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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » John Cassavetes: Five Films - Criterion Collection
John Cassavetes: Five Films - Criterion Collection
Criterion // PG-13 // September 21, 2004
List Price: $124.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted October 2, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The merest mention of his name sends film fans and independent movie buffs reaching for their thesauruses – the better to praise his place in cinematic history. And with a catalog of unconventional pictures to his name, he does own one of the most unique outputs of any American director. Yet John Cassavetes, for most mainstream movie lovers, represents an anomaly. He is a great actor, but only a fringe filmmaker, not some standard bearer for art and integrity. And the reasons why are complicated. Maybe it's because he allegedly made difficult, complex films that didn't shy away from pain and problems. Perhaps he probed too deeply, offering up more evidence of the frailty of man than most people could handle or easily absorb. But the truth is that Cassavetes cherished flying under the radar, making the movies he wanted to make his way, without the watchful, prying eye of studio interference or public acceptance forcing his hand. Understanding completely the limitations on success he created for himself, he persevered and presented his stories at the lengths he liked and in the manner he felt best suited the material. Compromise was saved for the creative process between performers, not the financial or show business end of the game. To Cassavetes, filmmaking was life, as important to who he was as breathing, eating and sleeping. And as a result, he wanted to make sure that his movies had as much of the vitality and vigor as he felt inside himself, poured into every frame. For a long time, his most important films have been "lost", unavailable in decent transfers or complete prints. Now, The Criterion Company has stepped up and produced the most sensational retrospective box set about a single artist ever put together. John Cassavetes: Five Films is an eight-disc collection that gives audiences both curious and converted a chance to see this cinematic genius in his absolute prime.

The DVD:
There are two distinct phases in the career of John Cassavetes, chapters marked by work within Hollywood and his overt rebellion against the system. The five films offered in this masterpiece of a box set from Criterion represent, perhaps, the apex of his independent period. Included here, for the first time, are such forgotten gems as Shadows and Opening Night. Combined with the acknowledged brilliance of Faces and A Woman Under the Influence (most of the critical jury is still out on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, in either of its configurations) John Cassavetes: Five Films becomes one of the most important, authoritative collections ever released on DVD. The magnitude of Cassavetes's impact, both on outsider cinema and how acting is captured on film has changed the medium forever. He revolutionized the essence of cinema by moving away from carefully constructed scripting and aiming toward a freer, stream of consciousness narrative style. He celebrated love as he argued against arrogance. His roadmap was the human heart and the individual mentality, and he explored each with an archeologist's zeal. By the time of his death in the mid-80s, he was resolved to be an interesting footnote in film history, unimportant to all except the most zealous fans. But over the years, the value that his movies have had on all aspects of filmmaking, especially in light of the monumental explosion in the independent movement throughout the 90s, turned the troubled talent into a God. And with very good reason. Cassavetes has often been called the sole viable American New Wave director, and the label fits perfectly. His films defy convention as they strive to communicate universally.

Anyone who loves movies will adore this compendium. Cassavetes's films are not experimental in the traditional definition of that word. We are not seeing fractured plots, interweaving time changes or oblique attempts at symbolism. If he can be accused of anything, it's that Cassavetes's films are too straightforward. This is a writer, director and actor that wants to champion emotion, to show people wearing their feelings on the very end of their sleeves and never shying away from conveying their sentiments. Cassavetes's world is a passionate, palpable place where everyone is an individual, where even the most ancillary character has a unique style and circumstance. Anyone who thinks they will be confused by his work, or mistakenly believe he is too highbrow for their tastes are missing out on some of the certifiable masterworks in the pantheon of the moving picture. Loaded with unbelievable performances and peppered with the kind of directorial flares that stay with you long after the final frame has unreeled, the five films presented here are priceless. They represent a true American original, a director on par with such other mighty movie monarchs as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. He basically redefined Western cinema. Indeed, he is one of the few auteur's who can also hold a candle to the equally influential foreign filmmakers (he is easily in the same league as Godard or Truffaut).

The only way to approach this set is to look at each film individually and discuss its plots, its themes and its importance in the overall oeuvre. Starting with his first foray into filmmaking, we look at:

SHADOWS (1959)
Hugh is a washed up jazz singer struggling to keep his career afloat. His younger sister Lelia is a social butterfly, while his kid brother Bennie is a borderline juvenile delinquent. For this black family living in New York City, life is a constant struggle between social acceptance – at least among their close circle of cronies – and racial rejection from the rest of the world. Lelia and Bennie are fair-skinned and can both pass for white, which leads to many personal problems. Bennie takes his lack of identity out onto the streets, where he drinks too much and picks fights. Lelia, on the other hand, never advertises her ethnicity, and that causes problems when she falls in love with Tony. When he discovers her true lineage, he is devastated. It is up to Hugh to help both of his siblings survive in a world that they are too 'dark' to be accepted in, too 'light' to be rejected from. Instead, they dwell in the realm of Shadows.

Raw, unconventional and walking a fine line between documentary and drama, Cassavetes's first feature, Shadows, takes on one of the most controversial subjects in American society - especially for 1958. The concept of race relations and interracial love was – and frankly, still is – about as taboo busting as one could imagine, even within the cosmopolitan setting of New York's Greenwich Village artist scene. Utilizing an improvisational style (scenes were set up and the actors allowed to supply their own dialogue) as well as a guerilla filmmaking concept of camerawork (caught moments and obtuse close-ups), Shadows starts out shallow and grows deeper as the dynamics unfold. Indeed, the first fifteen minutes or so have us moving about, character to character, trying to get a handle on exactly who or what will be the focus of the film. We travel from Bennie and his gang of goof-offs to Hugh and his struggles for dignity amidst a collapsing set of career opportunities. But glimpsed in the corner, with a set of cat-like eyes and a sultry manner, we soon discover Lelia. It turns out that she will maintain the emotional arc for the remainder of the film. It would be easy to argue that Shadows is the story of Lelia's discovery of love and lose, and how even in the most civilized of circumstances, racism can rear its ignorant head. But that would be cutting out many layers of important implications.

