Thursday, 13 December 2012

John Cassavetes' Husbands

John Cassevetes’ 1970 film Husbands, re-released in a new digital restoration, showed at the Exeter Picture House last week, and I wasn’t about to miss such a rare cinematic screening for one of my favourite directors. I sat in the auditorium with the two other people who’d come along, one of whom lost patience with the film’s rambling longueurs and walked, leaving just myself and one other to see the picture to its abrupt and creditless finale. An abrupt cut and the screen goes black, the house lights fading up. Cassavetes had crammed all the credits into two opening title cards so that he could fit as much of the considerable amount of film he’d shot into the running time the studio were insisting upon as possible. The early exit and minimal audience are perhaps understandable (and this was the mid-week matinee timeslot into which the Picture House shoves the bfi touring re-releases it seems reluctantly obliged to screen). It certainly is a difficult film, offering little concession to the viewer in terms of narrative progression, sympathetic characterisation, conventional cinematic technique and professional gloss, or brisk pacing and editorial concision. But it does strive for an emotional intensity in its revelation of the inner lives of its three middle aged, middle class American protagonists, confronting a moment of existential crisis in their lives which they struggle to articulate and understand. Cassavetes himself plays Gus, with his friends and frequent subsequent collaborators Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara playing Archie and Harry respectively. Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara aim for a level of truth in their depictions of their characters which steers clear of easy sentiment or rote habits or tics. It’s very much an actor’s film, and furthers Cassavetes’ sense of life as a performance, which his films all explore in one way or another.

The film begins with a montage of photographs, snapshots of four friends larking about by the side of the pool, showing off their muscles and their beer bellies (the latter much the more impressive), their families looking on from the sidelines, the bassline of a rollicking tune providing the memory track for these glimpses of good times. We then jarringly cut to the silence of a parade of black funeral cars, Archie, Gus and Harry weaving their way through the throng of mourners to hear the eulogy to their friend Stuart, one of the quartet in the photos, who has died suddenly and unexpectedly. It is a bitterly cold New York day, and the men look stunned, lost and bewildered. The heat from the cars creates a shimmering haze in the wintry air, adding to their sense of the unreality of what is happening. The frozen chill of the day acts as a metaphor for the frozen state of their lives, their numbed sensibilities, which their shock and their inability to find an adequate response to it forces them to confront. Travelling in the back seat of one of the cars after the funeral, they review the minister’s summary of their friend’s life as if talking about a film they’d just seen. They all agree not to go home, heading instead to the city, where we find them late at night in a boozy, street singing state of wobbly, inebriate camaraderie. The next day, they engage in strenuous physical activity, playing basketball and having a swimming race, as if to prove that they still possess some of the athleticism of their youth. Then it’s back to the bar for an epic night of drinking, during which they keep the beer flowing in order to persuade the resident habitués to join in a round of competive singing. The three friends act as a reviewing panel, encouraging or goading the participants, vicariously trying to connect with an authentic expression of feeling, of something which arises from genuine experience. We never see the denouement, or find out who’s adjudged to have won, Cassavetes typically plunging us straight into the middle of a scene and abruptly cutting before it’s reached any definite conclusion.

Into the black - bog as existential void
We find the three in a black, existential void of a toilet (an expressionistic reflection of their inner states) where Archie and Gus give direct, visceral expression to their own feelings in a loud, echoing bout of vomiting and farting. It’s an emetic purging in physical form of the emotions which they are unable to express verbally. Harry is roundly mocked for not being able to vomit, to show how he feels, and notice his increasing marginalisation in this scene, Stuart’s death having upset some dynamic balance which prevailed in the friendship between the four men. In the worst insult imaginable in the universe of Cassavetes’ films, he is accused of being a ‘phoney’, a charge to which he reacts violently. We see further evidence of his violent temper the following morning when he smashes up the phone booth in the bar having failed to get through to his wife. Harry sentimentally declares his love for his friends, drawing them both close to him and declaring them to be more important to him than his wife.

