Pebbles That Clatter and Spark: Four Films by John Cassavetes

Exploring the cinematic gut punch of four films by the American maverick director playing on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
Michael Pattison

MUBI in the United Kingdom will be showing four films by John Cassavetes beginning with Too Late Blues (March 9 - April 8), followed by Husbands (March 16 - April 15), Gloria (March 23 - April 22), and Love Streams (March 29 - April 28).

“Life is a series of suicides, divorces, promises broken, children smashed, whatever.”

                        — Robert, Love Streams

“Love is a stream. It’s continuous. It doesn’t stop.”

                        — Sarah, Love Streams 

I love a good punch. Not the kind Robert Mitchum could land, or the kind Errol Flynn once received, though the mythmaking breeziness of another era’s gossip columns ensures even these retain an ageless charm. I mean the verbal kind, the hit-you-in-the-belly kind. A gut punch. Putdowns are an art: cadence is a weapon, pithiness a bullet. Brevity bruises: it’s not so much what is said as everything that isn’t. The best knocks hurt precisely because, no matter how brutal they get, they always come across as diplomatic: one heart-slicing sentence stands in for many. To request an elaboration is to prolong the humiliation, deepen the agony.

John Cassavetes had these kinds of scenarios down to a T. There’s a great one, in his second feature Too Late Blues (1961). Jazz musician “Ghost” Wakefield (Bobby Darin) squabbles with his band during a recording session that their manager, Benny (Everett Chambers), has helped set up. Ghost’s qualm is that he’s being had, being taken for granted, being made to undersell his artistry as well as a blues tune of which he’s particularly fond. In the moment, he accuses his fellow band members of knowing nothing about his music: “I own that tune, you understand me? I own it coz I wrote it, coz I scored it, coz I know how to play it. I sweat with it, I laugh with it. It’s a part of me, you understand?” He calls them all phonies. 

Then it comes. One of Ghost’s pals, Red (Seymour Cassel), tries to reason with him—but Ghost lashes out. Two of the other band members, Shelley (Dan Stafford) and Pete (Richard O. Chambers), spring into action to defend their friend, but Red turns to calm them down. Then he turns again. We assume Ghost’s point-of-view, a startling, frontal close-up in which Cassel (sweaty-browed) looks directly into the camera, takes half a moment, thinks about saying it, then does: “Let him drop dead.” The reverse shot isn’t as intense: rather than assume Red’s own point-of-view, we see the other characters leave the room and, in a medium-shot, Ghost is suddenly alone, left visibly upset by an escalation that he himself caused.

Cassavetes, born 1929 in New York City, is known for lacing his dramas with these kinds of barbed, self-destructive breakdowns—momentary expressions of deeper, long-gestating resentments thrown by wounded souls at those within closest reach. When I watch his films, I’m reminded of a quotation from the Independent, printed on the back of my copy of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, in which one name could be replaced with another: “Auster’s strength is that he simply rubs stories together like pebbles. They clatter, spark and echo, but yield nothing so easy to extract as ‘meaning.’”  

Stories that rub. Husbands (1970), Cassavetes’s fifth feature and his first in color, brims with unspoken prickliness, with pebbles that clatter and spark. In the aftermath of their friend’s sudden death, three middle-class, middle-aged New Yorkers retreat ahead of their own mortality by embarking upon a two-day bender. They take a drunken subway ride back into the city to play basketball, peregrinate suburban streets like lost sheep, and catch a plane to London—where they gamble and enjoy brief, abortive trysts. 

Our protagonists are Gus (Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk). Cassavetes, who concretized the script from improvisations with his fellow performers (playing Xeroxed versions of themselves), establishes the men’s bond with one of the great film openings: a sequence of photographs, depicting a self-deprecating display of biceps during an all-happy-families, summertime poolside barbecue. Shirts off, shirts on, shirts off again, beer cans open.

It’s the only time we hear music: mid-sequence, we cut abruptly to the funeral itself, yanking Gus, Harry and Archie from past-tense stills into the more unpredictable, unstable present-tense of the moving image. Where there is drink there is drama: an ad hoc singing contest in a bar has a discomfiting, anything-goes air. The lack of score or source music makes everything ambiguous, uncushioned, hard to read. A table of jugs and half-drunk beers become ominous warning signs as the men’s emotional volatility pops proceedings like a blade piercing a balloon.

In the bathroom, Harry lurks by a stall like a borderline paranoiac to listen in on Archie and Gus confiding in one another without him: “Every time my back is turned you guys are whispering about me.” Gazzara, a man of effortless machismo (and teddy-bear warmth), plays it hilariously/heartbreakingly straight. Inexplicably donning a pantomime-tartan tam, he pushes his pals into making one of those diplomatic, tough-love jabs: he has no sense of humor. “If I really said what was on my mind you’d be crying,” Archie says. Asked to elaborate, he does: “Harry, you’re a phony.” Harry, furious, has to be held back. Archie has barely uttered the words before Harry leaps into his response: his paranoia is just one dormant expression of other, unvoiced neuroses—which are aggravated by Gus’s unhelpful fits of laughter. Rather than deflating tension, these seem only to add to it. 

Nobody laughed like Cassavetes. Like so many other emotional registers, laughter is convulsive in his films: it’s physical, vivid, inelegant. It doesn’t merely enliven the work, it shatters it, creating an entirely new reality in which actors can push and pull their characters into unfamiliar terrain—sending it into a delirium of what others might call raw, visceral truth. There’s something inimitably layered, eternally and uncontrollably juvenile, about Cassavetes’s own bursts of on-screen mirth. The way it all seems to gather in him, like a school kid in a silent-reading class—on his lips, which fatten into a Dr. Seuss smile, and in his nose, which swells into an excited, cartoon bulb. And in his eyebrows: angular, hairy slugs searching for shelter in the deep crevices of his forehead.

