

Criterion Rating: 8.5/10