The hollow routine - Harry at work
Gus and Archie return with Harry to his suburban home, where he has a violent confrontation with his wife and her mother. Restrained from further assault by Gus and Archie, who rush in from the street outside, where they’ve been waiting for him to emerge, he effectively brings his marriage dramatically crashing down around him. He leaves having forced his wife to make a declaration of love which is so patently made under duress that even his insensitive soul has to acknowledge its falsity. Harry decides to go to work, as if his life is still proceeding along its normal track. We see him in his office at the ad agency where he works, going through the motions, trying to avoid encountering anyone, but putting on the hollow charm which he can don with such ease when he bumps into a client. He sits at a draughtsman’s desk, which suggests he may once have had some creative inclinations. The advertising world he works in is presented with its usual associations of selling out and prostituting creativity for trivial commercial ends. Harry’s weary manner, beneath the surface veneer of charm, suggests that he is as sick of his working routine as he is of his domestic life. Gus also goes to work in his dentist’s surgery, even though he is still dishevelled and unshaven, having still not made it back home. He sees a patient who is so nervous she can’t stop giggling, so that he can’t even begin to examine her teeth. All the time, Archie keeps hovering at his shoulder, trying to articulate in his slow and hesitant way some nagging sense of unease, of emotions still not resolved. The two leave together and go to seek out Harry, sensing he may need their help. He has also fled from his office, and meets them on the street outside. Having picked up his passport from home before his tempestuous encounter with his wife, he impulsively declares that he is going to fly to London. Archie and Gus decide that they should accompany him, if only to tuck him in safely when he arrives before returning home. ‘We’re all jerks here’, as Gus observes, fools requiring each other’s company more than ever at this time. We see them on the plane, the exhilaration of their impulsive trip already wearing off. Archie in particular looks anxious and uneasy, knocking back the scotches to allay his nerves. It seems evident that by this stage they are following Harry out of a feeling of loyalty, sensing that he needs to be looked after and possibly protected from his own worst impulses.

Awkward intimacies - Archie and Julie
When they arrive in England, it is teeming it down, and the rain doesn’t relent for their entire stay, confining them indoors throughout. They find a hotel, where they take adjoining rooms with connecting doors, and gather together in the bathroom (a bit more salubrious than the black toilets in the New York bar). They go out gambling at a fancy casino, where they play a noisy game of craps (apologising for being loud and American) and quickly lose their stake. They agree to try and pick up some women, and we witness the cringeworthy ineptitude of their efforts in unflinching detail. Nevertheless, they do manage to bring three sceptical and wary partners back to the hotel: Archie a young Chinese woman, played by Noelle Kao, who doesn’t appear to speak English (indeed, she doesn’t appear to speak at all) but who we later learn is called Julie; Gus a tall, elegant but nervous and sensitive woman called Mary, played by Jenny Runacre in her first major role; and Harry a well bred Chelsea girl called Pearl, played by Jenny Lee Wright. Again, it’s characteristic of Cassavetes’ approach that he focuses on the most awkward moments of the three men’s introductory approaches and rusty chat up lines and never gets to the point at which their crude seductions meet with unlikely success. Having retreated to their separate rooms, we follow Gus’ fumbling tussles with Mary and Archie’s stilted, painful attempts at communication with the mutely passive Julie in extreme close-up. Peter Falk’s nose appears to fill the entire screen at one point, and the cameraman does his best to keep pace with Cassavetes’ and Runacre’s vigorous wrestling and horseplay. Harry breaks down in tears before being led off by Pearl, and we find her consoling him as he confesses his feelings of confusion, his sense of being adrift.

