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Marking Cassavetes’ birthday with a discussion on male discourse in his films

On the cusp of what would have been John Cassavetes‘ eighty-seventh birthday, it is not only possible to pause and imagine the work the man could have made throughout his sixties and seventies — think, for a moment, on Cassavetes as being alive and well, writing and directing films in a post-9/11 America — but also we can turn to his works for a lens onto a version of the world that, given the recent state of affairs on this planet, we could sorely use.

It is true that Cassavetes’ films present us with a complicated world, but it is a space in which myriad disconnections and complexities among characters lead them to not only struggle, fight, and argue but also to stop and deeply listen to each other and to themselves. Even if the characters that fill Cassavetes’ films are fraught with complications — even if they are prone to bad turns, and they frustrate each other (and themselves) as they grope for authority and control across chasms of unresolved behaviors and emotional double-backs — at the core of the characters Cassavetes constructed we also find depictions of a recurrent urge for understanding, a fumbling for compassion and empathy.

If one sets to one side, for a moment, the monumental attention that we must pay to Gena Rowlands’ career spent portraying powerful, tragic, fierce, and sometimes broken women throughout Cassavetes’ films — and any focus on Rowlands should not mistake Lelia Goldoni and other women who’ve portrayed the writer-director’s characters as being unimportant — in relation to these struggles and urges one can explore the films by giving attention to how men treat and talk to each other across the works. We can posit, in particular, as new kinds of presidents set new sorts of precedents for what men (in particular) and their friends can do — what they can say out loud without accountability — that in Cassavetes’ films he did many things but one thing he did many times throughout the twelve that he directed was to put his lens on a problematic, multivalent, and expansive male discourse. And from this we might learn a few things.

We find examples of the discourse in Husbands. The film is rich, despite its fractured and often deeply problematic bar-table and hotel-room aggressions — and often these are aggressions of men upon women, or the young upon the old, as we should note — with graveyard conversations about truth and lies, with crowded bathroom-stall fugues about the nature of mortality and the terror of aloneness, and with front-yard wind-ups on the topics of power in families and the authority we confer to our bosses and our paymasters and our spouses. All of this is absorbed and tolerated and finally erupts across the days we spend, through Cassavetes’ creation, in these men’s lives. They are, of course, men, these individuals. We cannot overlook their humanity, their empathetic cores pushing throughout the film’s imposed barriers, sharing weaknesses with one another — and sometimes with women, by film’s end — across time and two continents.

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands from the television program Johnny Staccato. Image: NBC, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We can look also to the discourse between characters in Love Streams. In an early scene at a cabaret, a man dressed as a woman asks Robert Harmon (Cassavetes) if he is gay. The exchange is at once marked by both confidence and tremulousness. The asker is steady and perhaps gentle, allowing Robert to visibly grapple with the question, his face rippling with nervous energy, with surprise, and with the shy state of his apparent and immediate unsureness of what to say. No one is angry. No lines are drawn. No one is accused of being an ‘other’.

And we see this complicated world of men communicating about what they similarly do not yet know in the ramped-up days and nights of Shadows. Tony and friends race the city’s sidewalks, crying “forward!” to each other, play-fighting, and scooping on young women in diners. But then,  momentarily surrounded by less familiar things in a museum sculpture garden, by a world of perceptions and depictions that strike some of them as, yes, too feminine or too elite (as Tom says), others among the men of Shadows resist these conclusions. We are struck when Dennis expresses his negative capabilities, shouting “I don’t know everything!” at Tom. For a moment, for the two, it is a pressing argument — the worth of looking at a modern sculpture, the value of acknowledging expressions not immediately decipherable, not intuitively recognized, and not categorizable by history and lessons handed down from the past.

Ray Carney, writing about Cassavetes’ work, ties something like that state of mind — ‘I don’t know everything’ — to larger themes, to Emersonian concepts of a fluid and volatile world in which what we think and feel is always in motion. To proclaim “I don’t know everything” is to invite disagreement but to demand recognition, to say, perhaps, along with Emerson (and Carney) that reality and knowledge are snapshots of experiences. In another vein, to say ‘I don’t know everything is to court what Ilana Simons refers to as a wiser willingness for vulnerability — a willingness that is accessed by the “high modality” of kindness, as she puts it — and it is an argument for compassion and more thoughtfulness in the midst of moments otherwise suffused with confrontation.

In a time when we could be overwhelmed by confrontations, and when we are startled perhaps by choruses claiming disenfranchisement as a right to new authority — the authority to shun, ridicule, or squash fluidity and ambiguity — we come upon a fine way to mark Cassavetes’ birthday. We can turn to his films for a difficult, empathetic and multivalent look at how we — especially we men of this world — speak to and treat each other, and it is even finer to do so when we consider our words and deeds towards women. Pick one of the films and put it on, for these are the gifts Cassavetes has given us for our times.

Featured image credit: John Cassavetes with Gena Rowlands. Jon Rubin, CC BY-2.0 via flickr.

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