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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: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (long version)

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1976

Criterion often packages multiple versions of a film. Often the theatrical release is cut to shreds and the longer release is the director’s cut, which is usually the better version. As a habit, I’ve usually chosen the longer cut for the first viewing, and sometimes (usually never) will revisit the film by watching the shorter version. That’s how I approached this Cassavetes film, but I forgot one important difference between his work and all the others. He didn’t have to worry about studios, editors, or final cut. He wrote, directed, produced and usually financed his own films, so he had the ability to cut the film however he liked. So in this unusual case, the longer version is the inferior version.

Chinese Bookie has a lot going for it, especially the performance of Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli, a down on his luck New York cabaret club owner who finds himself in a difficult situation. He plays it with subtlety, but also with charm. He’s a likeable guy. He acts as a sort of caretaker for his performing girls, and feels very close to them. One of them is his girlfriend. He takes pride in his club, and puts all the money he makes back into it. Cosmo is a well-drawn character, like most in the Cassavetes world, and Gazzara plays him exceptionally well. He keeps himself calm and composed for the most part, and only loses control for a brief moment later in the film, a moment that is powerful because of how the character has been played.

As much as I liked the character and the actor, everything else was a slog. During the first 40-minutes or so, the film seems like it is going to be up to par with other Cassavetes films, mostly because of the strength of the performance and the character. He carries the momentum through his interaction with Seymour Cassell’s character. After that, the film just hits a brick wall. It should have been exciting when the titled act is carried out, but not really. It is hard to tell whether Cassavetes was going for artistic photography, pacing and editing, such as he had with Faces, but it simply didn’t work.

From there it gets worse. We go further inside the club. Most of the ensemble actors were amateurs and it shows. They show full musical numbers with a made up character named Mr. Sophistication doing the narration and provocatively dressed women playing out the parts. The catcalls from the audience suggest what the show is really about, as they bellow “Take it off!” and erupt in applause when one of the women momentarily pulls down her top. The problem is that we see too many of these numbers; they go on far too long; and they are not interesting. It is hard to imagine this show being popular. Early in the movie when Cassell visits on a Sunday, it seems that it isn’t, but during the performance sequences, the place seems packed. On screen, these performance sequences were overlong, awkward, and unnecessary. They took away from the character moments that bookended them.

After completing the film, being disappointed and navigating the supplements, I discovered that the longer version was, in fact, not the preferred version. Cassavetes felt that he was rushed to edit the film and did a poor job. The second version, released in 1978, is about 30-minutes shorter, but it isn’t simply fat being cut out of the film. Scenes are re-arranged. Many are cut, like the performance sequences that I loathed so much, and other scenes are included that weren’t in the longer version. The shorter version is supposed to be the definitive and preferred version. After watching the monstrosity of the longer version, I was not ready and willing to give it another try. Take this rating with a grain of salt because someday I will revisit this, and will probably prefer the 1978 version.

Film Rating: 3.5/10*

Supplements

Interview with Gazzara and Ruban. This is where I learned much about the controversy with the versions. When the 1976 version was released, it landed with a thud. People hated it, just like I did, and the actor and producer talk about how difficult that was to deal with.

Cassavetes interview: I always enjoy hearing Cassavetes talk about his style and his films. He conveys his passion, which can also be seen on screen.

Aside from the two versions, this disc is relatively thin on extras. It is the weakest thus far from the Cassavetes box.

Criterion Rating: 3/10*

* Could change when I see the 1978 version.

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

Criterion: Faces

FACES, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1968

There are a lot of faces in John Cassavetes’ second film, Faces. His camera is not afraid of getting close, sometimes so close that it almost feels like you can see inside the faces inside the characters heads, and behind the façade they exhibit while they are out cavorting. The extreme close-ups are unnerving, the jump-cuts jarring, but altogether, it feels as polished as ever. The story is of a broken marriage, but it is told in an unconventional matter where, of all things, the characters spend much of their time laughing, telling bad jokes, singing, and living it up.

What is Cassavetes trying to say here? Is it that behind every happy face, there is a sad one underneath? Is he saying that laughter is a way of hiding the pain? I cannot claim to have these answers, and probably neither did Cassavetes. Writing this with the benefit of hindsight, we know that he was an alcohol and that’s what led to his eventual passing. He certainly had a lot of loud, raucous nights filled with laughter, but that laughter inevitably ends, and he certainly endured his share of hardship.

He wrote a good script and wanted to do something a little different with it, and some of what happened on screen was probably a direct result of the lack of a budget. Since they were shooting in 16mm, they had to get creative, and had to play with conventions. What he had played around with in Shadows, he nearly perfected in Faces. He made the characters seem like they were real people, with real issues and problems. The fake laughter was and wasn’t acting, as the characters themselves were acting out a scene that was not exactly true to their world – that they were all playing a part in the downfall of a relationship.

