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Close-Up on John Cassavetes’s “Minnie and Moskowitz”

Watching John Cassavetes’s revisionist screwball comedy is a novel and profound experience.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. John Cassavetes's Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) is showing July 17 - August 16, 2018 in the United Kingdom and July 15 - August 14, 2018 in many countries around the world.
It is difficult to write about a John Cassavetes film. His work, which is so elusive and textured in form and style, is deeply experiential. Watching his films is an immersive, enthralling, and often challenging experience. Although Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) is, in many ways, one of Cassavetes’s more accessible, straightforward and lighthearted films, it also embodies the meandering, irrational, and at times absurd and chaotic style that has come to define his body of work.
Minnie and Moskowitz is Cassavetes’ revisionist take on the screwball comedy, following its titular protagonists Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands) and Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel) as they negotiate the most unlikely of romantic courtships over a brief but intense four days. Episodic in structure, the film weaves back and forth between snapshots of Minnie and Moskowitz’s disparate lives before the two meet in a chance encounter. Chance, banality, and humor interweave throughout the film to paint a picture of its characters’ lives which are at once simple and profound.
Minnie, played by the beautiful and mournful Rowlands, works at the L.A. county museum and curses cinema for filling her with unattainable ideals about love. She goes to the movies with her older, dowdy coworker Florence, and the two talk candidly about love and sex over copious amounts of wine. “The movies set you up,” Minnie laments. “They set you up and no matter how bright you are, you believe it.” Abused and rejected by her married lover, played by an uncredited Cassavetes, Minnie faces life alone with deep fear and uncertainty.
Moskowitz is a gangly, mustachioed parking lot attendant with an abundance of energy and an alarming absence of social grace. He is boyishly short-tempered and uncouth, passing his time working with cars, eating hot dogs and bothering strangers. Although on the surface Moskowitz appears to lead a life that is directionless and lonely, he is a keen observer of people and possesses an immense, albeit unconventional, capacity for love. Moskowitz rescues Minnie from a hellish lunch date during a chance encounter in a parking lot and immediately fixates on her as the woman he must spend the rest of his life with.
A reluctant and aloof Minnie agrees to spend time with Moskowitz, finding herself both shocked and enthralled by his candid approach to romance. Observing him cautiously from behind the enormous black sunglasses that she routinely wears, Minnie finds an antidote to her false aspirations about love and attraction in the uninhibited Moskowitz. Taking his face in her hands, Minnie declares, “Seymour it’s not the right face. That’s not the face I dreamed of. You’re not the guy I’m in love with.” But Moskowitz persists.
It is difficult to imagine romance or intimacy ever developing between the pair. Seymour’s brashness is radically offset by Minnie’s refinement and grace, and frequently his gestures of affection—bundling an uncompromising Minnie into his arms, or chasing her down the street—are discomforting, if not unnerving, to watch. It is precisely within this awkwardness, clunkiness and incompatibility, that Seymour and Minnie’s four-day courtship becomes extraordinarily real and believable.
Minnie and Moskowitz is devoid of sentimentality, as love and devotion are drawn in the basest of ways. In attempting to explain his feelings for Minnie, Moskowitz declares, “I think about you so much I forget to go to the bathroom.” Despite the crudeness of Moskowitz’s gestures and speech, there is an insistent presence of romance, of a sort that we so rarely see in American cinema. Cassavetes certainly tests the limits of an alternative romance—Minnie and Moskowitz’s relationship is a chaotic, slapstick whirlwind of a cat and mouse chase, ending no less absurdly as it began. But we can believe in, and possibly even celebrate, their unconventional union through the deftness and delicacy with which Cassavetes treats his characters. Amongst the chaos, and frequent hysteria, of the film’s episodic structure and farcical tone, there is real tenderness and pathos. Cassavetes brings to life the brokenness and humanity of his characters, offering his actors an unusual degree of space to improvise and explore their roles.
Minnie and Moskowitz explores human nature in Cassavetes’s singular style, delicately negotiating its characters in the most candid and spontaneous of ways. To watch a Cassavetes film is to feel human interaction and conversation unfold as if by accident. Minnie and Moskowitz will perhaps feel alarmingly loud and disjointed for those unfamiliar with Cassavetes’s style. The film frequently cuts away mid-scene, or even mid-sentence, so as the viewer finds themselves plucked from moment to moment. If you immerse yourself in the film’s frequent absurdity, and allow yourself to be carried away by the spontaneous energy that drives the film’s meandering and haphazard narration, watching Minnie and Moskowitz becomes a novel and profound experience. This is not a set up. There are no ideals about love to be found here, nor expectations about cinematic convention to be satiated.
I just don't get how this film can be described as a comedy. If anything, it's loose structure and plot are a rejection of the conventions of romantic comedy. Moreover, there is nothing funny about it. Minnie is physically assaulted, harassed and emotionally abused by almost every man she meets in the film. It is deeply unpleasant to watch. She blames herself for all of this, and wanting desperately to be loved, relents under the pressure of these men intent on possessing her. If Cassavettes and his company are saying anything with this film it's that we live in a world of toxic masculinity which has reduced an intelligent, sophisticated and financially independent woman to nothing but 'a girl with good looks' who 'takes herself too seriously'. Men and the patriarchy have pummelled her self-esteem, brought her agency into submission and made her complicit in all of it. I think the happy ending we are given is deceptive, and should be read an extension of one of the main themes of the film: the illusory nature of romantic love on screen. If the ending really was just meant to convey something as simple as "people, love and a combination of the two are irrational", I wasn't convinced. What I saw portrayed between them was not love or even romance. It was a vicious cycle of abuse, desperation and self-deception.

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