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Cinematic Jazz: The Myth of John Cassavetes

When people talk about John Cassavetes, you can hear the opening chords to "Blitzkrieg Bop" in the background. He's become the patron saint not only of independent film (the Independent Spirit Awards have named a prize for the best film made under $500,000 after him) but of indie rock. Fugazi and Le Tigre wrote songs about him, and there's a documentary on indie rock called "Songs For Cassavetes." However, judging from his films, his favorite style of music seemed to be jazz. The style of a director like Robert Bresson, with its ascetic formalism and its eventual descent into post-counterculture nihilism, is actually much closer to a cinematic equivalent of the sound and ethos of punk rock, yet Sonic Youth never wrote a song called "The Devil, Probably." All of this acclaim would have benefited a director who was too often dismissed during his lifetime.

Cassavetes often funded his work by acting in films like Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and Brian De Palma’s “The Fury.” While he was alive, many film critics looked on his directorial efforts as an amateurish sideline. Pauline Kael ridiculed them. Dave Kehr, who wrote for the "Chicago Reader" at the time, had the bravery to put "A Woman Under the Influence," "Gloria" and "Love Streams" on his top 10 lists for that paper and write an excellent review in praise of "Love Streams." Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an essay celebrating the director in 1980 on the occasion of a Cassavetes retrospective in New York. Yet Kehr and Rosenbaum were lone voices in the wilderness until Boston University professor Ray Carney came along and began loudly championing Cassavetes. These days, Carney's reputation is mud thanks to his ill treatment of filmmaker Mark Rappaport's archive, but his editing of "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" and writing several books on the director established a sense that those  of us who found merit in his work were far from crazy. Carney's writing  coincided with the rise of "indie cinema", although the writer's rather narrow tastes didn't exactly fall in line with Sundance's. In Cassavetes, "indie" suddenly found a father figure.

A look at Criterion's new DVD of "Love Streams" easily debunks the once-common notion that Cassavetes' films were ineptly filmed acting class exercises. The film, adapted from a play by Ted Allan by the playwright and Cassavetes, contrasts the lives of a brother, Robert (Cassavetes) and hs sister Sarah (Cassavetes’ wife and frequent star Gena Rowlands). Robert is a womanizing writer, perpetually clad in a tux, while Sarah is a mentally unstable woman going through a difficult divorce. A dream sequence, which turns into a song and dance number, is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking. It's true that many scenes are simple close-ups and medium shots, emphasizing dialogue and the actors' faces. There are also plenty of elaborately choreographed tracking shots. Cassavetes devoted a great deal of attention to the background/foreground contrast, particularly in the final half hour, most of which takes place in Robert's house as rain pours outside. The costumes and production design play blue shades against earth tones.

Cassavetes never made a Film About Addiction in the vein of "Leaving Las Vegas," "Requiem For A Dream" or "The Lost Weekend." Many of his characters are heavy drinkers, but I doubt they think of themselves as alcoholics. I'm not even sure that the director himself thought of them that way, but their world is still warped by a filter of constant boozing. (Ironic that the staunchly straight-edge Fugazi would devote a song to him!) Robert has either a drink or cigarette in his hand in almost every scene. Cassavetes would die from cirrhosis a few years after making "Love Streams," and the effects of heavy drinking and smoking had already taken their toll on his looks by the time this film was made. Mental illness is also addressed by several of his films in a similarly tough-minded but unconventional manner (memorably, Sarah says “I’m almost not crazy”).

Both siblings are severely flawed, but the film does everything in its power to prevent the audience from understanding them too quickly. It doesn't even bring them together until its first third has passed, and until that point, many spectators will assume that Robert and Sarah are lovers, not siblings. If Robert and Sarah are screwed-up people, with whom most of us would prefer not to live, the film eventually shows that they're fundamentally good people.

For many, Cassavetes' appeal is something akin to the popularity of Richard Linklater's "Boyhood": they can recognize traces of real experience in his films. A movie like "Love Streams" is the opposite of a Quentin Tarantino film, in which almost no element comes from life, despite his recent attempts to engage with history. The very jaggedness of Cassavetes’ forms also speaks of an engagement with the messiness of life. Yet there are also stylized elements in the Cassavetes oeuvre: "A Woman Under the Influence" and "Opening Night" borrow from Hollywood melodrama, and a few of Robert's lines sound like Godardian aphorisms.

Despite Carney’s best efforts, the myth that Cassavetes’ films were improvised persists. The lionizing of him as the “father of indie” hasn’t led to particularly good films in America, with Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” being the great exception. (It’s such a precise Cassavetes imitation that it’s frequently been included in retrospectives of the director’s films, where his final film, the mediocre work-for-hire comedy “Big Trouble,” is usually excluded. Of course, “Mikey and Nicky” benefits from starring the man himself and his frequent actor Peter Falk.)

In France, it’s a different story. Cassavetes was a major influence on the best filmmakers who emerged shortly after the French New Wave. Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel took the American's melodramatic tendencies and turned them in a personal, even autobiographical direction. Pialat added a radical penchant for narrative ellipses. Garrel and Eustache retold major events from their lives in a somewhat more literary style than Cassavetes but retained his tendency towards explosive emotional catharsis.

Paradoxically, the mythology around Cassavetes has had the effect of isolating him, rather than seeing him as a peer of other independent directors like Monte Hellman, Shirley Clarke and the Andy Warhol of “Chelsea Girls.” It’s kept his work outside consideration as part of world cinema (although one of his most articulate and fervent champions is French critic Nicole Brenez.) Hopefully, the Criterion release of “Love Streams” will draw more attention to the actual content of Cassavetes’ work, which deserves plenty of attention.

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