Monday, November 11, 2013

A Woman Under the Influence

















A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE                   A                    
USA  (147 mi)  1974  d:  John Cassavetes

I’m very concerned about the depiction of women on the screen.  It’s related to their being either high or low class concubines, and the only question is when or where will they go to bed, and with whom or how many.  There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her...I’m sure we could have made a more successful film if we had depicted Mabel’s life as rougher, more brutal; if it made statements so that people could definitely take sides.  But along the way, I’d have to look at myself and say, ‘Yes, we were successful at creating another horror in the world.’  I don’t know anyone who has had such a terrible time that she doesn’t smile ever, that she doesn’t have time to love, open her eyes, think about the details of life.  Something wonderful happens all the time, even at the height of tragedy...I wanted to show that too...It’s never as clear as it is in the movies.  People don’t know what they’re doing most of the time, myself included.  They don’t know what they want or feel.  It’s only in the movies that they know what their problems are and have game plans for dealing with them.  All my life I’ve fought against clarity – all those stupid definitive answers.  Phooey on the formula life, on slick solutions.  It’s never easy.  And I don’t think people really want their lives to be easy.  It’s a United States sickness.  In the end it makes things more difficult.                 —John Cassavetes   

Along with Faces (1968), these are the two most emotionally exhaustive works in the Cassavetes repertoire, and the most difficult to experience, where afterwards you feel fatigued and emotionally spent, though the uncomfortable structure of the film, continually built around ensemble pieces spiraling out of control, resembles Husbands (1970).  While it’s something of a choreography of mood changes, it’s arguably Cassavetes’ most acclaimed film, though the New York critics loathed it when it was released, forcing Cassavetes to distribute the film himself, eventually doubling the box office receipts of Faces (with profits paying for most of the production costs of his next two films), where American Film Institute students working for free comprised most of the crew, including cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who was later fired on the set, taking nearly the entire crew with him, as they all regarded Cassavetes as impossible to work with, as he completely dismissed their working methods.  Originally written by the director as a theater piece, designed as three plays, each to be performed over three separate nights for Ben Gazarra and the unparalleled Gena Rowlands, who offers a towering performance, but the Academy Award was given to Ellen Burstyn in the more sweetly conventional Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), where the plays were eventually turned into a film, as Rowlands felt the daily performances of this role would be too demanding, that no one could survive such a harrowing test of endurance.  She plays Mabel Longhetti, someone without inhibitions, a funny, seductive and enchanting woman, who, unlike other films like Rolf de Heer’s THE QUIET ROOM (1996) or Alain Berliner’s MA VIE EN ROSE (1997), which feature parents without the imagination to understand their children, Mabel has plenty of imagination to spare, but is caught in a world gone wrong.  “She’s not crazy, she’s unusual.”  But no one is really listening, no one understands her, in one of Rowland’s greatest and most vulnerable roles, easily her most human, a misfit among misfits, a working class housewife’s descent into a mental breakdown, surrounded by all the so-called “loving” people who drove her there.  She wants so much, wants to care so much, driven to despair by her own unrealized expectations.  Frustrations, embarrassments, and disappointments just fill the screen in this film, an endless rhythm of giant mood swings, an emotional symphony played out before our eyes, where Maria Callas opens the film with the music of opera, foreshadowing the demonstrative passions to come.  Rowlands pleaded with her husband for help in understanding her character, growing more and more irritated when he refused, literally glaring at him, angry at the way he was treating her, but somehow all that anger dissipated offscreen as her onscreen persona was pure innocence and vulnerability. 

