On The ‘Lost Films’ Of John Cassavetes

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In preparation for my John Cassavetes panel discussion from a couple of weeks back, I decided to look into the director’s less-celebrated and/or actor-only efforts, just to see if I’d missed any lost gems. Now that the much-lauded Love Streams is simply out of the run as a potentially great work, perhaps there’s something else out there that qualifies?

Saddle The Wind John Cassavetes Robert Taylor

Saddle The Wind. Image via Wikipedia.

Saddle The Wind (1958)

Directed by Robert Parrish and written by Rod Serling, Saddle The Wind is an odd little film that, in 1958, was notable for starring Robert Taylor, but today is strictly remembered due to the names Rod Serling and John Cassavetes. The titled lured me in with its sense of poesy, and with Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) as writer, I was hoping for a neglected classic. Yet the film is poorly scripted, cliched in parts, features a bad, tacked-on ending, and mediocre acting from all involved, except John Cassavetes. In fact, from the first shot of Nick (Cassavetes) in the sun, the viewer simply sees a different caliber of acting that subtly predicts Nick’s character arc without giving too much away. The way Nick blinks, or moves his hands nervously; the tiny, easy-to-miss gestures; the disappearing smiles or slight shifts of mood — these are all hallmarks of character realism, and present Nick as a real entity with an accumulating, psychotic streak as opposed to a mere symbol of this or that. There’s little Nick can stand for, and despite the script’s issues, it’s a credit to Serling that Nick is simply a villain transplanted to the Old West, as opposed to the heavy-handed ‘commentary’ that the Western genre had become known for by this time. Sure, the decision also strips the film of depth, but a few subversions of genre tropes, like this, keep Saddle The Wind from being in worse company. An OK work, overall, but one of Rod Serling’s minor efforts, even as it’s one of Cassavetes’s best performances from the 1950s.

Too Late Blues John Cassavetes

Stella Stevens as Jess. Source.

Too Late Blues (1961)

Of all of John Cassavetes’s ‘meddled-with’ productions — these include A Child Is WaitingGloriaBig Trouble, and 1 or 2 others — this is no doubt his best, and retains more of his characteristic style and vague character resolutions that manage to keep a few possibilities open. It begins with a jazz musician, Ghost (Bobby Darin), and an aspiring singer, Jess (Stella Stevens), seemingly falling in love, then trying to figure out what to do about their careers. Ghost is idealistic while his band-members are ready to compromise, but, as with so many other artists with potential, Ghost’s personal lacks (physical cowardice, irresponsibility) feed into the art, as well, thus stripping it and ruining both his chances with Jess as well as art. He leaves the band, makes some money as a sell-out (via a patron who sees right through him), and finally returns to his band, only … Continue reading →

Review Of John Cassavetes’s “Love Streams” (1984)

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John Cassavetes Love Streams Gena RowlandsIn looking at John Cassavetes’s films a quarter-century after his death, a dilemma emerges. No, I don’t mean this in the silly, cliched sense that there’s a ‘problem’ (ugh- that word!) with the films, themselves. I simply mean that Cassavetes is still close enough to OUR time that he could provide a glimpse into the critic’s psyche, and the sort of trends most art-goers are utterly shackled by. This is because Cassavetes went from writing and directing 3 or 4 neglected masterpieces — often booed and hissed out of movie theaters — to being given the sort of love and adulation that is the inevitable due of most great artists. In this way, quite a few people in the industry probably feel stupid — that is, if they’re even remembered, now — and feel the need to make amends. And what better way to atone for such than to praise everything Cassavetes has done (as Ray Carney does), and push the director higher, higher: precisely where he belongs?

