Faces (1968)

Directed by John Cassavetes

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“You’re seeing performance as an avenue to understanding, and frankly some audiences lack the patience for it (as much as some hate watching the 10-minute philosophy debate in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie). But those with a taste for it will see something magical in Faces. Cassavetes had an uneven body of work, perhaps overpraised in some circles, but this entry has him and his team of guerrilla thespians working at the top of their game.” – Slant Magazine, Jeremiah Kipp (2/14/09)

I want to love John Cassavetes, and in theory I do love his movies.  I love the process, the characters, the moments his improvisatory style creates, and I love the raw, rough around the edges appearance of his films.  I would be thrilled if I could make a film like Faces.  And yet, I didn’t quite like this film.  It’s too long, the scenes take too much time to develop, and at a certain point the naturalistic acting starts to feel less so.  It becomes something much more self-indulgent.

The scenes all feel like acting exercises, designed to make each actor experience an incredibly wild series of emotions.  In one moment they’re laughing and dancing as if they were just exonerated of crime, and in the next they’re sobbing.  His scenes seem to perpetuate a myth that people only exist in one extreme or another.

It’s like he starts each take by telling his actors where they’re at emotionally and telling them to get to the other side but to take their time.  It’s so rough and unpolished, but this would seem to be a good starting point on the road to making a better film.  Faces is over two hours long and should probably come in at around eighty minutes.

It’s the story about a married couple’s separation and their activities following the husband’s request for a divorce.  The husband, Richard, visits a favorite prostitute for whom he might have genuine feelings, and the wife, Maria, along with a few friends, encounters a wild young man, the type who might be more inclined to fall under the spell of someone like Charles Manson.

In the end they return home together, as hostile as before, and that’s about it.  Granted, there are a lot of moments in the middle.  The characters all laugh hysterically and then later express their deepest sorrows.  In one oddly touching scene, a businessman tells the prostitute, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), about his college-aged son.  He opens up about his family like he would to a therapist.  Jeannie seems moved by this, but just as quickly he moves on, as if embarrassed by this pseudo-confession.

What Cassavetes’ style creates is a sense of extreme intimacy without any sense of over-sentimentality.  His shooting style is a little chaotic, with a handheld camera, occasionally jarring cuts and some sound distortion, all in the name of letting the technology follow the performance.  I doubt there are any marks to be hit in a Cassavetes film.

The acting is impressive, and the technological seams are easy to overlook.  It’s just that Cassavetes is so intent on letting the scenes play out at length.  Maybe his goal is to immerse us in this intimate or claustrophobic setting, but it just takes so damn long to get to wherever he’s going.  That’s likely because he wasn’t even sure as they were filming.  The story felt organic in that way, but there were also moments that felt predetermined, even scripted which, in a Cassavetes movie, seems sinful.

Let me take a second to read Roger Ebert’s review…

…okay, so Faces is a masterclass in directing and acting as well as a subversive film, demonstrating the dark underbelly of 60s suburban life like David Lynch would later do for the pristine small town communities of 80’s America.  It is the perfect running time, and if anything, it should last longer.

Okay, I can better understand what’s so great about this film, but I maintain my minor complaints.  Rowlands is fantastic in the film, but other characters feel very over the top.  It’s hard to keep in mind the historical significance of a film, so a story as dark as this one, about unhappy people and unhappy relationships, doesn’t feel as daring as it used to.

There is something to be said for the characterizations of the likely soon-to-be-divorced married couple.  They are middle class, with the proper roles, home and ways of living.  They do what you’re supposed to do, and yet they are deeply unhappy.  As Ebert notes, these characters only consume, and we did and do live in a society of consumption.  You do everything you’re told to do, and you end up in a role where you take because your ‘taking’ is what keeps this type of society going.  On the surface everything is as it should be, but underneath, the characters souls are rotting.

It’s a story that I suppose wasn’t as common in 1968.  There were dark stories at this point and subversive films, but Faces is subversive in the sense that it takes us, the average audience member of the time, and deconstructs our lives.  I wonder how many people could watch the film and say, “that’s me” if they were willing to admit it.  I have to imagine that Cassavetes, an independent filmmaker whose movies didn’t have widespread appeal, made films aimed at younger audiences who could see this film and think of the protagonists as their parents or people they knew.  They probably pointed at the screen and said, “I don’t want to be that.”

NOTE: I just came across this from Wikipedia, “The manner in which Cassavetes employed improvisation is frequently misunderstood. With the exception of the original version of Shadows, his films were completely scripted. Confusion arises in part because Cassavetes allowed actors to bring their own interpretations of characters to their performances. Dialogue and action were scripted but delivery was not.”

So I revise what I said, and now I think this film was way overwritten, though the dialogue, if indeed presented as scripted, is fairly impressive.  It does feel very naturalistic.

Up Next: The Hateful Eight (2015), Nadja in Paris (1964), Philadelphia (1993)

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