John Cassavetes is connected to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary's Baby (1968), a film he despised, by the way, playing the lying and deceiving husband that drugs his wife Rosemary to conceive the devil’s child, using a flashback-style of recurring dreams that slowly become Rosemary’s reality, where she is left alone to contend with and ultimately embrace a hellish nightmare that becomes her life, with no possible way out.  It’s considered one of the great psychological horror films.  Less than a decade later, Cassavetes writes this film, with critic Molly Haskell calling it “The biggest piece of garbage I’ve ever seen,” yet it’s easily one of the most frighteningly cruel films ever made, scarier perhaps even than the Polanski horror epic, yet it’s a love story, but one with brutal interior ramifications.  Peter Falk, who partially funded the movie from earnings from the television series Colombo (1968 – 2003) and who plays against type, is Mabel’s overbearing husband Nick, a more introverted, closed-in man, a city sewer worker who brings the entire hard-hat work crew home with him after a midnight shift, where they sit around the kitchen table for a spaghetti breakfast.  Mabel wants to like everyone, draw them out of their shells, and appears to be succeeding, as one of the black workers, none other than older brother Hugh Heard from Shadows (1959), is singing Italian opera from Aida, where she literally stares down the guy’s throat to find out where all that dramatic power is coming from, but when she gets too friendly the mood shifts instantly when Nick, embarrassed by her somewhat kooky display of affection, yells at her to “Sit your ass down!” clearing the house instantly in a moment of complete embarrassment.  Yet afterwards Nick tells her she did nothing wrong, but she’s overcome by the fear of getting screamed at and humiliated in front of company, where Nick’s abusive habit of trying to control every situation by yelling and inflicting demeaning behavior has a way of sending mixed messages, where often the emotional circuitry gets confused, leaving Mabel a nervous wreck.    

Having worked through the night, Nick is trying to get some sleep afterwards, but is interrupted by a visit from Grandma and the kids, with the kids jumping all over his bed wanting to play, but this time, Mabel yells at them to get away, ordering Grandma to take them to school.  In an immediate mood shift, after the kids leave, the house is stunningly quiet, with Mabel quickly realizing, “Boy, I can hardly wait for the kids to come home from school.  All of a sudden I miss everyone.”  In a truly wonderful scene, Mabel can be seen in mismatched clothes jumping up and down in the middle of the street, excitedly waiting after school for her kid’s school bus, where the anticipation is warmhearted and joyful, throwing them a party when they get home with the neighbor’s kids.  She plays them the music to Swan Lake, asking the straight-laced neighbor Mr. Jensen (Mario Gallo) if he dances, “Kids, that’s Swan Lake, you know, the dying swan.  C’mon and die for Mr. Jensen.” One by one, the kids drop like flies, Dying Swan - YouTube (1:23).  But Mr. Jensen can only handle so much of this pure anarchy, so perfectly realized with Mabel’s chubby daughter Maria (Christina Grisanti, real life daughter of one of the hard-hats) running around the house butt naked as the theme quickly changes to a costume party.  In utter disbelief at how out of control everything is, Mr. Jensen orders his kids to leave (with Xan Cassavetes, the older daughter playing one of the Jensen kids, while Mabel’s oldest son Tony is actually the son of Seymour Cassel), where the mood swings from innocent happiness to a stunning nightmare, as the party ends in a fight with Nick slugging the neighbor, yelling he’s going to kill him, then slugging Mabel, threatening to kill her.  It’s an amazing turnaround.   

From utter turmoil, it only get worse, as Nick calls the psychiatrist to have her committed, believing his wife is deliriously out of control, as he simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand her, as for him, everything has to be spelled out in black and white terms, where as the man he gets to decide what’s what.  The beauty of the entire children sequence is that it was delightfully innocent fun, where the kids were happily playing along with each other, and only the parents got upset.  The degree of horror displayed in this scene is utterly chilling, one of the ugliest scenes on film, especially once Nick’s mother shows up (Katherine Cassavetes, the director’s mother), adding fuel to the fire in an emotional roller coaster of shifting emotions, urging the doctor to take her away.  While Nick pretends to have a change of heart, as Mabel becomes suddenly afraid they’re all conspiring against her, but the real instigator is his mother pleading with the doctor to give her a sedating shot to shut her up, ranting at the top of her lungs “This woman is crazy!” Of course, the compliant doctor, little more than a weasel of the establishment, willingly obeys, signing the order for a 6-month institutionalization, becoming a socially imposed order that is nothing more than insanity itself imposed upon Mabel.  As emotionally traumatized as she is, she is the voice of clarity in this family, but no one listens, ruling with an iron fist, like a totalitarian government imposing their control.  Of note, Cassavetes was not aware what direction this scene would take, as he left it up to the actors and was susprised that Nick allowed Mabel to be institutionalized,  Peter Falk’s explanation was that Rowlands was so superb that he didn’t want to interrupt her performance, and by the time he realized what was happening it was too late.  Cassavetes, of course, never bought that explanation, believing Nick was just being over-controlling, but was happy the scene erupted into a life force of its own.     

