John Cassavetes’ name and distinctively raw filmmaking style have become synonymous with independent American cinema. A master of creating compelling characters and human conflicts, his work is very much a celluloid version of the Psychological Realism of modern literature, as he shaped his characters’ motives and actions by their interior conditions.
As viewers of Cassavetes’ work, we become flies on the walls of the set and observe an incredible array of organic human experiences, never distracted by a superfluous musical score or vanity of Hollywood stars.
Born in New York City to a Greek family, Cassavetes began acting in his high school years. He became absolutely enthralled with the idea of becoming a wide variety of different characters and also creating them. After working in television and radio, he turned to filmmaking and acting as his main source of artistic expression. He quickly found his storytelling style, which would become immediately recognizable to film enthusiasts for years to come.
Not only is his style recognizable, but also the actors he directed. Cassavetes worked with generally the same actors in his films, the most well-known being his friends Ben Gazarra, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel and his wife of thirty-five years, Gena Rowlands. John Cassavetes passed away in 1989 of cirrhosis, leaving behind a modest yet artistically-solid body of work totaling 16 films. Here are the ten you simply cannot do without seeing.
1. Shadows (1959)
Never one to shy away from depicting societal taboos in his films, Cassavetes directed Shadows, his second film, about the norm-breaking Beat Generation of early 50’s to mid 60’s. Not only was the subject matter, which centered largely around mixed race relationships, extremely unconventional for films of this time, but his use of improvisational acting was as well.
Conventional improvisation works off of a sample script and situation, which the actors of the scene will experiment with and eventually finesse a working script out of. This resulting scene is then rehearsed and shot on film. However, Cassavetes completely did away with the polishing “first draft” notion of improvisation. He trusted his actors were capable of tapping into their character’s psyches with enough depth to speak for them, and not merely recite pre-written lines off of a page.
While he didn’t incorporate this pure form of improvisation for the entirety of the rest of his films, he did certainly use the technique regularly in certain scenes. Shadows was a great experiment in his body of work, and would influence the rest of his career.
2. Too Late Blues (1961)
A starving musician, a beautiful woman, and the ethics of true art battling the seductive comfort of commercial fame comprise this early work of Cassavetes. Bobby Darin plays John Wakefield, or Ghost as he is called, a unsuccessful musician who stands firm in his choice of poverty and his true art over fame and selling out. When he falls in love with Jess Polanski (Stella Stevens), his artistic morals are put to the test.
Should he continue in his silent rebellion against popular culture, knowing he could never support Jess, or submit to a more stylized and produced music career that would provide great monetary gain, but no artistic integrity? His feelings for Jess become so strong that he begins to question the quality of the art he has cherished for so long, making his decision easier but increasingly more dangerous to his own sense of self.
This is, in a sense, every artist’s worst nightmare. The thought that you could happily be producing your work free of corporate intervention, even if it is just for yourself to enjoy, may not pay the bills but it offers a deep sense of fulfillment. You can take solace in the fact that you have yet to sell out. You are above material gain and desire artistic growth and contentment instead. However, this could all be undermined by a single person who creates within you feelings so strong you cannot, and would not want to, deny.
Considering Too Late Blues was made early in Cassavetes’ career, it serves as an interesting look into what he may have feared himself as a young artist. As we have the ability to see, however, Cassavetes stayed true to his artistic ideals and commitments throughout his career, luckily for us.
3. Faces (1968)
While completely opposite the humorous and relatively light narrative of Minnie and Moskowitz, Faces is another look into human love relationships, from the prospective of a husband and wife in a crumbling marriage.
After the wheels of divorce are put in motion, Jeannie (Rowlands) and John (Richard Frost) each embark on sexual odysseys out of the excitement of their newfound freedoms and fear of their sudden loneliness. Many encounters with various new partners give them both a terrible sense of emptiness and longing for the bond they once shared.
Akin to Husbands, Faces focuses on the existential dilemmas of these two lost people. Age has not made them wiser, and they feel more lost through their various affairs than they likely ever had before this point in the narrative. In an attempt to recapture a sense of youth and carefree zest for existence, they each become involved with much younger people.
What these people teach them, however, is not a love of life but a complete misunderstanding of it. Jeannie and John realize their age has made them wiser, but also bitter. They have seen life without blinders and it hasn’t been pretty, and can never hope to return to the blissful ignorance of youth.
There are multiple versions of this film, the longest totally approximately three hours. It’s been rumored the Cassavetes destroyed what he believed to be the poorer versions of the film, opting to distribute the abbreviated two-and-a-half hour version.
4. Husbands (1970)
Middle age and mortality are the major themes of this powerful existential drama, starring Ben Gazarra, Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself. The three men play close friends who have all formed a second family with their wives and children. In the beginning of the film, they attend the funeral of their friend, Stuart, who was as equally a part of this surrogate brotherhood as they are.
The three are shaken by the loss, not only devastated for losing their friend, but devastated by a sudden overwhelming sense of mortality. In a futile attempt to grasp an understanding of life to pacify their fears of death and the unknown, they open themselves up to a series of experiences they have never had before.
As the viewers, we follow them through their various romps together through city streets, sleazy bars and cheap hotels, knowing all the while what they try to see past: the only truth in life is death.
Husbands was not as big a critical success as some of his other films. Many critics found it to be a drastically dark indictment of the futility of suburban life, a narrative of no redeeming or life-affirming value. While Cassavetes likely would not disagree with these claims, one could imagine we would brilliantly defend this seminal work with the fact that it a true reflection on the fates of all people.
Regardless of a person’s economic, geographic or professional status, the only thing we can ever be certain of in our lives is that they will end. Despite the tireless human quest for truth, we tend to run away from this one fact. As Cassavetes’ charcter, Gus, says in the film “Don’t believe truth. Archie, just don’t believe truth.”
5. Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Yet another wonderful Cassavetes/Rowlands collaboration, Minnie and Moskowitz is a humorous and poignant study of human relationships. Gena Rowlands plays Minnie Moore, an educated but lonely museum curator longing for a romantic relationship. After failed relationships and dates with many men, she laments to her friend that love is something Hollywood created to make money.
To her great surprise, she falls in love with Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel), a free-spirited, uneducated man who works as a parking attendant. While Minnie and Seymour could not be any more different from one another, they quickly become captivated with one another and both frustrated and fascinated by each other’s differences.
Just as Cassavetes dispensed with the commonalities of the crime drama, he did the same with typical romance films. There isn’t a dramatic first kiss or a saccharine score to accompany it. Minnie and Seymour have a realistic love relationship with natural encounters and conflicts.
Cassavetes once again showed real life in his typical unflinching manner, and created a narrative focused on the psychological characteristics of the characters and not cheap dazzle techniques of the generic Hollywood love story.