Cassavetes and Rowlands and “A Woman Under the Influence”

June 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

Mabel Longhetti is crazy by the time we meet her. Her husband is off on a job, and she’s alone at home. When she later walks into a low-rent tavern by herself and flicks the back of some guy’s head as a way to introduce herself, Mabel has us uneasy.

She takes the man home — to her home — the one she shares with her husband and children. As they fumble about the next morning — a mini but expert examination of how people interact when the fake intimacy of sex has faded away — Mabel yells out the name “Nick!”, which is her husband’s name.

The man, the one-night stand, asks who Nick is, and rightly says he’s not going to play the fool in a game where she’s trying to get back at this “Nick.” Mabel pantomimes throwing a few punches at the guy.

The sequence ends when Nick and his hard-hat buddies come back to the house after doing two long shifts at a local construction site, and the one-night stand is long gone.

So begins John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” — a movie I had been wanting to see since the day I saw a clip of Gena Rowlands in the role of Mabel during the 1975 Academy Awards. Rowlands was nominated for Best Actress and Cassavetes was nominated as Best Director; neither won.

I thought of the film again after watching and being disappointed by “Revolutionary Road” — which we wrote about earlier here. I’m a huge Cassavetes/Rowlands fan, and the time seemed right to see the film. “Revolutionary Road” was lacquered and tidy, and you knew that the Cassavetes’ approach was going to be the exact opposite. So I was looking at it as a kind of corrective.

As is usually the case with Cassavetes, the movie is really a series of long set pieces. The opening scene of adultery leads to an equally long scene of the boys — which includes Peter Falk as Nick — eating a homecooked meal after a long cold night on the job. It is one of the most beautiful dinner scenes I’ve ever seen, with the banter interspersed with shots of Gena Rowlands’ unbelievably beautiful face — a face made more beautiful by her expressive eyes and mouth. But she’s heartbreaking here, because she’s trying to connect with the men in a normal way. This is something that is just beyond her reach. “What’s your name?” she keeps asking each of the men.

The scene ends when one of the men sings an aria, and Mabel hovers uncomfortably close to the man’s face. When he stops singing, Mabel asks “Who wants to dance?” Nick mutters his displeasure, until he finally explodes: “Sit your ass down!”

Not only is the dinner ruined, the illusion of any kind of domestic tranquility is shattered.

Cassavetes takes an interesting and innovative approach to what happened to this woman. As the film progresses, the persona of Nick gradually emerges. He’s a tyrant and a bully – he’s mentally and physically abusive. We never see Mabel when she’s sane, but we do get to learn what made her break.

At first — and this is probably because I’ve always like Falk as an actor — I was annoyed by this performance. I wondered why he and Cassavetes were making Nick so abrasive. Why was he shouting? But the scene when he hits Mabel comes as an absolute shock — and then I saw what was really happening. You first believe that Nick’s character is simply frustrated and reacting to his wife’s unsteady behavior, but you realize that it is Mabel who is the one doing the reacting to an unstable personality.

This is a menacing, uncomfortable movie. The scene where Nick and a co-worker take the children to the beach — on what looks like a chilly day — is truly harrowing. At one point Nick pushes his daughter down into the sand, bellowing that they were going to have fun — and you just want to shout, “Stop, stop it!” You just want to get away from this guy — and you no longer wonder why Mabel would want to get away from him, too. At another point Nick comes home to a little party Mabel is throwing for her kids and some of their friends, but the party has quickly fallen apart as Mabel acts increasingly distressed. Nick comes home, and confronts the neighbor upstairs in their bedroom. All the neighbor is trying to do is get his kids the hell out of the house, but Nick doesn’t know what is happening and his violent nature comes through again.

After Mabel is institutionalized, the film cuts away to “six months later” — which is the single nod to conventional movie storytelling that Cassavetes allows. The last third of the movie is devoted to Mabel’s homecoming. Nick botches even that – he’s invited too many people over. Almost everybody is kicked out, with only each of their parents left and a few other friends. When Mabel finally arrives she is clearly unwell.

Mabel announces that she wants even the few people reamining to leave because she wants to go to bed with Nick. Everyone, including the kids, begin to get uncomfortable all over again. As she begins to drift away once more, Nick continues to shout and implores Mabel to hold on. Cassavetes cuts to the faces of the children sitting at the table, and they looked terrorized. They all finally leave in the rain.

The movie ends quietly, on a bizarre note. Nick and Mabel simply start to get undressed, and Cassavetes uses a jaunty, bouncy kazoo over the end credits. It was the one move I didn’t get and didn’t like.

But the movie — and certainly Gena Rowlands — were flawless until that last moment. A beautiful, savage, heartbreaking film. I can’t say that I’m going to watch “A Woman Under the Influence” again, but I was glad that Cassavetes made it, and made it his way. I needed to be reminded that movies can sometimes be deeply, deeply felt works of art.


Classic Paul Mazursky

July 13, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Lars Trodson

I had always thought of Paul Mazursky as our modern day Billy Wilder. He seemed, in his prime, to careen from high comedy to serious drama, adept and sensitive at both and, on occasion, capable of the real clunker. This was just like Wilder. Today Mazursky has apparently returned to his roots, which is acting, and when I recently looked on there didn’t seem to be any directorial projects in the pipeline.

There is one movie on his resume that seems particularly due for some recognition, and that is “Tempest”, released in 1982, and which I have not seen in years, but was for some odd reason reminded of just recently. Perhaps it was because I was thinking of John Cassavetes, who stars along with Gena Rowlands, or maybe I had seen a picture of Greece, which is the setting for most of the film.

It doesn’t matter. Remembrances of movies, both those adored and those reviled, come floating back to us for unknown reasons, they are lodged somewhere within us. It could be anything from the late afternoon sunlight on the side of a building, a weed between the cracks in the sidewalk, an overheard comment in a restaurant, or the simple sound of a flag snapping in the wind, that brings images, and thoughts, and, in the end, movies back to us.

I was in the bubble of such nostalgia when I thought of “Tempest” — there is no ‘the’ in the title even though it is based on Shakespeare’s play — and it is one of those odd movies from my own past that glows like a good memory; just the thought of it, that it got made, and that it got made the way it did, makes me appreciate those small moments of cinematic magic.

It’s got the drama, the serious and the quiet and the overdone (the scene when the Cassavetes character comes home in the middle of a dinner party drunk), and the comedy, both high (Vittorio Gassman complaining about his aging body) and low (Raul Julia mistaking shaving cream for whipped cream, and the jokes of Jackie Gayle) and insightful (the father and son relationship between Cassavetes and his father, played by the great Paul Stewart, and the delicate comedy of Susan Sarandon in this film), that Masursky has been so good at. “Tempest” is also lovely and warm, and beautifully filmed (by Donald McAlpine).

I remember the film ending with a dance, and all the characters had gathered on the rocky coast of Greece, and there had been a lot of pain and misery that had originally separated these characters, and then there was magic and compassion and forgiveness that brought them all together again. The closing credit sequence, when all the actors come out and bow to the camera as they would on stage, all to Dinah Washington’s singing, is flat out gorgeous.

Please check this out if you can. It’s available on DVD from Sony Pictures.

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