Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Faces














FACES         A         
USA  (130 mi)  1968  d:  John Cassavetes 

He wanted to get as close as it was possible, because he felt these characters, in this middle America scenario, that you had to actually get inside, and you had to feel as though you were that person. You had to experience what they were going through as an audience, so we shot a lot of close ups. 
—Al Ruban, cinematographer, producer, and editor

And really I think, at least at that time, John was one of the very few directors who paid any attention to women of a certain age. There’s just so much that they revealed in their lives and their loneliness and their desire to be young again, and if not young at least to be able to have some of the same good times and it just shouldn’t stop at a certain point. 
—Gena Rowlands

Art films are not necessarily photography.  It’s feeling, and if we can capture a feeling of a people, of a way of life, then we’ve made a good picture.  That’s all we want to do.  We want to capture a feeling.  Our films, per se, the way they (Hollywood) make films are terrible.  They say it’s European photography, which is a dirty word, and art is a very bad word in this country.  Art is a very bad word.

People get all upset over things that don’t really matter, like politics, and religion, and things like that.  They take offense to such a great degree that they miss the good times.  But the good times are probably more important than any bad times that ever happened, and yet we spend so much time on bad times, and so little time on the human behavior.   
—John Cassavetes

I get a lump in my throat every time I see her.  She tries everything and she doesn’t care how ridiculous and pathetic it is.  The point is that she tried.  She fought for it, tied herself in knots.  She wouldn’t give up.  And isn’t it better to fight and realize your fantasies, to fight and to lose, than to gripe and pine away in silence?     —John Cassavetes on Florence (Dorothy Gulliver)

In the early 60’s, after Shadows (1959), it was his wife Gena Rowlands whose acting career took off, working regularly in television while Cassavetes made two studio pictures, Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child Is Waiting (1963), experiences that revealed the shortcomings of working within the Hollywood system, as most of his working requests were refused, and more importantly, he lost control of both pictures.  He also made a few television appearances and wrote a ton of incomplete scripts, but his phone did not exactly ring off the hook, so he took a job working at Screen Gems when it was offered.  Allegedly hired to develop new concepts for television shows, all twenty concepts submitted by Cassavetes were rejected, so he quickly lost whatever initial interest he had.  Instead he decided to develop one of his incomplete manuscripts about marriage upon reaching middle age, writing over 200 new pages in October 1964, thinking at the time the story was only half finished.  Producer Maurice McEndree, who produced both FACES and Shadows, has an altogether different version, suggesting he and Cassavetes were on a flight from New York to Los Angeles, and during a marathon gin-rummy game, Cassavetes asks him “Did you ever think about what a guy would say to a hooker when he wakes up in her bed the next morning?”  At that moment, Cassavetes jotted down a few notes, and this was the birth of the morning-after scene.  Thus FACES was born.  Once he figured out that initially he only had about $10,000 to play around with, knowing full well that money received from Hollywood studios meant losing control of the project, Cassavetes embarked on a longterm journey which may as well be the definition of an independent film, as Cassavetes wrote his own script, spent his own money, used a cast of friends, family, and non-professionals, starring his own wife Gena Rowlands, where lifelong friend Al Ruban produced the film while also shooting and editing the film, which included actor Seymour Cassel, one of the Cassavetes regulars who has been there with Cassavetes since the beginning, and it was shot in his own home (with set decoration by Lady Rowlands) over a four-year period on week-ends and whenever funds became available, where none other than king of the blockbusters Steven Spielberg is listed as an uncredited production assistant.  There’s enough singing and dancing in this film that it could almost be called a musical, where it feels like more is improvised in FACES than any other Cassavetes film. 

Actress Lynn Carlin was discovered as Robert Altman’s secretary at Screen Gems where Altman had an office across the hall from Cassavetes.  Altman eventually fired her for spending so much time across the hall, but she signed her contract with Cassavetes on a cocktail napkin, which was more a concept of an expanded shoot that might take place anytime instead of a salary listing any monetary figures, and both Gena Rowlands (3 months) and Lynn Carlin (5 months) were pregnant at the time of the shoot.  After weeks of rehearsals, Cassavetes always shoots his films in sequence, which allows the actors to develop their characters as the film progresses, where his method of directing was to offer no instructions, as once the film was written and the parts cast, he felt the roles belonged to the actors, believing no one knew more about the characters than they did, but they were restricted from talking to other actors between shoots, where they could not compare notes, so that in the actor’s minds, at least, the other actors remained in character at all times.  But when Rowlands was getting dizzy from shooting the same scene about twenty times, claiming that was enough, reminding him she was pregnant, rather than console her and offer her a break, Cassavetes told her they had to get this scene finished, where she reveals “He turned into a director on me.”  According to Cassel, he felt Cassavetes always got great performances because he knew the actors as personal friends, so he knew what to say to them if he felt they weren’t being honest on camera, where he’d approach everyone differently.  Both Peter Falk in Husbands (1970) and Gena Rowlands in perhaps her greatest role in A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974), were both bewildered in trying to figure out the complexity of their characters, where they each desperately appealed to Cassavetes for help, asking what he had in mind, but he adamantly refused to tell them anything.  According to Cassel, “For John, nothing was more boring than watching an actor act, because you could see them acting.”  All he wanted was natural behavior from the actors. 