Acting was at the center of all Cassavetes's works, and Shadows is no different. Within its stop-start scenes and insular dialogue exchanges, we watch the method take shape and become important to the performer. The James Dean/Marlon Brando clichΓ© of the self-absorbed mumbler is present, mostly in the offbeat line readings of Ben Carruthers. But you can also see the lost in translation tactics perfected in Hugh Hurd's disgruntled vocalist, Anthony Ray's racially reluctant romantic and Rupert Cross's muddled manager. Indeed, all the performers here find the proper note of realism to keep their characters grounded in the emotion of the scene. But it is Lelia Goldoni who is the true revelation here, mixing a gentle spirit with a world-weary wisdom to make her injured ingΓ©nue a complicated, perplexing persona. Under Cassavetes's unique directorial vision, one in which the camera never quite seems to be in the right place at the right time, this entire enterprise becomes a whirlwind of declared and undeclared sentiments, with the characters being required to say things unspoken, and feel things ill-considered. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of independent film can see the birth of the outsider auteur and the DIY dynamics of modern anti-Hollywood moviemaking in this amazing piece. But Shadows is much more than a blueprint for the New Wave/Neo Realism in American film craft. It is the pronouncement of a singular voice in cinema, one striving to make movies that are real and yet performed.

A great deal of Shadows's success relies on your reaction to the big "reveal" – a scene where the enraptured Tony learns that Lelia is black. If you feel as hurt as our heroine, and have the same stammering reaction that she does, then Shadows has done its job and you will be satisfied with all the situations that derive from that devastating sequence. If, however, you believe Tony to have a point, that Lelia's "disappearing" act into the world of white society is an emotional game that she is ill-prepared to play, then you will squirm through the film's third act with all its unspoken suggestions of racism and redolence. Shadows, in many ways, feels like a set of building blocks tossed in the air and recorded as they fall to Earth and regroup. Cassavetes understands that the truth in any situation is found by examining all, not just some, of the circumstances, and he allows the audience to draw its own inferences and connections once he visualizes the parts. Indeed, the cinematic conceit most on par with this movie's mannerisms is interaction; you feel as if you too are part of the picture, an active participant in the pain and pleasure being portrayed. Taking a shamelessly simple idea and executing it almost flawlessly, Shadows is a stellar way to start off this look at Cassavetes's career.

FACES (1968)
The marriage of Richard and Maria Forst is at a crossroads. After 25+ years of matrimony, there is no longer any love in the relationship: physical or emotional. Richard is the Chairman of the Board for a high finance firm. Maria is a housewife burdened by the everyday ennui of suburban LA life. One night, after a few drinks at a local bar, Richard finds himself in the house of high priced call girl Jeannie Rapp. An instant infatuation occurs. Upon returning home, Richard feels stifled and demands a divorce. He leaves Maria for Jeannie. Hoping to drown her sorrows, Maria goes out with a group of friends. The ladies end up bringing home a young blond boy named Chet. Somehow, he and Maria end up in bed together. Adultery does strange things to the Forsts. For Richard, it seems temporarily liberating. For Maria, it's the end of a tenuous line on life. But the truth is, it's killing them both. You can read it in their Faces.

Perhaps even a more brave experiment in exposition than Shadows, Faces is the story of a sour marriage in free fall told almost completely in close-ups. Utilizing this interesting directorial device, director Cassavetes obviously wants to strip back screen acting to its roots in sense memory and verbalizing. He hampers his cast by cutting them off at the neck, offering almost every line of dialogue in a medium to tight shot. This makes the title elements that much more important, and Cassavetes casts wonderful looking actors to populate his picture. John Marley (famous for finding that horse head in his bed in The Godfather) looks older than his quoted age and has hundreds of worry lines streaming across his face. He represents a kind of old school insurgence that every other character in the film is rebelling against. For sheer grace and beauty, a young Gena Rowlands is hard to beat, and Cassavetes keeps her remarkable profile and plaintive stare in clear focus. As the mild mannered milquetoast Maria, Lynn Carlin is a brave blank slate, a wide-browed woman who seems to reflect back all the pain and problems thrust upon her. And fans of Seymour Cassel's later work in Trees Lounge and Rushmore will be fascinated by his young buck bravura as the male gigolo pick-up Chet. Each performance here is pitch perfect and without a single forced or phony flaw.

It's no surprise then that Cassavetes creates compelling characters with incredibly accurate and true dialogue. What many may find amazing is how well his close-up conceit works as a striking cinematic device. We simultaneously feel claustrophobic and intimate with the cast, like friends listening in on these 'oh so private' conversations. Mixing a combination of handheld sequences with several staged elements, there is a miscreant home movie feel to the entire enterprise. This elevates the authenticity to untold levels of discomfort. Cassavetes also applies an interesting narrative style to Faces. He concentrates the first hour of the film on Richard's rejection of Maria and uncomfortable alliance with Jeannie. Then, as if the other couple no longer matters, we turn to Maria and her life post-Dickie (Forst's foolish nickname). Mirroring the party time atmosphere of Richard's first meeting with Jeannie, Maria and her friends Louise, Florence and Billie-Mae bring Chet home to the Forst household and the sexual game of cat and mouse begins. Eventually, the two separate stories collide and the altercation is as devastating as it is decisive. Faces is about confrontation and openness, about living the life you've always imagined versus the situation you're stuck in. All the men who visit Jeannie are looking for love from a woman who wouldn't usually give them the time of day. What we learn is that when they are offered a little comfort, a guy mired in mid-life crisis will suck the life out of you.