Guilt offerings - Gus and Archie come home
The next morning, Archie and Gus see off their partners, both Mary and Julie leaving in a state of considerable ill-will. The women get soaked in the relentless rain, a drenching which symbolises the shabby and unchivalrous way in which they have been used. Runacre’s character slips on the pavement and falls flat on her backside in a moment (evidently authentic) which really makes you feel for her, and loathe Gus for his offhand dismissal of her feelings. The two friends declare themselves to be in love, but it’s a self-serving feeling, a revival of the romantic impulsiveness of youth, the excitement of which will soon fade. They decide it’s time to go home and face up to their responsibilities, refreshed by their adventures. They find Harry with a new set of ‘friends’, however, a surrogate family he has picked up with an older woman and her two teenage daughters, who are sharing a bottle of champagne which he has ordered. He tells Archie and Gus that he’s going to stay, and dances with the older woman whilst singing a lonely, desolate and broken version of Dancing In The Dark, whilst the others sip the champagne which is evidently the price of his their continued presence. If he were taking part in the drunken singing contest which he and his friends instigated earlier, he would no doubt have won, although not necessarily for reasons he would have immediately comprehended. He doesn’t realise the extent to which he’s baring his soul, and this morning after parting is a sad affair, a desperate attempt on Harry’s part to prolong a moment which has already faded, to keep the party going well beyond the point at which its energy has been spent. It’s symptomatic of a desire to maintain a permanent state of carefree adolescence, free from care and the weight of accumulated responsibilities. The three friends say their goodbyes, and Gus and Archie return to America. When they disembark at the airport lounge, they stock up on toys and gifts, filling large paper sacks which they heave up under their arms, bulging and spilling over the edge with guilt offerings. They go back to their neighbouring homes and we follow Gus up his drive, where he is greeted first by his young daughter (in fact Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands' daughter Alexandra), who bursts into tears (very convincingly), and then by his son (Nick Cassavetes, who would go on to be a filmaker in his own right), who shakes his head and tells him ‘boy, are you in trouble’. As he walks around the corner to the back door, the scene cuts and the screen goes dark. Harry’s house apart, we never get to see the homes from which these men have taken flight, never meet the wives whose confidences they have never sought over their loss. Cassavetes would go on to explore the female psyche in similarly unflinching detail in the films he made starring his wife Gena Rowlands in the 70s and 80s: Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night and Love Streams. But Husbands is a film about men and their intimate friendships, and as such, women remain by and large peripheral or unseen presences.

Harry leaves home
Cassavetes had been considering a film based around three friends throwing aside the established pattern of their lives and heading off on a wild and impulsive binge for some time. He originally approached Lee Marvin and Anthony Quinn, both of whom he knew well, with the idea of a story in which the three of them would travel across America at a point of mid-life crisis, hitting bars in various towns along the way and trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong (or indeed if it had at all). Each might have been interested individually, but conspicuously failed to get on, and the prospect of spending a considerable amount of time in each other’s company was not one they found appealing. Cassavetes presented the basic idea to Falk and Gazzara on separate occasions, both more or less casual meetings at which he asked them whether they wanted to be in his movie: Falk at a Laker’s basketball game and Gazzara in a shouted exchange as he was leaving the Universal Studios car park and more coherently over lunch at a restaurant. He knew neither of them personally at the time, but they all became very close whilst making the film, and a lifelong friendship was forged. They would both go on to feature in further Cassavetes films; Falk co-starring with Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, and Gazzara taking the lead role in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

Cassavetes has an erroneous reputation as an improvising director, filming performances which are spontaneously arrived at in front of the camera. It’s partly his own fault, since he ended his first film Shadows with a credit which read ‘the film you have just seen was an improvisation’. It wasn’t, and neither was Husbands. Both were closely scripted, and the script adhered to, by and large. The jazz milieu of Shadows (and its Charles Mingus soundtrack), its reputation as being a ‘Beat’ movie, and Cassavetes’ own role as a jazz piano playing gumshoe in Johnny Staccato probably added to this general impression of compositional looseness. I’ve just started watching Staccato (as it was first known) again for the first time since it was shown as the opening part of a musical TV strand on the BBC presented by Charlie Gillett many years ago, which introduced me to Cassavetes. It’s enjoyably noirish fare, with an interesting if hackneyed jazz club backdrop (including real musicians such as Barney Kessel and Red Norvo), and several episodes were directed by Cassavetes himself, at his own insistence. Gena Rowlands co-stars in one episode, and the inserted scenes shot on the streets of New York echo those in Shadows (which he was in the process of editing at the time he was making Staccato) and in Husbands (including the hilarious walking race scene with Falk, apparently based on real challenges issued by the highly competitive Cassavetes). As with the performances in Mike Leigh’s films, the appearance of spontaneity is hard won. There is a great deal of improvisation, but it doesn’t take place in front of the camera, but in the many rehearsals and intense discussions in which characters are explored, and the things they might say or do discussed. The results of such sessions were incorporated into the endless revisions Cassavetes made to his ever-evolving script, along with any chance happenings, ‘accidents’ or incidental observations which made an impact along the way.

