18 December 2008

'HUSBANDS' (Dir. John Cassavetes, 1970, US) - Improvisation in Independent American Cinema

Out of all the American independent film makers, Cassavetes is one of the most celebrated, acting as an inspiration for a generation of directors and helping to popularise techniques like improvisation for independent American cinema. Yet watching a Cassavetes is not as straight forward as has been suggested by critics especially when you consider how most of his oeuvre consists of films that are characterised by a series of unpredictable, episodic and schizophrenic narratives. 'Husbands' is one of the most demented films I have come across. When I say demented, I am referring to the openly random way that Cassavetes chooses to use narrative, opting to focus on the lives of three husbands played by Ben Gazzara, Cassavetes and Peter Falk. This is a film that celebrates performance and character over all other cinematic elements. Most of the film relies on daring improvisation generated between the three leads which at times makes what is happening on screen feel as though we are in fact watching the process of performance being enacted for us. Cassavetes wants us to see both the illusion of acting and the authenticity that can be achieved when actors are prepared to push the idea of improvisation to its very limits as illustrated in the self deprecating bar room sequence in which Gazzara, Cassavetes and Falk take it in turns to humiliate one another before a group of strangers. What prevents 'Husbands' from turning into a failed experiment is Cassavetes understated handling of the closing moments of the film. Upon returning to the relative banality of their suburban lifestyles, both Cassavetes and Falk are positioned as men who are 'trapped' and the only escape they have is each other, but even that is momentary and largely unsatisfactory. Ultimately, Cassavetes produces a devastating neo realist critique of middle class America and does so on his own uniquely uncompromising terms.


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