Sorry, i was confused, I thought it meant to compare Cassavettes approach to life to Hitchcock’s.
It is only partly true that Cassavetes isn’t guiding our emotions in Woman, or that scene in particular, the fluidity of the camera work throughout the film is clearly an echo of the emotional states of the characters and a direction the viewer has to follow to watch the film. Cassavetes chooses to film transitional states of being, in the films of his I’ve seen at least, moments or stories where the “who” of the characters is in flux and in the process of being determined in a very direct and extremely volatile state. This state isn’t a usual one for most people, at least in the heightened extremes, although it, by extension, can be seen as a way people move between emotions in less high stress moments of there lives. The viewer is being forced to pay attention to a certain way of seeing just as clearly as they are in Hitchcock or Welles, but the state of awareness, the way of seeing is a different one.
For example, in Citizen Kane, the way we view the character of Kane isn’t fluid as the way we view Mabel, but fractured, broken up by memories of those who knew him. All the sharp angles and disordered segments of scenes, echoing the broken snowglobe in the beginning of the film, are just showing us fragments of what has already happened and of who Kane and his acquaintances are.
In Vertigo, the characters are in a more literal way “blocked” they feel they either can’t show their full emotions or aren’t able to access them. The view of the characters isn’t fluid because they are struggling to control what they reveal and how they know and present themselves. Midge wants to tell Scotty how she feels about him, but doesn’t feel she can do it directly without risking some greater loss, and therefore relies on secondary methods of revealing herself that are less threatening, but still shows that she is aware of what Scotty is thinking about, and passive-aggressively tries to both move him away from what she doesn’t want him to do and towards her. The scene where she shows him the painting she made of herself in a mock Carlotta pose can be seen as both chiding Scotty and trying to win his attention. (It makes an interesting comparison to the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where Mary shows George the needlework of him lassoing the moon, in both cases Stewart’s character reacts unfavorably, disliking being reminded of his desires, but in Vertigo, unlike Wonderful Life, Midge has no direct hold over him, as Mary does, since she is not the object of his desire. That changes the emotional direction of the image for Scotty compared to George.) Scotty, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be there at all, while at the same time, he doesn’t want to not want to be there given what that would say about him, his emotional state, his desires and his control over himself. He wants to be the man who doesn’t care about Madelaine, who actually can be with Midge without thinking about his “case” but he also wants nothing more than to talk about it with someone who knows him even though he knows this isn’t something he should do. he is frustrated with himself and impatient, yearning to be elsewhere, but unwilling to allow himself to give into that desire since there is much wrong with it and he is aware of that as well, and because he can’t quite piece his contradictory desires together, he ends up stuck and unsure of himself in some ways. He, in a sense, doesn’t know who he is much less Madelaine, but he feels he knows Midge and is “safe” there until she makes it apparent that she is more aware of his quandary than he would like to accept. (That’s to the best of my memory of the film, I can’t watch youtube at work, so I’m not definitively sure what scene was chosen.)
Oh, and one might also want to look at the way Cassavetes uses opera and ballet in Woman, which can be seen as serving both or either a symbolic purpose or a sort of meta-understanding of self by Mabel which would be also available in looking at her little “You must pay the rent” bit at the table, which like opera is a reference to an artistic form where heighten emotional states are the norm, in this instance melodramas. Mabel is someone who can’t put on a facade, who can’t “act normal” but who is drawn to art where the normal is greatly heightened matching her sort of understanding of life in a way.
Also, I think it might be good to not to forget that Midge’s desire for Scotty echoes Scotty’s desire for Madelaine/Judy/Carlotta, and that Midge seeks to “make-over” Scotty in a somewhat similar way to Scotty wanting to make-over Judy. In the scene with Midge and the painting, Midge seeks to intrude with “the real”, the real on the film’s level of course, in Scotty’s fantasy world. Her painting then becomes something of a shock, where the two levels of understanding clash disrupting both Scotty and the viewer who is drawn into Scotty’s world. This works with Midge’s profession as a designer of undergarments, items for real women to use to shape themselves more presentingly to the fantasy of how they “should” appear.
Greg, another excellent post.
First off, Cassavetes’ use of the camera. You’re right that the constantly moving camera reflects his philosophy, but that’s because those filming are following the performers. Cassavetes left it to the actor to decide where to stand, where and when to move and the cameraman had to follow them. The camera serves the performance and not the other way around.
You can also notice from your descriptions a difference in the way the two styles portray social interaction. There’s a great sense of play in the Woman scene, as there is in all of Cassavetes. The characters/actors try different modes of behaviour in negotiating the situation. Mabel starts by trying to be serious, then plays the rent gag, asks her father to help, and finally gives up. The kids try to join in, Nick’s mother tries to help, Mabel’s father can’t work out what he’s meant to do, Nick tries to bully everyone into being normal. Each of them expresses themselves and brings what they have to the table, even though it’s an unending process of trial and error. Importantly, each character is affected by and responds to the others.
No doubt Hitchcock is way over the other end on this one. The characters in his films keep it on the inside, while Hitchcock clues us in to their internal states. In that sense, there’s very little “on the surface” when compared with Cassavetes. There’s no sense of play here, thoughts are internalized rather than enacted. No wonder we get characters who can see what they desire and feel emotions but are unable to physically have any interaction with each other. Scottie gazing at whatshername, Jeffries at his neighbours, Bates through the peephole at Marion.