Indeed, the biggest lesson in Faces is that nothing is ever as it seems. The film even begins with a question: Marley and a group of business interests settle down in a theater to watch a film. He hopes that it will be a "good one". The lights dim, the screen turns white and the title card for Faces appears. So, is what we are watching an accurate representation of life, or a movie within a movie. Is Marley really a sad older man looking for a lap to lie in, or is this all just some manner of manipulative narrative? Typical with Cassavetes, the director let's you decide. His finale has no real meaning, yet seems to offer a satisfying conclusion to the baneful bed hopping. And if this is all a ruse, a phony film being watched by a panel of professionals, what is it trying to say? That they are all corrupt (most of the guys laying line on Jeannie are unhappy businessmen) or that their wives, who they assume are sitting home with nothing better to do than gossip and complain, are as ready to ball an available trick as they are? The issues raised by Faces are fascinating, replete with insights unheard of for films from 36 years ago. Cassavetes gives us a group of people unable to communicate, caught in a world of bad jokes and even worse social skills. Love is apparently lost in the realm of liquor, cigarettes and desperation. But that doesn't mean that emotion doesn't exist. It just has to crawl out from under all the crudity.

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974)
The Longhetti household is in crisis. Nick and Mabel have been married for years, and have three young children. Nick works long, hard hours as a foreman for a construction company. Mabel is an educated woman who seems to be falling apart. Apparently a progressive problem – there are hints that Mabel has been this way their entire relationship – Nick is at his wits end. Mabel is constantly muttering to herself and inattentive to the children. She brings home strange men from bars and wanders the streets endlessly. When a children's play date goes horribly wrong, Nick feels he has no other options. He calls in a family physician and has his spouse committed. This makes Mabel's parents angry. But it satisfies Nick's mother, who has always been a vindictive, spiteful woman. Six months go by and Mabel is about to return home. But will things ever go back to normal? Or were they never really right to begin with? Needless to say, it will be a challenge for the entire Longhetti family, when A Woman Under the Influence reenters their midst.

Perhaps the most harrowing depiction of middle-aged mental illness ever captured on screen, A Woman Under the Influence is a masterpiece of film craft, a near perfect example of acting, writing and directing expertise. In many ways, this is the film that Cassavetes's intense, interactive style has been building up to, a carefully handled character study that carves drama out of its direct connection to reality. Indeed, the authenticity is so extreme in A Woman Under the Influence that you occasionally feel uncomfortable watching the elements of a complete nervous breakdown fall into place. It's portrayal of the hard-suffering Longhetti family, a unit literally falling apart and awkwardly struggling to stay afloat is amazingly dense. With very little expositional dialogue and even fewer actual scenes (this two hour and twenty minute movie is made up of probably 15 sequences, at most), we learn a lifetime of information. It is part of Cassavetes's brilliance that his actors, his number one ally in the creative process, carry the majority of the inferred narrative drive. With a wounded look or a couple of carefully chosen words, they express more than any number of showboating monologues. Indeed, one could argue that A Woman Under the Influence is all about the danger in non-verbal communication. The Longhetti's are so locked into their repressed rhythms that they can't seem to find a way to help each other.

In the realm of luminous performances, Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk have no equal in A Woman Under the Influence. Each is required to play not only the polar opposite (sane vs. crazy, sensitive vs. strident) of the other, but also manifest their own inner turmoil and character quirks as well. One could argue that both Falk's Nick and Rowland's Mabel are crazy – one overtly and one internally. Nick is not without his mental flaws, and his borderline abusive stance with Mabel may derive from something other than his position as a man with an insane wife. And what, exactly, is the "influence" that Mabel is under? Of course, the movie suggests a full-blown psychological malady, a state of paranoid delusion complete with anxiety attacks. But the truth could be far more complicated. Mabel never really seems to be her own person (her husband keeps chiding her to "be herself"). Her actual family seems cold and distant, and her mother-in-law is a manipulative witch (John Cassavetes's real mother, Katherine, takes on the difficult role of the mean-spirited matriarch and delivers a gloriously villainous turn) bent on keeping her son under her traditionalist thumb. The ending even seems to suggest that while institutionalization may have "cured" Mabel of her mental lapses, her surroundings continue to manufacture the pressure that keeps her unsteady. It will require a breaking with both routine and – in some cases – reality, to finally fix what is ailing this entire family.

A Woman Under the Influence is a grim film, an occasionally humorless look at personal pain and dissolution. The ancillary characters, from the creepy Dr. Zepp (who is far too accommodating – and quick with a sedative needle) to the strange Mr. Jansen, who brings his children over to play with the Longhetti kids, only to freak out when Mabel suggests that the man "loosen up", produce a consistent, sinister air. It does appear, at least to an audience observing the film fresh and uninformed, that Mabel is a free spirit who can't seem to convince the rest of the world that her bohemian mindset is not a manifestation of mental illness. Yet she does act incredibly odd around Nick's work crew and seems convinced of conspiracies all around her. The result is a disquieting film, a movie that is so ambiguous about its heroes and rogues as to be almost provoking in its conceits. Several times throughout the course of this story you will feel as confused and scared as the family members, and wonder aloud how they manage to keep it together. The reality is that no one in A Woman Under the Influence is free from the effects of mental illness. Mabel may be the core of discontent, but the rest of the clan, from the kids to the co-workers and associates are equally affected by the sheltered secret in the Longhetti's suburban home. If he had never made another film, A Woman Under the Influence would have signified Cassavetes's importance as a creator and a craftsman. It is one of the landmarks of cinematic realism.