Jazz gumshoe - Johnny Staccato
He encouraged Falk and Gazzara to draw on their own personalities and experiences and to analyse their feelings and beliefs in an uninhibited and unselfconscious way in order to build and understand their characters. He also allowed them to choose their own names for their characters, to give them a sense of owning and inhabiting them. Gazzara’s Harry is loud and voluble, capable of displaying great warmth and charm but also a bullying aggression. Falk’s Archie is reserved and ponderous, very slow and deliberate in his manner, but also funny in an inquisitive and perceptive way. Cassavetes’ Gus is antic, quixotic and a little devious and calculating, disguising (or perhaps at times communicating) his feelings through humour. He’s also an arch provocateur, observing and listening to others and prodding them towards certain reactions – much like a film director, in fact. The film was also a very personal one for Cassavetes, almost an expression and exorcism of his own fears and regrets and a recognition of his demonic side. The scene in which the friends play basketball is a recognition of the faded sporting dreams of his youth (and he does look pretty useful on the court). He had also recently mourned the loss of his elder brother, so the sense of shock at losing someone who dies suddenly and unexpectedly in the prime of their life was very real to him. Falk and Gazzara were very divergent in their acting styles, and it was Gazzara who was better suited to Cassavetes’ directorial approach. As a product of the Method acting school, having studied at the Dramatic Workshop and the Actors Studio where the Method originated, he was used to looking inside, to tap his own feelings and memories in order to build up a detailed and emotionally rounded character. Falk, however, was a more traditional type, and felt the need for definite and explicit direction. This caused a certain amount of tension since Cassavetes had no intention of providing it. He wanted Falk to find his own way towards understanding Archie. In the end, Falk’s uneasiness about this approach (an unease which he never dispelled in working with Cassavetes) actually contributed to his performance (as it did in A Woman Under the Influence, particularly during Gena Rowlands’ electrifying breakdown scene), with Archie’s confusion, hesitancy and bewilderment a dominant, defining element of his character. The scene in which he badgers Gus in the dentist’s surgery could well be an echo of Falk’s own efforts to get Cassavetes to tell him just exactly what he should be saying and doing, and why.

Court jesters - past athleticism
Cassavetes had no truck with conventional cinematographical techniques and set ups, and he fired his cameraman on Husbands, Aldo Tonti, shortly after they began shooting, partly because he was too ‘professional’, and he felt he was likely to want to do things his way and impose his own style on the material. To replace, the relatively inexperienced Vic Kemper was promoted director of photography, his first big break. Cassavetes favoured long, uninterrupted takes, often shot several times, and used up a lot of film in the process. This gave the actors space and time to get into the rhythm and feel of a scene without constant disruptions breaking their concentration, and ensured that the moments in which their performances really came to life would be captured. It also meant that there was a great deal to do when the film was in the can and it came to the editing stage. It was in the editing that an element of improvisatory composition might be said to have come into play, with the sounding out of different combinations, variations and alternative rhythms. Cassavetes spent a huge amount of time editing Husbands, almost the entirety of 1970, during which he searched through the footage and tried out different combinations in an attempt to get something of what he was searching for. What that was might not even have been all that clear to him, but he hoped to discover it in the creative forge of the cutting room. He produced a rough cut of about four hours, which was further whittled down by editor Peter Tanner and producer Al Ruban to just under 3 hours. This version was apparently a very effective, wild and crazy comedy, justifying the film’s subtitle ‘A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom’, which appears darkly ironic in the finally released cut. Any comedy by that time is in the mordant observation of flagrant folly, flailing desparation and epic feats of self-delusion. Cassavetes declared Tanner’s cut to be ‘too entertaining’, fired him and took on the editing himself. He seemed perversely displeased by the extent to which people had enjoyed the film, and set out to make sure the audience would have a harder time. He intended to make an anti-romantic picture, the obverse of a Hollywood idea of a buddy movie, and had repeatedly said on set that he wanted ‘no cute. Nothing cute’. He wanted his film to be an unsentimental portrayal of male friendship and behaviour, with all its attendant evasions, rituals and obligations.

