Leslie Woodhead on a driven director who broke the Hollywood mould.
In his expansive and illuminating book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Ray Carney records an intriguing encounter. In 1965, when John Cassavetes was shooting Faces, an 18-year-old film-struck kid was a runner, fetching coffee and cigarettes for the film's crew. Bored, he quit after three days. The kid's name was Steven Spielberg. A couple of years later, Carney tells how Spielberg turned up again, watching Cassavetes acting in a TV studio. During a break, Spielberg told Cassavetes he hoped to be a director one day and gave the star advice on how to play the scene he was watching. Cassavetes took the advice. It is a moment to cherish when the man who spent his life in a passionate rejection of everything that Hollywood films represented briefly intersected with the youth who was to become the ultimate embodiment of the Hollywood dream works.
"There ought to be more books about John Cassavetes," declares Tom Charity in his introduction to John Cassavetes: Lifeworks. The publication in the same month of these two substantial contributions to the maverick director's bibliography should be enough to satisfy even the most ardent fan. Coming on the heels of a month-long Cassavetes season at the National Film Theatre in London, it seems that a dozen years after his death, a revival is under way. Charity hails Cassavetes as "arguably the most important American film-maker of the last 50 years", and both of these books are unashamedly driven by a profound conviction of the man's unique place in cinema history.
Looking again at Cassavetes's films, some of them more than four decades old now, it is striking how radical they still look. The early work in films such as Shadows and Faces preserves a capacity to disturb and unsettle, at times to exasperate. John Sayles called the films "raw cinema", and with their hand-held, grainy explorations of small emotions, often shot in black and white and shunning conventional narrative, they owe little to any familiar cinema tradition. The arrival of money and colour for later films did nothing to domesticate the Cassavetes vision. "It doesn't matter whether they like it," he said of one of his films. "It matters whether they feel something. We only have two hours to change people's lives."
As Charity says, Cassavetes's films are "entirely antithetical to the Hollywood industrial model, aesthetically, politically, even morally". His study is a critical biography, following the film-maker's life through an analysis of his dozen films. Charity calls the films "home movies in the most profound way". Certainly the account he gives of the technical chaos surrounding Cassavetes's early films, with 150 hours of unsynchronisable rushes requiring the help of lip readers to rescue Faces, confirm the director's bravura rejection of Hollywood values.
Charity prefaces his book with a quote from Jack Kerouac, and he effectively locates Cassavetes in the thick of America's early 1950s obsession with improvisation alongside the Beats, Abstract Expressionists, and Method mumblers of the time. Leila Goldoni, the star of Shadows , tells how "the shoot seemed like chaos. Everyone was doing everything. No one knew what was going on." But Charity underlines how the seeming spontaneity of films like Shadows is a spontaneity refined over 50 takes, and his admiration does not blind him to Cassavetes's ferocious controlling energy. "We pretend we're loose," Cassavetes said, "and in the end we're dictators."
Charity quotes Don Siegel's weary assessment of Cassavetes as "a huge pain in the neck" - and Siegel was a friend. At times the book's careful dissections of the films feel somehow out of alignment with the uncompromising creative fury that seems to have fuelled much of Cassavetes's life and work. After all, this was the director who became so absorbed during the making of Shadows that he briefly forgot he had a child. The reflections Charity has elicited from directors such as Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodóvar, Sayles and Peter Bogdanovich can sometimes verge on homage. The appendices, listing Cassavetes's filmography as director, his stage work, and film acting are useful; but the picture that emerges here of the man who described himself as "angry all the time" eludes the attentions of film analysis. As Sayles says in his contribution:
"Cassavetes's legacy lies not in the content or style of his films, but in the mere fact of them. If you were willing to pay the price, this could be done."
Charity acknowledges Carney as "a one-man Cassavetes appreciation society", and Carney's devotion to his subject is remarkable. In four books and dozens of essays, Carney has tirelessly pursued his dedication to the director. His new book is perhaps his ultimate testimony. Drawing extensively on Cassavetes's own accounts of his life and work, Carney - who knew the director and talked to him about his work - has constructed a sprawling confessional of a book. It is abundantly possessed of the energies that drove its subject, and ultimately the book seems to take on something of the character of a Cassavetes movie - rambling, indulgent, at times maddening, but unquestionably alive.
Carney can sound like a breathless fan at times. But despite the occasionally garrulous tone, his book is never less than interesting as it pursues its hero with an almost Boswellian ear for detail. The picture that emerges is a rich stew, an often unflattering, but ultimately human and convincing record of a rare talent struggling to express its vision against seemingly impossible odds.
Carney is fortunate in his subject's seeming need to talk endlessly about himself and his work. Self-dramatising, hectoring and disarming, Cassavetes's voice is unmistakable on every page: "It is my desire to be an underdog, to win on a long shot, to gamble, to take chances... I'm not part of anything, I never joined anything... I am prepared to kill any actor that won't reveal himself... A director has to be an animal trainer... I hate audiences... I hate being nice, I'm not nice." But beneath the noisy, combative bluster, Carney also hears the desperate commitment: "I make every picture like it's the last day of my life."
Carney's account of Cassavetes's lifelong battles to get his films made and distributed is an extraordinary record of the man's unstoppable determination to do it his way. More than once, he recut his films after successful previews, mistrustful of easy approval. "I won't kiss the behind of public opinion," he declared. Viewed from today's enslavement to test screenings and marketing, it is an endearing perversity; and the story of how Cassavetes scorned awful reviews to distribute Woman under the Influence himself, scoring his biggest commercial success, is a heartening antidote to the numbing manipulations of the global movie machine.
It is a real strength of Carney's book that his obvious admiration never stands in the way of his willingness to acknowledge the dark side of Cassavetes. He could be "petty, selfish, cruel and manipulative, apparently without compunction or regret", Carney concedes, insisting: "There is no reason to mince words about the negative sides of Cassavetes's behaviour. He shamelessly tricked, conned and used many of the people around him." Carney unflinchingly records how the director had to be restrained when he pursued actress Lynn Carlin with a butcher's knife during the shooting of Faces.
But Carney also puts his finger on the unique pulse that beats through Cassavetes's films, from Shadows to Love Streams . "He pioneered a new conception of what film can be and do. His vision was of film as a personal exploration of his life and the lives of the people around him." Cassavetes's rejection of the Hollywood stranglehold survived the decades of critical abuse and box-office failure. His description of the system he spent his life challenging is as pertinent today as it was 20 years ago:
"So regulated, so intoxicated with profits, so violently and quietly competitive that its boundaries make the Berlin Wall seem like something out of Disney." The wall may be gone, but the analysis, like Cassavetes's flawed but haunting films, remains as relevant as ever.
Leslie Woodhead is a film-maker specialising in documentaries and docudramas.
Cassavetes on Cassavetes
Author - Ray Carney
ISBN - 0 571 20157 1
Publisher - Faber
Price - £17.99
Pages - 526