And I cannot say enough about the acting. There were two Oscar nominations, for Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin, but I think that Gena Rowlands and John Marley brought everything they could to the roles. Even Fred Draper, playing a character with his own name, was terrific at being the schlub who eventually becomes the third wheel, with his transparent attempts to stay within the party being refused. Another terrific performance was given by Joanne Moore Jordan as Louise Draper, who plays a jilted woman trying to take solace in a younger man, Chet, who has eyes for another. The entire ensemble was the best of the few Cassavetes films I’ve seen thus far.

Movie Rating: 8/10

Special Features:

Alternate Opening: The original cut had been over 180 minutes, and has not survived to this day. Apparently Cassavetes buried it after he cut down the film to the theatrical length. This new opening was found later and mixes things around. It begins with the bad joke banter between the Forsts, wbich comes later in the theatrical version. It also fleshes out some of the earlier scenes, including the bar at which Freddie and Richard meet Jeannie and how they end up at her apartment. It doesn’t add much to the movie, but you see that some of what was originally shot and was later cut around was originally a little more developed.

Cinéastes de notre temps: An episode of the French program was has footage of Cassavetes talking about the filmmaking progress before the release of the film, and giving a formal interview after the release. Usually I really enjoy these TV pieces, but this one went a little long and didn’t reveal much about the movie.

Making “Faces”: This was a lot better. It was nearly a feature length documentary about the process by which Faces was made, and had a lot of interesting tidbits from the actors. One thing that struck me was how Cassavates did not direct the actors. He would let them know when they weren’t on their game, but aside from that, they owned the role.

Lighting Faces: This was very technical and probably can only be truly appreciated by those who understand the finer details of cinematography. I admired some of what was revealed about how they used natural lighting, or made the film stock fit the mood of the scene, but much of it was robotic to me.

Criterion Rating: 8.5/10

Criterion: Shadows, John Cassavetes

SHADOWS, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1959

As I watched John Cassavetes’ first film, I was struck immediately by how different it was from the films of the era, and how much in common it had with the French New Wave films that were just about to burst onto the scene. I have no idea whether Cassavetes had any inkling of Cahiers du Cinema or any of the young filmmakers who were concurrently putting on their first projects, but I think it is reasonable to say that they arrived at a similar place by taking the same route – the influences of the post-WWII films, particularly from the Americans.

Many have argued that because of the code and the routine during the last vestiges of the studio system, that innovation was falling by the wayside. The film world was ready to be shaken up and it most certainly was in the years to come, mostly by the French, but also by the advent of the American indie that Cassavetes could arguably have begun. The young American filmmakers to follow would be influenced by the New Wave in a huge part, but also by Cassavetes films, if to a lesser degree.

That’s not to say that Shadows is exactly like all the New Wave films, but neither were they like each other. Few people would lump Elevator to the Gallows, The 400 Blows and Breathless together as part of the same style. The point was they came from fresh, young perspectives, which was exactly what Cassavetes brought. Nothing like his portrayal of racial relations or the Beat Generation would be found in a studio film, and that was why it was revolutionary for American film. On top of that, it gave Cassavetes a filmmaking foothold to put together the type of independent dramas over the next two decades that he would become known for, even if they were different stylistically from his debut.

Shadows is not a great film. It is barely a good film. The post-script proudly proclaims that it was improvised (which wasn’t entirely true), and the actors were mostly novices, and the rust shows. The lack of polish is part of its charm. Some of the scenes were stilted, wooden and disjointed, like the African-American musicians talking about their business and the embarrassment of introducing a girl group. Other scenes seemed more natural and fluid, like the courtship and consummation between Ben and Lelia.

Even though it is hit or miss, it is valuable for capturing a scene that wasn’t always represented. There aren’t a lot of movies about the Beat Generation. It is in many ways a document of the culture, even if not a realistic representation of what it was really like.

Movie Rating: 6/10

Special Features:

This Blu-Ray disc features A Constant Forge, a whopping 3 hour and 20 minute documentary about Cassavetes and his process. Wow! From what I have read, the documentary is watchable, if not spectacular. I’m passing on it for now and may revisit after I’ve explored more of Cassavetes’ filmography.

The remaining features are minor. There is a brief interview with Lelia Goldoni, where she describes how she became involved with Cassavetes’ workshop and the atmosphere of his teachings. She talks about her experiences with the films and the improvisation or lack thereof. There is also some silent footage from the workshop and some stills, which gives a distant taste of what it might have been life.

Criterion Rating: TBD (once I watch the long documentary)