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John Cassavetes Series at Cinefamily

Gena Rowlands

Gena Rowlands

"We only have two hours to change people's lives."

So John Cassavetes told an interviewer in 1972, while promoting Minnie and Moskowitz — a cracked romcom that can be read as an attempt to reconcile and justify Cassavetes' own passionate, logic-testing, life-defining marriage to Gena Rowlands — and it's hard to imagine a better summation of the urgency, and bravado, of the filmmaker's revolutionary project.

The grandness of that statement was not entirely unearned: This was four years after Cassavetes' fourth directorial effort, Faces — self-financed, shot in Cassavetes and Rowlands' home at night while cast and crew worked day jobs to pay the rent — had defied all contemporary wisdom by netting three Oscar nominations, unheard of at the time for an English-language film made without studio money or labor.

Faces didn't just change individual lives — it changed what was possible in American cinema.

Tonight, Cinefamily launches a rangy, comprehensive two-week tribute to Cassavetes, encompassing his work as an actor (in Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky and in short-lived NBC detective show Johnny Staccato), as a director for hire (A Child Is Waiting, the Judy Garland–Burt Lancaster vehicle recut by producer Stanley Kramer), and as an auteur on nine features. The "Evening With Ben Gazzara" on March 13 also will include two non-Cassavetes productions: The Strange One and the excellent Saint Jack, directed by and co-starring Cassavetes' friend Peter Bogdanovich.

It's such an embarrassment of riches that it's hard to tell you where to start; any random night of this program qualifies as appointment cinema. Of course, I do have favorites.

Certainly, Faces constituted a slap in the face to Hollywood's bureaucracy and process; as Variety put it in a January 1969 item wrongly assessing Faces' Oscar nomination chances as abysmal, the film "symbolize[d] too many production trends that Hollywoodites do not want 'honored.' " That said, the most crucial raw material in Faces is the close-up — snatched straight from classical cinema, driven to thrilling new ends.

The faces of Faces, ports in a consuming vérité storm, strip the close-up of vanity while perverting its power to wordlessly smuggle private information directly to the viewer. Within a project that constituted a strike against Hollywood, Cassavetes used one of the industry's key stylistic tools as a vehicle of subversion.

Minnie and Moskowitz was the first Cassavetes film that floored me emotionally. If longhaired parking attendant Seymour Moskowitz's (Seymour Cassel) aggressive courtship of the gun-shy Minnie (Rowlands) constitutes the least despairing of the filmmaker's portraits of romantic relationships, the film is hardly Cassavetes lite. Minnie did everything she was told to do (she got an apartment and a job, learned "how to be feminine — you know, quotes 'feminine' ") and yet somehow she's 30-something and still alone but for an abusive, married boyfriend (played by Cassavetes, conjuring a blisteringly cruel portrait in just a few minutes of screen time). It's a devastating sketch of everyday loneliness.

Partially intended as a self-conscious riff on screwball romances of the 1930s, Minnie is an indictment of cinema as a placebo for real experience: See Rowlands' classic "I never met Humphrey Bogart" monologue blaming the movies for instilling in women like her false romantic ideals, and even the film's first dialogue exchange, when Moskowitz encounters a stranger who dismisses a movie house as a "buncha lonely people, looking up." But it's also an embrace of the classical Hollywood romance's total abandon; Minnie's unambiguous happily-ever-after culmination is as bold an affirmation of the possibility of sustained love and partnership in matrimony as Faces was a brutal questioning of the same.

If there's a single can't-miss title in the Cinefamily series, it's Love Streams, Cassavetes' last as an actor and writer-director — unavailable on Region 1 DVD. Five years before his death, the cirrhosis of the liver that would kill Cassavetes had already made itself known, but he hadn't yet developed the distended abdomen that biographer Tom Charity would chillingly describe as "a cancerous ghost pregnancy" — which would have precluded the director from stepping into the lead role when Jon Voight dropped out at the last minute.

This conscious swan song has unavoidable ties to Faces: Both were shot largely in Cassavetes and Rowlands' home; both chart a conflict between "nightlife" — music, booze, sex without strings — and family life/the domestic sphere; and 50-something Cassavetes even resembles John Marley, Faces' male lead.

But Streams is also a push into new stylistic territory. In Faces, the camerawork installs the viewer in the center of the action — so close to the trees that the forest is unseeable. Love Streams' drunken desperation may be even more manic, but the camera isn't: It stays far enough away to offer an outsider's perspective. Several times the film assumes the POV of Rowlands' needy, mentally unstable Sarah, allowing for multiple fantasy sequences, including an elaborate, poignant, operatic musical number.

It's Sarah's vision of love as "a stream — it's continuous, it doesn't stop" that gives the film both its title and its deeply sad romanticism, offered up without blinkers.

JOHN CASSAVETES | March 10-24 | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | cinefamily.org

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