Sunday, November 10, 2013

Minnie and Moskowitz

MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ                       A                    
USA  (115 mi)  1971  d:  John Cassavetes

It's never as clear as it is in the movies. People don't know what they are 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 a 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 only makes things more difficult.          —John Cassavetes

You know, the world is full of silly asses who crave your body. I mean, not just your body, but your heart, your soul, your mind, everything! They can't live until they get it. And you know, once they get it, they don't really want it.               
—Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands)

I think about you so much, I forget to go to the bathroom!                
—Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel)

MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ was, oddly enough, Universal Studios response to the youth market, where the success of MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) and EASY RIDER (1969) opened the door for low budget, independent films that were less conventional.  Ned Tannen in the youth division of the studio approved the script in record time and appropriated $678,000 to start shooting within two months.  According to Cassavetes, most of the “youth” films of the period were not any better than the movies they replaced, where young directors were equally enthralled by the status and power of established Hollywood stars, so even though he pitched his idea as a low-budget youth film, he seethed at the idea that his films had a targeted youth market, countering “I think of youth being life.”  Cassavetes hand picked his own production team, including lifelong friend Al Ruban and Paul Donnelly, former head of production at Universal.  More significantly, rather than operate in the standard, impersonalized, businesslike way of shooting a studio picture, Cassavetes personalized every aspect of the filmmaking process, making it a family affair, casting his wife Gena Rowlands as Minnie and lifelong friend Seymour Cassel as Moskowitz for the two leads, also his wife’s mother (Lady Rowlands as Georgia Moore) as well as his own (Katherine Cassavetes as Sheba Moskowitz) for their respective parents, using his wife’s real brother David Rowlands as the Minister that, of course, forgets his sister’s name at the altar.  Elizabeth Deering, the girl who has a one-night fling with Moskowitz is, in fact, Cassel’s real wife, while Elsie Ames who plays Florence, Minnie’s coworker at the art museum, is his mother-in-law.  Five members of producer Paul Donnelly’s family appear, also two of Cassel’s own children and three of Cassavetes’s children appear in the final scene.  Cassavetes himself plays Jim, the married man having an affair with Minnie, while Jim’s kitchen is Cassavetes own home kitchen, Minnie’s bedroom is their home bedroom (also seen in Faces), while Florence’s apartment is Cassel’s own apartment.

A wonderful entry point to Cassavetes films, though it’s not available on DVD (likely due to the unauthorized—meaning not paid for—Hollywood film clips used of Bogart), as this is largely a film about films, easily one of Cassavetes funniest, most optimistic, uplifting and happiest, and while no filmmaker had a greater distaste for formula, this is one of the few Cassavetes films with a genuinely happy ending.  Yet underneath the frolicking set-ups and madcap humor is an ambitiously honest picture about lonely people trying to discover love, breaking down the stereotypes that set us up to fail in matters of love and relationships, where leading men are required to be handsome, charming, suave and debonair.  When we first meet Minnie, she is at a screening of CASABLANCA (1942) with her older friend Florence, where afterwards Minnie confesses she likes Humphrey Bogart while Florence likes Claude Rains, “but not so much the girl (Ingrid Bergman).”  Returning to Florence’s apartment afterwards, the two have a few glasses of wine where Minnie opens up about how compared to the movies, her personal life is a disappointment, having no luck with men, as there’s no one out there to sweep you off your feet.  “Movies are a conspiracy, they set you up to believe in things.  There’s no Charles Boyer in my life.  I never even met a Charles Boyer.  I never met Clark Gable.  I never met Humphrey Bogart.  I’ve never met any of them.  You know who I meet.  I mean, they don’t exist.  That’s the truth.”  This may as well be the theme of the film, the deconstruction of the Hollywood myth, using a classical screwball comedy genre as a love story that goes haywire, where in addition to the quirky love story, featuring zany characters and the usual slapstick gags and jokes, the story is infused with a painfully evident realism, described as a “screwball comedy where people actually get hurt.”  In this film, everywhere they turn, characters are running into trouble, where even Seymour, a man who loves to park cars for a living, has his own truck scraped by an inattentive car lot attendant (played by one of producer Paul Donnelly’s sons), “Sorry about that brick wall, sir.”     

An oddball Los Angeles romance about an impulsive, loud-mouthed, long-haired, truck-driving parking lot attendant, Seymour Moskowitz, wearing a giant walrus mustache, and Minnie Moore, a radiantly beautiful but introverted middle-class blond who works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, always seen hiding behind her sunglasses, who reaches the end of a dead-end relationship with an overly jealous married man, played, appropriately enough, by the director.  She finds love and romance in a sequence of connected scenes, jumping from one event, immediately cutting into another, with hilarity, brilliant dialogue, some superlative acting along with gut-wrenching drama holding it all together.  The origin of the film may have come from an earlier 1964 television series called Who Killed Annie Foran?, where Seymour Cassel appeared as a parking lot attendant, co-starring John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands.  Several months after the film's release, Universal Studios apparently decided to shorten the running time by cutting out a scene near the beginning of the film, even though it violated their contract with Cassavetes.  All subsequent releases since that time are still missing this scene, while Ray Carney claims the studio cut a “morning after” scene with Irish (Holly Near), a girl Seymour meets in a bar and gets beat up just for talking to her.  This follows an earlier scene where Seymour is watching another Bogart movie, THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), where he and Minnie view Bogart pictures differently based upon their own characters, where Seymour sees Bogart as a fiercely independent tough guy that makes his own rules, irrespective of the feelings of others, while Minnie sees him as a self-sacrificing romantic that uses an outer veneer of toughness to hide his real feelings of tenderness and love.  The film offers insight into Cassavetes’ own relationship with Rowlands, where they come from completely opposite worlds, one the son of a Greek immigrant, the other the daughter of a Midwest banker and state legislator, where Rowlands actually aspired to become an actress after watching Marlene Dietrich onscreen in THE BLUE ANGEL (1930), where movies are the connecting tissue of their marriage.

