Fresh Look at Cassavetes's Career

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

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.

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.

"A Woman Under the Influence" is my favorite Cassavetes movie for several reasons. For one, the filmmaker's blistering visual style is matched by an especially powerful story - about mental anguish, emotional trauma, and the endurance of love in a working-class household - that seems to have erupted full-blown from the most deeply rooted insights of Cassavetes and his collaborators.

For another, it features Cassavetes's most treasured colleague, Gena Rowlands, in what may be the most astonishing performance of her career. For yet another, it's a movie that focuses on "women's issues" and "family values" with a passion and intelligence still undreamed-of by the vast majority of filmmakers today, much less in 1974 when it was first released.

In addition to "A Woman Under the Influence" and "Shadows," other films in the Touchstone collection are:

* "Faces" (1968), starring Ms. Rowlands with Seymour Cassell and Lynn Carlin, a story of love and infidelity that brings abrasive honesty to bear on mercurial characters and situations.

* "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976), with Ben Gazzara in the stunningly acted tale of a small-time nightclub owner hooked uncomfortably to the mob.

* "Opening Night" (1978), starring Rowlands, Cassavetes, and a superb supporting cast in the drama of an aging actress facing grave doubts about her present and future.

Touchstone has shown admirable taste in choosing these particular works for its Cassavetes collection, since they are arguably the five strongest films of his career. Others also have a great deal of merit, including "Husbands," which was a favorite of Cassavetes himself, and the complex "Love Streams," his last major work.

This said, it's true that Cassavetes fell short of his high standard at times, as in portions of his early "Too Late Blues," the slightly later "A Child Is Waiting," and the much later "Gloria," all of which suffered from interference by studios that invested in them. Even these pictures still have much to offer, however, and one hopes Touchstone will see fit to make them part of the collection at some point, as well.

The last time I spoke with Cassavetes, near the end of 1988, it was to tell him of the triumphant reception given to "Opening Night" in a New York Film Festival showing about ten years after it was completed. No distributor had been courageous enough to acquire this brilliant work and bring it to movie theaters until then. Cassavetes was touched by the news of his film's belated success, and he would surely be pleased to know it's now available for theatrical presentation (from Castle Hill Films, which h as acquired several Cassavetes pictures) and is heading into the video market.

This news is most meaningful, however, to audiences who can now discover his work for themselves. Video is hardly the best way to see these films, which leap to vivid life on the wide theatrical screen, but it's better than not seeing them at all. For the moviemaker who hated "the movies," it's a welcome start.

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