The Influence Of John Cassavetes

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The son of Greek immigrants, Cassavetes started his career in American cinema as an actor, achieving a certain degree of fame as a youth rebel in Crime in the Streets (Siegel, 1956) and as a hard-pressed airport worker in Edge of the City (Ritt, 1957). However, it was his role as jazz-musician-by-day-turned-private-investigator-by-night Johnny Staccato, in the NBC show Johnny Staccato in 1959-60 that made him a familiar figure to the wider public. Since 1957, Cassavetes had established in New York the Variety Arts Studio, an actors' workshop, with the objective of developing theatrical skills through the means of improvisation. In an appearance on Night People, a late-night radio show, the twenty-seven-year-old actor stunned the show's presenter and audience by claiming that Edge of the City (the film he was promoting) was not a good film and that he could make a better film for a fraction of the cost. He went on to ask the listeners to send money so that he would make 'a movie about people'.9 Over the next few days, the radio station was inundated with letters containing small bills (approximately $2,000 in total) while other film industry figures also proceeded to donate various sums. With a final figure of $40,000 and a 16mm camera, Cassavetes went on to film an improvisation experiment that originated in his workshop. The result was Shadows, the film that kickstarted the New American Cinema and which, for film historian Geoff King, 'stands as a bridge between the alternative American cinemas of the 1950s and 1960s and the later independent movement.'10

The film (see the Case Study on p. 184) introduced a particularly distinct approach to narrative filmmaking, but perhaps more importantly established the 'figure of Cassavetes' as 'the outsider', 'the maverick', 'the pioneer', the filmmaker who started a trend and paved the way for other talented individuals who wanted to use the medium of cinema for personal expression. For future generations of filmmakers, Cassavetes represented

Figure 5.1 John Cassavetes' unique visual style: an emphatic close-up of Lelia Goldoni and Anthony Ray in Shadows.

the American auteur in its most pure and unadulterated form: the filmmaker who writes their own scripts, arranges their own financing, organises the whole project on their own, works with a small circle of dedicated friends who are willing to work for very little or even for nothing, edits their own work, arranges distribution after the film is completed, and even 'writ[es] his own press pack and do[es] the layouts for many of the posters and newspaper ads.'11

More importantly, this type of auteur remains faithful to their artistic vision and demonstrates a certain aversion to mainstream cinema, which is dismissed as pure entertainment or escapism. With Charles Chaplin in the 1920s and 1930s and Orson Welles in the 1940s and 1950s acting as luminaries and previous points of reference for such filmmakers, Cassavetes took this form of filmmaking many steps further by building a consistent body of work that spanned almost three decades and by demonstrating that a successful filmmaking career away from the influence of the majors was indeed possible. For film critics, Cassavetes' film output stands 'as a monument in the independent canon.'12 For filmmakers of later generations, Cassavetes stands as a powerful symbol. As Martin Scorsese put it:

Whenever I meet a young director who is looking for guidance and advice, I tell him to look at the example of John Cassavetes, a source of the greatest strength. John made it possible for me to think that I could actually make a movie.13

After Shadows Cassavetes made two films in Hollywood - breaking thus his association with the Group: Too Late Blues (1961) for Paramount and A Child is Waiting (1963) for Stanley Kramer Productions (distributed by United Artists). Of particular interest was the latter where Cassavetes was hired to direct a top-rank independent production with major stars (Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland). A series of disagreements between him and Kramer, however, forced Cassavetes to leave the picture during post-production and Kramer to take over the supervision of the film's editing. As a result, Cassavetes denounced the final film, labelling it an 'overly sentimental' Hollywood creation,14 and decided never to return to commercial filmmaking, as this was exemplified by both studio and toprank independent film production. Cassavetes' experience in these two films clearly proves that top-rank independent production had been completely assimilated to the structures and processes of studio production, therefore pointing to low-budget arrangements as perhaps the only ones distanced from the ex-studios' influence. The need for a different type of independent production as an alternative to the mainstream (apart from pure exploitation) was absolutely critical, and the films of the Hollywood Renaissance came to fill the gap.

Cassavetes returned triumphantly to his low-budget/aesthetically challenging filmmaking roots with Faces (1968), a film he financed from a number of acting jobs he took in studio productions. The critical success of the film, which was commercially released by Continental Distributing, a small independent distributor, established Cassavetes as a major force in independent filmmaking and was widely perceived as the first film of the 'Cassavetes canon'.15 It was followed by films such as Husbands (1970; distributed by Columbia), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971; distributed by Universal), A Woman Under Influence (1974; distributed by Faces

International - a company established by Cassavetes himself when national distributors showed no interest in his film), The Killing of A Chinese Bookie (1976; distributed by Faces International); Opening Night (1977; distributed by Faces International); Gloria (1980; distributed by Columbia) and Love Streams (1984; distributed by Cannon Films).16 Although some of these films, like A Woman Under the Influence and, especially, Gloria became relative commercial successes and despite the names of Columbia and Universal as the distributors of three of his pictures, Cassavetes' cinema remained stylistically and narratively challenging, with films that often explored 'uncharted territory' and with a film output so diverse that makes him 'America's most idiosyncratic and least cat-egorizable filmmaker'.17

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