Cassavetes chooses to film transitional states of being, in the films of his I’ve seen at least, moments or stories where the “who” of the characters is in flux and in the process of being determined in a very direct and extremely volatile state. This state isn’t a usual one for most people, at least in the heightened extremes, although it, by extension, can be seen as a way people move between emotions in less high stress moments of thier lives.
Totally agree with this. Cassavetes believed life was one continual flux, and saw rigid identities as things that had to be broken down in film and life. He would drive people crazy with arguments, fights and wild behaviour which he seemingly did for no reason at all. As his films show, he wasn’t afraid to make people uncomfortable. His behaviour was actually a lot like Mabel’s, or his character in Mikey and Nicky (a must-watch film).
There’s a key difference between Hitch/Welles and Cassavetes’ style that can be gleaned from what you’re saying. In Kane, the narrative has been broken so that the truth isn’t clear. In Vertigo, characters hold back from the truth out of insecurity. In Woman, we see the flux of life right in our faces, to the point of discomfort.*
As you can tell, the difference is where the mystery of the film is located. In Hitchcock and Welles, the complete, full truth exists somewhere else, hidden beneath the difficulties and confusion of the physical world. Or, more simply, hidden behind filmic techniques.
Now that’s a very different opinion to hold about reality. Rather than saying the thoughts and big ideas are where the truth lie, Cassavetes says all the truth and mystery you need is in the here and now, interacting and expressing ourselves with others. For Hitchcock and Welles the truth hidden behind reality. This is where Carney’s “puzzle” criticism comes in.
*Actually now that I look over what you’ve written, you describe him pretty well: Mabel is someone who can’t put on a facade, who can’t “act normal” but who is drawn to art where the normal is greatly heightened matching her sort of understanding of life in a way. But be careful with searching for symbols, or you’ll miss what’s happening right in front of you!
Your reading is your reading, but when you reference ‘real’ vs acting aren’t you getting outside of the character in a way Carney doesn’t want you to do?
I think under the influence in the title might refer to the fact that we are all under the influence of each other by way of expectations.
Btw Mabel conforms partly to this Borderline personality disorder
Relationships with others are intense and unstable. They swing wildly from love to hate and back again. People with BPD will frantically try to avoid real or imagined abandonment.
BPD patients may also be uncertain about their identity or self-image. They tend to see things in terms of extremes, either all good or all bad. They also typically view themselves as victims of circumstance and take little responsibility for themselves or their problems.
Other symptoms include:
Would it be unfair to compare Nick’s approach to life with Hitchcock’s?
An actor portraying a scripted role to Hitchcock’s direction ?
You would have to take me there, because I don’t see that right away.
Yes, there are people who behave, to varying degrees of excess, like Cassavetes or like Mabel, but there are also plenty of people who don’t, that seek the “truth” inside themselves, in the world around them, and, yes, in their interactions with others, but they maintain a social stance that isn’t as open or unstable as some of the characters in Cassavetes films. There are many truths out there, as someone around here said, heh, and not all of them can be accessed or looked at through Cassavetes narrow lens. What he does he does very well, but what Hitchcock and Welles do they also do very well. Each has a different perspective on life and film, which isn’t surprising since each came from a different place and has very different interests, so asking everyone to follow the same path as Cassavetes would not only be a mistake, but would demean our understanding of reality, fiction and ourselves and how we interact with both.
The stories Cassavetes tells are chosen because they suit his method of understanding the world, his way of thinking, but to do that he also chooses to avoid aspects of life, or the stories, that would move the audience away from the way of understanding he wishes them to experience, away from his imagination and artistic vision. In Woman Under the Influence, he could give us a diagnosis of her condition but chooses not to, in Chinese Bookie he could resolve the situation by extending the story since a resolution through death or escape seems inevitable, but he chooses not to, he ends the stories in flux, not because there can be no resolution or more complete understanding of what has happened or what will happen, but because that would go against his aims. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, they are his stories and he can do with them what he likes, and his personal take is what helps make those films important, if more people make films in that way they would seem less personal, less valuable in a way. Cassavetes made his art in reaction to what had gone before him, but in doing so he also builds off of those precursors. Sometimes, like in Opening Night, this is almost expressly intentional as that film is basically a jazz-like riff on All About Eve, Woman Under the Influence comes from the Hollywood melodrama tradition and updates it and shifts its tone in one direction, while Chinese Bookie shifts the tone of the gangster film in the opposite direction, all in keeping with Cassavetes larger stylistic concerns and personal vision, so they are clearly “his” and not lessened for the influence, but they didn’t spring sui-generis from his mind like Athena from Zeus.
If Kane is fractured and concerned with objects, that is because we are seeing Kane refracted through the eyes of others, and that Kane associated himself with objects. Kane’s emotions are just as changeable as the characters in Cassavetes works, which even Carney cops to, but the method of looking at him, towards him is different, our relationship to Kane is based less on personal identification than our relationships are with Mabel or Cosmo, we know Kane from a distance as opposed to the more personal view, we feel less emotional connection to Kane, and worry less about him and come to understand him, or not understand him differently because of that, but that difference is no less “real” or valid than Cassavetes method even if it seems more visually elaborate. The balance between the illusion of “real” and understanding is a tricky thing. What can seem more like life on the surface is still a work of imagination, and things that look less real can be more revealing of reality than things that seem more recognizable initially.
