I wish I could see the qualities in John Cassavetes’ work that are so obvious to his admirers, but having watched most of the major pictures in the writer-director’s revered canon, I’m hung up on a few things. First, why are the movies so self-indulgently long and repetitive? I get the idea of trying to capture reality in all of its messy rhythms, but since Cassavetes edited his raw footage, why didn’t he keep editing until scenes become concise? Did he really believe everything his actors did was interesting? Furthermore, isn’t there something inherently precious about the whole concept of “capturing reality” anyway, seeing as how Cassavetes’ movies feature actors? How true can pretending be? Finally, why are so many of Cassavetes’ pictures filled with wall-to-wall ugliness? The implication seems to be that the only genuine characters are those who are perpetually at each other’s throats for craven reasons.
Anyway, I gave up trying to enjoy Cassavetes’ movies a while ago, even though I admire his integrity; there’s no question he showed nerve by shunning nearly everything one associates with Hollywood filmmaking, from brisk pacing to smooth camerawork to tidy resolutions. Consider: Around the time A Woman Under the Influence was made, actresses including Ellen Burstyn and Joanne Woodward were using their influence to make Hollywood movies featuring themes similar to those found in A Woman Under the Influence. Yet while the Hollywood productions starring Burstyn and Woodward offered crisp explanations for why certain women behave erratically, Cassavetes simply depicted a woman succumbing to unnamed mental difficulties, leaving the viewer as bewildered as the afflicted woman’s loved ones.
Is one approach better than the other? Who’s to say?
Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, plays Mabel, a Los Angeles housewife and the mother of three young children. Her husband, Nick (Peter Falk), supervises a municipal road crew, so he’s often called away unexpectedly. When the story begins, one of Nick’s sudden absences knocks Mabel out of balance, so she cycles through several types of odd behavior. She forgets facts she should know well, like the names of Nick’s co-workers; she flirts recklessly and even brings a stranger home one night; she explodes into screaming rages; and she humiliates Nick by creating scenes in front of his family and friends. As in most of Cassavetes’ movies, these events are shown in long, shapeless scenes filled with seemingly improvised discursions the camera captures with blurry, documentary-style fluidity.
Rowlands gives a committed performance, but whether her acting choices feel authentic or forced is open to debate. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences praised her work with an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.) For me, however, Falk’s characterization is a greater stumbling block than Rowlands’. Watching him berate and lie to his wife, hearing him threaten to kill his own children and those of his neighbor, and seeing him slap Rowlands to the ground on two occasions, I kept wondering why everyone in the movie regarded Rowlands’ character as a lunatic. But then again, maybe that’s why I can’t find a place for myself in Cassavetes’ cinematic world. Between the rampant misogyny and the tiresome preoccupation with unmotivated anger, the director’s vision seems to be focused myopically on the worst parts of the human experience.
A Woman Under the Influence: FUNKY