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976/1978)
Cosmo Vitalli is a nightclub owner, and he has just finished paying off the debt on his strip joint to a local loan shark. But before he knows it he has lost $23,000 to another nasty out of town syndicate. They take a note on his business and tell him they intend to collect. One day, the balance comes due in a big way. The mobsters show up with a proposition: they will forgive the liability if Cosmo will kill a troublemaking Chinese bookmaker. Initially he balks, but after a little physical persuasion, he relents. Thus our girlie show entrepreneur, who fancies himself an entertainer and showman, becomes a hitman, risking everything to save his business and his life. How could he have foreseen that a gambling debt from a gentleman's club would lead to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

Perhaps the most ambiguous film in the entire collection, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a combination of elements: a crime story flecked with nods to film noir, a character study in which we learn very little about the individuals focused on. Cassavetes's main thematic device appears to be the exploration of appearance. Throughout the film, he sets up circumstances that are stated as representing one thing, but in actuality mean another. A good example is the strip club setting, the Crazy Horse West. The name suggests a western motif, yet the space itself has a singular, urban look (no matter if the waitresses are dressed in cowgirl regalia). The club features a star performer known as Mr. Sophistication – a name signifying cosmopolitan refinement – who ends up being a combination of Tiny Tim and an unsuccessful, overweight drag queen. And his act is rather lowbrow, barely breaking into the realm of classiness. The dancers scarcely remove their clothes. They instead spend inordinate amounts of time in overly scripted skit material. And the whole act is supposedly conceived, created and choreographed by Cosmo. Yet we never really get the impression that he has any actual connection to the performances. True, he is overly obsessed with them (even making a call – mid hit – to see how the show is going) but the ending seems to imply a disconnection that belies the truth. Part of the problem with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is that we never quite get a handle on what this dichotomy is supposed to signify. The movie is never clear about its purpose.

The film definitely centers around the internal and external world of Cosmo Vitalli, and Ben Gazzara provides the perfect core as a self-deluded small fish in a big business pond. If the movie is just a pilgrim's progress for this egotistical, callous loser, then Cassavetes imparts a great deal of importance into his tumble and fall. One senses there is a larger conceit at work, one hoping to expose Cosmo's soul as corrupt and corruptible. And the steely way in which he goes about his crime is fascinating. But Cassavetes never truly lets us into Cosmo's inner world. His relationship with his dancers is questionable. He has a stunning black girlfriend, and an entire African America household he considers "family", but that dynamic is also under-explored (odd, considering how Shadows relied almost exclusively on that idea). And just when you think we're getting to the heart of the matter, another tangential element steps in to misdirect us. It really is all the directors fault. Instead of taking his time, developing his scenes, Cassavetes occasionally cheats. The movie starts off far too fast. Cosmo pays off his club only to lose it again in the span of 20 minutes. Then there is another hour before the title assassination. After that, the plot moves from personal to criminal confrontation in a more of less obtuse manner. And the ending is so open ended as to produce a vacuum, sucking you back in to address questions you thought were settled hours before. There is nothing wrong with being left to your own interpretive devices with a Cassavetes's movie. Actually, he intends that as part of his production's cinematic power. But The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is incredibly oblique. It's like a murder mystery written by a free-verse poet.

There are other elements in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie that make the film even more difficult to decipher. Cassavetes indulges his love of the set piece by producing several stage show sequences, presenting almost every routine put on by the Crazy Horse cast. We are treated to an extended Parisian bit to the wounded tune of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" that never really makes a valid point. If Cassavetes is using the sequence to comment on some aspect of story or character, the message is lost to the audience. Also, there is an awkward ending monologue delivered by Cosmo that seems strangely out of place. He has been a notoriously quiet character throughout the course of the film, only speaking out in outrage or arrogance. His faux friendly banter, mixed with a morose onstage spiel, seems to stick out in what has basically been a fairly straightforward film. Indeed, many of the elements that made A Woman Under the Influence and Faces work so well seem to hamper The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Those meandering moments where characters appear to step out of the narrative and indulge in a little personal palaver add tremendous depth in other Cassavetes's storytelling, but Chinese Bookie stalls whenever this happens. This is still a completely captivating film. It absolutely excels in creating a feeling of dread and fatalism. We sense that Cosmo has reached the end of the line in all aspects of his being – this business, his relationships and his life. And through a combination of speedy setup and floating follow through, Cassavetes delivers unqualified suspense.

