Looking for Imperfection

Gilberto Perez

  • John Cassavetes: Lifeworks by Tom Charity
    Omnibus, 257 pp, £10.95, March 2001, ISBN 0 7119 7544 2
  • Cassavetes on Cassavetes edited by Ray Carney
    Faber, 526 pp, £17.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 571 20157 1

‘I’m really against nudity in movies,’ Julia Roberts said a while ago. ‘When you act with your clothes on, it’s a performance. When you act with your clothes off, it’s a documentary. I don’t do documentaries.’ Quoting this bit of wit and wisdom in a recent New Yorker piece on Roberts, Anthony Lane wrote: ‘it shows … how remote she is from any European visions of cinema – not just from the relaxed, Old World attitude toward sex but from the European assumption (found lingering in the work of Americans like Robert Altman) that the scent of documentary can and should be allowed to flavour a fictional method.’ Lane is thinking of American cinema as Hollywood. But there is a strong tradition of American documentary, from Robert Flaherty to cinéma vérité (which despite its name was American before it was French) to Errol Morris. And as for allowing into fiction the scent of documentary, no fictional method has more of a documentary flavour than the way of making movies devised by John Cassavetes. His movies have been more admired in Europe, it is true; they are nonetheless distinctly American.

The connection between stripping and documentary made by Julia Roberts can be extended. If performance puts on a mask, documentary could be said to reveal, to unmask, to strip bare. Cassavetes was preoccupied from the beginning with masks and unmasking, performance and seeing through performance, in life as in art. When he was running the theatrical workshop in New York where he found the actors and developed the ideas for his first movie, Shadows (1957-59), he told an interviewer that most experiences in life are as ‘staged’ and ‘artificial’ as most dramatic performances, and that the problem ‘for modern man’ is ‘breaking free from conventions and learning how to really feel again’. I’m quoting from Cassavetes on Cassavetes, edited by Ray Carney, who sees this as ‘a daring leap: lived experience could be as much a product of convention as dramatic experience, and in fact the one sort of convention could be the subject of the other. It was the first and most succinct statement of the subject of Shadows and all of Cassavetes’s later work.’ It wasn’t so much that Cassavetes’s words were daring: what they showed was a man of his time, anxiously calling for freedom from convention and for the expression of real feeling – just as the Abstract Expressionists and the Beats were doing. They also announced his lifelong concern with the masks of dramatic and social convention and with revealing the faces hiding behind them. Shadows is about love, race, and identity among the bohemian young in New York. A decade later in Faces (1968), which after a Hollywood hiatus was his next independent production, the characters and setting have changed – the focus is on a marriage falling apart among the affluent middle-aged in Southern California – but the preoccupations remain the same. Cassavetes said that Faces could be summed up in the words: ‘Masks and faces’. His movies don’t strip actors of their clothes so much as their masks, exposing their naked faces to documentary scrutiny.

‘The film you have just seen was an improvisation,’ we read on the screen at the end of Shadows. But this is not true – or not of the film we have just seen. It was truer of the first version of Shadows, which had three midnight screenings in New York late in 1958 and caught the eye of Jonas Mekas, a central figure in American avant-garde cinema, whose enthusiasm for the film led to its receiving the first Independent Film Award from his magazine Film Culture. ‘More than any other recent American film,’ Mekas wrote in his citation, it ‘presents contemporary reality in a fresh and unconventional manner … The improvisation, spontaneity and free inspiration that are almost entirely lost in most films from an excess of professionalism are fully used in this film.’ Cassavetes must have found Mekas’s talk of ‘spontaneous cinema’ congenial, but he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of belonging to an avant-garde. He didn’t want to turn his back on the larger audience he had already reached as an actor. Despite the award, he wasn’t satisfied with that first Shadows, which he saw as ‘a totally intellectual film – and therefore less than human. I had fallen in love with the camera, with technique, with beautiful shots, with experimentation for its own sake … It had a nice rhythm to it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with people. Whereas you have to create interest in your characters because this is what audiences go to see.’ He recalled the actors and reshot much of the movie, this time following a script: a script inspired by the earlier improvisations, a script meant to sound spontaneous, but all the same a prepared script, with lines written by Cassavetes for the actors to speak. And, despite a low budget, this reshooting involved many retakes – more than 18 hours of footage as Cassavetes looked for what he wanted. The first Shadows ran for an hour, and less than half of that was kept in the revised version, which runs for an hour and a half. As Tom Charity remarks in his critical biography of Cassavetes, ‘Mekas’s “spontaneous cinema” had no sooner been recognised than it was reconsidered.’

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