As the very existence of these artworks should signal, the imagination is a powerful tool for understanding the world, as is our internal understanding and translation of others and forms of communication like art. Elaborateness can “tell” us things that can’t be said otherwise. A director like Hitchcock can clue into our subconscious understanding, our psyche, our inner life and reveal things that a director like Cassavetes can’t access, and, of course, Cassavetes can get to other areas of understanding that Hitchcock can’t reach. One form of understanding doesn’t negate another, which is an area Carney seems to disagree, they can enrich each other through their mutual workings on us, the way they bounce off each other and create new ways of seeing or thinking for each of us. Tuning into one form at the expense of all others desaturates the world of the wide array of colors available to view. I can take things, and learn things from Cassavetes without having to ignore or attack Hitchcock, just as I can get things from Hitch while also gaining in self from watching Welles.
He did not believe in a strict line between when someone is acting and when someone is not. In fact, people are always acting. There’s simply no way to express yourself otherwise.
That just gave me the insight into the ending of Mutual Appreciation.
:There’s simply no way to express yourself otherwise.
or ‘play a role’ to resolve/suspend/express conflict.
Or to put it more succinctly, for most of us, our relationship to the real is stable, one of the signal values of art is that it destabilizes that relationship, and that can happen in more than one way. All art walks a line between the real and the unreal and makes us examine the line between the two and we find the true somewhere in that balance.
Yeah, everyone is saying the same thing, but in a different way.
Where is the film, not yet pointed out by Carney,
that exemplifies the method?
Here’s what I see in the JC clip vs. the Hitch:
-He did not believe in a strict line between when someone is acting and when someone is not. In fact, people are always acting. There’s simply no way to express yourself otherwise.-
In our presentation of ourselves to others, sure. In our presentation of self to self, I’m not sure.
-A more conventionally modern style of acting in JC (seems likely this would happen without design-Vertigo was made in ’58, AWUTU was made in ’74)
-different styles of filmmaking, certainly , with JC mostly conventions of realism, cinema verite, documentary-whatever you want to call it, and Hitchcock doing something else.
Not seeing much “there” there beyond that.
“we know Kane from a distance as opposed to the more personal view, we feel less emotional connection to Kane, and worry less about him and come to understand him, or not understand him differently because of that, but that difference is no less “real” or valid than Cassavetes method even if it seems more visually elaborate. "
Greg, this distancing of Welles’, as well as Hitch’s objectification of his subjects is less valid than Cassavetes “method” for the same reason that removing oneself completely from society is less valid than engaging with it.
Hitchcock isn’t just doing “something else,” he’s doing something less.
-Hitchcock isn’t just doing “something else,” he’s doing something less.-
Matt: Mike’s previous line answers your question.
-this distancing of Welles’, as well as Hitch’s objectification of his subjects is less valid than Cassavetes “method” for the same reason that removing oneself completely from society is less valid than engaging with it.-
Firstly, just saying this doesn’t prove it to be true (or even bother to make a argument that it’s true). Secondly, what exactly does “objectification of his subjects” mean?
Frankly, the idea of continual, active engagement without qualification being superior to contemplation strikes me as, almost by definition, anti-intellectual (“a person who believes that intellect and reason are less important than actions and emotions in solving practical problems and understanding reality”). Intellectual engagement isn’t the same thing as “removing oneself” from society, and one could argue contra this position that uncritically accepting one’s comfortable middle class American existence as absolute reality is the more escapist of the two positions. Or is Carney just using Cassavetes as an argument for solipsism?
Matt: Mike was replying to Greg, who was replying to my posts where I detail the loss of social and physical reality in Hitchcock. Greg seems to have accepted this (therefore Mike did not continue to argue it) and is arguing that Cassavetes also loses the world of the mind.
I think we can all agree that certain parts of life are removed in both filmmakers works.
- In Hitchcock, the social and physical
- In Cassavetes, the intellectual and imaginative
I think we can agree that each filmmaker has their prime interest in one and sees the other as less important.
But there’s one thing we haven’t counted: the viewer. So what happens when they watch either of these films? In a Cassavetes movie, we’re not given any ideas or guidance on how to think about the situation, but as we watch, we’ll make our own judgment on what’s going on. The idea that we’re meant to accept what’s going on uncritically is ridiculous. The viewer him or herself cannot help but make intellectual judgments on what’s going on, and imaginative suppositions on how characters must feel.
But, Cassavetes shows us how these judgements and suppositions are lacking. In the Woman scene we’ve been discussing, the viewers thoughts on what’s going on are undercut just as much as any of the characters. At first we think Mabel might be “better” after her treatment, then that she’s worse, Nick’s being a jerk, now a nice guy, stupid,
That’s the perspective on reality Cassavetes is enacting. He’s not anti-intellectual, but he does think intellectual ideas are one step removed from what’s really going on.
To say it in an awkward way, reality is pre-intellectual. Things exist before we’ve made judgments on them, and those judgments don’t capture the whole thing, they’re an outline.
Now let’s consider a viewer watching Hitchcock. Since they’re in a movie theater with a screen in their faces, they still don’t get what any of what I’m calling the practical and social.
Hitchcock, since he doesn’t have to deal with the limiting nature of the physical world, never puts his ideas to the test. In one way we’re free to think whatever we’d like without limits, make judgments and suppositions, and imagine the world to be however we’d like it. The trouble with that is a) we could be wrong, and b) we’ll get a rude shock when we try to enact our lofty notions in the real world. Many of Cassavetes’ films show characters undergoing that rude shock.