Perhaps worst of all, the kids watch their mother get sent away for reasons they can’t understand.  Without Mabel in the picture, we’re forced to witness Nick’s sorry excuse for fatherhood, where he is more like a drill sergeant, ordering his kids around, dragging them this way and that, feeding them beer as he feebly tries to apologize and justify his actions to them, and is just a pathetic disgrace for a parent.  In yet another mood swing, Nick throws a grandiose party for Mabel’s return 6 month’s later, but realizing her potential social awkwardness, convinced by his mother that it would be a bad idea, he throws everyone out at the last minute except for the immediate family, which gathers around Mabel like a witches coven from Rosemary's Baby, all staring at her where she’s literally petrified to move, analyzing her every wince and murmur, repeating like a mantra for her to relax, take it easy, not to over exert herself, basically driving her so crazy she orders them all to go.  But no one listens to her until she starts singing to herself, utterly ignoring them all, off into her own little world.  When they finally do leave, she makes a terrible attempt to cut herself, saved by Nick with the kids jumping all over her, where she’s subjected to yet another slap from Nick.  Then, in a final inexplicable mood shift, with blood still dripping from her cut hand, Mabel tucks her children gently and lovingly into bed, putting the dishes away, and turning out the lights, as life goes on while an original piano improvisation that played at the opening is heard again, this time adding kazoos.  The piano music by Bo Harwood is raw and simple, perfectly matching the naturalistic mood, and accordingly adds a timeless simplicity to the original score.

This is a transforming film about what makes us so different from one another, with Nick barking out orders, wanting to control Mabel’s lunacy while at the same time encouraging it, and Mabel, the vulnerable, dying swan who pays the cost for not holding back, who means well and thinks she can charm the world by continuously being motivated by a love for everyone she meets, where neither have malice in their hearts, but both cause each other severe emotional harm.  Especially chilling is how the film reveals the emptiness of those in charge, who have the full force of authority to get their way, no matter what price, even if it destroys a loved one.  It's a nightmarish story and some feminists may see this as ultimately an abusive one, but the unvarnished truth is the couple does love each other, each continuously trying to do better, and it does show the lengths that people will have to go to find love.  While there are only subtle references to Mabel’s medicine cabinet, such as an evening when Mabel goes out drinking alone and gets completely blitzed, this movie was made at a time when diet pills as uppers (amphetamines, speed) and downers (valium, barbiturates) were commonly available and even normal in middle class American homes, usually making matters much worse in combination with alcohol.  Mabel’s fragile insecurity is driven by an insatiable need to be needed and appreciated, where she simply loves too much, while her immediate family’s reactionary instincts drive her even further off the edge.  This is truly an expression of undying love, as in the end, little has changed for the better, as the conflicts they cause each other remain thoroughly entrenched in their lives, yet you feel somehow this couple is inseparable, that they will find the will to survive and persevere through whatever emotional cost they have to pay if it means staying together.  This is an unforgettable film that creates such unimaginable emotional depth, described by many as one of the films of the decade.  Of note, in post-release comments, the director interestingly pointed out that in real life, Rowlands plays Nick to Cassavetes’ Mabel. 

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