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Fresh Look at Cassavetes's Career

The underrated filmmaker's oeuvre gets a boost from Touchstone collection of his best films. ON VIDEO

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 1992


JOHN CASSAVETES was badly underrated by critics and moviegoers during his career, and has remained so since his untimely death in 1989. Although he was widely respected by his colleagues in the film world - who gave him three Academy Award nominations as director, writer, and actor - the pictures he made rarely clicked at the box office or won raves from reviewers.

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Happily, such neglect may soon be a thing of the past. I saw strong signs of this at a Cassavetes festival held recently by Le Cinematographe, an enterprising Manhattan theater. Audiences were large, highly enthusiastic, and predominantly young - suggesting that Mr. Cassavetes's pictures, made between 1957 and 1984, appear relevant and exciting to a new generation of spectators.

Equally encouraging is the overdue appearance of several major Cassavetes films on video, under the Touchstone Home Video banner. The first to arrive in stores is "A Woman Under the Influence," a strong contender as the greatest of all Cassavetes works. Four more pictures will follow in months to come.

It isn't hard to figure out why Cassavetes has gone for so long with so little praise. An artist of rare ingenuity and unheard-of boldness, he never made things easy for his audience. He preferred not to soothe but to challenge the imagination, the intelligence, and above all the emotional capacities of those who saw his films.

Indeed, he was a moviemaker who railed against "the movies" every chance he got. Although he earned much of his living (and the financing for his own films) by starring in Hollywood hits like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Dirty Dozen," the pictures he made were very different, avoiding standard formulas with extraordinary vigor.

In his 1971 comedy-drama "Minnie and Moskowitz," the Minnie character gives a whole speech about how movies cheat audiences by promising a neatness and clarity that have nothing to do with real experience. Life is "never as clear as it is in movies," Cassavetes himself once said. "People don't know what they are doing most of the time. They don't know what they want. It's only in `the movies' that they know what their problems are and have game plans to deal with them."

Ray Carney, an authority on Cassavetes's life and work, quotes that remark in a Kenyon Review article whose title, "The Adventure of Insecurity," perfectly sums up the risky ambitions and profound accomplishments of Cassavetes's best films, which bring a unique blend of compassion and tough-mindedness to characters who haven't the first idea "what they are doing" or "what they want" much of the time. Along with a few other critics, Dr. Carney has been working to bolster Cassavetes's reputation for many y ears, and it's good to see that such efforts are bearing fruit at last.

Of the five Cassavetes pictures from Touchstone, the one with the earliest production date is "Shadows," a drama of young love and racial tension that launched Cassavetes's directing career 35 years ago.

Although it retains its power as both storytelling and filmmaking, "Shadows" is uncharacteristic of Cassavetes's subsequent work, since it was largely improvised by its performers. Films from his later career frequently have a similar feeling of urgent spontaneity; spectators new to Cassavetes sometimes think all his movies were improvised while the camera rolled. But in fact, his mature pictures were carefully planned and written in advance, and (as research by Carney has demonstrated) filmed with metic ulous care under Cassavetes's alert guidance.