Friday, May 15, 2009

Cassavetes: "Husbands"

John Cassavetes is a filmmaker I know quite a bit about, considering how little of his work I’ve seen. His seminal 1959 indie Shadows was on my viewing list in the run-up to what became a three-day stint at NYU film school (long story, don’t ask) back in 2001; I caught his second film, Faces, at a Museum of Modern Art screening last year. But at a rate of one film every seven years, it’ll take me quite a while to work my way through his filmography, so I figured I’d ramp it up (particularly considering how my interest in him amped up after reading the excellent biography Accidental Genius a while back).

So I’m going to take on the rest of the Cassavetes oeuvre over the next few weeks, starting with the third “real” Cassavetes movie (he made a pair of studio pictures, Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting, between Shadows and Faces, but they’re considered by most to be compromised and diluted, and besides that, they’re hard to track down). After the sleeper success of Faces, Cassavetes made Husbands, a free-wheeling, two-hour-plus midlife-crisis drama, heavy on improvisation and naturalism. He also put himself in a major role for the first time (his success as an actor in hits like Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen had made him a bankable asset), co-starring with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara as a trio of successful suburban professionals who go on a multi-day binge of drinking and bad behavior in New York City and London following the death of a close friend.

Husbands is, in many ways, a quintessential Cassavetes film; it’s incredibly indulgent, but it also traffics in a purely observational, semi-detached, frequently spontaneous style that is still a little surprising. For every scene that doesn’t work, that drags and wanders (like the long, dull sequence where they sit around with a group of strangers in a New York bar and sing songs), there is another (like the scene where Cassavetes tries to pick up a girl at a London casino) that is so real and believable, it is extraordinary. Yes, that bathroom scene is borderline insufferable, but I’d gladly sit through it again to get to the moment where Gazzara grins and says proudly, “Look what I did to that phone booth,” or to Cassavetes’ response when that girl asks him, late in the film, “Do you like me?”

There’s a simplicity to the raw, unvarnished truth of that scene that makes you understand, with absolute clarity, why he was so revolutionary, and why his name is still spoken in reverential tones by indie filmmakers. Few directors have ever been so overstated yet understated, so decadent yet restrained. His films are frustrating. But there are these amazing things inside them, and the final sequence of Husbands is, in its own way, kind of shattering. This film, like many of his others, offers much—to those who have the patience for it.

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