Criterion Sunday 256: A Constant Forge (2000)

An extensive and sprawling documentary about John Cassavetes, though really just about his films and filmmaking (there’s an all-too-brief mention of the cirrhosis that killed him in the end, but very few other personal details are offered). Indeed, much of the documentary focuses on clips from the five films in the Criterion box set, which I can only assume is due to rights issues (there’s a lot that’s great about Minnie and Moskowitz, and I’d have liked to have heard more about the studio movies or his last films in the 1980s), but all the same it does a good job of laying out his philosophy and practice. The structure appears to be along fairly oblique lines, cued up by somewhat pretentious quotes, and finished with a bit of verse, but it’s making for a case for Cassavetes as something quite unlike the ordinary run of American directors, which is understandable, though beyond these little flourishes it never really manages to be as distinctive as the films it’s about. Obviously, at over three hours it could have been a bit tighter, and it’s solidly conventional in form, with a range of talking heads and clips, but it’s nice to hear from his frequent collaborators (plus a few academics, including the ubiquitous-when-it-comes-to-Cassavetes Ray Carney).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The original DVD of this had some poster galleries, but the Blu-ray edition added those images to the separate films, and relegated this entire documentary to the supplements on the Shadows disc, so despite having its own spine number, it no longer really has a separate identity as a film within the Collection.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charles Kiselyak; Starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Lynn Carlin, Lelia Goldoni, Carol Kane, Sean Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Jon Voight, Al Ruban, John Sayles; Length 200 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 26 March 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 18 July 2019).

Advertisements

Criterion Sunday 255: Opening Night (1977)

Coming the year after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this could be construed as another film about Cassavetes’ relationship to art and artistic practice — and that is certainly a major element in it — but after the very masculine energy of the previous film, this one refocuses the story once again on Gena Rowlands and becomes about her character Myrtle’s (not-entirely-)self-destruction. By that I mean that she, as a celebrated theatre actor, has the adulation and the awards, but she also has a coterie of people around her who are only too happy to enable her in her downward spiral, just so long as they can make some money off her along the way. Her trajectory is triggered by the death of a young fan, whose presence comes back to haunt her throughout, which gets her to contemplating her own mortality and ageing, and perhaps it’s also a little to do with having to perform boring bourgeois plays about families and relationships (which she doesn’t really have in the same way). Maybe that last one is my misreading, but Myrtle’s erratic behaviour (brought on by the way she’s constantly pushed by those around her) leads her to ditch much of the text of the play she’s in, during its small-town off-Broadway run, such that by the Broadway opening night of the title she and Cassavetes are riffing on something completely different (to the irritation of the playwright, the legendary Joan Blondell). This sequence is largely improvised, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to take it as a swipe at how theatre audiences will laugh at any old nonsense, or about how much the actors react against the original text, or just about a person breaking down and opening themselves up, but in any case it’s a potent story about the price of art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara speaks to Gena Rowlands at her home in the mid-2000s, discussing the film’s themes, the other actors, how it was made, and how annoyed Cassavetes got at being called an auteur. There’s another short piece where DoP/producer Al Ruban speaks about making the film and the way he talks about Cassavetes does sort of fit that description, but then there’s a lot about the way he specifically collaborated on his creations.
  • There are two fairly straightforward trailers that lean heavily on footage from the final performance of the play-within-the-film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 12 July 2019).

Criterion Sunday 254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Back in the day I used to say this was my favourite of Cassavetes’ films, and though I probably like Shadows or A Woman Under the Influence better in retrospect, it’s still pretty powerful. Cassavetes approaches an almost genre theme — as the title suggests, there’s a gangland hit involved — but he approaches it obliquely. Watching the original 1976 135 minute cut, it takes almost an hour or so to even get to that point, and what we see is a portrait of a man who runs a nightclub (a strip club), arranging and putting together the shows. For all his evident sleaziness and self-absorption, he also clearly cares about his club and his dancers, but he also has a gambling problem that leads to the title’s killing, and ends up being his downfall. The film, however, remains focused at all times on Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo (who could be read as a directorial stand-in, in the way of many great films about art made by artists), on his flaws but also his strange, sweet integrity.

The shorter 1978 cut of the film certainly gets to the plot a lot quicker, and does a better job overall of setting up the machinations that lead to the action of the title, though we still get a strong sense of Cosmo’s world, particularly his drab nightclub with its ridiculous amateurish routines that nevertheless he is still utterly invested in. But once the hit happens, it seems to slip back into the rhythms of the longer cut, upping the existential angst of its protagonist as he faces (possible) mortality, with things unravelling on the business side as his ties with the mobsters who keep him afloat seem to fall away, even as he desperately tries to keep everything under control. The way Cosmo pretends everything is normal, that he is in (creative) control, even when he seems to be slowly losing everything is at the heart of both films ultimately.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban speak in the mid-2000s to the Criterion Collection about the film, with Gazzara in particular unpacking it as the portrait of a misunderstood artist (Cassavetes himself).
  • There’s also a short audio interview with two French critics from the time, where Cassavetes gets a little tetchy about his film being described as a genre piece — although the point the critics were making is that it uses such conceits as a starting place, but certainly doesn’t define the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey, Azizi Johari; Length 135 minutes [original version] and 108 minutes [1978 re-edit].

