Speaking up for Cassavetes as director

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American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience, by Raymond Carney. Berkeley: University of California Press. 335 pp. $27.50. Actor/director John Cassavetes lives on the Hollywood establishment's edge, dipping into the mainstream now and then for a single reason: to finance maverick projects of his own that steer clear of Hollywood conventions.

If he really is ``America's most profound and interesting filmmaker,'' as ``American Dreaming'' claims, why isn't Cassavetes famous for directing as well as acting?

Take a look at ``Opening Night'' or ``The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,'' and you'll know in a minute. Cassavetes doesn't just twist the usual formulas into arty new shapes. He plunges into stories from angles no other filmmaker has heard of -- tackling fiction with the steely eye of a documentarist, and giving so freely of his feelings that the camera seems to laugh and cry with the people it's photographing.

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It's a risky style, and Cassavetes works without a net, refusing to hide or prettify the rough patches of his material. His most sublime achievements, including ``A Woman Under the Influence,'' have crude or careless moments swept visibly under the rug. Other pictures hardly work at all, fueled by poorly aimed enthusiasm. If he played it safe enough to avoid the pitfalls, though, Cassavetes might never find the peaks. And find them he does, guided by an instinctive blend of insight and integrity.

All of which makes Cassavetes a tough nut for critics to crack. The standard ``genre'' and ``auteur'' pigeonholes aren't roomy enough for his unruly talent, and pundits tend to resist what they can't classify.

A lack of extended commentary doesn't mean Cassavetes is as neglected as Raymond Carney suggests, though. His best films have earned glowing reviews; some have made money; and even an eccentric excursion like the recent ``Love Streams'' showed up on more than one ten-best list, including mine.

As for Carney's book as a whole, its main thesis is sound: that the best Cassavetes films only seem rude and undisciplined because they're not organized around a ``packaged reality'' of neat plots and star performances. I also like the idea that role-playing is a subject as well as a device in Cassavetes movies -- that artfully ``making a scene'' is one of the things they, and their characters, are all about.

Carney explains just about everything with a few propositions like these, though, reducing Cassavetes's work to formulas and patterns as zealously as the critics he scorns. His knotty prose doesn't echo the freedom and spontaneity of the films he admires. His facts are sometimes wobbly, especially when he veers away from film -- linking choreographer Paul Taylor with jazz, for example. While lauding Cassavetes's concern with domestic life, he fails to trace this back to the filmmaker's own experience.

Even the index is a letdown: Incredibly, there's no heading for Cassavetes's wife and collaborator, Gena Rowlands!

Still, this challenging filmmaker has long deserved more attention, and I'm glad a book-length study has appeared, flawed or not. If it encourages more of the same, ``American Dreaming'' will have performed a valuable service.

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