(09/08/07) – Perhaps you could dub him the patron saint of American independent cinema, although the word ‘saint’ strikes a dircordant note with his personal and artistic personas. Semantic glitches aside, it’s beyond dispute that John Cassavetes was a one-man movement in the history of American cinema, the equivalent of the Novelle Vague in the United States, a pioneer and definer of verity cinema. Akin to European cinema in terms of form, Cassavetes’ films were, nonetheless, very much about the American homo sapiens and the peculiarities of human interaction he observed in his native country in his time.
As his friend and collaborator Peter Falk said, the main theme that runs through all of the director’s ouevre is the idea that ‘man is god in ruins’. Cassavetes did not flinch from watching and showing the collision crash of the human experience. His approach to, and vision of, cinema, which in some respects have become naturalised stylistic staples, are the source of inspiration for most contemporary filmmakers who try to make art with film. Like most auteurs, his work started to be properly appreciated after his death, which took place in 1989 when he was 59.
His career as a director – he was also an actor, and played, among many roles, Mia Farrow’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)- started in 1959 with Shadows, which brough him critical recognition and won him several award nominations. During early part of the the 1960s, his work was more focused on television, although he made some of his less famous films in that period, such as Too Late Blues (1961), A Pair of Boots (1962) and A Child Is Waiting (1963).
Then in 1968 he made Faces, starring his wife Gena Rowlands, whose face is something of an effigy on Cassavetes’ films, as she starred in all of his key, most celebrated works. Widely acclaimed, the film won him an Oscar-nomination and the cult of Cassavetes was established.
After that came a string of films that have become arthouse classics such as Husbands (1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) and Love Streams (1984), his final work and artistic statement, shot when Cassavetes was already aware of his illness.
It is on the production of Cassavetes’ production of Love Streams that Cassavetes Directs, one of the latest releases on Kamera Books, focuses on. Journalist and author Michael Ventura was friends with Cassavetes and in 1983 he got asked by the director to be on the set and write down everything he saw, a kind of production diary through the eyes of an outsider to the filmmaking process. Cassavetes’ brief: ‘a daring book, a tough book.’ Ventura says that all he had to do for "daring" and "tough" was "transcribe this man’s audacity day by day".
Cassavetes Directs candidly describes the creation of Love Streams day by day, and is crammed with exchanges between Cassavetes and his crew on the set, observations of his character as well as his entourage’s. In a way, it reads almost like a ‘film within the film’ as Ventura adopts a verity style in his own writing. Despite being structured like a diary, with date heads and notes at the end of each section informing whether the day’s work was used in the final cut, it reads like a script, a film on paper.
The book’s fly-on-wall, warts-and-all style provides a realist behind-the-scenes view that mirrors Cassavetes’ own filmic style. Possibly, it’s the closest anyone of us can ever get to the director. Such proximity can at points turn to awe because of his relentless energy and intensity as a man. But sometimes it whips up a feeling of love and tenderness, as Ventura also paints a man who is full of kindness and compassion, a complex artist whose febrile mind worked incessantly. You get the impression that for Cassavetes life was an experience to be hacked through, with film as the tool to do so.
Cassavetes Directs is out now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.