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2019 [original version] and Wednesday 24 July 2019 [1978 re-edit]).

Criterion Sunday 253: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

In my ongoing Criterion watching project, I stalled a bit before this film. I’d seen it before, and I’d rated it highly, but it’s one of those films that you need to take a big breath and a bit of time before you launch yourself into it because it is unrelenting. It’s not bleak exactly, but it’s exhausting because Gena Rowlands — who utterly dominates the film — just fills every empty space with her presence. She’s Mabel, the mother to three kids, and the wife to Peter Falk’s construction engineer Nick (or some kind of municipal worker), and if the way I’m defining her life seems a little regressive, well that’s the world of the film, and it’s strongly implied that part of her problem is the way that she has been pushed into this role, and the way she comes apart at the seams trying to live up to expectations made of her. That’s also partly why it’s so heartbreaking, because although she’s clearly become unhinged, it’s Nick who’s the bully and the bad person. He can be sweet and understanding at times, but every time he loses control of Mabel, he starts shouting and gets pushy and violent, and the kids, who are there most of the time, can’t do much about it. Cassavetes keeps the camera tight in on them for much of the film, only at the end disappearing behind a closed curtain as he leaves them. It’s a film of towering acting performances, not least from Rowlands, although Falk is also on brilliant form. There are these characters around the edges (parents, kids, co-workers of Nick’s), who feel almost like non-actors and perhaps they are, but for all its age, it feels continually fresh and perceptive about its characters, and about mental health.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 4 July 2019).

Criterion Sunday 252: Faces (1968)

This is in some ways the ur-Cassavetes picture, which came after a few unsuccessful studio pictures in the early-60s as a return to the improvisational quality of Shadows, not to mention developing the verité-style black-and-white high-contrast camerawork into a grander form. Although it was all scripted, it does still feel like the actors are using the script as a means to finding the emotion, and that’s what Cassavetes is ultimately most interested in, those unforced moments of feeling that come through in the actors’ performances. Frequently the scenes as written feel rambling or unfocused, and often the actors are playing drunk, which doesn’t always pay off, but it captures something that a lot of cinema wasn’t doing in the US of the 1960s (Bergman is namechecked within the film, and that feels like a more fair comparison point). Thus, for all that it’s a film about an older man confronting mortality and a fairly unremarkable working life, as well as people trapped somewhat in the past, it also feels quite fresh and honest in a way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with most of Cassavetes’ films, there are multiple versions that exist. The original cut was around three hours, and there was also a 147 minute cut, from which 18 minutes of an introduction feature here as an extra.
  • Making ‘Faces’ (2004) is a fairly standard making-of Criterion extra, which is structured around interviews with four key members of the production who were still alive: the cameraman/editor Al Ruban, and actors Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin. All of them provide stories from the film’s set that suggest Cassavetes’ methods, how he helped actors to find the performance, as well as the way his artistic direction manifested itself (he wanted actors to find their own way into the characters, rather than providing notes, as one example). Al Ruban (the cinematographer and editor) expands on some of the technical challenges, such as finding all the sound was un-synched at the end, or having too few lights to film the big club scenes.
  • Ruban also contributes a separate 12-minute extra just about his choice of film stock and lighting for the film’s relatively restrained number of locations, which is probably more for those with an interest in lighting.
  • Finally, there’s a two-part interview for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, conducted during the making of and after the release of Faces. We get much of his credo and philosophy of filmmaking — and one which has informed a lot of independent cinema ever since: the idea that even if you don’t have any money, you should go out and make your vision, in the hope that at least someone will share your passion somewhere down the line. Cassavetes comes across as supremely relaxed and chatty in the first part, filmed presumably in some manic period during production, as he paces around his offices and home, and introduces the people around him, all bonhomie and gregarious host, which the filmmakers cannily intercut with footage of laughter and joviality in the film he’s made, suggesting the direct line from his lived experience to his art.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel; Length 130 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 27 May 2019).

