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Cassavetes on Cassavetesby Raymond Carney
Introduction: A Life in Art
This is the autobiography John Cassavetes never lived to write. In his own words Cassavetes tells the story of his life as he lived it, day by day, year by year. He begins with his family and childhood experiences, talks about being a high-school student, college dropout and drama-school student. He describes the years he spent pounding the pavement in New York as a young, unemployed actor unable to get a job — or even an agent. Then he takes us behind the scenes to let us sit in on the planning, rehearsing, shooting and editing of each of his films — from Shadows, Faces and Husbands to Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, Gloria and Love Streams. He describes the struggle to get them made, and the even greater battle to get many of them into movie theaters. He talks about the reaction of audiences and reviewers to his work, and responds to criticisms of it.
The tale is a personal, passionate one: of dreams, struggles, triumphs, setbacks and frustrations; of hair-raising financial gambles, crazy artistic risk-taking and midnight visions of glory. But it is also the story of an artistic movement that extended beyond Cassavetes and defined an era in film history. Between the lines, as it were, these pages chronicle the history of one of the most important artistic movements of the past fifty years — the birth and development of American independent filmmaking, and the response to it by critics and reviewers.
Cassavetes pioneered a new conception of what film can be and do. His vision was of film as a personal exploration of the meaning of his life and the lives of the people around him. It was a way of asking deep, probing questions about the world in which he lived, and of asking others to question and explore their own experiences. The pages that follow trace the cultural trajectory of that idea, and the wildly opposed responses it elicited: the incredible energy and excitement it engendered among certain artists, critics and viewers; and the fierce resistance it met with from uncomprehending studio heads, producers, distributors, reviewers and audiences fighting to hold on to their notion of the movies as 'story-telling' or 'entertainment'. In fact, the battle is far from over; it continues today.
Since this is the first time Cassavetes' life story has been told, very few of the following facts have been known outside of the circle of his intimate friends and family. Many facets of the story (from Cassavetes playing 'chicken' on the Port Washington sand-pit cliffs during his teens, to his feelings of oppression at the narrowness and conformity of American culture when he was in high school, to his playwriting and repertory theater work in the final decade of his life) will be unfamiliar even to someone who has read all of the standard journalistic biographies. Most of the events are appearing in print for the first time.
To verify the facts, I tracked down the actual participants to the events whenever I possibly could. I conducted scores of interviews — with Cassavetes in the final years of his life and with dozens of actors, crew members and friends who worked with him over the years, including Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Elaine May, Lelia Goldoni, Sam Shaw, Larry Shaw, Hugh Hurd, George O'Halloran, Al Ruban, Maurice McEndree, Ted Allan, Lynn Carlin, Tim Carey, Erich Kollmar, Michael Ferris, Meta Shaw, Jonas Mekas, Amos Vogel, and many others. (Many of the interviews took the form of panel discussions or post-screening question-and-answer sessions I organized and moderated at film festivals.) Over the time it took to complete the project, the original interviews were supplemented with hundreds of hours of follow-up telephone conversations, e-mails and handwritten notes, memoirs and recollections provided by these figures and others, which were incorporated into the narrative.
My hope is that this will be a book with surprises and discoveries on nearly every page, even for someone who may already be a Cassavetes 'buff'. I have written four books and dozens of essays and program notes about the films, and yet was astonished to discover something new about Cassavetes' life or work almost every single day I worked on this project. Many of the facts I uncovered turned the common wisdom about his life, the accepted truths about how the movies were made, upside down and inside out.
One of the most striking things that emerged for me personally was the realization of the degree to which Cassavetes' films were quarried from his most private feelings and experiences — far beyond what I had imagined when I began. Cassavetes is in his films, and his feelings about life are in characters like Shadows' Ben, Faces' Richard, Minnie and Moskowitz's Seymour, A Woman Under the Influence's Mabel, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie's Cosmo and Love Streams' Robert — to an extent that stunned me when I ultimately grasped it. I hope that one of the functions of this book will be to help us understand Cassavetes' work, and the work of artistic creation in general, in new ways. We need to rethink the films in the light of the secrets Cassavetes reveals in these pages.
Cassavetes was a legendary talker. He talked about his work to virtually anyone who would listen: in conversations with actors and crew members on the sets of the films; in introductions preceding screenings and question-and-answer sessions following them; in discussions of his work with friends and with me; in formal interviews with journalists. He also wrote about his work: in introductions to the two books of screenplays he published; in personal statements included in the hand-crafted press-packs he prepared for many of the films; and in hundreds of letters to reporters, agents, studio heads, friends, and to me. There was no shortage of material to choose from. When the initial compilation was assembled, there was an embarrassment of riches — much more than could be included in a book. The present text represents a selection of less than one-fifth of the total amount with which I began.
