Though the films of John Cassavetes are often erroneously described as “improvised” or “verite,” claims that belie Cassavetes’s formal fidelity, it was a modernist, Virginia Woolf, who, in 1919, ten years before Cassavetes’ birth, described pretty well what would become something of a mantra for the filmmaker: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”
It’s emotions that concern Cassavetes, who, with little care for what was popular or profitable, pioneered a neoteric style of free indirect cinema, one that drew inspiration from budgetary constraints and turned impediments into a framework for everyday follies; in seeking not to make melodrama out of life but to depict life as it is, as it feels — realism at times masochistic, and meditative, and brutally, beautifully raw — Cassavetes freed actors of the usual authorial flagging that dictates character. It’s cinematic soliloquy, nature beyond the navel. Cassavetes was an artist, and a drunk, fatalistic in his vices (the guy always had a cigarette perched between his fingers) and undeterrable in his pursuit of honesty through the details of his art. (He once pranked the unimpeachable Lee Strasberg just to mock method acting, which he considered to be pseudo-psychotherapy rather than acting. In this regard, he is closer to Meisner, who appeared briefly in Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, as the mob boss who wants Cassavetes dead.) He understood, with horrible lucidity, the tragedy of simply being alive, so his films are populated by people who suffer everyday ailments, all these suburban Sisyphus-types whose beer-swilling ornery obfuscates (or rather, doesn’t) inner agony — the grieving buddies trying to heal through hedonism in Husbands, the owner of a sordid nightclub dying slowly of self-doubt and insurmountable debts, the thespians channeling pain into performance in Opening Night. Cassavetes always seems jittery with self-disgust, as if he perpetually felt a worm squirming around in his soul.
But Cassavetes found his inexorable partner in life, and in art, in Gena Rowlands, who was his everything, a child-raising, mitigating muse and ineffable partner in artistic endeavors. “Stand up for me.” John Cassavetes loved Gena Rowlands. You can see it in the way he films her, the incandescence, the incredible ordinariness, the camera looking at her with awe, a pure and knowing love, one comprising the inimitable accretion of shared experiences, happiness, and horror. In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) have the kind of lives that cling shroud-like to the characters in a Richard Yates novel, succumbing to their own slow acts of emotional self-sabotage. Cassavetes doesn’t write characters with metaphors in mind; he is concerned with the human truth of the moment — the important moments of unspectacular lives. Mabel is bipolar (previously referred to, more romantically, as manic depression), a condition that still befuddles most people in this country, a vexing malady, biblically dramatic, discussed in media and portrayed in the arts with hues of Reefer Madness-level histrionics. The film is obviously not shapeless, like a discarded shawl draped over the arm of a chair, but sinuous. Music from Swan Lake appears twice, the second time diegetic as Mabel stands atop a table (we only glimpse her blurry in the foreground) and hums the theme. In the story of Swan Lake, Siegfield fails to keep his vow of love made to the beautiful Odette, and the ill-fated lovers are consumed by the unforgiving waves of the lake. This is Mabel’s great fear: that she, too, is ill-fated in her love, that she too will drown in a sea of her own conjuring.
Like Virginia Woolf, who was doomed with inexpugnable madness, Mabel lives perpetually on a precipice, plummeting from rhapsodic peaks into unfathomable depths, a maelstrom in the cavernous realms of the self. Rowlands brings Mabel to life with such pained honesty and empathy, never denying her dignity, or dignifying pop culture bromides about bipolar people. The film was written by Cassavetes for Rowlands as a stage performance, but performing such a tormented character every night would have left her “Dead in two weeks,” she said, so it became a self-released film, largely financed by Peter Falk. Cassavetes had spent some time as a domesticated dad — “I made a pretty good housewife,” he once quipped — and this experience galvanized the desire to write a sort of reversal of the Minnie and Moskowitz relationship, with the vociferous husband becoming the troubled Mabel, and the unwavering wife now Nick and his fraying nerves. “I absolutely wrote A Woman Under the Influence to try to write a terrific part for my wife,” he said. A line from Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay on Simone de Beauvoir comes to mind: “Women are not simply women, but are, like men, in the fullest sense human beings.” Hardwick had her own troubled marriage to the poet Robert Lowell, one of literature’s famed mad artists, playing the caretaker and muse, unwaveringly committed even during his periods of salacious mania and chronic drinking and bitter harrangues. Lowell himself wrote of Hardwick as having:
faced the kingdom of the mad—
its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye—
and dragged me home alive.
No one has to drag Mabel home. She returns, willingly, and she and Nick get into bed together and turn off the light, knowing that the sun will rise again tomorrow.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.