Self-indulgence or Sheer Elegance?

Self-indulgence or Sheer Elegance?

Independent cinema has always been the unsung power behind the ever changing face of cinema. Every time the industry feels stale with the flood of “formula” films, some gifted soul pulls off something extraordinary that keeps the river flowing. Although these films polarize the film goers into love-hate relationships on their arrival, looking back at them years later reveals their vitality and contribution to the present state of affairs. However, ones who fall into either the love or hate category seem to perpetually remain in their domain and seldom find themselves feel otherwise.

The year was 1959. And an utterly low key film without any particular banner associated with had released. It was director by a relatively new actor in the industry. 50 years later, the film continues to amaze and charm audiences with the same power as it did at that time.  The actor was John Cassavetes and the film, Shadows. Months later, came Jean Luc Godard’s similar structured film Breathless (1960). Celebrated as the renaissance of cinema, Godard’s piece was an instant entrant into film school lessons.

Like the independent invention of calculus by Newton and Leibnitz, both Godard and Cassavetes had simultaneously come up with something peculiar, something hitherto unseen, something so fluid in its execution and hence something great. Both Godard’s and Cassavetes pieces have become chapters in film history. And when one watches Shadows, one is reminded of its concomitant film . However, the similarity ends here and the directors went in different directions.  Godard continued to amaze the world with his flashy cuts and out-of-the-blue petty events whereas Cassavetes went on with his improvisational style and serious notes, though their attention towards the relatively banal moments of life persisted. However, Godard was relatively more successful with the critics with his films than Cassavetes who was panned regularly and labeled “self-indulgent”.

Here is a sampling of critic-historian Leonard Maltin’s reviews of Cassavetes films:

  • “Cassavetes aficionados will probably like it; for others only marginally bearable.” (Love Streams)
  • “Strange, self-indulgent (even for Cassavetes) home movie” (Killing of a Chinese Bookie)
  • “Typically overlong, over-indulgent Cassavetes film” (A Woman under The Influence)
  • “…plagued by Cassavetes’ habitual self-indulgence.” (Husbands)
  • “Fascinating if you appreciate Cassavetes’ style, interminable if you don’t.” (Opening Night)

That brings us to the question: What is self- indulgence? For some, it is the thin line that separates La Dolce Vita from . And like the latter, Cassavetes’ audience is also split into ones who love his films and those who despise them. Films, and art in general, has always been about how the artist views the world he (or she) lives in (and sometimes about the world only he lives in), his choice of the medium he wishes to express his ideas in and how well he has been able to translate it onto the medium he works. On the other hand, appreciation of the film depends on how much the viewer accepts (not necessarily empathizes with) the world that is synthesized based on the whims of one person alone. And more comfortable the viewer feels in the director’s vision, louder is the viewer’s applause for it. Hence, the question whether a work is self-indulgent or not is strictly a matter of experience, social conditions and the era in which the film is watched. Having said that, Cassavetes films have definitely got more acceptance now than at their release and his work is getting universally recognized as one of the truest portrayal of the American society.

Shadows provides the perfect launch pad to get acquainted with Cassavetes’ style. It is often called an improvisation film and misunderstood that the whole plot was played out as the shooting went on. But, as with all of Cassavetes’ films, he wrote the plot, rehearsed it but let the characters cook up their emotions based on the events as the film was being shot. Hence the improvisation part sustains as far as the reactions are concerned not the actions. And this improvisation is what provides Cassavetes’ films their fluidity, credibility and unfortunately the tag of self-indulgence.

Take for instance, Husbands (1970), the most “self-indulgent” of all Cassavetes in my opinion. Three married friends are shattered by their pal’s death and lose faith in life and the meaning of it. They get away to a foreign country without their wives’ knowledge and engage in debauchery and lots of pointless chatter. This is where Cassavetes’ improvisational style seems to make the difference. He lets his on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown trio, played by the formidable threesome of Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself, shape up the moments on their own. As a result their idle talk and unwarranted activities seem no more than acts of drunken revelry and are hence forgettable.