Criterion Sunday 251: Shadows (1959)

Cassavetes had great success as an actor but his directorial recognition came somewhat belatedly, though it’s what he’s most known for now, and this, his first film, feels at times like an experiment that doesn’t always work. But when it does work, it has the energy and spontaneity that little of the rest of American cinema of the time had, though it shares some genetic material with, say, the location-shot films of Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel, so it’s not entirely sui generis. However, it feels most of a part with contemporary trends such as the French New Wave, and there’s so much of this (literally) jazzy first film that recall the flights of fancy of the French directors. Much of that revolves around the three or four key actors in the movie, and especially Lelia Goldoni as the mixed-race Lelia (the actor is Italian-American), though even her drama with a white guy who comes home to meet her brothers feels like just one small part of a wider story that feels at times more like it’s documenting a scene or capturing an era — though that’s probably the benefit of hindsight. Even after 60 years, this still feels like a fresh and interesting film, and there’s a lot more laughing and joking around than I remember, and that’s how the film leaves us: a little bit light-hearted about the young people in NYC.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are some mid-2000s interviews with the star Lelia Goldoni, and with Seymour Cassel, who even this early in Cassavetes’ career was already working with him (and served as associate producer on the film).
  • There’s silent footage from the acting workshop that Cassavetes ran during the late-50s, including some images of the actors in this film.
  • There are some images from the production and posters in a small gallery section.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Cassavetes; Writers Cassavetes and Robert Alan Aurthur; Cinematographer Erich Kullmar; Starring Lelia Goldoni, Ben Carruthers, Hugh Hurd; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 10 May 2019).

Criterion Sunday 250: “John Cassavetes: Five Films”

I’m not entirely clear why these five films specifically were chosen for this box set, but I believe these were originally a touring programme of restored features that were re-released some years after Cassavetes death in 1989. (There have been subsequent restorations of some of his other films, and I can only hope that Husbands also eventually makes it to a Criterion edition.) Still, they represent the works that he is chiefly known for, defining a particular way of working that was at odds with much of American cinema and also became a touchstone for generations of subsequent filmmakers, intent on finding a certain truth through semi-improvisation and unflinching focus on varying states of mental and emotional distress. If Shadows (1959) is an initial dip into this territory (which seems more of a piece with other 50s independent filmmaking), then this is extended by Faces (1968) and probably his most recognised work, A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Later films like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977) use a broadly generic framework to tell deeper stories of artistic creativity in crisis. Cassavetes of course has a reputation as a big figure in American cinema, and a divisive one given his heavy-drinking ways, but he laid down a route that hadn’t much been seen at the time, and which often relied on a small group of dedicated actors who worked with him (primarily his wife Gena Rowlands, but also Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk), dating back in some cases to his early experimental acting workshop days in the 50s.

Criterion Sunday 176: The Killers (1946/1964)

This Criterion release bundles together two adaptations of the Ernest Hemingway short story from 1927, each separated by almost twenty years and with a different generation of Hollywood direction, though it’s the first adaptation that really sticks out. After all, there’s something immensely satisfying about this key early film noir picture, and it’s not just the high-contrast shadows thrown across the screen, or the world-weary way that Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” meets his death (that’s not a spoiler by the way: that’s the set-up of the film). It’s not in the writing either (although excellent) and not just the first scenes in the diner (which are the ones taken from Hemingway’s short story) which leads into a backstory of intrigue that as it unfolds doubles-down on its double-crosses by piling them on thick and fast. No, what’s satisfying is that all of these elements come together with the excellent noir acting, all that heavy-lidded sense of fatalistic doom conveyed by Lancaster and Gardner but also all the character actors who round out the cast. Even when the plot’s events start to seem like they’re getting out of hand, the film keeps it all in check, and all the character types that seem so familiar to us now are all presented new and fresh.

Don Siegel’s remake may not perhaps be the equal of the Siodmak film (which the producer originally wanted Siegel to direct, apparently), but there’s certainly something to Don Siegel’s reimagining. Despite the film’s title and trailer, there’s not very much left of Ernest Hemingway’s original short story here except the sense in which a man fatalistically accepts his own death at the hands of the title’s killers. Thereupon these two, primarily Lee Marvin (always excellent), take it upon themselves to find out why he was killed, and uncover a ring of gangsters led by Ronald Reagan. The film’s plot takes about half the movie to kick in, and as a film, it feels quite different — less a noir than a doomed romance. It also proves that Reagan was much more convincing as a bad guy, a sad realisation to come with his last performance (maybe if he’d tried it earlier and found more acting success, we all could have been spared his political ambitions). Still, as a film this is a watchable piece of high-toned 60s murder mystery which seems to pave the way for Marvin into the greater, yet somehow stylistically reminiscent, Point Blank a few years later.

Criterion Extras: Joining these two is a film primarily known now as Andrei Tarkovsky’s first (student) film from 1956, although it was co-directed by three film students. It takes on only the events of the short story (clearly influenced visually by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation) and re-presents it, including some of the racist language that Siodmak’s work had omitted. Indeed, the scenes with the black(face) cook, even at this remove, seem pointlessly racist, but as a film this still shows some flair with its staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 October 2017.

The Killers (1946)
Director Robert Siodmak; Writer Anthony Veiller (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway); Cinematographer Woody Bredell; Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien; Length 103 minutes.

The Killers (1964)
Director Don Siegel; Writer Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway); Cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings; Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan; Length 95 minutes.