As his face thinned in later years, these facial features seemed to outgrow Cassavetes: they resisted, refused to die with him. In Love Streams (1984), his penultimate feature (which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), it looks like he’s just drifted in from an unsuccessful Dracula audition, in which he exhaustingly gave his all—and lost out only because his hair was a little too wispy, a little too unkempt, not quite as suave as he thought it was. And because the producers couldn’t ignore the strong stench of liquor bleeding out of every pore: Cassavetes plays Robert Harmon, a well-off writer who whiles away his days with younger women in a constant alcohol haze. As the day-to-day shine of his skin-deep relationships begins to fade, Robert receives a visit from his sister, Sarah (Gena Rowlands), to whom he is matchlessly close.

Sarah, we have seen, has her own problems: a messy divorce from husband Jack (Seymour Cassel), which exacerbates her intermittent bouts of depression. Rowlands, who had been married to Cassavetes since 1954, gets the brunt of it. Calling her ex-husband from a red phone box in London, she tells him, in a tone that suggests she’s a little too eager to will fictions into fact, that she’s “almost not crazy now.” We cut between the two: Sarah in close-up, her hopes held in Rowland’s focused eyes, and Jack in a sun-dappled long-shot by a backyard tennis court. With all the sweep of an unwelcome confirmation of bad news, however, Jack delivers verbal buckshot: “I just don’t care.” Cut to Rowlands, who looks like she’s just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and to a fantasy murder sequence in which she mows down Jack and their teenage daughter. Blood stains the car in the shape of a perfect heart. 

People are always on the verge of being unkind to one another in Cassavetes’s films, but the director is seldom unkind to them. His are compassionate studies, even when the characters themselves are far from loveable. That inevitably awful, out-of-nowhere bar brawl in Too Late Blues, in which individual callousness is trumped by the same solidarity earlier shown in an impromptu baseball match. Those wonderfully dynamic scenes between Cassavetes and Jenny Runacre, as local girl Mary Tynan, in the London sequences of Husbands: they bristle with the kind of electric chemistry only a one-night-stand in a forbiddingly cold-cum-memorably exotic place can muster. Love Streams in particular is an extremely painful work: when Robert is beaten up after locking his frightened, hungry eight-year-old son in a Las Vegas hotel room so that he can enjoy himself elsewhere, it isn’t so much karmic realignment as a sad affirmation of his own desperate illness. 

Cassavetes formed many of his works around gender relations. In the three films already mentioned, men are defined in large part by their interactions with women: Benny’s jealousy towards, and Ghost’s indignant protection of, Jess (Stella Stevens) in Too Late Blues; the eponymous and neglectful spouses of Husbands (whose wives are either beaten, cheated on or relegated to still photographs); the double-edged proximities between two self-wounding and mutually-dependent siblings in Love Streams. Even within the intense framework of the latter, however (there’s scarcely an establishing shot in the whole film), it’s never long before other considerations are factored in. 

Cassavetes was too serious an artist to treat gender relations without them colliding, again and again, with questions of class. In Gloria (1980), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (tying with Louis Malle’s Atlantic City), Cassavetes weaves these two themes into the geography of his native New York. Rowlands plays an ex-gangster’s moll, who has to flee her South Bronx apartment with Phil (John Adames), her Puerto Rican neighbor’s six-year-old son, when the latter’s family is gunned down by the NYC mob. Though the wall-to-wall jazz score and the explicitly thriller-like feel made this Cassavetes’s most commercial film, the director’s characteristic attention to local color allowed him to re-stitch the city’s more familiar sites (and sights) into a vivid cauldron—one in which class and gender are thrown together in thrilling, violent fashion. Rub like pebbles.

Gloria opens with aerial views of Yankee Stadium at night—a giant crystal-blue buoy in a dark sea of twinkling grids—and of the Statue of Liberty cloaked in beautiful azure, before the camera sweeps down along the East River. It’s all a con: forget these transportive vistas. This is a dangerously intimate city, run by an all-encompassing mafia that operates with seeming impunity: Gloria and Phil’s lives are in danger throughout. Street corners, flophouses, hotel rooms, train stations: nowhere is ever really safe here. Cassavetes shoots the action from afar: we watch our protagonist negotiate overcrowded, rundown urban pockets, above and below ground, suitcase in hand and vulnerable to the sudden shriek of car horns and curb-mounting vehicles. This is a criminal land, where gangsters may as well be the police. 

Rowlands, nominated for her second Best Actress Oscar (the first was for Cassavetes’s 1974 drama A Woman Under the Influence), is exceptionally unforced in her portrayal of a woman whose own indifference is gradually worn down. She has no time for witty remarks: “I’m overweight, I’m out of shape,” she tells Phil, urging him to return home after realizing the impossible burden she’s assumed. But then a car screeches up, with five suited thugs crammed into its interior: they want the young boy. And Gloria, as frustrated as she might be by her new responsibilities, is confronted with the realities of a vicious, unfair world that doesn’t account for or forgive the circumstances into which people are born. She sees these men, and their dark glasses and their ties and their robotic need to kill a child. And she reaches into her handbag, which hangs awkwardly from her shoulder. Weighs things up, pulls out a gun, shoots.


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