This is in stark contrast with the situation in Faces (1968), considered his masterpiece by some. The notable early scene where John Marley and Lynn Carlin talk over the dinner table about their friends and the one where Marley and Gena Rowlands meet for the first time serve as the contrasting points. The situation is all jocular and the humour that it exudes is natural all the way. Everyone must have experienced such simple, magical moments and one loses any hostility and gets involved in the merriment. Contrary to this is Husbands whose primary premise alienates you from any significant experience and makes you question the leads’ motivations and actions. As a result you feel that Cassavetes is trying to universalize something very unique to him suiting his tastes.

Even the most riveting of all Cassavetes films, A Woman Under The Influence (1974), is called self-indulgent by many. With one of the best pair of performances that can challenge the Josephson-Ullmann duo of Scenes From A Marriage (1973) or the Hoffman-Streep duo from Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), A Woman Under The Influence carves out one of the best portraits of the working-class immigrant family in America. The film might have well been called A Man Under The Influence for it is not only Gena Rowlands who is crumbling under her syndrome, but also Peter Falk, who is trying to establish respectability among  the small section of his Italian friends and struggles to juggle the love for his wife and his yearning for honour among his friends. Again, perhaps, because of the bizarreness of the plot or because of the actions of the leads (In one notable scene, Falk allows his kids to booze), the ones not acquainted (and some who are) feel the film is drenched in Cassavetes’ perspective alone.

However, it is surprising to see even Opening Night, probably his most accessible film, being condemned. Opening Night, my favorite Cassavetes, follows the life of stage actress Rowlands and her inability to accept her aging and lost opportunities. It has the quintessential ingredients of a Cassavetes film – the constrained relationship with her husband Cassavetes (who happens to be her real life husband as well), a yearning to re-enter youth and the gravity of loneliness. The stage plays within the film play as vital a part as the plot itself just like later films such as Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) and Almodovar’s All About My Mother (1998) (Both of which are unanimously appreciated, though deservedly so). Long and testing agreed, it is still puzzling to see why such a character oriented film fell on the “other side of the line”.

Interestingly, some of his other works that are made in the same tradition as above films are accepted with open arms. Minnie And Moskowitz (1971) opens up to the audience like a regular Cassavetes film as far as his techniques are concerned – the extreme close-ups, the harsh city noise and between-the-crowd cameras et al. However, instead of a marital pair that starts out happy and gradually disintegrates – perhaps Cassavetes’ favorite theme – Minnie and Moskowitz plays as a romantic comedy with the ruffian Seymour Cassel and Gena Rowlands in search of love. Though Cassavetes yet again allows his cast to improvise upon the situations, they are pretty much within the “predictable” context and norms of a rom-com. Hence instead of being called a self-indulgent film, it was hailed as a quirky and uniquely refreshing portrait of love.

Another example of the same situation is Gloria (1980). Remembered for the veteran performance by Rowlands, the film follows the titular character who, reluctant at first, decides to defend an orphaned boy against a huge crowd of mafia led by her ex-lover.  Cassavetes wrote this for a mainstream movie without the intention of directing it and he eventually took it up for himself. Virtually, all of his idiosyncrasies are absent and it can be easily taken for any feel good film. Cassavetes’ take on the gangster genre was instantly lapped up by audience and even remade with Sharon Stone in the lead in 1999.  Now, that yet again proves that the notion of self-indulgence is more an experiential opinion than an absolute one.

And there is a nice adversarial relationship with two of his films The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) and Love Streams (1984), both of which involve leads that have their way with the women but yet are thorough loners. Both of them don’t seem to believe much in life except for a thing or two. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie unfolds as a straightforward story of a straightforward man who is willing to do things he can in order to save one thing he likes – his business. He believes that one’s happiness lies in one’s acceptance of his/her position and not what the society thinks, like the lead of Love Streams. Whatever happens, the show must go on, literally. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie is grilled by some critics whereas Love Streams is generally considered one of his best films even though it is more mysterious and alien than the former. Perhaps, the somber country atmosphere, the lovely Gena Rowlands and the fact that it became virtually his last film disarmed even the most skeptical, with the film’s final image lingering in the minds of everyone who knew this man and his works.