Except there’s just one problem. A reaction to one extreme with yet another is not exactly helpful, for — being a kind of mirror image of the same, original stupidity — it still disrespects the art, the artist, and the process which lets one become the other. (Cassavetes, after all, is gone. You had your chance, folks.) The fact is, for every masterpiece John Cassavetes had made, there was at least one mediocrity. Faces, Opening Night: classics, both of them. This just can’t be reasonably argued against. Husbands, too, is an interesting watch, with brilliant moments, albeit quite flawed. A Woman Under The Influence is similar in this regard. As for Minnie And Moskowitz? An oddity, to be generous, even if saved by 2 or 3 flat-out great scenes. Shadows, little more than a young man’s first, solid exercise. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie — one of the greatest films ever made, by any director, in any time period or genre, and my own personal favorite, as well as my vote for cinema’s most ‘enigmatic’ creation. Then, there’s 1984’s Love Streams, another interesting movie with a handful of brilliant parts — the equal of anything else in the man’s output, really — nonetheless marred by lots of fluff, weak editing, and a too-prosaic end. Yet it’s Cassavetes’s final film, and, what’s more, feels like it, too: a fact that encourages film-lovers to love it, now, especially since they were unable to support Cassavetes at a time when he could have really used the help.

Love Streams opens with Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes) getting yelled at by his secretary — likely over some bit of bad behavior — and interviewing a number of young women, most likely for “a book about nightlife,” about what it means “to have a good time.” The girls are all quite nervous: a nice touch, for he’s already distant and unapproachable just a few minutes into the … Continue reading →

Review: Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Still Walking” (2008)

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Still Walking Hiroshi Abe Yui Natsukawa Koreeda

It’s often thought that the best way to create a film — or any work of art, really — is really to write drama: to craft a conflict, first, and then deal with its natural outgrowths. In most cases, however, this is quite backwards, for true ‘adult’ drama begins not with the energies immanent to it, but to their architects: that is, people, and all the little details, the sums and parts, that help make such energies real. In this way, drama is not a thing that merely happens, but is demanded by the specifics of character, and feels almost inevitable. Few films have shown this better than Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, a work that begins and terminates with its characters, whose whims, personal beliefs, quirks, and mannerisms not only build their conflict, but come to justify it as well.

The film’s narrative follows a day in the Yokoyama family, a (subtly) needling clan not privy to the extent of their own destructiveness, and their shared mistakes. It opens with vistas of an anonymous town as a couple of guitars play (from Japan’s GONTITI) and domestic scenes unfold. These include food preparations — less for a meinichi, we’ll come to learn, than a bitter, self-serving ritual that simply recapitulates their own problems — small-talk between the aging mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and her daughter, You (Chinami Kataoka), that lulls that viewer into a sense of complacency that will soon be dispersed; and, most interesting of all, shots of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), the film’s doctor and patriarch, seen in one of the film’s only tender moments as he laughs with a patient. Now, it may be impossible to tell just yet, but this is a clue that he’s not so much aloof as he is aloof from his own family, for reasons we’ll come to know and others never stated.

Kyohei’s role in this dynamic is evident early on, in one the film’s most arresting shots. One sees the parents’ son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), Yukari’s son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), You, and her husband, talking to one another as Kyohei enters, unseen by the viewer, but clearly there given the family’s sudden — perhaps even fearful — reaction. It is a great acting moment and one that encapsulates the talent of pretty much everyone involved, subtly taking cues from each other and responding to them. The group immediately moves to bow, yet Ryota merely looks on with an aloofness that Kyohei returns. This is not really spiteful, merely proof that the relationship is at its end, with the rest of the film focused not so much on how it unravels — for it’s already quite unraveled, in interactions we do not see but can guess at — but on new insights into the same basic conflicts that must have trended through their lives for much too long.

Thus, there are no massive revelations, no melodramatic secrets that are uncovered to help the … Continue reading →

Woody Allen’s Women: How He Got Them, Kept Them, & Got Some More

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Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Mia Farrow Mariel Hemingway Mia Sorvino Samantha Morton Scarlett Johansson Winona Ryder
Let us pretend, for a second, that Woody Allen’s worst feminist detractors are right. Let’s pretend that he’s written too many manipulative women, too many heart-breakers, and too many ditzes to ever be comfortably on ‘their’ side. What then? What does this say of Allen’s oeuvre as a whole, and Allen as the progenitor of such? And, more importantly, is there any evidence of these things to begin with?

