Last week we brought you what might be Cassavettes’ masterpiece, A Woman on Under the Influence, and this weekend we give you the master’s earliest work: Shadows and Faces, two of the very first great independent American features, from 1959 and 1968, respectively.
In the nine years between these two pictures, Cassavetes labored in Hollywood, directing two movies he himself didn’t regard all that highly (Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting, the first of which was also written by Cassavetes and hurt by the unfortunate casting of Bobby Darin in the lead), and starring or supporting in a number of TV shows (Johnny Staccato among tons of others) and movies (The Killers remake, The Dirty Dozen, and, in the same year as Faces, Rosemary’s Baby.) This work, which he supposedly loathed, was both the result of disappointment (that Shadows didn’t get him the work he really wanted to do), and ambition (that at least he was able to land roles that brought him the money to finance his own work.)
The searing intensity of Cassavetes’ work deserves to be seen on the big screen. To a degree, they defy summary: Shadows is a supposedly improvised movie about interracial relationships in New York City during the height of the Beat Generation movement. (Many critics, most notably David Thomson, argue that Shadows is hardly improvised, but worked on over time, rehearsed, etc. Detractors to this point also argue that not being improvised doesn’t take anything away from it.) Faces, which propelled Cassavetes at the very least into the upper echelons of art house directors, and which landed a number of Oscar nominations, is the story of a couple whose lives begin collapsing when the husband demands a divorce.
But then, you don’t go to a Cassavetes movie to get caught up in an intricate plot, but to feel, to have your emotions wrung out like so much wet laundry, to marvel at the power of incredible performances and direction that supports the same.