As part of their attempt to be as all encompassing in their approach to Cassavetes work as they can be, Criterion offers another version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a 1978 cut released by the director to try and reintroduce the film (which was not a success the first time around) to the public. It's an amazing cinematic experience, like watching two separate and distinct entities cut from the same photographic cloth. The original film was dark, dense, ambiguous and a little sloppy. Gazzara's club-owner turned hitman was a dazed and confused dupe for a far more intelligent group of bad guys. In this new version, all the background elements have been substantially scaled back and with it, the sense of menace and suspense. The '78 cut focuses completely on the title crime and the reasons behind it instead of Cosmo and his self-centered foolishness. We still get snippets of his puzzling priorities (the phone call to the club to check on the act, for example) but almost all the nightclub material is excised. Seymour Cassel, excellent as the mobster Mort in the first version, is more or less non-existent here. In addition, new plot points have been added and there is a new emphasis on the moral emptiness of the gangsters. We ever get some new character elements like the introduction of Cosmo's military service. The original film was a character study plastered into a strange SoCal film noir. The update is a crime drama, pure and simple, with very little of the signature Cassavetes concentration on method and mannerism. The ability to watch these wildly divergent versions of the film is why Criterion is the best when it comes to DVD release. It adds an additional, important part to the Cassavetes legacy, a section some others would have disregarded as "excessive".

OPENING NIGHT (1977)
In just a few short days, Sarah Goode's new play, "Second Woman", will make its New York premier and things are not going well. Lead actress Myrtle Gordon is a mess, a wild eyed, wounded diva who can't quite get a handle on the character she is given to play. One night, after an especially difficult performance, a young eager fan named Nancy Stein confronts Myrtle. She worships everything about the star and is amazed just to be meeting her. While chasing after Myrtle's car, Nancy is struck by another vehicle and killed. Almost immediately, Ms. Gordon starts to fall apart. She misses her cues and flubs her dialogue. She wanders through rehearsals like a zombie. And she is starting to see visions of Nancy in the private moments of her quietest desperations. Everyone, from producer David Samuels, director Manny Victor and costars Maurice Adams and Gus Simmons, thinks Myrtle is cracking up. And she just may be. But it could also be that this almost over the hill performer has finally reached the breaking point. Age and ability are beginning to undermine her. But as they say, the show must go on, and Myrtle has to win the battle over these personal demons before they too threaten to possess Opening Night.

As much a return to form as a radical departure, Opening Night mixes Cassavetes's previous obsession with improvisation while revealing a brand new, more experimental style to the filmmaker's oeuvre. Utilizing an ingenious play within a movie structure to discuss the ideas of ageism and loneliness, while simultaneously adding in his standard character study motifs, this backstage melodrama as psychological (and even supernatural) stress test is one of the best movies ever made about the life of an older actor. Like Barton Fink's take on the writer or The Stunt Man's view of the director, Opening Night places the unsettled psyche of the thespian out on the chopping block for everyone to marvel and scoff at. Always better known for the acting in his films than the visual flair, Cassavetes really opens up that jaded journal of cynical statements about the performer and his relationship to the fans and their public persona and lets the vitriol flow. Opening Night argues that actors so freely give of themselves onstage or onscreen that they run the risk of eventually emptying out their emotional coffers. This explains what happens to star Myrtle Gordon throughout the course of this film. As she has matured, she's learning that the well of sense memory is about to run dry. And it's scaring her to death.

While some can insist that this really isn't a movie concerned with maturity and growing old, the subject sure comes up frequently in Opening Night. Myrtle - saddled with a really old fashioned name if ever there was one - hates the weak, empty matron role she's been given to play and wants to try and find the hope inside all this hatred. Surrounding her are professionals that are mindful of such an artistic plight, but impatient with what seems like a pre-menopausal mid-life crisis. These are the classic troopers, the 'break a leg' gang of theater types who can't understand Myrtle's sudden disintegration into self. While the death (or perhaps, the IMAGINED death) of the young fan Nancy seems to have triggered this latest round of ridiculous rants, Myrtle Gordon has apparently always been an actress on the verge of a nervous disorder. Yet it's the realization that playwright Sarah Goode's acidic, grim words actually resonate at some level inside her that really pushes Myrtle over the edge. She refuses to acknowledge her place along the performance space-time continuum and loves to delude herself that one's accumulated life experiences are not the real issue at the center of her unease. But as she drinks herself into a stupor and stares at her wrinkling facade in the mirror, Myrtle isn't fooling anyone. She knows it is just a matter of time before she moves from featured performer to character roles.

Perhaps the clearest interpretation of what goes on in Opening Night is that we are witness to a battle of wills between the various stages of femininity and womanhood. Joan Blondell's Sarah Goode represents the geriatric stage, the hard, embittered female resolved to let the remainder of her days pass by in silent dignified suffering. Laura Johnson's Nancy Stein is the sweet bird of youth, the defiant, ageless beauty that seems to radiate perfection out of every pore. Battling between them both is Gena Rowland's Myrtle, middle-aged and miserable, stuck between the last ounces of vitality and the waiting wounded memories of a slowly unwinding life. Opening Night is all about symbols, about what people (producers, directors, writers, spouses) represent and how these icons come to play a part in one woman's life. As Myrtle sees it, Nancy is all physicality and passion. Sarah is all bottled up brittleness and wounded pride. Myrtle is repulsed by what Sarah's play represents, yet she can find no comfort in Nancy's metaphysical confrontations. Myrtle wishes to capture and reclaim what Nancy has naturally, yet she also understands that, as she has aged, she has far more in common with Sarah's lonely, isolated lead character. It is this horrible, heartbreaking struggle that forms the basis for most of Opening Night's narrative. Even the play within the movie material reflects back on the themes and struggles Myrtle the actress is facing inside. Cassavete's masterstroke comes at the end, when our heroine finally decides what she is. She's no longer young, but she's not dead yet. She's a performer, goddammit, and will strut and fret her hour upon the stage until she is good and ready to leave.

