My relationship to the films of John Cassavetes has always been a difficult one. His attention to the overarching emotion of things and his unreasonable characters have, more often than not, driven me up the wall. I was stymied by Cassavetes’ loose use of narrative, and the way his camera would flow through the action like an observant child handing out poorly mixed cocktails to grown-ups. All the stylistic touches that made Cassavetes a giant in the American independent cinema, just made me crazy.
Shadows was my first Cassavetes and, in retrospect, perhaps the easiest of his films to digest. Even so I found myself experiencing fremdschämen at the overacting and the apparent inattentiveness to the reality of how people really sound and act in life. Even so, it was the quintessential Cassavetes film, A Woman Under the Influence that pissed me off beyond reason.
I first saw A Woman Under the Influence when I was quite young – maybe 16 or 17 and I hated it. Nothing any of these people did made any sense to me. I simply could not take on this film at an interpersonal level. Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and her husband, Nick (Peter Falk) looked like complete idiots to me. I thought they made their lives miserable on purpose, were purposefully denying reality, and were experiencing such a profound failure to communicate that I found them, well, stupid. By the end of its 2 hour + run time I had failed to see the point of the film. Nothing was accomplished, and nothing had changed for the Longhetti family. I carried the memory of A Woman Under the Influence as an inessential film, for me.
10 year later I sought out A Woman Under the Influence again. My initial reaction, all those years ago, was both wrong and exactly the point: the film is annoying, embarrassing and ridiculous, but it is also a masterpiece. What is more frustrating, over-the-top, and absurd than real life? My experience of fremdschämen came from seeing the truth, not the facsimile. Cassavetes once said “My films are the truth” which is both arrogant and, well, true. To put this in perspective: the truth of this film doesn’t exist in Cassavetes’ individual portrayal of certain characters or situations – the truth is that human beings are ridiculous and engage in actions that make no sense.
A Woman Under the Influence details the domestic struggles between Mabel (Gena Rowlands) Nick (Peter Falk), and their children in a blue collar, Middle American world. It is not a world that accepts strange behavior, or anything other than the status quo. It is a world where people hide their true selves in the name of what is expected of them. The flip side is that these characters sometimes think they’re doing the thing that’s expected of them when, really that thing doesn’t exist and they look insane for trying to uphold it. Nick is a perfect example of that. Mabel is a little odd but I’m not interested in calling her crazy because I don’t think she is. Nick’s consistent inability to take his wife at face value and to evaluate situations properly makes Mabel look stranger than she is. Mabel is certainly prone to bizarre behavior, but at what point does she do any real harm? Nick’s difficulty in dealing with Mabel turns her into the harmful presence he thinks she is by refusing to allow her agency. Nick takes away her power as an individual by labeling her behavior and, ultimately, creates a wayward child. It is not that Mabel did not have that in her already, but Nick encourages it. At no point does he believe his wife to a separate person with feelings, and power of her own.
Nick’s inability to recognize Mabel is made apparent in the attention to the invasion of personal space this film revels in. It comes into play immediately. Mabel sleeps on a pullout couch in the dining room. A dining room is not meant to be a personal space in any sense – it is in fact the sort of space where a family would first entertain guests they are not emotionally connected with. By having the dining room as her personal space, Mabel is inadvertently inviting people into her psyche. Suddenly, she is on display. When Nick can’t make it home one evening for their planned date night, he promises Mabel he will take the day off and they will spend the day together. Instead he brings home all of his co-workers for a meal and freaks out when Mabel playfully pressures one of the guests to dance with her. Nick has not only invited strangers into Mabel’s space, but he has also turned a silly situation into something that makes everyone uncomfortable. Mabel is not the instigator; she’s just having fun in her own way. It happens in scene after scene – when other people enter Mabel’s space, the situation takes a turn.
Nick eventually has Mabel committed and uses the system to deprive her of all the things she needs. The frustration, for me, arises because; even after all the problems and heartache Nick is still completely unable to gain perspective of any kind. On Mabel’s return home he invites 60 people over to their house to greet her! It is pointed out that he has made an error in judgment but, even then he can’t accept it. Instead he screams at his mother to kick everyone out because he’s too embarrassed to take responsibility. Nick’s inability to learn or look into the lives of others gives me pause. Which one of us has not found ourselves frustrated by a person like that? Asking, why why why! Why can’t they see the world as it is, and not how they would like it to be? We are all guilty of being Nick, as much as we are capable of seeing that behavior in others. At its conclusion, we know that little has been gained for these characters and that’s okay.
Is this film a tragedy, or a snapshot? In the cinema of John Cassavetes it is both. 10 years ago A Woman Under the Influence created a strong, negative, emotional reaction in me. My mistake was that I did not understand that a strong emotional reaction to art, often means the art is doing something extraordinary. Cassavetes’ films will never be easy to watch or create anything other than conflict within me. Now I realize that that is their strength. A Woman Under the Influence is visceral, jagged, and deeply affecting. If I look closely at myself when I’m feeling emotional, am I not acting ridiculous? I think back to arguments I’ve had with my partner, with my mother, or with anyone close to me and, I realize: if I staged them, they would give me fremdschämen. To love Cassavetes is to understand that life is stupid, absurd, and that we are all bad actors in a poorly written comedy.