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Saturday, October 27, 2007

John Cassavetes (originally published 9/97)

Getting a movie made is a grueling, heart-breakingly difficult project, even for those who play ball with the system, kissing up to all the right people and tiptoeing past all the landmines. For those who are habitual boat-rockers, congenitally unable to suffer fools gladly, the completion of a feature film is all but impossible. That's why the genuine mavericks of the American film industry can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

One of them was John Cassavetes. You may be familiar with his work as an actor in such films as "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Dirty Dozen." What is less well known is that he was also a writer-director. If this is news to you, don't feel too badly. Because Cassavetes chose to work entirely outside the Hollywood studio system, his films received only minimal distribution. Furthermore, his highly individual and idiosyncratic style virtually guaranteed that his films would be dismissed by both popular reviewers and highbrow critics. With all that going against him, it's hardly surprising that many people are entirely unaware of his work as a filmmaker. The really astonishing thing is that he managed to create not one, not two, but ten films in the face of all this neglect.

And now he has pulled off the most amazing coup of all: releasing a new film some eight years after his death. Actually, he had a little help from his son, Nick Cassavetes, who has directed a script written by his father but never, until now, produced. For fans of John Cassavetes, "She's So Lovely" is the last of the wine, a final opportunity for one of the movies' most brilliantly eccentric voices to speak to us from the screen.

Cassavetes's style as a filmmaker is maddeningly difficult to describe. He seemed to have been driven by a desire to get out of the actors' way, to give them world enough and time to create fully realized characters. He was willing to subordinate everything else to that end, including principles of plot development that date all the way back to Aristotle. Rather than viewing drama as "life with the dull parts cut out," as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, Cassavetes taught us that many of the "dull parts" are actually worth leaving in if you have the discipline to observe them closely and with the empathetic eye of an actor. His work is not for all tastes, to be sure, but if you're ready for a challenging viewing experience, look for these Cassavetes titles on video.

"Faces" (1968). John Marley and Lynn Carlin star as a middle-aged couple whose marriage is withering on the vine. We follow them separately through a dismal evening as each seeks solace by being unfaithful to the other. "Faces" is a rarity - a film made totally outside the Hollywood system that nevertheless broke through to achieve a degree of success both with the critics and with audiences. It is generally regarded as Cassavetes's first fully mature work.

"A Woman Under the Influence" (1974). Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes's wife) gives a virtuoso performance as a woman slowly coming unglued. Ground down by an unremarkable married life with which she is nevertheless unable to cope, she descends before our horrified eyes into the private hell of a nervous breakdown. Peter Falk co-stars as her husband, who can only watch helplessly as his wife seems to slip away from him.

"The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976). Here Cassavetes filters the moody, cynical film noir genre through his own eccentric sensibility, producing a demanding yet rewarding slice of the seamy side of life. Ben Gazzara, one of Cassavetes's favorite actors, takes center stage as a nightclub owner who is in so deep with the mob that the only way to buy his way out of their debt is to perform an unsavory service for them. They will forgive his debt if he murders a rival mob boss known only as "The Chinese Bookie."

Take them or leave them, for better or worse, Cassavetes's films were exactly what he wanted them to be. In fact,"She's So Lovely" represents the first time that a John Cassavetes script will have been realized by other hands. It will be fascinating to see how the directorial hand of the younger Cassavetes meshes with the auctorial hand of his uncompromising father.

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