As with all of his other films, the acting here is especially strong, but in a couple of instances, the performances are awe-inspiring. Gena Rowland's turn as Myrtle is mesmerizing, a careful balancing act between stereotype and sociopath. Far more lost in her own world than Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence, but also less understandable in her mental dissolution, Rowland's role here is mired in a very real sense of helplessness. Trying to hold strong but busting at almost every sanity seam, the pain pouring off of Myrtle is so real you can almost taste it. This tour-de-force performance, including one of the most agonizing and realistic drunken walks you'll ever witness, certifies Rowland's place as one of America's greatest, most gifted actresses. Her feat here is equal – or perhaps even better - to Diane Keaton's eventual Oscar winning work for Annie Hall (Keaton won the year Rowlands was nominated for Opening Night). Equally evocative is Joan Blondell, an old-hat studio system star working wonderfully within Cassavetes's method acting madness. She is concurrently mothering and manipulative, reaching out to understand while she holds back to protect her interests. Interesting, Cassavetes makes an appearance for the first time in this set, playing the callous co-star, Maurice. He proves time and time again why he was, and still is, one of the best actors to ever take to the stage. His performance is shaded and significant.

As the final film in this box set, Opening Night ends the John Cassavetes: Five Films collection on a bittersweet, yet sensational note. As a film, it's a lost gem, a seldom seen work of unrequited genius that will move and confuse you. What it lacks in Faces freshness or Shadows connection to truth, it shares with A Woman Under the Influences's perceptions and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie's blurring of theater and reality. It also cements something that we've learned throughout the course of six distinct films (counting Bookie's double bill) by the maverick: Cassavetes created some of the best work of his generation. Not only that, he left behind one of the greatest collections of onscreen performances ever offered by a group of actors. The amazing work of Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, Lelia Goldoni, Ben Carruthers, Hugh Hurd, Val Avery, Joan Blondell and Cassavetes himself exemplify what is best about cinema; the ability to see life captured with authenticity and honesty on camera. Cassavetes was always 'accused' of creating a family atmosphere on his films, using any element in his power to bring a group of divergent individuals together to create magic. Togetherness and friendship are important parts of the Cassavetes's canon, and there is no better example of this bond than the startling acting inherent in his films.

Thematically, all the movies here explore love in one way or another. Some of the more obvious examples are easy to pick out: the interracial element of Shadows, the lost in pre/post menopause of Faces, the fragile falling apart of A Woman Under the Influence. But looking for said emotion in both Chinese Bookie and Opening Night seems tough, until you look beneath the surface. Cosmo Vitalli tells his surrogate Mom (the black mother of his stripper girlfriend) that he hates his birth parents: Dad was a moron and his own biological life giver ran off with a fat butcher. Couched in those terms, all of his actions, from choreographing the show at the Crazy Horse West to showing off like a well to do businessman/playboy are obvious pleas for acceptance. All Cosmo really wants is to be adored and appreciated, recognized and respected. In essence, he wants to be loved, even if it means killing a man to get some gangland favoritism. On the opposite end of the same scale is Myrtle Gordon. In her world, she is worshipped and venerated, smothered in overwhelming fame and fandom. But none of this affection makes a connection: it's all as phony as her work onstage. She is pretending for the crowd and they are pretending right back. She has no direct link to them, just a perceived bond that is painfully illustrated with the arrival of Nancy. Her sickeningly obsessed fanaticism is pathetic and frightening. It signals to Myrtle that she needs to start looking inward, to journey to the core of her being and find the necessary fondness to love herself. Indeed, since no one else honestly will, it is up to Myrtle to make herself happy.

Humor and jokes also play a huge part in his films. Characters are always cracking wise and working bad or bawdy witticisms into the conversation. A good 30 minutes of Faces consists of Richard Forst and his friend, Freddie, as they attempt to recreate a comedy routine from their college days. When Richard later confronts a couple of businessmen in Jeannie's house, the standoff mostly consists of jokes. Even with his wife, whom he really doesn't connect with anyone, Richard loves to laugh. They laugh at the dinner table. They laugh at the in-home bar. They laugh even in bed – which may explain their problems. In A Woman Under the Influence, Mother Longhetti wants Mabel to goof off and joke around as proof that her stay in the sanitarium has helped her. Even at the end, when it looks like Mabel may never recover, she and Nick share a couple of self-deprecating comments that seem to suggest that everything will be all right. From the final onstage battle of wits between Myrtle and Maurice in Opening Night to Mr. Sophistication's deadpan deliveries in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, amusement is always prevalent. In maxims and proverbs, laugher is often called the best medicine. It is also ironically referred to as the epitome of the soul's purity. In the catalog of Cassavetes's films though, jesting forms the most superfluous basis for most human interaction. It's the decisive layer, the starting point from which all the tough, interpersonal digging will begin.

And of course, no conversation about Cassavetes's work would be complete without commenting on the director's desire to depict and dissect mental illness and individual psychological damage. The very basis of the method, as practiced during the 50s and 60s, was the bringing of sense memory to the surface, to find those moments in one's experience that coincide with the emotions warranted in a scene and allowing them to flow and guide the performance. So, in essence, everything is a Cassavetes's film is a discussion and an exploration of deep mental states. Obviously, both Mabel (from Influence) and Myrtle (from Opening Night) suffer from differing dementias. And though she hides it well beneath a sheen of happy suburban housewivery, Maria Forst is clearly suffering inside. From Tony's intolerance to ethnicity in Shadows to Cosmo's cold-blooded amorality, Cassavetes acknowledges that everyone is flawed and faulty. Human beings, by their very nature, are complex and cracked. No one walks around with a perfected personality or safe sense of self. While they may not all require medication and/or institutionalizing, every character in a Cassavetes's film carries his or her own emotional burden openly and plainly. But for some, the weight is just too great. It's this very concept, the notion that no one is immune to the pain of life and/or the search for love that colors each and every one of Cassavetes's movies. That's why they are so timeless. That's why they are so magnificent.

