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Cassavetes on Cassavetes

     Film critics who care deeply about cinema (not all!) generally have a filmmaker or two for whom they care even more, for whom they tumble on their backs and get giddy with hyperbole when writing about. Obvious examples: Pauline Kael with Sam Peckinpah, Andrew Sarris about Max Ophuls, the Phoenix's Peter Keough concerning Krzysztof Kieslowski. And don't get me started with the sublime John Ford! Still, nobody but nobody approaches the Boswellian outpouring-speeches, articles, scholarship, college courses, panels, retrospectives, and a love stream of books-from Boston University film professor, Ray Carney, in keeping alive to the world the late great indie filmmaker, John Cassavetes.

     "I've written more about Cassavetes than everyone combined," Carney told me, in a telephone talk upon the publication this month of his vigorous, essential, ten-years-in-the-making, 500-page tome, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber, $25). "This makes five books, and they hardly overlap each other. My earlier writing on Cassavetes was academic, analytical, straight criticism, and I suppressed the biographical part, in respect to his widow [Gena Rowlands]. This time, I'm reading the films through a different lens.

     "Cassavetes had been private, hidden under masks, a kind of Jerry Lewis show-off clown. He had some very unpleasant personal attributes, and often he told you only what he thought you wanted to hear. But in the final decade of his life, he opened up to me. He sent me a lot of hearfelt letters. He called me on the phone. He drove me in a car. I can't claim I was his best friend, or a close friend, but he felt he could trust me. Now, eleven years after he died, I feel I can reveal things he told me that say a lot about his films. I'm opening up a cabinet to his heart, and I'm telling the story of his life for the first time."

     Why Carney as handpicked confidant? "Cassavetes had been very suspicious of journalists. His films were jeered at and abused by critics such as Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael, and John Simon, who asked, 'Who gives this guy money to make movies?' Then, in the 1980s, I, a young and dumb college teacher, wrote a book that's adoring..."

     There's no debate in Europe. Cassavetes, who died at 59 in 1989, is revered among cinema's masters, and revivals of his eleven features are popular events. In his home country, most filmgoers are unfamiliar with his wildly idiosyncratic, gutsy, no-compromise and no-closure cinema. Only two of his movies made a profit, Faces (1968), and his most acclaimed work, A Woman Under the Influence (1984), and most others were catastrophic box-office failures. But a defiant Cassavetes didn't care, nor should we. Some of his "loser" films are, for me, enduring American classics: Shadows (1959), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Love Streams (1984).

     These are family dramas always, and love stories. But what crazy, crazy families, and what abrasive, no-quarter love stories! Cassavetes: "Well, my idea of a love story is when two people get together and go through so much turmoil and so much pain in just loving each other... I don't know what anybody else feels, but... it's been an extremely harrowing experience to me. It's easy to be in love with someone for five minutes. But you put it over a twenty-year period of marriage - you get tired of a wife... you know all their stories, all their jokes, and your tastes begin to splinter and go in different directions. In every love situation, whatever people do, they mess up."

     What a romantic vantage from which to forge crowd-pleasing American movies! But it's his bruised, blunt way of regarding relationships, this typical raw quote from Cassavetes on Cassavetes. Carney's brilliantly pioneered voyage through the filmmaker's life and times utilizes Cassavetes' inimitable voice as the first-person narrative.

     There are two fabulous reasons to devour the huge book cover-to-cover as I did: (l) For the unordinary things that Cassavetes says, some totally nuts, some self-deceived, many wise and inspiring. (2) For the extraordinary insights into Cassavetes' production methods, which are beyond unorthodox, certainly off the charts and away for any other person who ever has ever made a film.

     Finishing this splendid read, I only wanted more from Carney: a formal Cassavetes biography, with tell-all about the filmmaker's heavy drinking and skirtchasing. Also needing elucidation is his marriage of opposites to Rowlands, a proper, lady-like star. Why did she stay on, being shouted at and humiliated on the set, also being cheated on, all those turbulent years?

(August, 2001)


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