There’s this great moment in A Constant Forge where we see director John Cassavetes on the set of one of his films (I believe it’s Husbands), and he’s just giggling. He’s got pure joy on his face, and a thrill in his voice, over what he’s just seen happen to a scene: “I like it when it’s better!” he announces. “Hate it when it’s lousy.” You can come up with plenty to say about Cassavetes as a filmmaker, and at 200 minutes, A Constant Forge certainly does. But it also respects the simplicity of the man and of his art. He liked it when it was better, and hated it when it was lousy.
The structure and style of the extended documentary is as unconventional as its subject’s own films—it begins with a quick zip through his full filmography (well, almost full—his much-maligned, done-as-a-favor-and-for-the-money last film Big Trouble isn’t even mentioned), primarily as a formality and an introduction, but spends the bulk of its running time as a thematic, rather than a chronological, exploration. Director Charles Kiselyak expertly interweaves discussions of his characters, his women, his methodology, his business sense (or lack thereof), his theatrical sidebars, his musicianship, his infectious spirit. Though Kiselyak is somewhat hamstrung by the limitations of his clip library (no Minnie and Moskowitz, no Gloria, no Love Streams, very little Husbands—basically, it only uses the films from the Criterion set it was included in), the behind-the-scenes pieces (mostly drawn from The Making of “Husbands” and “I’m Almost Not Crazy”) are tremendous.
All of the usual suspects turn up to thrown in their two cents—Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Peter Falk—along with those whose collaborations with him never made it to the screen (Jon Voight, Sean Penn, Carol Kane), the lesser-known but invaluable stars of the early films (like Faces’ Lynn Carlin and Shadows’ Lelia Goldoni), and his fellow filmmakers (John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich). Late in the film, Bogdanovich gives voice to the criticisms most frequently lobbed against his friend, and admits that he sometimes felt the same way about those pictures. But he then goes on, and manages to sum up the beauty and brilliance of Cassavetes’s work simply and eloquently. Like much of that work, A Constant Forge is too damned long and is often just all over the place. But it is an intelligent film, and gives its subject the credit and diligence he deserves.