The Video:
Each film in this set is presented by Criterion in the best possible print that could be discovered and almost every transfer here is perfect. As the oldest film in the set, Shadows suffers from the most age-oriented defects in its 1.33:1 image. But when we learn that many of these moments were purposefully preserved by the restoration team to enhance the look and feel of Cassavetes's original imagery, the results turn out to be amazing. Faces is offered in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that really enhances the monochrome moodiness of the movie. Since this is a movie concerned with details and close-ups, the near-pristine contrasts bring all of these aspects to radiant life. For our first color film in the set, A Woman Under the Influence has an incredible 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image. Bright, vibrant and filled with depth, there is a reality and an authenticity to the print. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is also intense and glowing in its visual elements. While the original version looks faultless, the 1978 release has a few overly dark sequences (especially when Cosmo goes off to commit his crime). Still the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen visuals are incredibly atmospheric and picturesque. Our final film, Opening Night, is another example of cinematic perfection. The imagery is crisp, the varying elements are represented in excellent fashion and the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is amazing. Frankly, all the prints offered here are ideal.

The Audio:
While everyone marvels at the acting and directorial flare shown in Cassavetes's work, the magnificent soundtracks created for his films, usually through collaboration with Bo Harwood, are equally brilliant. Ambient, sparse, introspective and non-linear, they come across like a combination of lo-fi longing and ingenious, primitive balladry. While his first films do rely on the be-bop/jazz lounge lamentations of their urban settings (indeed, one could argue the coastal change from the cosmopolitan cool of NYC to the blasΓ© boundaries of LA mandated such a switch) it's the later works that are far more enigmatic. Cassavetes's films also required a delicate balance between the negative space and the words being wielded. In every film in this set, from the metropolitan melee of Shadows, through the walking wounded talk-fests of Faces and A Woman Under the Influence and even in the far quieter and controlled The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, the dialogue is clear and cleverly incorporated into the overall soundscape. Though presented in Dolby Digital Mono, these are outstanding aural packages.

The Extras:
The main bonus here, though it is actually presented in its own separate "film" keep case, is the 3-hour plus documentary on Cassavetes called A Constant Forge (from 2000). Documentarian Charles Kiselyak uses a very unique approach for this amazing detailed discussion. He begins with a breezy look through Cassavetes catalog, allowing participants and pundits to discuss his movies, even the Hollywood heyday examples like A Child is Waiting and A Pair of Boots. Then, after about 20 minutes, the focus turns hazy. Layer by layer, Kiselyak adds depth and insight. One film will be featured and nearly every important name associated with it will speak. Then someone like Gena Rowlands will step up and add an overall philosophical or anecdotal element to the presentation. Towards the middle, more of Cassavetes's personal life is discussed, including his Greek heritage, his love of family and friends and the personal integrity under which he handled his relationships. By the end of the production, everything is clicking. Comments come flying in and take their place in the creation of the Cassavetes's mythos. Insights have been overworked and reevaluated. We suddenly realize that there is no question as to Cassavetes's place in the history of American cinema, and yet there are the constant reminders of his limited success and lack of mainstream acceptance. Perhaps the best retrospective every created to celebrate a single artistic presence, A Constant Forge is just outright phenomenal.

In addition, each film in this box set has its own distinct set of bonus materials. Some are as basic as trailers and galleries. Others, like Faces and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, have an additional disc as part of their packaging to help flesh out their contextual elements. Suffice it to say, one must look at each movie individually to determine the value proffered for each of the films. We begin with:

Shadows: In one of the simpler presentations in the set, Shadows has a small selection of bonus material. Key to understanding the film are two interviews, one with star Lelia Goldoni (who played Lelia) and Seymour Cassel, who functioned as an associate producer on the project. Each explains how they became involved with Cassavetes, as well as how being a part of Shadows changed their careers. Also intriguing is the restoration featurette. Hearing how the technicians fought to preserve some of the more natural "faults" in the film (hairs in the frame, scratches and dirt) to keep the experience "authentic" to Cassavetes's intentions reinforces the idea that saving film does not mean perfecting it. Along with a trailer, a stills gallery and a few minutes of silent footage showing the cast working in Cassavetes's acting class, we get a nice overview of how Shadows was crafted.

Faces: Unlike Shadows, Faces arrives with a great deal of extra content. All the material is reserved for the second disc on this 2 DVD set and it runs the gamut from film specific to career retrospective. First up is a 17-minute alternate opening sequence that begins the narration in a very different manner. We see less of Richard and Maria at home, and more of how each interacts within their own social circles. There is an extended sequence in a bar that illustrates how Richard meets up with Jeannie, and there is more of the gal pal chumminess between Maria and her friends. Next, we are treated to a 48-minute episode of the French TV series Cineastes de notre temps. Broken up into two parts (entitled "Hollywood 1965" and "Paris 1968"), much of the monochrome material here is featured in A Constant Forge. The Paris material is more provocative as it features a cynical Cassavetes describing why independent films fail. It's remarkable stuff.