-Mike was replying to Greg, who was replying to my posts where I detail the loss of social and physical reality in Hitchcock. Greg seems to have accepted this (therefore Mike did not continue to argue it) and is arguing that Cassavetes also loses the world of the mind.-
But that doesn’t explain the “something less” part of Mike’s statement. It’s not as if nothing is “lost” the the Woman clip—I counted, I think, at least a dozen cuts, at least two pans, and a zoom. So it’s not as if the presentation of this “reality” is really that unguided, it’s just that’s guided in ways we are more accustomed to seeing as “realistic.”
-He’s not anti-intellectual, but he does think intellectual ideas are one step removed from what’s really going on-
I’m not sure there’s a difference between one and the other, but OK. Pre-intellectual is fine if you prefer . . . but, still, language isn’t pre-intellectual (like Robert would tell you visual perception is), but people talking seems to me really important to Cassavetes.
I think Scottie gets a few “rude shocks” in Vertigo.
I thought Mike’s breakdown of the scene in A Woman Under the Influence was pretty interesting, but we need a correlating breakdown for the scene in Vertigo.
0.01 – Midge is enjoying her painting with what appears to be a little smug self-satisfaction.
0.20 – Johnny (Scottie) comes in and is greeted by Midge. He got her message; she offers a drink, which he accepts.
0.30 – Johnny playfully asks why she slips notes under men’s doors. Midge indicates that her man won’t answer the phone.
0.40-0.55 – Johnny evades Midge’s questions about where he goes. It’s clear from his tone that he doesn’t want to say exactly. Midge tactfully takes the hint.
0.55-1.15 – Johnny again playfully accuses Midge of desperation. She takes the kidding and basically invites him to invite her on a date. He seems to like the notion.
1.16-1.22 – Johnny seems to almost want to tell Midge what he’s doing. He asks what they’ll talk about during dinner and he suggests that they might talk about what he’s been up to. Midge, tactful again, doesn’t press, though she seems interested.
1.23-1.36 – They kid a little bit more about Johnny’s evasiveness and then Midge finally decides to play serious. “What have you been doing?” “Wandering.”
1.37 – Johnny tries to redirect the conversation by asking what what she’s been doing. Midge, knowing exactly where she’s going, tells him that she’s been back to paining, which he thinks is wonderful. Midge then begins to direct his attention to the painting that she’s been working on. “Wanna see?” She’s coy, thinking that the joke will be well taken. She even goes so far to suggest that she might give it to him.
2.05 – Johnny looks at the painting. We can see that he does not find this amusing. We are given Johnny’s perspective, a perspective that encompasses both the painting and the real-life subject. Quickly, Johnny begins his exit. He does not explain himself or his situation. Midge pleads, but Johnny just keeps going out.
3.04 – Johnny is gone and Midge accosts herself.
As I noted earlier, I don’t think this particular scene from Vertigo can live up to the complexity of the scene in A Woman Under the Influence by simple virtue of the difference character numbers. But I certainly don’t see this clip as a grand example of Hitchcock’s dominance over the audience and their emotions. My guess is that a Carneyite would argue that the audience should have been aware of what Midge was doing before Johnny. A Carnyite might feel that the audience is being led on a string to the “gag” of the painting. I always get a good chuckle out of the painting when I see the film. But otherwise, I think the scene does the whole “shifting the audience’s expectations” thing well, albeit on a smaller scale here than in the Cassavetes clip. The meeting is pleasant. There are hints that it may turn into something unpleasant. It doesn’t go to far astray. They flirt again with the subject of Johnny’s “wandering”. Midge tries a joke. The joke goes over poorly. Johnny doesn’t get angry, like we may expect he would. He doesn’t ask Midge to explain herself, like we might think he would. He doesn’t even attempt to explain himself in light of her joke. He just walks out. He likes Midge, too much to involve her in his “wandering”. Too bad Midge can’t see it.
Whoa there Fraser! I accept a shifting of social reality in Hitchcock from Cassavetes, moving from something intending to represent an idea of the real in a way Hitchcock doesn’t follow, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it is a loss, and I certainly don’t think Hitchcock’s representation of the physical is in any way lesser than Cassavetes or lacking, although, again, it is presented differently and serves a different purpose. In Cassavetes the physical is certainly more “present” in terms of certain kinds of actions between characters which makes sense given the difference in interest between the two directors, but Hitchcock draws our attention to the interaction between characters and the physical world around them and objects with great detail and purpose.
As to the point about less in Hitchcock’s films than Cassavetes, one could easily argue there is in fact more in Hitchcock’s film given the multiple levels of representation going on, one may prefer Cassavetes vision of course, but moreness isn’t something I would attribute to him. Nor would I say that the relationship between the viewer and the film is somehow “better” in Cassavetes films than in Hitchcock’s. I would say the relationship between the viewer and film is more direct in Hitchcock, that the viewer actually is forced to negotiate their relationship with the very fact of watching a film in a way that they don’t have to do with Cassavetes, so in that sense Hitchcock is the more experientially “real” director although Cassavetes interest in examining the dynamics of emotional and social interactions may provide more of a feel of “reality” or seem more of use to some after the film is over. People respond differently to different stimuli after all. One should be wary though of going to far down the latter line if one is thinking of Carney type criticism though since then Cassavetes film’s would be seen as sort of a metaphorical way of understanding our own relationships and that seems to go against Carney’s ideals. (Ideals which in and of themselves prove almost contradictory to his thoughts about the unimportance of ideals.)