Lost - Archie and Gus at the funeral
Cassavetes became completely lost in the editing, as if he were mesmerised by the footage of the characters he, Falk and Gazzara had created, and produced at least five separate versions of the film. Some of these put the focus more exclusively on Archie or Harry, making it Falk’s or Gazzara’s picture. He even dictated a novelisation (never published) which took the form of cross-cutting internal monologues, which would have given the reader (not to mention Falk) an intimate and detailed understanding of each of the characters and their backgrounds. This level of obsessiveness and the reluctance to let the whole thing go shows just how important Husbands was to Cassavetes, how much of himself he had invested in it. A 154 minute version was finally shown at the San Francisco Film Festival before an audience of cinephiles who were, in line with the times, radically-minded and political. It received a volubly negative reaction. Cassavetes and Falk appeared to take questions after the screening, and was asked whether the characters reflected his, Falk’s and Gazzara’s own lives. He replied that yes, they’re us, and Falk gave an affirmative nod. The hostility levels in the theatre rose appreciably. This was a period in which the feminist movement was burgeoning and growing in confidence, making an increasing impact on the wider public consciousness. Husbands seemed to embody many of the brutish behaviours and complacent assumptions which feminism was taking a stand against. The three married men go off carousing together, leaving their wives at home to look after the children, and pick up other women whom they then casually dump the next day; they all gang together to bully and abuse a woman in a bar; and one of them assaults his wife and her mother. In equating himself with his character onscreen, it was almost as if Cassavetes was going out of his way to make the audience hate him. It’s probably a good job that Gazzara wasn’t there, since his character Harry is probably the least sympathetic of all three.

Sidewalk racing - shooting on the streets
It was in Cassavetes’ nature to want to provoke a strong reaction. Any authentic expression of feeling was good, even if it was one of hostility and burning rage. In an oddly self-defeating attempt to define what he was doing with these characters, who he himself described as acting like bastards, he said ‘we try to prove that selfishness is important, a way to stay sensitive’. Far from being a statement of some odious Ayn Randian axiom, he seems to be suggesting that a certain amount of self-regard is necessary to an awareness of what you really feel, to find out what you really want in life, as opposed to merely following social or familial expectations. Made suddenly and shockingly aware of their own mortality, the three friends set out deliberately to tear up the rules of social politesse in order to stir up some sense of what they really want, what is important to them. Cassavetes went on to make what could be seen as his response to feminism in his 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, and his 1980 picture Gloria was effectively a feminist riposte to the macho posturing and dick-waving gunplay of the Hollywood gangster movie. So he made reparations in the end, and maybe won back the approval of the San Francisco audience.

Barroom bullies - prolonging the agony
Columbia Studios, to which Husbands had been sold, demanded further cuts be made to bring the running time down, and a 142 minute version was produced for release, a re-edit which led to a falling out between Cassavetes and his long-suffering (but he always came back for more) producer Al Ruban. Once the film was in the cinemas, they then went ahead and trimmed a further five minutes or so, without Cassavetes approval. He was naturally pretty livid. These cuts were made in the two scenes which the studio had always strongly objected to: the toilet vomiting scene and the bar singing competition scene which precedes it. The vomiting scenes in the black void toilets may be seedy and rank, with the sound mixed to a level which foregrounds what is happening behind the cubicle door, refusing to allow us to ignore it; but it is a pivotal moment in that it marks the point at which Gus and Archie fully acknowledge the loss of their friend, their own fragile mortality and the inevitability of their physical decline. To edit it out completely (there’s only the barest hint of it in this print) is to lose something important. The cuts to the barroom scene involve a significant shortening of the trials the three men put the tartan cap wearing woman played by Leola Harlow through in their attempts to make her invest her song (‘it was just a little love affair’) with the authentic feeling they adjudge her performance to lack. This may seem like a blessing. The prolonged nature of the men’s boorish bullying is designed to make the audience feel ill at ease (although Peter Falk’s striptease is undeniably amusing) and to shortcircuit any natural sympathy they might feel for these characters over the loss of their friend. But again, it’s a scene which is central to the overall conceit of life as performance, performance as life, and of the need to express something genuine and real in that performance. We also lose the affecting rendition of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime sung by John Kullers’ careworn old man, which was a particular favourite moment of Cassavetes’. The version which has been restored and sent on the rounds of the regional cinemas is this shorter, Columbia approved cut, so we were deprived of the full digital eruption of ceramic bowl-amplified retching. The longer version, with the above cuts intact, is widely available on dvd, released by Columbia, so it’s perplexing that this non-director’s cut should be given the archival seal of authenticity. However, it’s great to have it back in the cinemas at any length, and to see it on the big screen in all its awkward, messy and bloody-minded (ie human) glory.

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