Making Faces is a brand new documentary detailing the creation of the film. Over the course of almost an hour, Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, Al Ruban and Lynn Carlin detail how this groundbreaking movie came into being. Ruban walks us through the pre and post production. Cassel discusses how Cassavetes approached performance and direction. Rowlands makes a great case for not putting your own money into your movies and Carlin takes the role of the innocent, talking about experiencing the Cassavetes's "magic" for the first time. Some of the more interesting facets of the filming include how both Rowlands and Carlin were pregnant throughout the course of the shoot, the fact that Cassel made up all the songs he sings in the story and how some noted Hollywood big wigs (Don Siegel, Haskell Wexler) aided in getting the film finished. It's an amazing piece, filled with backstage drama and last minute intrigue. Lastly, director of photography Al Ruban walks us through the specifics of Lighting and Shooting the Film. After a couple of text-based menu screens showcasing the equipment used and principle theories behind the camerawork, we get a chance to look at actual scenes from the film. Ruban provides text commentary over the selected sequences, outlining how certain looks were achieved and how Cassavetes's visual designs were realized. It's a wonderfully insightful feature.

A Woman Under the Influence: Offering the one and only commentary of the entire set, the additional elements for A Woman Under the Influence focus more on the way Cassavetes worked than on the film featured. Camera operator Mike Ferris and sound recorder/composer Bo Harwood act like they're watching old home movies – which, technically, they are – as they recall what it was like to work with Cassavetes. Dividing their discussion between scene-specific comments and overall thoughts about the enigmatic filmmaker, they walk us through all phases of A Woman Under the Influence's production. Perhaps the most remarkable moments come when the guys mention how they occasionally disagreed, sometimes vehemently, with Cassavetes and his choices in the film. Yet they always voice the utmost respect for the filmmaker as well as heaping praise on his stellar cast (especially Gena Rowlands, who they say 'disappeared' into the role of Mabel). It's a wonderful addition to our understanding of this film.

We are then treated to a nice video conversation between Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands as they reminisce about John and the film. Their banter is lively and loving, drawing us into the world of the Cassavetes's creative process. However, no one speaks better about his craft than the auteur himself, and we are given an in-depth audio interview from 1975 conducted by Michael Ciment. It is an excellent overview of Cassavetes's career, from his values and beliefs to how emotion is improved via improv. There is also a fun sequence in which Cassavetes argues that Mabel is not really crazy, just hemmed in by the coldness of marriage. Along with a stills gallery and trailer, this stellar film gets an equally impressive collection of extras.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: Criterion gives us another two disc presentation, and the results are well worth it. As stated before, Disc 1 has the original cut of Chinese Bookie (running nearly 135 minutes). Disc 2 features a re-release edit, losing nearly 30 minutes (the film has been boiled down to 108 minutes) and reconfiguring the entire tone. The second DVD also contains the rest of the extras, which include interviews with star Ben Gazzara and producer Al Ruban, another audio Q&A with Michael Ciment and a stills gallery from the production. Both Gazzara and Ruban marvel at the film's terrible reception, share their initial impressions of the script, and infer how the film is really a subtle, autobiographical reflection of Cassavetes's creative life. Ciment's audio interview for this film covers questions about whether The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a genre effort, some advice for young filmmakers, Cassavetes's position as a cinematic revolutionary and how acting/creativity is better than living a regular life. As usual, Cassavetes's comments are focused and pointed, marked by intelligence, clarity and power. The addition of a stills gallery wraps up this very impressive package.

Opening Night: The final film in the set reverts back to a more Shadows-oriented approach to extras, providing three interview features and little else (accept for some trailers). In the first, Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara meet up to talk about the movie. They marvel at the number of extras who showed up for the theater scenes, and wonder why the film wasn't more successful – both financially and critically. Director of Photography Al Ruban is back again, describing the challenges of making a movie that revolved around a stage play within the narrative. Finally, Michael Ciment is again on hand to breakdown the release of Opening Night with its writer and director. With the addition of a couple of trailers, we have a nice, elemental package for one of Cassavetes's most under appreciated films.

In the accompanying 70-page booklet included with the set, we get a chance to review various printed material by and about John. Over the course of 17 articles, essays and interview pieces, we follow the flow of Cassavetes's ideology, learn his passions and his problems and discover even more about the way in which he viewed the filmmaking process. Unlike other booklets provided by Criterion that can seem superfluous to the subject matter, this incredible collection makes John Cassavetes: Five Films not only a digital dream, but a literary one as well.

Final Thoughts:
John Cassavetes was and is one of the true pioneers of American cinema. His films transcend their independent trappings to represent the pinnacle of filmmaker as an art. Throughout the course of 26 amazing years, spanning stints in the tortured terror of Tinsel Town to the height of his self-made motion picture muse, Cassavetes created, not only a body of work, but an absolute ethic regarding creativity. Pouring himself into every aspect of moviemaking – from writing to directing, filming to composing – he took complete control of his projects to guarantee they would only reflect his ideas and his aesthetic beliefs. Though he was only responsible for a handful of films, their influence and importance is unprecedented. You cannot point to a single independent film released in the last two decades, and not see some of Cassavetes's presence in either the technique or the timber. Criterion's presentation of John Cassavetes: Five Films is the best DVD package of the year, even without the inclusion of a couple of the director's seminal works. The sheer scope of the stories told here, the undeniable depth of the emotions and brilliance braved by the performers participating leave one breathless and begging for more. These are films to be cherished and treasured. They are narrative canvases to be revisited and explored in depth. All five represent major moments in cinematic history. And Criterion has created one of the essential, epic DVD collections in the short span of this digital entertainment medium. It is truly not to be missed.

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