Think of it this way, Cassavetes films are a little like going to a bar and eavesdropping on two strangers have a conversation, one can project their own thoughts and feelings onto that conversation and observe the body language and demeanor of each participant but one is outside of the experience themselves so at a remove from direct experience in a way, Hitchcock films, on the other hand, are like going to the same bar and having someone tell you a story personally, directly, in this way your own participation is a crucial part of the encounter and one can pay attention to the person talking, but one cannot remove themselves from the experience in order to observe their own behavior, thus one is drawn into the story in a way that one isn’t into a secondhand encounter so there is a different relationship to the reality of the event, Welles films, I guess, could be thought of more as going out and seeing someone give a speech, that is the spectator is a part of the experience, but isn’t the focus of it, the relationship is more drawn towards another persons way of thinking and feeling and their actions while still maintaining an inner relationship to what is being said. Each process has its advantages and disadvantages and can enlighten the viewer in a different manner, but proclaiming any one of them as being somehow inherently better is just downright strange to me. The method isn’t the key issue, it’s what is being said and our reaction to it. Film, like speech, is a form of communication where the viewer or listener brings their own thoughts to bear in creating meaning or value, so in “judging” films one isn’t merely looking at the object itself, but the reaction to the object, the communication in total not in halves. There are film viewers that can’t get anything out of a Cassavetes film, just as there are those who can only respond superficially to a Hitchcock film, one doesn’t judge the films by those viewers, but by those that attend to the films more intently and, even more importantly, by one’s own involvement and understanding of what is being “said”. If one can’t tune into a certain kind of film, that is a loss for the viewer, but if one pays attention to what others are “hearing” then one can possibly still see there is something of interest being “said”. The problem we are having with Carney is that he tunes out anything that doesn’t echo what he has already said, or has heard from his accepted favorites. He limits his access to the world to a mindset he wants to believe in regardless of what anyone else may say, that to me is too great a loss for such a little gain in having a “philosophy”.
Things exist before we’ve made judgments on them, and those judgments don’t capture the whole thing, they’re an outline……he does think intellectual ideas are one step removed from what’s really going on.
That would be a definition of ‘dumb’ wouldn’t it?
Dumb: Seeing what’s really going on as an outline from which intellectual ideas are removed.
The other is that it’s at this moment Nick shouts at Mabel. Chastising her for being herself by telling her to be herself. The “normal conversation” he’s demanding is one that’s controlled, in which people are decidedly not being themselves. What he’s really saying is, “be the way I want you to be”.
He wants her to play a role the scene sets up: wife, mother, woman, etc.
In Mutual Appreciation the film flips, at the moment the conflict is suspended, from being voyeurisation to a being a film. It occurs when the protag deals with conflict by reverting to what he does on his job, counseling.
He ‘plays a role’ to suspend the conflict. The thing that bothered me was that the conflict wasn’t resolved, but if you know the film. resolving conflict probably would preclude it from being called Mutual Appreciation
Here’s the beginnings of how I would, were I so inclined, try to go about tracing out the affinities between Carney’s thinking to that of others. This is Dudley Andrew writing about Bazin:
“Bazin would be obliged to say that the real exists only as perceived, that situations can be said to exist only when a consciousness is engaged with something other than itself. In this view reality is not a completed sphere the mind encounters, but an “emerging- something” which the mind essentially participates in. Here the notion of ambiguity…is more than a result of human limitation. Here ambiguity is a central at tribute of the real. For Marcel and Merleau-Ponty, there can be no complete knowledge of a situation, but instead a more and more sensitive response to the mysterious otherness which consciousness engages. Thus ambiguity becomes a value, a measure of the depths of the real”
“ by the words, the ‘primacy of perception,’ we mean that the experience of perception is our presence at the moment when things, truths, values are constituted for us.”
“So art, whether it be painting or sculpture, poetry or music, has no other object than to brush aside the utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in order to bring us face to face with reality itself.”
Pre-intellectual is fine if you prefer . . . but, still, language isn’t pre-intellectual (like Robert would tell you visual perception is), but people talking seems to me really important to Cassavetes.
Hmm, you could be right about that. But our response to someone saying something would at first be pre-intellectual. And of course, there are a million things going on in Cassavetes apart from the words that are being said.
Nathan: Again it’s an unfair comparison, but it’s clear from your description despite a certain unpredictability, the scene follows a pretty straight line. As you say, things stay “pleasant”. Undoubtedly watching the Vertigo scene is a more comfortable, passive experience.
Also note how in tune with Scottie’s feelings we are when he looks at the painting, thanks to Hitchcock’s POV editing. Even though Stewart is doing very little, we know enough to share his emotions. For better or worse, Cassavetes would never let us inside a character to this degree.
Nathan: I think your comparison to watching two people talk or having someone tell you a story in a bar is apt. What’s strange, however, is that you call watching two people talk a “secondhand encounter” while having someone tell you a story is not. Can you see how that doesn’t make sense? Which would get you closer to reality, watching two people talking, or someone telling you a story about two people talking?
“If one can’t tune into a certain kind of film, that is a loss for the viewer, but if one pays attention to what others are “hearing” then one can possibly still see there is something of interest being “said”.”
