|"The acting that is so bad it's embarrassing sometimes seems also to have revealed something, so we're forced to reconsider our notions of good and bad acting. . . . Faces has the kind of seriousness that a serious artist couldn't take seriously – the kind of seriousness that rejects art as lies and superficiality. And this lumpen-artists' anti-intellectualism, this actors' unformulated attack on art may be what much of the public also believes – that there is a real thing that "art" hides. . . . Faces is being taken as a religious experience. It's almost a form of self-flagellation to go to a movie like this – "to see yourself," which, of course, means to see how awful you are." – Pauline Kael, Faces|
"[Cassavetes] replaces the exhausted artifices of conventional movies with a new set of pseudo-realistic ones, which are mostly instantaneous clichés. As a writer-director, he's so dedicated to revealing the pain under the laughter he's a regular Pagliacci." – Pauline Kael, Husbands
"The romantic view of insanity is a perfect subject for Cassavetes to muck around with. Yet even in this season when victimization is the hottest thing in the movie market this scapegoat heroine doesn't do a damn thing for him. He's always on the verge of hitting the big time, but his writing and directing are gruelling, and he swathes his popular ideas in so many wet blankets that he is taken seriously – and flops. . . . Acute discomfort sets in, and though some in the audience will once again accept what is going on as raw, anguishing truth, most people will – rightly I think – take their embarrassment as evidence of Cassavetes' self-righteous ineptitude." – Pauline Kael, A Woman Under the Influence
"The way I figure it, if Pauline Kael ever liked one of my movies, I'd give up." – John Cassavetes, to Frederick Elmes
Ever since that rainy Friday in 1984, when I watched a triple-bill of Shadows, Faces, and Husbands, I've been a hardcore devotee of the films of John Cassavetes. I consider him one of the greatest American directors of all time – an opinion that was further solidified last year when I finally had the opportunity to see Love Streams. However, the reasons behind my veneration have changed tremendously over the years.
What grabbed me back in the 80s was just how different his films were. Their sense of immediacy combined with a seemingly 'fuck you' attitude towards Hollywood was terribly exciting. The raw, naked passion in every frame, the naturalistic acting style (or lack thereof), and the unrelenting gaze into a world I couldn't even begin to imagine – all this was nothing short of mind-blowing. But now that I've reached the age of Archie, Harry and Gus (the infernal trio from Husbands), I find myself looking at Cassavetes' films through an entirely new set of eyes. The modes of behavior seem less foreign to me, as do the intricate subtleties of the various relationships – be it between friends, lovers, spouses, or parent and child. The desperation, the loneliness and longing, the inability to communicate, and the overall tragic nature of many of his characters speaks to me in a way not possible back then. Even more telling is that I have begun to experience a certain affinity with some of them.
Like many great artists, Cassavetes' work wasn't fully appreciated during his lifetime, and his relationship with film critics was tumultuous at best. For every critic that praised him, there was a Vincent Canby, John Simon, or Stanley Kauffmann ready to cut him down. Yet the harshest of all his detractors was New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, whose distaste for Cassavetes was nearly as strong as her outright dismissal of Kubrick. Louis Menand summed it up best when he wrote, "she felt that [Cassavetes' films] showed contempt for the audience's desire to be entertained."
If anyone is guilty of contempt, it's Kael herself. A recent re-read of her writings on Cassavetes reveals that she spends as much time rebuking the audience as she does the film itself. That the realism in Cassavetes' films is not her liking is acceptable, but her attitude towards those genuinely moved by them is nothing short of condescending –
Kael believed that the privileged financial status of the characters in Faces should have been enough to ease their pain, and feelings of emptiness. When this argument failed to console a friend shaken by the film, Kael expressed deep concern that this type of reaction, which she likened to a liberal form of a Mea culpa, could have a serious impact on the future of movies. She needn't have worried.
Cassavetes was no doubt bothered by Kael's opinion of him, and his various run-ins with the esteemed critic certainly didn't help matters any. He tried to ban her from a screening of Husbands, but Ben Gazzara intervened on her behalf. In his excellent biography, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film (thanks again, Girish!), Marshall Fine relays the following anecdote, which plays like a scene from one of Cassavetes' films:
An immature gesture, yes, but one that seems so in character for Cassavetes.
I've always been curious if the Paulettes toed the party line on Cassavetes. As far as I know, über-Paulette Armond White hasn't reviewed any of his films, but references to Cassavetes in other reviews have always been positive. I'm not sure what Denby, Edelstein, Powers, et al. think about him. Regardless, Kael's scorn towards the films of John Cassavetes has always been a bitter pill to swallow, for she was the first critic I read religiously, and who opened my eyes to so much about cinema. But as my opinion of Cassavetes continues to grow, so does my assertion that Kael just didn't get it.