Last week, I began to dip my toe into the depths of the emotionally rocky waters of the Criterion Collection’s release of John Cassavetes: Five Films with a short analysis of Shadows (1959). Continuing into the set, the second of the five films is his 1968 deconstruction of marriage, Faces (1968). Like Shadows, it pulls idealist conceptions of love apart– much like a lovestruck girl who realizes the pain she is inflecting on a flower when she tugs off its petals, asking “He loves me? He loves me not?” The narrative is raw; the aesthetic (shot in high contrast and extremely grainy black and white, which looks heavenly in high definition) is as well. Because of this, as I’m quickly discovering, it’s never a good idea to try to watch more than one Cassavetes film a week.
That’s not meant as a criticism; I appreciate raw cinema about unpleasant topics (see other great movies about love on the rocks such as Godard’s Contempt, Rosselini’s Journey to Italy, or Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine). I merely add this as a note of fair warning: if you’re one of those folks whose mindset towards romance matches the protagonist’s in Amelie (2001), you’re going to be in for a hard 130 minutes. As with Shadows, Cassavetes isn’t functioning at the level of plot here. He isn’t interested in it. He seems to measure his films out in scenes or– more appropriately– moments. Despite clocking in at over two hours, there are maybe five scenes in Faces. A middle-aged business man named Richard (John Marley) visits a prostitute named Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) with his former college classmate friend Freddie. Together, they reminisce about their time in college, which involved drinking, girls, and eating. Freddie fully acknowledges that he misses those good old days and laments the loss of his freedom thanks to marriage and fatherhood. Spurred on by booze and his depression, Freddy makes a crass proposal to Jeannie.
Afterwards, Richard goes home to his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin). We can tell their love has soured as they snipe at one another over what they should do with their evening. Eventually, Richard asks Maria for a divorce and calls Jeannie to ask her out again. He goes to spend the night with Jeannie while Maria goes drinking with friends and ends up in the arms of a young bohemian named Chet (Seymour Cassel). Again, there isn’t really any plot to summarize here. The film doesn’t exist to tell a classical story; it exists to evoke an unpleasant emotional state.
Yet, for Cassavetes, there is something liberating in confronting that emotional state. His thesis, throughout Faces, is that modern love and marriage have alienated us from one another. Language, informed by our cultural beliefs, becomes a code of subterfuge. For instance, in one moment, one of Maria’s older friends (a woman in perhaps her late 50s or early 60s) becomes sexually aggressive with Chet. In Cassavetes’s hands, it’s a devastating moment. This woman craves sexual attention and Chet is happy to oblige. Yet, her friends chastise her for her actions. However, is there something inherently wrong with her attempt to make a connection with someone else? Like Shadows, we are asked to read between the lines: it’s OK for Maria to end up in Chet’s arms because she’s younger.
Given this structure and his emphasis on the moment, Cassavetes’s work only becomes fully realized thanks to his actors. In Shadows, despite two well-honed lead performances, it was hit and miss. Here, the results are perfect. Marley (who would go on to play the movie producer with a beloved horse in The Godfather), Rowlands, Carlin (who was a non-actor), and Cassel are all able to sell the emotions that stand at the center of this film.
If there’s one small criticism I have about the film, it’s that it seems about thirty minutes too long: Cassavetes establishes his theme early on and, due to the lack of a traditional plot, underlines it repeatedly. However (and I am conflicted about it) the duration is also a confrontation tactic. We want to turn away because it’s uncomfortable and the film seems to say “Yeah. I know. But you can’t. You can be stuck in a relationship like this too and you can’t escape it by turning off your TV. You have to do something about it.” In the end, the only way to repair the fractures of love is to recognize how fragile it is. So, perhaps, my fatigue had less to do with time and more to do with my emotions.
The Criterion Blu-Ray of Faces features a 40 minute documentary on the making of the film, a French television show focused on Cassavetes, an alternate opening, and a cinematography demo by cameraman Al Ruban (all of which appear to be hold overs from the DVD set).
As usual, Criterion does a hell of a job in presenting these films (both from an AV perspective and from a contextual perspective).
Stay tuned next week for A Woman Under the Influence.