John Cassavetes and the Role of the Author

by Smart

“The study of authorship is not in itself a theory, only a topic or theme. It can involve a great variety of political positions and theoretical assumptions; and, like all types of criticism, it can be performed well or badly.” (James Naremore 2004)

The most exalted of auteur directors are often instinctively associated with particular film movements. Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague, Fritz Lang and German Expressionism, Luis Buñuel and Surrealism. For actor turned director John Cassavetes, independent American film is where he would make his name. He will forever be remembered as one of the most important directors of the 1970s.

Auteurism, as the study of authorship is better known, is far from an exact science. It cannot be simply taught and then understood, as it requires that one be able to engage with the theory on an intuitive level. The basic concept of auteur theory was inspired by a 1948 essay by French film critic and director Alexandre Astruc, where he first introduced the notion of ‘caméra-stylo’ or ‘camera-pen’. This encapsulated a range of ideas that all positioned the director of a film as the ultimate ‘author’, as the person primarily responsible for creating the artistry seen up on the screen. It was presented as a metaphor which would claim the camera as a pen and the screen as a piece of paper. A few years later this idea would be expanded upon substantially and turned into an entire movement by several film theorists and critics. It forever changed the way films are analysed and praised, and paved the way for a new breed of filmmaking, one that focused more on personal expression and less on pragmatic and economic methods of production.

Before auteurism wormed its way into existence, film discourse was a shell of what it is now, and concerned primarily with examining the relationship between representation and reality. Film was already considered an art form by those that wrote about it, but only in the sense that it possessed facets of truth and beauty. This resulted in discussions of the unique aesthetic attributes of film being ultimately more shallow than they could have been. Once the idea of the artist, which was already present across the other predominant art forms, migrated itself over to film, a lot of new possibilities opened up. If a film had an author, then that author must have a personal touch, and if a film has a personal touch, how can we see, feel, and analyse it? This proposed ‘sole author’ defies the collaborative aspects of film production, but does not entirely shut them out. Because of the tightly intermingled process through which films are made, wherein they frequently utilize the artistic input of multiple individuals, it can often be difficult to choose just one name to stamp across the entire output. As such, not every director can necessarily be considered an auteur, although which ones are and which aren’t is a continuing problem for authorship. There are cases where producers, actors, or writers are seen as the auteur of a film, and these analyses seem equally as valid when considering the criteria for authorship is primarily being able to leave a prominent, distinguishable ‘signature’ on a film. Due in part to this problem of collaboration, backlash emerged in the 1960s against auteur theory. There were also hefty unanswerable questions regarding the relationship between an author’s intent and the actual message conveyed in a film, which was often left up to subjective interpretation that could far exceed the often humble goals of the director, or perhaps undermine them entirely.

An authorship analysis of a single film would focus on the qualities which it seems the director has attributed to the film through their artistic involvement. To find and identify these qualities it is almost always prudent to watch closely several of the director’s other films, as this allows notable patterns to be discerned. Some directors are obviously more suited to this form of analysis, especially those that stick to certain themes and display common stylistic tendencies across their body of work. For instance, it is easy to pick out similarities across all of Ingmar Bergman’s films, the majority of which deal with existential ponderings and feature characters suffering from strong mental anguish. Then there is the repeated involvement of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who is said to have helped carve out a consistent mise-en-scène which can be seen across almost all of Bergman’s filmography. Although the intricacies of Bergman’s work as an auteur go far deeper than his most prevalent of narrative and visual regularities, it is still clear after watching only a handful of his films that he has an idiosyncratic ‘signature’ written across them. Whether this is by accident, by intention, or simply by determination, it is hard to say for sure.

John Cassavetes wrote and directed his first film, Shadows, in 1959. It was an impressive debut that showcased an intoxicating style with transgressive exploration of social themes and unique characters. Although Shadows would be seen in retrospect as dissimilar to his later and more renowned films, it still touched on a certain way of handling characters that can be found throughout much of Cassavetes’ later work. It also would be the starting point of Cassavetes’ distinctive use of a style similar in application and principle to cinéma vérité. Cinéma vérité literally means ‘film truth’, although that is an obvious fallacy as truth is about as subjective as anything else, and when put through the gaze of a camera becomes irreversibly warped to perspective. Cinéma vérité originally came about along with the advent of more portable camera technology. 16mm noiseless cameras allowed anyone and everyone to make a film without the need for expensive production, lighting, or set design. Suddenly film had become independent from the studios, and cinéma vérité was an idea that wanted to distance itself from commercial film production as much as possible. It was like documentary making, and could be seen as such, but often, as in the case of Shadows, was more about blending real situations into a fictional narrative. In Shadows, Cassavetes allowed his actors to improvise their dialogue, and he would then film them without any predetermined framing or camera setup. This gives the film a very ‘real’ feel, and is something that would be refined and improved upon as Cassavetes progressed as a director. Although Cassavetes staged his scenes, which goes against true cinéma vérité principles, he still achieved a visual style that looked spontaneous, thereby lending his films an engaging, immediate quality that traditional cinema couldn’t offer. It moved the audience closer to the characters, which is where Cassavetes excelled remarkably.

