Sunday, October 6, 2013


HUSBANDS               A                    
aka:  A Comedy about Life, Death, and Freedom
USA  (140 mi)  1970  d:  John Cassavetes

I can understand that certain people would like a more conventional form, so that they can borrow it, much like a gangster picture...You can ‘read’ it, because it’s something that you know already.  But if you deal with a scene in an unconventional way, it’s very hard for people to get with the film because of their expectations...Other films depend on a shorthand, a shorthand for living.  You recognize certain incidents and you go with them.  People prefer that you condense; they find it quite natural for life to be condensed in films...They prefer that because they can catch onto the meanings and keep ahead of the movie.  But that’s boring.  I won’t make shorthand films.  In my films, there’s a competition with the audience to keep ahead of them.  I want to break their patterns.  I want to shake them up and get them out of those quick, manufactured truths.
—John Cassavetes

Brilliant independent filmmaking at its masterful best, a radical and deeply personal work that exposes the scars of humanity, where a deepening exploration of interpersonal relationships between three men onscreen ultimately led to lifelong friendships afterwards.  Using no blocks, allowing the camera to always follow the actors, where the emotional continuity overrides everything else, the beginning feels like a continuation of Shadows (1959), with the boys jumping around on the streets, playing basketball, having a walking contest on the streets of New York.  Also, the confusion from Shadows about how to get along with girls continues here into their adult lives.  Another wonderful film about friendships, only the boys are grown up now and have lost their innocence and hope.  In fact, they have turned into the corporate men in FACES (1968), only instead of hanging out at the Loser’s Bar, they are living unfulfilled and empty lives on Long Island, called the suburban middle class, but carry their same bad habits, smoking and boozing too much, covering up their own brutality with forced laughter, that without the booze just isn’t so funny at all, as it’s often mean and cruel.  John Cassavetes as Gus, Peter Falk as Archie, and Ben Gazzara as Harry have trouble going home after the funeral of their best friend, each virile and overly masculine actors all terrorized at the idea of turning 40, suddenly confronted with the idea of mortality.  Harry confesses, “Aside from sex, and my wife is very good at it, I’d rather spend time with you guys.”  So they end up at an all-night bar boozing and singing until morning, trying to determine the best performance, where the singer is often praised and kissed heavily, but also subjected to group criticism.  Cassavetes allows this scene to play on at great length, where the amount of alcohol consumed is beyond excessive and at times brutal to watch.  The only other bar scene that paints as intimate a portrait is Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, which takes place entirely inside the Last Chance Saloon, another seedy all-night bar filled with a few scruffy regulars, a raw and emotionally bracing play of pain and disillusionment, exactly as one should feel after the funeral of their best friend.  In each, the heightened state of realism and despair is painfully evident.  Ironically one of Falk’s first roles was the bartender Harry Hope on Broadway with Jason Robards in The Iceman Cometh.  In the UCLA mounted restoration of the film, Gena Rowlands, the executor of the Cassavetes estate, removed ten minutes from the film that she found offensive, including the morning aftermath, the infamous vomiting scene, where Gus and Archie end up puking horribly in the bathroom, joined later by Harry, who feels momentarily left out.  Many viewers will find this scene excessive and overly indulgent, but Cassavetes was a man that insisted art could be found anywhere, even in a bathroom stall.  

Unlike normal people that just go home and sleep it off, these guys stick together throughout, taking Harry home in a cab, apparently to resume his normal life, but he explodes in a violent confrontation with his wife after she tells him “I’m just uncomfortable in front of you —that’s it—it’s nothing personal,” ultimately deciding to run away to London, joined by his two pals who agree “to tuck him in, then come back home.”  Every outdoor scene in London is a typhoon of rain where somebody gets drenched, but they gamble, play craps, find girls, and eventually end up in adjoining suites, each with their own girl.  Again, these are extended scenes, notable for their obvious discomfort, some of which are painfully cringeworthy (especially Archie) when it becomes so evident they’re on the lookout for women, becoming even more difficult once they’ve actually found them.  Gus has an aggressive, tall blond, Mary (Jenny Runacre), wrestling uncomfortably with her in bed while they continually bruise each other physically and emotionally, although Gus constantly tries to hide behind his humor.  Archie, who confesses he is slow in bed, wants to talk endlessly to a young Vietnamese hooker Julie (Noelle Kao) who doesn’t speak a word of English, singing “Good Morning Mr. Zip Zip Zip” ever so softly, then erupts in verbal abuse when the girl tries to aggressively use her tongue when kissing, ultimately declaring his love for her in the morning where she can be seen walking aimlessly in the rain ranting to herself in some indecipherable language.  Harry wants to talk about his wife, and everything Pearl Billingham (Jenny Lee Wright) can do reminds him of his wife (“I feel so goddamned disloyal!), so he ends up with 3 or 4 different women in his room by morning, declaring, “If you go, you’ll be replaced by someone else,” singing “Dancing in the Dark” with them all, joined by Gus, who has found another 6 foot blond, and Archie.  Gus confesses to Archie:  “We've got two lovely wives - - the only problem is to go home and make love to them,” leaving Harry in London to fend for himself while Gus and Archie head back home (interestingly seen smoking on airplanes, while earlier they’re also seen smoking on the trains, both prohibited actions today), but also buying stuffed animals for their children at the airport, nervously arriving back to their perfect suburban homes.  The two friends are next door neighbors, wondering about Harry, “What’s he gonna do without us?”  In a quietly affecting moment, Gus’s 4-year old daughter Xan bursts into tears (as Nick allegedly took her toy away) when she sees him while his 11-year old son Nick yells out to him, “Dad!  Oh boy, you’re in trouble,” as the children carry the bags of stuffed animals and walk out of sight together and supposedly continue the rest of their lives.   

