A New Look at John Cassavetes
Respect comes late for the actor-director, but Ray Carney's biography provides a reevaluation of the filmmaker's work
NEW YORK — SLOWLY but steadily, the amazing films of John Cassavetes are gaining the attention they deserve on the American movie landscape.
Although he was best known as the ruggedly handsome star of Hollywood hits like ``Rosemary's Baby'' and ``The Dirty Dozen,'' among many others, Cassavetes used his big-salary work in these commercial ventures to finance a string of deeply personal, highly idiosyncratic pictures that he wrote, directed, and frequently acted in himself. Some found success on the theatrical circuit - his masterpiece, ``A Woman Under the Influence,'' for example - but others, including such towering works as ``Opening Night'' and ``The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,'' were undervalued and overlooked.
Five years after his death, Cassavetes is now beginning to reap the respect he earned during his quarter-century filmmaking career. Some of his movies have been revived in theaters, and a few - although not nearly enough - are available on cassette from Buena Vista Home Video.
The latest sign of his reemergence is an insightful new book called ``The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies'' (Cambridge University Press, 323 pp., $14.95). It was written by Ray Carney, a Boston University film professor and longtime Cassavetes supporter.
CARNEY'S approach to Cassavetes is shaped by the depth and discipline of scholarly analysis, and also by the out-and-out enthuasiasm of a movie-lover writing about some of his favorite pictures. Like many viewers accustomed to more ordinary fare, Carney was confused and upset by his first viewing of ``Faces,'' the suburban drama that introduced him to Cassavetes's work. By the time he saw ``A Woman Under the Influence,'' though, he had started to understand the radical challenge Cassavetes was offering to the tried-and-true conventions of Hollywood entertainment.
``When it was over I left the theater, walked into a sidestreet, raised my arms, and whooped for joy,'' Carney recalled during a recent interview. ``To think I had lived long enough to see such an incredibly profound work!''
If such excitement is warranted over Cassavetes's films - and if he truly ranks with such artistic giants as Picasso and Stravinsky, as Carney claims - why aren't his productions better known to the average moviegoer?
``We have to consider how films get to be known,'' Carney answers. ``Cassavetes made small-budget independent movies. The advertising budget for the average [Hollywood] film is five or even 10 times what Cassavetes's entire production budget usually was. As for the free publicity that movies get from journalistic buzz and hype ... a genuine work of art doesn't plug into current events or mobilize the special-interest groups, so it's almost doomed to be ignored. I think if Henry James or Emily Dickinson were writing today, they wouldn't get on [popular radio programs] either. Their work isn't socially relevant enough - which goes to show how irrelevant social relevance is.''
Carney has strong feelings about the tendency of great works to be shunted aside because they don't suit the moods of the moment. Speaking of high-profile releases like ``Schindler's List,'' and ``Malcolm X,'' and ``Philadelphia,'' he wonders why they are taken so seriously.
``Does anyone beyond high school age actually learn anything from them?'' he asks. ``As far as I can tell, people go to them not to learn, not to change their minds and grow, but to have their received ideas reinforced and their prejudices reconfirmed. And also to feel good about how virtuous we are ... for not being anti-Semitic or homophobic or racist or insensitive, like the people in the movie.''
But this, he continues, has little connection with genuine art -
or a genuine artist like Cassavetes, who refuses to ``let us off the hook'' as these conventional movies do. ``He forces us to go into our own lives and ask questions about our own meanings, and recognize the deficiencies in ourselves. He doesn't pat us on the back, but tells us things we might not want to know.''
An outspoken gadfly in both the academic and cinematic worlds, Carney has long been dismayed by the failure of most critics to recognize Cassavetes's films. ``The appreciation of great art requires several things that are in short supply in our universities,'' he says with regret. ``First, a profound humility in the face of the work. Second, a willingness to engage in a sustained act of attention - an intimate, bare-fisted, personal encounter with the most complex form of expression we know. And third, an acknowledgment that the artist might just have something to tell us that we don't already know. Most academic criticism is the opposite.... It doesn't involve lovingly opening yourself to the work and learning from it.''
This reflects a profound shortcoming not only within the academic community, Carney feels, but within American culture as a whole. ``Just about everything today,'' he says, ``from our entertainment choices to our voting habits, is understood in terms of trends, demographics, and average audiences. So it isn't surprising that most academic criticism would unconsciously imitate the social sciences. The problem is, this means selling its soul to our century's three village explainers: sociology, psychology, ideology.
``But the greatest art won't be reduced to such terms,'' he adds emphatically. ``The most complex aspects of our minds and hearts are not reducible to generic, impersonal forms of understanding.'' The films of Cassavetes are an excellent example of this. ``They put meanings in motion. They dissolve static understandings. Cassavetes captures spiritual and emotional states of streamingness, presenting the feel of life as it's actually lived at its most complex and exciting. It's a wild, propulsive race of experiences that will never be reduced to pop-culture archetypes or ideological generalizations.''
All this makes Cassavetes a profoundly American artist, Carney says, ``in that he refuses to allow himself or his characters to take refuge in abstract or theoretical stances. He forces us - through incredibly dense and complex welters of experience that are exhilarating but very demanding - to negotiate. There's a philosophical tradition anchored in the writing of Emerson and William James that argues for taking the path of greatest resistance.... Cassavetes embodies that exhilarating, demanding, bracing philosophy in the experience of his films: minute by minute, second by second.''