There’s also another possibility: Carney, Mike and I understand perfectly well what both Hitchcock and Cassavetes are doing, and are able to see how Cassavetes reaches to greater depths. From what I can see, since Hitchcock works with generic conventions, reaffirms our preconceptions and “boils things down” (makes them easier), he can’t get as far down into who we really are as Cassavetes.
Now, this is where you’ll have to convince me of what Hitchcock is doing that is so great and what I’m missing out on. How is my understanding of Hitchcock superficial?
Dumb: Seeing what’s really going on as an outline from which intellectual ideas are removed.
You’ve got it jumbled up. I’m saying intellectual ideas are outlines of what’s really going on.
For example, “Norman Bates is one crazy motherfucker” is a preconception, an intellectual idea. While this may not capture the character completely, there’s nothing he does in the film to contradict this statement. The name is of the movie is Psycho, after all. To say the same thing about Mabel Longhetti (or try to diagnose her, which is a huge mistake) would be a total contradiction of what Cassavetes was trying to make clear. But to say that she’s not crazy would also miss something as well, wouldn’t it? Like a real person, she can’t be fenced in by intellectual definitions.
Fraser – Thanks for the compliment. However, I must make a correction. It was Greg X, not me, who made the comparisons about people in the bar and having a story told to you. I liked his comparison, too. Credit where it’s due.
I read both of your posts as one long one. :D
Oh, actually I just said “Nathan” again when I should have said “Greg”.
intellectual ideas are outlines of what’s really going on
Oh, my dumb then.
Mabel Longhetti (or try to diagnose her, which is a huge mistake) would be a total contradiction of what Cassavetes was trying to make clear. But to say that she’s not crazy would also miss something as well, wouldn’t it? Like a real person, she can’t be fenced in by intellectual definitions.
My diagnosis was based on personal experience.
Cassavetes was trying to make clear…..she can’t be fenced in by intellectual definitions
He is, by way of intellectual definitions, making things ambiguous. It is the setup and then the challenge of intellectual definitions that makes the Carneist films work. So one must fence in Mabel to be able to see the ambiguities – to see that the fencing doesn’t hold.
If one believes in buying into a character as Greg described, or as Matt parsed out, that for Carney an Archimedean point doesn’t exist, one is bound to miss the intellectual.
@ Andrew. Bazin, Merleau-Ponty
Re visual perception
Visual information passes through the emotional center of the brain such that, as one neurobiologist said, you can’t look at something without feelings.
Then the data is changed structurally as is the case with an anisotropism. (This process Arnheim says is cognitive – it is visual thinking. @Matt)
Thus we have perception processed into the information to be referenced by language. When it is being referenced the intellectualizing occurs. Intellectualizing is completing the perception in terms of power dynamics.
Carney wants us to be in-the-moment, but not with fake emotions or a specific type of intellectualizing, i.e. completing the perception in terms of power dynamics. He is inserting a belief system in between the art and one’s thought processes (To be consistent, I am going to include visual thinking as one of the thought processes.)
Hey, here’s a potential Carney film: There’s something about Mary – isn’t Ben Stiller ‘Carney-real’ in that film? why not?
“Carney wants us to be in-the-moment, but not with fake emotions or a specific type of intellectualizing, i.e. completing the perception in terms of power dynamics.”
Can you please apply ‘power dynamics’ to Matthew Barney’s ‘Cremaster Cycle’ please? While you’re at it, can you apply ‘power dynamics’ to Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’, Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’?
You don’t want to engage in rational discussion and Fraser has shown you too much respect by trying to initiate one. I, on the other hand, don’t see the point in wasting my time with someone who’s trapped in his own intellectual box and refuses to step outside for a second.
Anyway, an extract of Carney’s writing about ‘formalism’ may be of interest to some of you. It’s always better to critique him by responding to his own words:
It would be hard to imagine a filmmaker whose works yield fewer dividends to a sociological approach than Cassavetes. Not only are his characters and narratives too eccentric and idiosyncratic to make themselves available to sociological generalizations, but the energies in his films are too extreme, fluxional, and fragmented to be contained within ideological frames of reference (which are invariably normative, static, and totalizing). Indeed, as several of the essays in the following pages suggest, the expressive agenda of Cassavetes’ films is deliberately opposed to sociological and ideological understandings, insofar as he calls into question the adequacy of all super-personal, abstract, or intellectual ways of knowing. Ideological criticism implicitly levels the individual, reducing him or her to being a semiotic function of the environment, while Cassavetes does the opposite: He dramatizes imaginative energies that break forms that would contain them. He presents characters and scenes that figure the possibility of escaping the limitations of systematic understandings.
As luck would have it, Cassavetes’ films were equally out of step with the other dominant form of American academic film criticism: the formalism practiced by David Bordwell and his epigones—which has had a truly lamentable effect on American film criticism. Though its practitioners would vehemently deny it, formalism is basically an extension and updating of sixties auteurism (with the addition of a clanking, specialized, hi-tech vocabulary)—only this time the critic, instead of limiting himself to discovering Hitchcock’ s, Welles’, or Ford’s stylistic “signature,” sets himself a much larger and more ambitious task: comprehensively describing the stylistic earmarks of whole bodies of work—the thriller genre, the thirties studio picture, the art film, the continuity editing system, etc. But the important point is that the new formalists are as essentially taxonomic in their approach (and as indifferent to questions of value and meaning) as the old auteurists were. Film criticism becomes a matter of discovering and describing stylistic patterns within a body of work.
