Shark & Stove: Because We’re Better at Watching Movies Than You
John Sutherland wrote a 2003 article in The Guardian that sought to examine the impact of Cassavetes’ well-known alcoholism on his artistic output. The article, while well-written, was unwilling to take a stand either way on whether he was an artist despite or because of drinking: “Did the stuff make Cassavetes a greater, or a flawed artist?” Sutherland asks. “It’s an unanswerable, but unavoidable question. Myself, I lean towards ‘greater’.” My take is less ambivalent.
A John Cassavetes movie is basically a punch in the face. He threw different types of punches throughout his career– his movies got more technically refined in later years– but they were still punches. For instance, if The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is filmed more traditionally (color film stock, less aggressive zooms) than his earlier movies like Shadows and Faces , it still begins out of nowhere with a shot of Ben Gazzara stepping down a few steps on a city street:
And just like a brawling drunk is not interested in screen testing the effect of his left jab on the drunk from down the street, so Cassavetes was uninterested in sanding down the edges of his movies– this is true right down to Love Streams.
It’s this uncompromising, ho-hum chutzpah that perhaps explains why someone like Jean-Pierre Melville, who was a better craftsman than Cassavetes, could have been so perfectly imitated by later directors, while Cassavetes, despite inspiring hordes of emulators, has never been convincingly copied– movies like Man Push Cart, Clerks, and Celebration seeming like pale shadows of the original, instead of modernizations or upgrades.
I think this is because the art that Cassavetes created cannot be re-created in purely artistic terms; it requires the force of an underlying life commensurate to that of its director– namely, a drunkard with the unique capability to craft movies like brawls and with the drive to do so until he was bloated and dead in his bed. NYU film school grads need not apply.
“To think of some historical precedent, I guess realism started with documentaries … you got back to Robert Flaherty … and even move into fictional documentaries like Where the Sidewalk Ends and, even better, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City … but it wasn’t until Cassavetes that filmic realism in fiction was truly done and done well.” –Shark
“It’s a pointless association of male and female but that, by itself, is the story; there is contracted realism in the relationship.” –Stove
“The scene in Husbands that I keep thinking of … is the scene where they’re all sitting around in the beer house … and the scene goes on for about 30 minutes where they’re all just sitting around drinking beer, singing songs … and they’re basically doing one the most realistic scenes of drunkeness that, I think, has ever been portrayed on film.” –Shark
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
“It’s about how much you admire Nick L. slapping the hell out of his wife versus how much your acknowledge that he truly loves her.” –Stove
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
“The personality of Cosmo, the main character, is what the movie is about. It reminds me of the novel Dracula where actually killing Dracula is about one page of the 500 page book, but the rest of it is just building the character, and that dominates the work of art.” –Stove
Opening Night (1977)
“Opening Night is essentially a play within a play … which is something that goes back to … at the very least Shakespeare…. But when Cassevetes does it it’s meant to do much less than the average play within the play. In fact, it does pretty much nothing: it has no filmic or thematic purpose other than to show that the neurosis of the characters are spilling over into the another medium.” –Shark
Love Streams (1984)
“How did we track down a copy of the extremely unavailable Love Streams? Because we are better at watching movies than you.” –Shark