The film is built upon the disillusionment of love, where Minnie has grown tired of men, “I don’t like men. They smile too much. You see a lot of teeth,” as she’s continually let down by their lying and deceiving ways, where in the end they’re never romantic enough, and Seymour is continually getting beaten up whenever he exposes his feelings, though the scene with his wife (Deering) is touching for the tenderness it expresses.  Nothing exposes this disillusionment quite like two classic scenes that literally bleed into one another.  One is the worst date scene ever, a blind date from hell, where Minnie goes out to lunch on a blind date (chosen by Florence) with Zelmo Swift (Val Avery, also seen behaving crudely and reprehensibly in Faces).  Zelmo is so loud and overwrought, taking candor to new levels, where he pours out his heart with a continuing stream of over-revealing confessions about his own life’s personal failings that would drive anyone away, making such a scene, “Blondes!  What is it with you blondes?  You all have some Swedish suicide impulse?” getting louder and more coarse with his language until Minnie gets up to leave, embarrassed to be seen with the man.  In the parking lot afterwards, he heaps on still more abuse, where Seymour attempts to intervene and gets clobbered before bloodying Zelmo’s nose, rescuing the fair damsel in distress by whisking her away in his broken down truck, where Seymour has a penchant for making U-turns in the middle of traffic, but in an impromptu moment takes her to Pink’s Hot Dogs afterwards where she’s so distraught she can’t eat a hot dog or even speak, but then he tells her she has a way of looking down on people, which sends her away in a huff, while Seymour winds up chasing her down the sidewalk in his truck, angrily telling her “I gotta’ be a dummy to get myself wrapped up for a Minnie Moore!” before driving her back to work.  If that’s not bad enough, Jim is at the museum waiting for her, bringing his oldest son with him to witness that he’s breaking up with her, as his own wife attempted to cut her wrists in front of the kids earlier that morning after he was out all night with her.  The tastelessness and cruelty of this moment is written all over her face when she contemptuously utters “Are you kidding me?” in the dignified manner only Gena Rowlands can achieve.  In little more than an hour, she’s hit rock bottom.      

This is a film that builds romance through emotional destabilization, wildly swerving from toughness to tenderness, where Minnie and Seymour have a volatile relationship that continually seems unlikely, yet before you know it, there’s Minnie, feeling braver, creeping ever closer to Seymour in a wonderful scene where she sadly tells him “Everything used to make me smile.  I’ve noticed I don’t smile as much as I used to.”  Nothing about these two together makes any sense, as they’ve already been through a train wreck, and when they kiss you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, as every romantic scene is interrupted by immediate concerns that they’re doing the wrong thing.  “Seymour, that’s just not the face I’m in love with,” yet fearlessly, she takes her chances anyway, setting up an insta-date in C.C. Brown’s ice-cream parlor, where the two couldn’t be on more opposite wavelengths, yet they obviously feel something for each other.  Whenever they go out on conventional dates, there are no perfect moments like we see in other movies, where instead there’s an ironic use of Johann Strauss’s infamous The Blue Danube Waltz from Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), Herbert von Karajan conducts The Blue Danube Waltz YouTube (10:34) as they’re driving through the streets of Los Angeles, where the film is an entertaining roller coaster ride of their ups and downs, where Minnie has her doubts, but Seymour knows this is the real thing, where he gets her halfway up the stairs and is so overcome with emotion that he insists right then and there, “Sing a song, take off your clothes, do something!” where they end up singing softly to one another, occasionally off-key, or one of them can’t remember the lyrics “I love you truly, truly dear.  Life with its sorrows, life with its tears...”  It’s a beautifully fragile moment where they eventually meet in the bedroom, not to have sex, but to call their respective mothers, with Seymour singing tenderly throughout with that puppy dog look in his eyes.  The meeting of the mothers is a hilarious moment of off-kilter humor, with Sheba Moskowitz suspecting Minnie must be pregnant, then railing against her son’s lack of ambitions, “Albert Einstein he’s not.  Pretty he’s not.  Look at that face.  A future he doesn’t have.  He parks cars for a living.  Look at my son.  He’s a bum.”  It’s simply more of the emotional terrain they must learn to navigate, where this is a film about perseverance and believing in yourself, trusting your own instincts, and following your heart.  The final sequence, though brief, is a purely classic Cassavetes ode to joy. 

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