Now there is nothing particularly wrong with compiling such analytic taxonomies—as long as one realizes what errors of emphasis a reliance on them introduces into the critical account: what features of a work they exaggerate, on the one hand, and what aspects they underestimate or ignore, on the other. The formalists, by the very nature of their enterprise, are committed to the discovery and description of organizing principles that are general, repetitive, and abstract. That’s well and good, but the problem is that that’s where they stop, and it’s only a baby-step along the road of artistic understanding.
The stark limitation of the formalist approach is that the path of creation in the most interesting works is, in fact, in the reverse direction from the one in which the formalists face. It is an idiosyncratic, eccentric swerving away from systematic structures and repetitive stylistic patterns. It’s fine to describe the totalizing systems that the artist performs with; the error of the formalists is to mistake those structures for the important part of the work when what matters is the movements of the individual artistic imagination within and against the structures that empower it. Those movements are not systematic, repetitive, and abstract—they are concrete, unique, and unrepeatable; they live in a present that forever erases the past; they are less made, than continuously in the making; they do not represent leaps of abstraction above the prickly particularity of sensory experience, but plunges into it.
What formalism omits entirely might be said to be precisely what makes the work of Cassavetes (or any other great artist) most interesting. Cassavetes’ meanings are in transition between the fixed structures in his films. While the stylistic patterns of the formalists are necessarily general and disembodied, Cassavetes’ works live in bodily reality and sensory particularity. His meanings are not impersonal or abstract—as the styles the formalists describe must be—but are brought into existence practically, and expressed within specific times and spaces. They are not static and spatial, but fluidly flow and change: endlessly substituting one interest for another, constantly shifting tones, muscularly pushing us through incompatible spaces and times, energetically erasing one view and replacing it with the next.
That is why what is really needed is an inversion of the agenda of formalism: Rather than boiling a work down into a series of abstract structures, criticism has to find a way to talk about how meaning boils over forms that would structure it. Rather than talking about how structures abstractly contain a work’s content, criticism has to find a way to talk about how content will not be contained, about how meaning liquefies itself and leaks away from all forms. We need to put our efforts into finding a vocabulary for semiotic slippages among forms. We need to forge a critical syntax to characterize processes that won’t stand still to have their picture taken. (Isn’t that, after all, why they are called the movies?)
In short, the forms of formalism are easy to describe, but trivial—at least in a work of genius (in works of schlock or pop-culture, on the other hand, where there is often less there than meets the eye, they may be all there are). The forms are what Emerson called the “gymnasium on which the youth of the universe are trained to strength and skill.” But, as he added in the same October 25,1836 journal entry: “When they have become masters . . . who cares what becomes of the masts and bars and ropes on which they strained their muscle? . . . I am nothing else but power.” The formalists focus on the relatively unimportant “masts and bars,” but ignore the dazzling displays of “power” by those who have mastered them.
One of the most obvious imbalances introduced into the critical account by the formalists is their almost completely leaving acting out of their descriptions. It is clear why the old auteurism did this since it focused on the director-auteur at the expense of every other creative contributor to the meaning of a film, but the neglect of the actor as an originator and controller of meaning continues under the regime of the formalists insofar as the streaming particularity and fugitiveness of great acting, grounded as it is in concrete events and moment-by-moment adjustments of relationship, is clearly impossible to reduce to an abstract system of signification. (One might as well attempt to produce a taxonomy of facial expressions or emotions—though no doubt a Ph.D. candidate somewhere is working on that too.)
The corollary to the demotion of the performer as a maker of meaning is the promotion of so-called “pure” filmic effects as what really matter in the artistic experience. The formalists exaggerate the importance of abstract, metaphorical, and visual/visionary forms of expression (the domain of the director/cinematographer/set designer) insofar as they are distinctive to the cinematic experience, and downplay the importance of bodily, facial, verbal, and social forms of expression (the domain of the actor and writer) since they represent areas in which filmic expression obviously overlaps with expression outside of the movies. The result is a serious distortion of the critical account, a systematic bias in favor of intellectual, contemplative, and purely imaginative understandings and relationships. Experience is disembodied and inflected toward the realm of Vision.
The formalist approach has carried the day because it does successfully describe the work of certain filmmakers (Hitchcock, Sternberg, and Welles, for instance). Their films and others all too obviously testify to a belief that disembodied, visionary ways of knowing were at least potentially more beautiful and moving than socially engaged and verbally expressive ways of being-in-the-world. In works like Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo, Hitchcock tells us that our most profound, intense and important experiences are figured by socially disengaged states of silent and incommunicable looking, thinking, and feeling—are, in short, figured by the sorts of visual/visionary experiences the formalists describe in Hitchcock’s films.
No approach could be less suited to Cassavetes’ work. He is essentially an anti-visionary artist. He passionately rejects turns out of the forms and structures of non-visionary expression. His films exist to explore new ways of knowing and being in-the-world. His films define sensitivity and awareness not in terms of states of unexpressed feeling and isolated imagination, but as practical, enacted engagements with and responses to the non-visionary aspects of life.