Well, there is, partly because one can find almost anything in a complex film if one searches hard enough, and partly because — as Dan Schneider argues — there is an odd tinge of “loathing” underneath it all, wherein Woody Allen’s women fight, cheat, steal, or even lust after a man too old and too manipulative to ever be fair game. At times, this is even played off for comic effect, although the irony is, of course, that there is always someone (even if not Allen) imagining himself in such a position, and tries to be precisely that. Yet assertions without numbers are a hard sell, and have gotten many a critic into trouble with such ‘frills’ as evidence. So, how does one gauge how true the claims are? How does one even measure how good or bad a female Allen character really is? The latter is easily answered: with one’s eyes. Allen’s characters all have motivations and behaviors, for good or ill, and it is up to the viewer — and not a film book, or a theorist — to untangle them. As for the numbers? Let us merely take, for the sake of this thought-experiment, a tally of those who might be OK’d by a feminist reading, and those that will simply never be.

Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Annie Hall

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, perhaps the most famous of Woody Allen’s women.

Allen’s early films are none-too-fertile ground for such an analysis since they are, without question, more gag-driven than character dependent. Yet even here, one sees Allen’s desire to invert Hollywood tropes, and even play rough with gender stereotypes. Many of these women, for instance, simply reject Woody’s advances, or otherwise poke fun at him. Nancy (Louise Lasser) from Bananas wants nothing to do with a rote, passionless ‘weakling’ like Fielding Mellish; Louise (Janet Margolin) from Take the Money and Run is almost beyond analysis, given how steadfast she is, and without reason; and the Diane Keaton/Allen ‘troika’ of SleeperPlay It Again, Sam, and Love and Death has the male lead chasing her, and often losing her. Sure, one sees Boris (Love and Death) already bed a woman well beyond his means, but one also sees some interesting inversions in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*, especially the last sketch, wherein the woman is the aggressor, and a priest represents male “Catholic guilt”, to balance out some of the less flattering depictions of women. One cannot, at any rate, get what’s necessary here — at least not for our purposes.

Allen’s first glimpse … Continue reading →

Film Review Of Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” (2007)

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Secret Sunshine Lee Chang-dong Jeon Do-yeon Korean Film Review

The great ending to Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine…or rather, what would have been the ending proper.

Having re-watched 2007’s much-lauded Secret Sunshine, one can’t help but draw comparisons between Korea’s Lee Chang-dong and Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, not only in their style — realistic, character-driven dramas on a variety of themes — but also in the disconnect between their most-loved films (at least back at home) and their best, as well as the respective flaws of each director. For, in many ways, the lackluster Green Fish (1997) is to Korea what After Life (1998) is to Japan: films that rightly heralded 2 new talents, even though the evidence typically proffered for such was wrong, coming, as it had, too early in their careers, when they were still developing their sense for art. Yes, the two would go on to craft better films, but just as interesting as the films, themselves, is this on-screen evidence: evidence that might get things wrong, but shows all the little paths a director could have taken, instead, thus crystallizing the art a lesser film might otherwise occlude.

And so, Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Secret Sunshine — a film far superior to Green Fish — has a number of representative moments: moments that show a director both at his height and not, moments that, in the midst of really fine execution, nonetheless point to something better that is waiting for uncovering. Rather than hunt for examples, however, I’ll just start at the film’s end, which is usually where these tendencies come and so often get mis-managed. Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) has just returned from a mental health hospital, and decides to go get a haircut. Pale — Pollyanna, even — something’s clearly not ‘all there,’ despite her release. She is, as we’ve come to expect, accompanied by the film’s perpetual loser, Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a wannabe lover who takes Shin-ae’s moods, spurnings, and general abusiveness with glee in the hopes that ‘somehow, somewhere’ the two can be an item.

As per Jong-chan’s luck, however, he takes her to a salon manned by the offspring of her child’s murderer. She nervously approaches Shin-ae, begins the haircut, and Shin-ae — despite a large portion of her hair now being lopped off — runs out into her own backyard. Jong-chan arrives soon after, smiling at her (as if there’s anything funny), and offers to hold up a mirror she has found to cut her own hair. He’s smiling, still, as she sits there with the scissors, looking at herself (we see glimmers of her face in the mirror), trying to complete the task, and the viewer is immediately struck by the import of these last few minutes. Here is Shin-ae, clearly NOT alright, and given to the same life-patterns the film only hints at — unhappy relationships, self-loathing, an inner void — that she is repeating yet again, albeit with a quickly-narrowing way out. Jong-chan, too, will continue to ‘be there’ for her, to give … Continue reading →