Where to begin with John Cassavetes

A beginner’s path through the searing, fiercely independent cinema of John Cassavetes.

9 December 2016

By Oliver Lunn

Faces (1968)

Why this might not seem so easy

Your first step into the world of John Cassavetes, the fiercely independent filmmaker who once said “I hate entertainment”, can seem daunting. His films – full of long scenes of people talking in rooms, and talking over one another – aren’t the kind of films you’d throw on after a hard day at the office. Watching these personal projects, you have to work a little, get to know the characters, think about why they act and speak the way they do. As with a good book, you’ll find the sweet spot nestled somewhere between the lines, between the ‘action’.

Then there’s the rough-around-the-edges quality of his movies: the hand-held camera, the naturalistic lighting, the overall lack of visual pomp. Once you’ve seen a handful, you’ll notice the same locations pop up in different films (the director’s own house appears in many), and the credits are littered with the same surnames, as if family members were ushered in at the last minute to fill in for ‘real’ actors. None of which is surprising when you learn that Cassavetes once mortgaged his own home and used his income from acting in films such as The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to fund his projects.

To some, this adds to the charm of his movies, which bear all the hallmarks of an uncompromising indie spirit. To others, it’s plainly amateur, like a filmmaker whose potential could have been realised had some mogul stepped in with a fat wad of cash. Those in the former camp get what Cassavetes is all about: films that capture raw, naked emotion, films that are intensely human, films that stay with you long after the credits roll, films that might even change the way you think about your own life and relationships. So, yeah, it’s worth thinking about how you approach this guy’s work.

Love Streams (1984)

The best place to start – Love Streams

Cassavetes’ penultimate film, 1984’s Love Streams, a sibling drama that lays bare the whole gamut of human emotion, is a great entry point for newbies. Marked by pitch-perfect performances from Cassavetes (the brother) and his wife Gena Rowlands (the sister), it follows an alcoholic playboy and his sister, both with estranged kids from ex-partners, as they guide each other through a whirlwind of emotion. It shows what the director is capable of, the deftness with which he draws complex, conflicted characters. It may look a little slicker than his early work – less shaky camera work, etc – but it’s just as emotionally authentic, and you still sense the close-knit crew waving the DIY flag just out of frame.

You could also ease into his filmography via Gloria, the 1980 mob movie that’s so accessible your dad could sit through it without glancing at his watch. Rowlands stars again – she appeared in 10 of her husband’s films – playing the tough-as-nails moll Gloria. She goes on the run in NYC with her neighbor, a young boy, when his family is killed by gangsters. There’s blood, guns and a chase sequence. Yet it’s not completely uncharacteristic, with raw location shooting and another eye-popping performance from Rowlands. Sure, it might not be the most memorable Cassavetes film, but like his directorial debut Shadows (1959), its in-the-streets energy and all-hands-on-deck attitude is enough to make you want to pick up a Bolex.

What to watch next

Once you’ve slipped comfortably into Cassavetes’ universe and learned how his creative cogs turn, it’s time to be knocked sideways by A Woman under the Influence. The 1974 drama is a harrowing portrait of a housewife on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, and, while it’s painful to watch (hence why you don’t start here), it’s arguably his best. Not least because of Gena Rowlands’ jaw-dropping, Oscar-nominated performance as the unhinged woman in question. She’s great in all his films, appearing like a Hollywood starlet who somehow drifted into indie territory, but this is her career-crowning role by some distance.

A Woman under the Influence (1974)

After being bulldozed by the brutal honesty of that film, you’ll be primed for 1968’s Faces, one of Cassavetes’ more radical filmmaking experiments. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white 16mm, it’s a forensic study of suburban marriage and infidelity, as psychological games play out behind closed doors. True to its title, the camera inches towards the human face, what the director calls “the greatest location in the world”. It zooms in, curious to understand what’s going on behind the characters’ eyes. What’s captured on screen as a result is an emotional frankness, a sense of reality in a world of Technicolor bullshit.

Opening Night (1977)

There’s also little phoniness in 1970’s Husbands, even if it was a tad more divisive among critics (Pauline Kael called it “infantile and offensive”). It’s about three close friends, all in the throes of a midlife crisis, struggling with grief following the death of their friend. They drink like fish and run around New York like schoolboys in fits of hysterical laughter – the kind, you suspect, that can only come from tremendous loss. Cassavetes built the three characters (played by himself, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara) around the actors’ real-life personalities. Ultimately, it’s about their friendship – male friendship – with characteristic focus on human behavior and how people communicate (or don’t) in times of tragedy.

By this time you’re probably hooked on Cassavetes. A junkie in need of your next celluloid fix. But don’t rush, because the man only made 12 films, so there’s plenty to savour. Without listing the remainder here, I’ll just point you in the direction of two more gems: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and Opening Night (1977). At this point you don’t need any enticing synopses, only the name above the title.

Where not to start

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Some Cassavetes acolytes will tell you to start with 1976’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a neo-noir about a sleazy strip club owner (Ben Gazzara) who owes a debt to the mob, because that sounds like a thrilling genre movie. But it isn’t. In truth it’s an arthouse movie dressed as a crime movie, with little interest in plot or titillating those with a taste for noir. Along with Gloria, which has other merits besides its toying with genre, it’s the least representative of his work, which is at its best when it’s zeroing in on everyday people with everyday problems. As Cassavetes himself said:

“I’ve never seen an exploding helicopter. I’ve never seen anybody go and blow somebody’s head off. So why should I make films about them? But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest way, I’ve seen people withdraw, I’ve seen people hide behind political ideas, behind dope, behind the sexual revolution, behind fascism, behind hypocrisy, and I’ve myself done all these things. So I can understand them. What we are saying is so gentle. It’s gentleness. We have problems, terrible problems, but our problems are human problems.”

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