Confessions of a John Cassavetes fan
Early next month, a major movie event will occur -- the release of a new film by John Cassavates, a filmmaker whose professional expertise, coupled with a highly personal approach, makes his every new effort a major one. It's called Gloria, it stars Gena Rowlands, and like many Cassavates pictures, it's a work of exhilirating highs and devastating lows.
The title character is a tough-talking, gun-toting blonde from the Bronx. In her tenement lives a Puerto Rican family that's been marked for execution by the mob, and they beg her to smuggle their young son out of the building.
"I'd like to help," says Gloria, "but I really don't like children. Especially yours."
Clearly we are not in for much sentimentality during the next two hours. Yet our heroine relents, and the rest of the movie follows her and seven-year-old Phil on their madcap race from the crooks, the cops, and just about everyone else in New York City.
Cassavetes is a natural filmmaker who operates largely on instinct. "Gloria" doesn't bother much about logic, common sense, or seamless storytelling.
It's a jagged, hectic film that careens from one extreme to another, with hardly a breath between love and danger and heartache and comedy. It's a work of primary colors and primal emotions. It makes you laugh, it makes you gasp, it infuriates you, it makes you wonder what's going on here. In its vivid images, highly energetic motion from shot to shot and scene to scene, and the quirky vitality of its story line and performances.
There are times when the plot generates keen suspense as the unlikely fugitives outwit their pursuers in outlandish ways. But this may be followed by suddenly sheer craziness as the plot veers into some unrelated absurdity.
But the story never makes you wish you were somewhere else, watching some safer, less crazily impulsive movie.
I have been a Cassavetes fan ever since "A Woman Under the Influence" in 1974 , which is my favorite movie, despite a few hundred flaws that would have wrecked a lesser film. But its not easy being a Cassavetes fan. I remained loyal to "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" -- a neglected masterpiece -- against an onslaught of nearly unanimous bad reviews. And even I have heartily mixed feelings about the subsequent "Opening Night" and the new "Gloria," which is dogged by problems that include murky plot twists and a weak performance by the juvenile lead.
But you have to admire a filmmaker who follows his own lights so relentlessly , with the faithful help of his wife (Gena Rowlands) and a long list of long-time associates. His film take dizzying risks, often teetering on the brink of disaster. Yet when they work, even in part, you know you've seen an aesthetic balancing act of the highest and most artistically rewarding kind.
"Gloria" had its beginnings after the commercial disappointment of "Opening Night," which left Cassavetes with "a lot of debts." To raise some capital, he wrote the "Gloria" script and peddled it to Hollywood. "Then my agent called," Cassavetes told me recently over lunch. "The good news was, Columbia would buy the script. The bad news was, they wanted me to direct it."
Cassavetes is joking when he calls this "bad news," but its a rueful joke, as his relations with the major studios has been rocky at times. Happily, his marriage with Columbia went swimmingly, and he was able to explore the situation that fascinated him in "Gloria" -- the forced partnership between a woman who's suspicious of kids, and a kid who has nowhere else to turn.
"There's a lot of pain connected with raising children in today's world," says Cassavetes. "It's considered a big holdback. So a lot of women have developed a distrust of children.
"I wanted to tell women that they don't have to like children -- but there's still something deep in them that relates to children, and this separates them from men in a good way. This inner understanding of kids is something very deep and instinctive. In a way, it's the other side of insanity. But we had to be careful how we evoked this in the movie. We avoided anything like a traditional mother-son relationship."
As a filmmaker, Cassavetes cares little about being fashionable, and the same often goes for his characters. That explains another implication of his new movie, which deals with the dynamics between different etnic and social groups.
"The kid is Puerto Rican. The woman is a blonde of a type who might not ordinarily think a Hispanic was the highest member of society. Even when they're thrown together, they don't pretend to care about each other because it's fashionable. So at the end, when they dom care about each other, it because of their personal trust and regard. And that's a beautiful thing to see."
Cassavetes addresses each of his films "to a certain audience -- namely, people involved in the type of life style we're dealing with. 'Gloria' is a movie for street people. I can't ask people who are comfortable in their lives, with no problems, to be spectagularly interested in this picture. That kind of person will criticize it and say we made up the story as we went along. I wish I had the ability to do that!
"Actually, we spend months and years working out the philosophical intent of each picture. And if that intent is strong enough, it will come across to people when we express it in human terms, and they will respond to it.
"Like all my films, 'Gloria' wasn't made to please people. It's only a work, an expression. I just hope people will respond to it -- and that's a lot different from trying to pleasem them."
Besides being a busy writer and director, Cassavetes is a distinguished actor. As a director, he has a reputation for glorifying the performance aspects of his pictures, which separates him from filmmakers who concentrate on technical or visual elements. I asked him if he wields a strong hand on the set -- if he directsm his movies a lot.
"I can't say I don't do it," he answered, "but I never do it well. I've never given one direction that's been good. Actors don't need direction, they need attention. I'll step in as a director -- I'm laden with an ego, like everyone else -- but whenever I have to open my mouth, I know I'm probably wrong.
"There's a unique warmth and camaraderie among actors. It's very uncomfortable to be the director. A good director is tough and unswayable. But I'm a sucker for actors -- I have a soft spot, I like them. Years ago, I used actors to make a point. But, thank goodness, I learned not to do that. . . ."
One performer who never tires of working with Cassavetes is his wife, Gena Rowlands, who found "Gloria" a particularly stimulating challenge. "It was a tremendously physical picture," she told me recently. "You never anticipate that aspect when you're reading the script -- it just says, 'Then she jumps into the icy waters below,' and you thumb ahead to find your next dialogue.
"This role turned out to require enormous physical energy. And the emotional level took it out of me, too. But I loved doing it, partly because I've always wanted to work with a child on a one-to-one basis. Kids aren't brainwashed. You never know what they're going to do or say. It keeps you honest, in movies as in life! Also, it was a new experience having a leading man who doesn't read."
Cassavetes deeply admires his wife's work in "Gloria," as in other pictures they have done together. "She and the kid found an amazing restraint," he says. "Most people today say, 'Tell me you like me, tell me you love me.' People need that reassurance, that confirmation of things that should be self-evident. But these characters go on the basis that there are certain emotions and rules that go beyondm words and assurances. They just know.m And I likem that part of the movie."
However critics and audiences respond to "Gloria" -- and with its goofiness in the plot department, it's likely to be one of the most controversial movies of the year -- it reaffirms New York as a center for pictures about people, as opposed to starships and disasters and country music.
Has Cassavetes taken a risk in making a film about emotions, without a single minute of spectacural effects?
"I don't think it's a risk," he replies. "It's one of the surest bets in town that people have feelings. If you don't believe that, you haven't experienced anything in life. . . ."