Though, as noted, much of the material has never appeared in print before, I would point out that even the sections of the following pages that are based on newspaper or magazine interviews published during Cassavetes' lifetime are, in many cases, appearing here for the first time in the words Cassavetes actually spoke. It's no secret that, because of limitations of space, what appears in a given issue of a newspaper or magazine is almost always a highly edited version of what an interviewee actually says. In every possible instance, I have gone back to locate the original audio tape or unedited transcript of the interview and used that and not the abridged printed text as my source.
At an early stage in the process of compiling the text, the decision was made to organize the body of material into a sequential, chronological narrative in order to provide the most meaningful reading experience. This necessitated my one major editorial intervention in terms of the presentation of the hundreds of paragraphs that comprise the quoted text. I took shorter statements that Cassavetes made on different occasions and placed them back to back to form one longer, more comprehensive statement. The filmmaker often found himself answering the same question about his life or work many different times in front of different audiences or different interviewers. Consolidating several briefer responses into one longer response was the only way to allow him to make a coherent presentation of his complete thought, as well as the only way to keep the narrative moving meaningfully from year to year and topic to topic without constant thematic digressions, asides and interruptions.
I also want to mention a few minor editorial changes I made in the text. In several dozen cases, I have silently 'corrected' factual errors in Cassavetes' statements. In the rapid flow of speech (and sometimes even in his written statements) Cassavetes occasionally misremembered or misstated a date or name. I felt it would serve no useful purpose and would only confuse the reader to include obvious errors in his statements, when they seemed attributable simply to a slip of the tongue or a momentary memory lapse.
On the other hand, there is another kind of misrepresentation which was retained in the final text. In many cases Cassavetes consciously and deliberately shaded, suppressed or embellished the truth. Sometimes (as when he lied about his height or told people he majored in English at Colgate) it betrayed an insecurity. Sometimes (as when he told interviewers that the final version of Shadows was improvised) he did it for PR reasons. Sometimes (as when he claimed that Paramount called him up and asked him to come to Hollywood to make Too Late Blues, and that he wrote the script in a drunken weekend, when in fact he initiated the contact and wrangled for the job months in advance) he was engaged in an effort to rewrite history in order to cover up a mistake or an embarrassing fact about himself. Sometimes (as when he denied he had problems working with certain actors) he suppressed facts out of tact, to avoid hurting or angering someone.
Sometimes the prevarication was fairly innocent: on occasion, he engaged in the perfectly understandable embellishments of vanity, or changed facts simply to 'improve' a story by making it funnier or more dramatic. These sorts of falsehoods or evasions fall into a different category from slips of the tongue or lapses of memory. They reveal important things about Cassavetes' feelings and attitudes, and I have not only kept them in the text but usually discussed them in the headnotes.
I 'cleaned up' the text in several other small ways. If the antecedent of a pronoun was unclear (which often was the case simply because I had cut an earlier statement to avoid repetition), I replaced the pronoun with the noun to which it referred (generally the title of a film or the name of a character). At many points, I also edited out a little of the syntactic and dictional sprawl that inevitably accompanies spoken language (the use of empty phrases like 'you see?', 'right?' and 'you know?' to engage a listener, and the occasionally loopy syntax that creeps into almost all speech). In every case, the goal was to clarify a potential confusion without changing the fundamental meaning of what Cassavetes was saying.
At the same time, in other cases, I deliberately avoided making some of Cassavetes' explanations simpler, clearer or more logical. Almost everything in the following pages originated as speech, and there is no reason to conceal that fact or to attempt to edit it to mimic the entirely different cadences of written language. More importantly, some of Cassavetes' strangest and potentially most puzzling expressions communicate important ideas. As an example, he frequently employs odd, undefined pet phrases that are fairly cryptic at first glance to explain aspects of his work (e.g. making references to 'the rules of society', 'mores', the importance of 'your mind's eye view of yourself' and his need for 'comfort'). I initially considered eliminating the passages containing these and several other offbeat terms since they seemed unclear. But as I worked with the text over a long period of time, these concepts, however oddly expressed, became extremely meaningful as they echoed across the discussions of different films.
There are a number of eccentric leaps of association or idiosyncratic jumps and elisions in Cassavetes' thoughts and syntax which may seem confusing or haphazard at first, but eventually become quite revealing. I'll cite only one example: it is not at all uncommon for Cassavetes to begin talking about a character and in mid-sentence switch to talking about the actor who plays the character. The shift occurs so subtly and so frequently that at many points it is simply impossible to tell whom Cassavetes is referring to. He often compounds the confusion by using the actor's name in place of the character's — talking about A Woman Under the Influence, for example, by saying something like, 'Peter surprised me; he wanted Gena to be committed.' To clarify these expressions by substituting the 'correct' name in place of the 'wrong' one would be to miss the point. Cassavetes' conflation of the actors' and the characters' personalities, with the actor and the character inhabiting the same skin, reveals deep truths about how he thought about his actors and his films.
Copyright © 2001 Ray Carney
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