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John Cassavetes
John Cassavetes
John Cassavetes

In Hollywood Renaissance, one of the first literary attempts in the U.S. to describe the phenomenon of 1970s American cinema, critic Diane Jacobs writes that standing besides such influential filmmakers as Altman, Coppola or Scorsese, was the seminal filmmaker John Cassavetes. Describing his oeuvre, she regards him as the 'father' of the New Hollywood only intuitively: I have included him because he does appeal to my taste, and rather than taking on the impossible task of converting his detractors, I will adhere to analysis of the works themselves.[1] From today's perspective, it is clear Cassavetes had little in common with the New Hollywood. He so far outstripped his contemporaries that he is perceived not as the father of the New Hollywood, but instead as the father independent cinema of the 1980s.

John Cassavetes was born in New York in 1929. He made his way to cinema, as he claimed, by accident, starting out as an actor in the 1950s, creating rebellious and independent characters. It was then that he married his lifelong partner Gena Rowlands. Rowlands became not only his wife, companion, and muse, but also the main protagonist of many of his movies. At the end of the decade, with the help and financial support of friends, Cassavetes made his first independent movie Shadows, a huge success on the East Coast and in Europe. The young director drew the attention of Hollywood, but after a series of difficult experiences while making two more movies (Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting), Cassavetes returned from Hollywood to New York. Several years of relative inactivity followed, after which he returned to Los Angeles. The end of the 1960s brought a new, mature period of his oeuvre. He acted in Hollywood productions to raise money for his independent movies, completing nine independent productions. In addition to Shadows, he directed, successively, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Killing of the Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, Gloria, and Love Streams. Cassavetes died in 1989 after a prolonged struggle with cirrhosis of the liver.

For many years, Cassavetes was a lonely figure in American cinema. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that his influence on other filmmakers became evident. Writing about the independent cinema of that period, Geoff King stresses both the artistic and organizational input of this 'maverick.'[2] From the outset, Cassavetes managed to make his movies outside of the system or by cooperating with Hollywood and retaining artistic control. He supervised all stages of filmmaking and, often against union regulations, performed all the jobs. He was a scriptwriter, cinematographer, editor, director, and actor for his films. He created his own distribution company, coordinated media coverage, and exhibited his films at film festivals across the United States and on college campuses. After screenings, he discussed the movies with the audiences, often provoking controversies and polemic discussions.

For Cassavetes the most important thing was reality, an approach Jacobs calls 'instinctual realism.' The director felt mainstream cinema, in using mainly tired formulas, was too far removed from everyday issues. He was keenly interested in the surrounding world, in situations and events that superficially seemed banal a husband returning from work children returning from school, or dates, or meeting up with friends.

He focused his attention on the ridiculed and scorned - middle-class people, housewives (Faces, A Woman under the Influence, Love Streams), people from show business and art (Shadows, The Killing of the Chinese Bookie, Opening Night), as well as dodgers and crooks (Faces, Gloria). He observed how they manage their lives, marriages, and families, or how they react to the death of a close friend. He would examine their first symptoms of aging or their deep need for emotional closeness with others.

After the release of Shadows, Cassavetes came to be associated with improvisation, spontaneous acting (and reacting) in front of the camera. This only partially describes his work. His shooting on location often produced camera movements, lighting and editing that might appear careless at first glance. However, Cassavetes intentionally subjugated everything to the truth of feelings and emotions. For him, that truth was so important, he did not hesitate to postpone shooting to work with actors for hours on a single scene. There was always time for improvisation, but on the condition that both he and his actors knew the script well.

American independent cinema walks a fragile tightrope between complete rejection of classical rules and their moderate use to keep the viewer engaged. As King stresses, Cassavetes was the first director in American cinema who managed to balance these two with perfect poise and elegance.

Elżbieta Durys


[1] Diane Jacobs (1977), Hollywood Renaissance. Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc, p. 35.

[2] Geoff King (2005), American Independent Cinema. London & New York: I.B. Tauris.

 

Biography

John Cassavetes (1929–1989), the New York-born American actor and film auteur of Greek origin, is now recognized as the father American independent cinema. He claimed he made his way to cinema by accident. Starting out as an actor in the 1950s specializing in rebellious and independent characters, he very quickly found acting too limiting. By the end of the decade, with the help and financial support of some friends, he made his first independent movie Shadows, which was a huge success on the East Coast and in Europe. The young director drew the attention of Hollywood, but after a series of difficult experiences while making two more movies (Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting), Cassavetes returned from Hollywood to New York. Several years of relative inactivity followed. He moved back to Los Angeles with Gena Rowlands, his wife, companion, muse, and main protagonist of many of his future movies. The end of the 1960s brought a new, mature period of his oeuvre. His acting in Hollywood productions was only to raise money for his independent movies. In total, he would make nine independent films. In addition to the above-mentioned Shadows, there were successively: Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Killing of the Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, Gloria, and Love Streams. He died in 1989 after a long struggle with cirrhosis of the liver.

From the beginning, Cassavetes’ films aroused controversy. Approached with caution in the United States, he was greeted enthusiastically in Europe. Krzysztof Mętrak keenly summed up, in a broad sense, the director’s films, when he referred to them as Cassavetes pulp, a phrase that can be attributed multiple meanings. Cassavetes rejected formal and thematic conventions, serving his viewers the pulp. More importantly, he did not suggest any solutions. He touched very painful issues in a very precise way, ultimately showing no way out, no simple solution but pulp. Viewers who made the decision to immerse themselves in Cassavetes’ world, might well feel beaten to a pulp.

(Elżbieta Durys)

Filmography

1959 Cienie / Shadows

1961 Spóźniony blues / Too Late Blues

1963 Dziecko czeka / A Child Is Waiting

1968 Twarze / Faces

1970 Mężowie / Husbands

1971 Minnie i Moskowitz / Minnie and Moskowitz

1974 Kobieta pod presją / A Woman Under the Influence

1976 Zabójstwo chińskiego bukmachera / The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

1977 Premiera / Opening Night

1980 Gloria

1984 Strumienie miłości / Love Streams

1986 Wielki kłopot / Big Trouble


TV films

Johnny Staccato, odcinki / TV episodes: Murder for Credit (1959), Evil (1959), A Piece of Paradise (1959), Night of Jeopardy (1960), Solomon (1960)

The Lloyd Bridges Show, odcinki / TV episodes: A Pair of Boots (1962), My Daddy Can Beat Your Daddy (1963)

Bob Hope Presents Chrystler Theatre, odcinek / TV episode: In Pursuit of Excellence (1966)

Columbo, odcinek / TV episode: Étude in Black (1972)

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