There are plenty of anecdotes about the late John Cassavetes — the director often cited as the “godfather of American independent cinema” — but my favorite is the one regarding an advance screening he did for his 1977 film “Opening Night,” about an alcoholic actress overcoming a personal trauma to pour her soul into a role. After noting the parts where the audience spontaneously burst into applause, he went back and recut the film, removing them all.
It’s a tale that reveals both the best and worst sides of the director, which are utterly inseparable in his films. Cassavetes — who mostly self-financed his films — answered only to himself, and successfully brought a personal, uncompromised vision to the screen. Yet his films make no concessions to the audience while offering many indulgences to his actors. Watching a film such as “Opening Night” is rather like watching a band go deep into a jam: You have to suffer through the patches where it runs on aimlessly if you want to be around for that magical moment where it all comes together.
“Opening Night” is part of a six-film retrospective of the director’s work playing at Shibuya’s Image Forum, which traces his work from his astounding debut “Shadows” in 1959 through his swan-song “Love Streams” in 1984, made while he was already diagnosed with the alcoholic’s bad liver that would kill him.
The retrospective makes clear how Cassavetes could try on different styles — from the free-jazz-scored beatnik cool of “Shadows” to the seedy strip-club urban noir atmosphere of 1976’s “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” — while certain things remained the same: combustible characters, talky tangy dialogue, alcohol, quick tempers and couples with relationships as overwhelming as they are complicated.
None of these films are easy viewing; they’re not difficult in the art cinema “I don’t get it” vein of obscure meaning, but difficult in how emotionally raw they can get. As Cassavetes’ wife and long-time collaborator, actress Gena Rowlands, once said, “Our pictures made people feel very uncomfortable. … The characters were very emotionally exposed and people weren’t used to it.”
Perhaps the pinnacle of this aesthetic was 1974’s “A Woman Under the Influence,” which saw Oscar nominations for both Cassavetes and Rowlands. Peter Falk (“Columbo”) plays a blue-collar guy who loves his wife (Rowlands), and has learned to live with her, uh, peculiarities. In an age where mental disorders were less understood, his friends think she’s “whacko,” but it’s clear enough to the viewer that she’s going through some sort of manic depression, most likely due to her overbearing (albeit well-meaning) husband.
Another director, John Cameron Mitchell of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Rabbit Hole,” cites “A Woman Under the Influence” as his favorite film ever, while still noting that it “infuriated” him and left him with questions such as, “Do I really need to go that deep into a person’s psyche?” The breakdown portrayed by Rowlands is one of the more harrowing things you’ll ever see on film — you can’t tell whether this couple are just going through some bumps, or whether they’re going to kill each other by the last reel.
“Chinese Bookie” is my favorite of the bunch, with a career-best performance by Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn in “The Big Lebowski”); it’s probably the closest cinematic equivalent to a Tom Waits song, with its melancholic story of a strip-club owner who is coerced into performing a mob hit to cover his gambling losses.
“Love Streams” may be the weakest, with a few too many of the trademark Cassavetes run-on scenes that probably seemed like a good idea halfway through the bottle.
In an age where cinema is increasingly retreating into digital worlds of fantasy — 19 of the 20 highest-grossing films of all time are now fantasies — Cassavetes’ cinema is more necessary than ever. It’s cinema set in the reality of dinner tables, bedrooms and bar stools, boasting an entirely different purpose: examining people and what makes them tick, especially the demons within that can so easily derail a life. His films aren’t all perfect, but damn, are they ever alive.