Film critic Pauline Kael, a longtime Cassavetes antagonist, described the film as “infantile and offensive,” Dave Kehr described the Cassavetes’men in HUSBANDS as “pure creatures of emotion,” while Roger Ebert took issue with Time magazine’s rave review, “seldom has Time given a better review to a worse movie.”  The very things people find ugly and overcalculated about Cassavetes are exactly what is unique and refreshing in the movies.  Cassavetes was never about technical filmmaking, so if that's your criteria, you will need to look elsewhere, but he is one of the great humanists in cinema, not in a broad sense, like Renoir, whose films nearly sing with poetic light, but in redefining what's considered believable onscreen, by including what's wrong alongside what's right, both part and parcel of the human condition.  HUSBANDS may be the best at revealing what's so gut-wrenchingly wrong with these three guys, but it's also one of the best character studies and examples of friendship that you’ll ever see onscreen.  The word forgiveness isn't spoken, yet it's continually offered.  This is what Cassavetes does better than anybody.  You may not like it because it's not pretty, and it might make you feel somewhat queasy at times, but being uncomfortable with others as well as ourselves is something we're always striving to overcome.  We never actually succeed, as life is filled with uncomfortable moments, but Cassavetes is simply one the best at meticulously detailing how human we are.  One of the marvels of the film, especially at the end of a grueling two and a half hour film called HUSBANDS, is that they left out the part about actually being husbands, where one would absolutely love to hear what these guys have to say to their wives at the end, but Cassavetes doesn't include that in the film, instead it shows them as philandering morons who are no more grown up than typical teenage kids with their parents away for the weekend, where there’s nothing dishonest about that.  On the contrary, with something close to a 40-50% divorce level, HUSBANDS shows the degree of suffocation and dissatisfaction associated with marriage.  Self-contempt and self-loathing are part and parcel of something we all experience at some point or another.  At least Cassavetes is a guy who tries to get at the root of how self deluded we are as human beings, who buy into this marriage till death do us part concept, and then don't know what we've gotten ourselves into.  These guys are deluded, and at least for the moment, contemptible, especially in the eyes of their wives, where Cassavetes is relentless in showing what little reward they actually get out of this experience, yet in their minds it is magnified to this great trans-Atlantic adventure.  You may not like it, but it's raw and intensely honest.  This is a real male bravado movie, and their hurt feelings and insecurities and enormous inadequacies are plastered all over the screen some 20 feet high for the whole world to see, bravely hiding nothing, revealing everything, in a brilliant choreography of emotional confusion.

The film was initially a 4-hour print that was edited down to just under 3 hours, which when previewed before a live audience produced howls of laughter, where the audience obviously loved it.  But this was not the feeling Cassavetes was looking for, which is more a devastating glimpse of the enveloping sadness, so despite three friends on the cover of Life magazine in May 1969, seen here:  RIP: Ben Gazzara (1930-2012) |, which was great publicity, he spent another year re-editing the film before it was finally released December 1970.  The controversial scene in question was the bar scene, shot over the course of three days where they were drinking real beer on the set, where many of the extras didn’t have a clue what they were in for.  Leola Harlow, for instance, a showgirl stripper in real life, was reduced to tears from the male bullying and abuse, evidence of a politically incorrect, misogynist theme that exists throughout the picture, but for Cassavetes, it was all about being challenged to discover new insight into the characters.  Of interest, the song she sings is one the actress actually wrote.  While another, John “Red” Kullers sings “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” which quiets the house with a surprisingly effective rendition of a Depression era song, literally wiping away the tears by the end from the harsh reality of its dour essence.  Before the term became fashionable, what story there is reflects a midlife crisis taking place during the same time as the completely unseen 60’s counterculture, where these guys are too old to be part of the movement, but too young to be part of the generation that they are rebelling against.  They are part of the white middle class and embracing it instead of railing against it, still questioning how to find happiness in life, as the harmony and stability of the world has suddenly shifted on its axis, especially after the death of a friend, and will never be the same.  Perhaps what’s most surprising is how they remain defined by their marriages, as it’s how they view themselves, so when you pull them away from their middle class homes, they’re like ships adrift without an anchor, where they each fail to live up to their own expectations of themselves, where they thought they’d be so liberated and free, yet they’re each sexually constrained, still remaining so attached to their missing wives, where at least according to Peter Falk this film is as much a story about the wives, the three women that you don’t see.  Watching these men, it’s hard to visualize yourself outside the ingrained social dynamic, which has a way of paralyzing all impulses to break away, as longterm monogamous relationships are held together by old-fashioned concepts of faithfulness and fidelity, felt even subconsciously, and in places you least expect to find it.  

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