The formalist agenda has another unfortunate side-effect. Insofar as it represents a disengagement from the ordinary, non-visionary complications of life, the ideal film of the formalists marginalizes the artistic experience and the experiences depicted within the work. It continues the trajectory of Pateresque aestheticism by telling us that the peak experiences of life take place not in the heat of the moment, in the midst of the ordinary, but off to the side of the highway of life, in a special “world elsewhere,” a private temple sanctified to states of otherwise inexpressible consciousness. Cassavetes utterly refuses to cordon off a special realm of super-ordinary imaginative experience. The ideal work of the formalists is, in this sense, world-fleeing and world-denying, while Cassavetes’ films are world-embracing and world-loving. The formalist aesthetic, like the Symbolist, is only a finer form of disengagement and escapism, while Cassavetes is the poet of “plunging-in” (as he once characterized his own work to me).
The consequence is not only a different view of art, but an entirely different view of the artist as well. The artist of the formalists is vatic—a seer, a dreamer, and a visionary. The artist for Cassavetes participates in an entirely different tradition—the tradition of Whitman and Emerson. Rather than going up on the mountain, he goes down the Open Road. Rather than criticizing or rising above ordinary life, he celebrates it. Rather than calling us away from our social duties and interpersonal responsibilities, the artist calls us to them, and himself participates in them. In brief, the place of art shifts. Everyone becomes a potential artist of his or her own life. Every character in Cassavetes’ work is viewed as, at least potentially, having the capacity of being as sensitive and responsive as Cassavetes himself. The artist is not at an Olympian remove—up on the heights of supreme sensibility with Flaubert, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf—but is figured by each character within the work. The way we become artists is the same way Cassavetes does—by plunging into expressive messes and social muddles, not by leaving them behind or criticizing them.
The problem with the formalists and the works they admire is that the expressions they recognize are too pure, too purely artistic, and too detached from the expressive compromises and impurity of life outside of the work of art and the movie theater. The Bordwellian formalists locate meaning-making in the wrong place (in the work instead of the characters), and describe the wrong kinds of meaning-making (meaning as weightless, contentless, ethically neutered, socially disengaged, and transcendent, rather than meaning as socially embedded, morally entailed, and personally contextualized). In the end, the result is an utter trivialization of criticism. Considerations of a work’s meaning, content, truth are replaced by a sterile, content-free, value-neutral, stylistic inventory.
The vocabulary of formalist criticism represents an attempt to give its methods a pseudo-scientific rigor and precision. It’s an open secret that film study is ghettoized in the American university and that film scholars, still not taken quite seriously by their colleagues in the humanities, are forced to overcome a kind of academic inferiority complex. One of the ways they have responded to this sense of being second-class citizens in the arts is by doing what any other threatened guild does: attempting to legitimize their field by developing an esoteric methodology and a specialized language. In an effort to establish that film is an autonomous art form entitled to full academic rank and recognition, “filmic” effects are implicitly defined as being those that other arts (like drama, dance, literature) do not have available. “Theatrical” effects (acting, voice tones, facial expressions, feelings, narrative meanings, effects of scripting) are largely ignored as the sources of meaning, while purely cinematic effects (those brought into existence with lighting, editing, sound, etc.) are focused on. The formalists microscopically atomize a work into a series of semantically empty rhetorical effects—effects of lighting, framing, focus, editing, sound, intertextual stylistic connections, etc., while almost completely ignoring the most meaningful and important parts of an artistic experience—the content, tone, feelings, emotions, characters, acting, understanding of life embodied in the work. The formalist account gives us films with style a mile high and knowledge of life an inch deep. (It’s not surprising that Hitchcock, Welles, and De Palma become superstars in this all-American triumph of stylistic razzle-dazzle over truth.)
The most unfortunate side-effect of this indifference to the actor by the formalists is that the history of American film is implicitly rewritten to conform with the formalist bias. The importance of the actor-centered work of certain directors (from Chaplin, Capra, and Sturges to Cassavetes and May) is downplayed, while the value of other, more “purely cinematic” directors (from Keaton and Sternberg, to De Palma, Kubrick, and Malick) is played up. The otherwise inexplicable over-estimation of the value of the work of Hitchcock or Welles is a case in point. Not only the work of Cassavetes, but that of most other truly interesting filmmakers drops completely through the cracks in such an account. Cassavetes’ art not only lacks the sorts of superficial (and eminently discussible) visual and acoustic frissons that formalists equate with “the filmic,” but is double-damned because it depends upon the script and the performance of the actor (and not upon effects of camera placement, lighting, or editing) to create many of its crucial meanings.
Given these tendencies in American film scholarship, it was not at all surprising that when a call went out for papers for a special issue on John Cassavetes, not one of the submissions came from a mainstream film scholar teaching in an American university. The pieces chosen for publication came from two academics whose major previous work has been devoted to the study of acting (Maria Viera and Carole Zucker); two Australian film scholars (George Kouvaros and Janice Zwierzynski); and two writers who approach Cassavetes from the perspective of interdisciplinary American Studies (Lucio Benedetto and the present editor).
In short, although the Society for Cinema Studies and American university film programs have obviously dropped the ball when it comes to Cassavetes, others are apparently more than eager to pick it up. But there is no reason the two groups should be separate. This special issue represents an attempt to initiate a critical dialogue about Cassavetes’ work with mainstream film scholars and teachers. A serious, scholarly evaluation of Cassavetes’ career is long-overdue. America deserves the chance to rediscover one of its supreme bodies of artistic work. It is no exaggeration to say that as long as the work of Cassavetes (and that of several other equally important and equally neglected, independent narrative filmmakers) remains unstudied, American viewers, filmmakers, and critics are denied their own cultural inheritance. As long as that is the case, the true history of American film, the authentic history of the American experience, remains unwritten…..