Often credited for being the first independent film to attract a mainstream American audience, the film is groundbreaking, but utterly bleak, perhaps Cassavetes most difficult film, where critical reception was largely mixed in this searing drama about middle-aged dissatisfaction and broken American Dreams, expressed through a disintegrating middle-class marriage in the affluence of Southern California.  Now considered a landmark film shot on 16 mm Black and White blown up to 35 mm, the film was shot for $275,000, where the cast and crew worked largely without pay, much of it shot in Cassavetes’ own home (where we learn Frank Zappa lived next door), where people pulled multiple duties, as between takes, actor Seymour Cassel ran cable wires, or painted walls of the set, while the cinematographer, Al Ruban and handheld operator George Sims, both helped edit the film with Cassavetes.  Many of the crew appear as extras in the film which has a semi-documentary feel, but the most extraordinary revelations are the blistering performances led by a couple married for fourteen years, Richard (John Marley) and Maria (Lynn Carlin), something of a younger version of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).  An emotional powerhouse of a film begins with a scathing portrait of male corporate America, feeling more like a mockery of the Hollywood studio system, seen as a soulless entity that wields power through a kind of awkward male dominance expressed by drinking, featuring an endless stream of vile and contemptible laughter, using aggressive and assaultive dialogue like sharp knives, all designed to demean the dignity of others, as if these are executive boardroom power tactics playing out in social settings, often filled with misogynistic references, with this IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (1997) smile of insincerity covering up their cruelty, Faces (1968) - Film Clip - "I Dream Of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair" Tango YouTube (5:54).  From the outset, it is clear Cassavetes has made a different kind of film, shot in a grainy and unpolished Black and White, a startling contrast to the pristine look of Hollywood films, where outside of Rowlands, who plays prostitute Jeannie Rapp, and first time actress Carlin, who provides the performance of her career, none of the other actors are familiar to American audiences, nor do they provide the glamour of Hollywood stars, as instead they have the appearance of ordinary people we may see everyday on the street.  But Cassavetes uses close ups to expose Jeannie Rapp’s vulnerability, a near experimental style of sensuous beauty contrasted against this brutally competitive world of corporate ego and male power.  The closeups continue to expose the artificial veneer that hides any signs of the humanity within, when, out of nowhere, a seemingly comfortable middle class marriage begins to unravel.

Like many Cassavetes films, this one started out just over three hours when it premiered at Toronto before being pared down to its current 130-minute length for the American release, where the Criterion DVD lists an earlier cut that interestingly offers an alternative 17-minute opening, most of which precedes where the final cut begins.  The film was also nominated for Best Supporting Roles for both Lynn Carlin and Seymour Cassel, also a Best Original Screenplay nomination, while winning five awards at the Venice Film festival, including the Pasinetti Award and Best Actor by John Marley, who plays the corporate CEO who leaves his wife to spend the night with Jeannie Rapp, returning the next morning kicking his heels, smiling triumphantly.  Maria tried to have some fun of her own the night before and ended up spending the night with Hollywood playboy Chet, Seymour Cassel, but only after four inebriated wives pick him up in a dance club, which turns out to be the Whiskey a Go Go, featuring camera shots by Haskell Wexler, who was afraid the union would find out he was working on a non-union film.  With four women for Chet to entertain, “Honey, it’s absolutely ludicrous how mechanical a person can be,”  three remain cautiously restrained behind middle class manners of reserve, but the one who lets it all hang out is Florence (Dorothy Gulliver), the only one of the four wives that actually dances with Chet and touches and kisses him, and is not afraid to tell him she is attracted to him, but she is also the oldest, the least attractive, and the most overweight, becoming one of Cassavetes’ most doomed characters, Faces - To Hell With Louis  YouTube (5:43).   When Chet wakes up in the morning next to Maria, he has to nurse her back to health after an attempted overdose of sleeping pills, and the film rather uncomfortably begins to explore, with a detached, documentary style, the interior moods of the husband and the wife.  Most pronounced are the contrast of opposite moods when the husband and wife meet the next morning, revealing the deep, piercing wounds of emotional devastation, the consequence of covering up their lack of honesty with each other, where a fake comfortable marriage was built upon burying their feelings together for so many married years.  FACES is an unsparing and exhausting work, a film with ramifications, but one that perfectly exemplifies Cassavetes cinéma vérité style along with his searching explorations of modern relationships, a film that reveals some rather cruel human behavior on display, consisting almost exclusively of tight, uncomfortable close-ups for which there is no comfortable release, just an emptiness, an overwhelming emptiness.  In 2011 the film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. 

40-Minute Documentary on JOHN CASSAVETES: "Cinéastes de Notre Temps: John Cassavetes" (1969)   essential viewing on YouTube (38:48)

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