Although Shadows was partially improvised, none of his following films were, as he had broken away from the confines of cinéma vérité and taken with him just the visual style which worked wonderfully to give an overwhelming impact to his character driven films. He was so accomplished at directing actors that the performances in his films often came across as being improvised, which is a direct praise to the realism, or perhaps ‘hyper’-realism, they illicit. One actress in particular that personifies this is his wife, Gena Rowlands, who starred in a number of his films, most importantly A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. In both films she gives performances of undeniable strength as a tragic character going through turbulent times. This kind of character, one beset by hardship, tough situations, dodgy lifestyles and mental illness, is commonplace in Cassavetes’ films. This is perhaps the most palpable pattern that emerges when looking at his oeuvre, as it is touched on at least to some extent in nearly all his works.

The next most overt and probably the most assaulting clue to Cassavetes’ auteurism is his aesthetic style, created through characteristic use of mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound, and music. He is able to control everything that is tangible about his films and manipulate it all into a cohesive whole which forms a pertinent signature that is both unmistakeable and impossible to imitate. Cassavetes’ visual style, created primarily through his carefully evolved technique, is absorbing. It pulls the viewer right into the atmosphere of his films through up-close, colourful, gritty camera work, which isn’t concerned with perfection but with perspective. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie we are given our own private viewpoint to occupy, which feels almost like being inside a bubble that is floating about in the world of our protagonist, Cosmo Vitelli (played by Ben Gazzara). It is not a first person perspective as we do not see through his eyes, but we are still constrained to only his understanding of events. We see alongside him, though as a separate entity, free to make our own assumptions and judgements. In one scene we watch a woman audition for Cosmo. We have already been introduced to this woman in a previous scene, which allowed us to take in her face and general appearance. Now we are restricted to seeing only her lower half, as our view is representing that which Cosmo is judging. He wants to know if she can perform as a dancer, as he already knows she has a nice face and nice breasts, which are the other two requirements for the job. It is up to us to decide, along with Cosmo, if she is talented in addition to being attractive. As it turns out, she is.

The unorthodox framing in this shot, which is also seen throughout the entirety of the film, is utterly intentional. It is not done to avoid showing nudity, as Cassavetes even goes as far as to show nudity in the two scenes immediately before and after this sequence, subtlety reminding us that he is in control and is consciously manipulating our perspective to be as analogous with Cosmo’s as possible. It is also not done to simply be artistic, as the technique has the deliberate outcome of putting us directly into Cosmo’s mindset, which then allows us to delve deeper into his warped situation as it escalates throughout the rest of the film. It is done to bring us as close to the character as possible without resorting to voice over narration or first person perspective. We are still a disconnected, intangible observer, free to watch and judge for ourselves, but from a position that is so close to Cosmo that it becomes almost claustrophobic, re-creating for us the feeling of entrapment that he is experiencing. Cassavetes wants us not only to see what Cosmo sees, but also understand how he sees, he wants us to share his subjectivity. This same technique is used to great effect in A Woman Under the Influence, which leads the audience to feeling as frustrated, abused, and even insane as the main character. Both films utilise a cinéma vérité influenced style, but taken to a much more aware level. The camera bumps and moves freely as if in a documentary, but at the same time it is capturing highly artistic, organic images, with odd angles and unconventional lighting. Focus is constantly shifting, reflecting the mind state of the protagonist when things become hectic and uncontrollable.

It seems that what makes Cassavetes’ films so commanding is the combination of strong, realistic performances with his personal style of introspective, close-up camera work and challenging, transgressive narratives. This is his style, his signature, his distinguishable mark that he leaves on his films. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie all of his directorial traits are in play, and he was at his peak in terms of creative control and enthusiasm. His directing has one clear outcome in all cases, and that is that it creates an absorbing, personal experience that transports the viewer inside the world of his films and the minds of his characters. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie this works to put us in a position that is almost first person limited, but not quite. One scene which exploits this superbly is when Cosmo is sent to kill the Chinese bookie. This whole scene is borderline surreal, as it goes for a kind of heightened reality which emphasises the internal conflict and panic within Cosmo. Naturally this helps to dramatise one of the most integral and important scenes in the film. Cleverly, Cassavetes does not show us the dead bookie, but instead pulls our point of view away immediately after the killing, suggesting to us that Cosmo is not able to bring himself to look at what he has done. We are limited to Cosmo’s perspective and his understanding of his surroundings. The ensuing chase scene continues in this style, as we are kept alongside Cosmo as he runs for his life, and are only shown glimpses of the men chasing him. It’s a balancing act, to have a style that pigeonholes the viewer into a certain experience, a certain state of mind, while still managing to maintain a feeling of realism, like the events unfolding are taking place simply by chance, unscripted.

What makes a director an auteur is not a simple distinction. Even the theory itself allows a lot of room for a director to not be an auteur. However, there are some directors who seem almost custom-made to fit into the goals of the theory. John Cassavetes is one such director, as he has a very consistent, intelligent ‘signature’ that is visible across a range of his films. Coming from the aesthetic approach of cinéma vérité and combining it with his own structured narratives and skill at pulling fantastic performances from actors; he quickly developed a very mature style that excelled at engaging audiences on multiple levels. Through stylized camera techniques and a predilection for certain character types, Cassavetes’ preoccupations and considerations are shown to be complex, highly prevalent, and overall rewarding when observed across his diverse filmography.

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