Home > Entertainment > Film
  print button email button

Friday, March 24, 2000

CASSAVETES REVIVAL

It's a guy thing, warts and all


The films of the late, great John Cassavetes are cited more than they're seen, so the current revival of a couple of this influential director's rarely screened works -- "Husbands" and "Minnie and Moskowitz" -- is welcome indeed.

These two films, from 1970 and 1971, come from Cassavetes' most productive period, overshadowed somewhat by the greater success of "Faces" and "A Woman Under the Influence." Although revered as the godfather of American independent cinema, Cassavetes' critical cachet was such that he managed to release both these idiosyncratic films through Hollywood studios.

"Husbands" is classic Cassavetes, in both its strengths and its flaws. The director was once quoted as saying, "The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself. . . . As an artist, I feel that we must try many things, but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad, to be willing to risk everything to really express it all." If any of his films epitomized that philosophy, it is "Husbands."

Deeply, almost embarrassingly personal, and resolutely masculine, the film follows three fortysomething buddies (played by Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes himself) as they attend a friends' funeral and, faced with their own mortality, act like most guys and opt to avoid the emotional stuff by going on a bender. When that's not enough come Monday morning, they head off to London on a whim, where they go gambling, pick up some girls and again get falling down drunk.

Their behavior is both sympathetic and pathetic. At times "Husbands" captures the male midlife crisis with painful poignancy, like the moment when Cassavetes is slumped on a subway seat, barely coherent, and rambling about his love of basketball, when he suddenly lets slip what he's really feeling: "Y'know it's a terribly sad thing; you reach 30, and you know it's over, and you begin to watch other athletes and wonder when they're gonna give out."

Harder to take is the film's casual sexism: Gazzara cruelly taunting his wife, or the scene where Cassavetes practically date-rapes a girl he picked up in a London casino. When he confides to Falk, laughing, "We've got two lovely wives -- the only problem is to go home and make love with them," no doubt some female viewers will be fuming. But Cassavetes was never one to gloss over ugly realities, especially when examining them can possibly lead to understanding them.

Stylistically, "Husbands" suffers from Cassavetes' failure to rein in his improvisational tendencies, as certain scenes just drag on forever, like the lost weekend they're documenting. One long scene, in which everyone sitting around a bar table has to sing a song (while Gazzara rants drunkenly), is often singled out for criticism, and I'd have to agree: This adds nothing to the film.

While "Husbands" is a flawed work, there's still much to recommend it. Few films have gazed as unflinchingly at the underlying insecurity and fear that's at the root of irresponsible male behavior. A celebration of old-school cigar-and-scotch masculinity, and its epitaph.

Enter the new male in "Minnie and Moskowitz," as played by Seymour Cassel (seen recently in "Trees Lounge" and "In the Soup"), sporting a ponytail and bushy mustache and a mouth that doesn't know when to stop. Seymour Moskowitz (Cassel) is a gentle freak who works in a car park, a Zen bum out for a laugh and a drink, who's equally garrulous with everyone. But his aggressive sociability keeps getting him in trouble with those status-bound types who see him as a hippie lowlife, a not-altogether inaccurate assessment.

He comes across Minnie (Gena Rowlands), a classy dame who works at an art museum, when she's being pursued in a parking lot by her obnoxious blind-date, Zelmo (Val Avery). Moskowitz slugs Zelmo and drives off with Minnie. She soon finds that she's ducked out on one persistent nut case, only to end up with another. Poor Minnie can only retreat behind her over-sized hexagonal sunglasses and hope that these losers-in-love will run out of steam. But ever so slowly, she finds that Moskowitz, despite his tendency to spill chili dogs down his shirt, is a nice guy at heart.

This opposites-attract formula is classic screwball comedy, but done with a looseness and grungy street-level verite that sets it a zillion miles away from such Hollywood flicks. The film itself is at pains to point this out: Gena Rowlands has a great, tipsy monologue where she leans back, takes a drag on her cigarette, and with that sweet-but-sour Rowlands drawl, muses, "I think that the movies are a conspiracy. They set you up, from when you're a little kid, to believe in ideals, strength, good guys and romance. And, of course -- [bitter grin] -- love."

The film's laughs come from its many off-the-wall characters, neurotic time bombs who wear their emotions on their sleeves, their lapels and spilled all over their laps. Best are the bugged-out ranter in the diner ("Everyday people, that's what's wrong with the world -- we oughta get rid of 'em!"), and the overbearing Zelmo, whose nonstop logorrhea on his big date must be the world's worst come-on ever.

Yet even in over-the-top moments like this, there's an honesty that sets this film apart: Zelmo may be a joke, but he's no caricature (a la Jack Nicholson in "As Good as It Gets") -- this type of crass, pushy guy is instantly recognizable from any big city deli or used-car lot.

"Minnie and Moskowitz" is one of those rare films that seems to succeed on all levels, full of pathos and off-the-cuff philosophizing as well as humor. Rowlands, in particular, is great as a world-weary woman who's learned the downside of being attractive: constant unwanted attention by arrogant guys who are convinced that persistence will earn them love.

"You know," she confides to a friend over a bottle of wine, "the world is full of silly asses who crave your body. I mean, not just your body, but your heart, your soul, your mind, everything! They can't live until they get it. And y'know, once they get it, they don't really want it."

Rowlands speaks her lines as if they're hard-won truths, earned through bitter experience. As with most Cassavetes films, that's probably the case. Rarely do films seem this urgent, this alive, this aware of the messy emotions we all have to sort through. Easily one of Cassavetes' best, and not to be missed; anyone who liked "Buffalo '66" will love this. And if Vincent Gallo claims he never saw this film, he's a liar.

Also screening is one of Cassavetes' earlier works, "A Child Is Waiting," from 1963. Although it's kind of fun to see Gena Rowlands playing alongside Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland, this studio product rarely betrays any of the director's tropes. The producers imposed their own final cut, which led to Cassavetes largely disowning this film. Judging from the maudlin results, he was correct to do so. For completists only.

"Husbands" plays through April 7, and "Minnie and Moskowitz," April 8-28, at Cine Amuse in Shibuya. "A Child Is Waiting" plays concurrently as the morning and late shows.


Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.