Cassavetes on Cassavetes

Cassavetes on Cassavetes

Cassavetes on Cassavetes

By Ray Carney

Faber and Faber, 526 pp., $25

When John Cassavetes died in 1989, it was the end of an era. That phrase has been beaten to death again and again, with a very blunt truncheon, but in this case it's true. Without Cassavetes' influence on American film -- and film in general, let's not sell the man short here -- during the Fifties and Sixties, chances are most of the current crop of "indie" filmmakers that we hold so dear wouldn't be around, or at the very least, likely wouldn't have churned out much of the independent cinematic revolution of the past 15 or more years. No Tom DiCillo, no Coen Brothers, certainly no John Turturro (an actor who seems to have not only internalized Cassavetes' dictum to just "be," but also to have refashioned and restylized the whole of the actor/director's philosophy into something new and fresh and weird). Cassavetes died before he was able to write his autobiography, a task he continually put off but never seemed to stop talking about. What he did leave, and what Ray Carney has compiled, are voluminous notes, written throughout his life -- from his early years as a struggling actor in New York City, where he founded the Variety Arts actors workshop with wife Gena Rowlands, to his frustration with the idea of selling out by inadvertently scoring some fly-by-night television gigs, to directing his breakthrough film, Shadows, in 1957. Cassavetes was a manic whirlwind, pushing, prodding, and often beating (emotionally and otherwise) his friends-cum-players into submission, and therefore, in his eyes, into truth. That he had time to raise a kid (son Nick, now a filmmaker) and to forge a lasting love with Rowlands, not to mention a repertory company that to this day stands unequaled, is just flat-out miraculous. As the compiler of Cassavetes' odd-job notes and scribblings, Carney does an amazing job as well; he knows when to stick his nose in and clarify, or correct, his subject's often meandering tone. (Cassavetes was an inveterate leg-puller, too, never averse to hyperbole and garnishing the truth when he felt it was necessary.) Carney, the dust jacket notes, spent a decade pulling together the various sources that eventually made up this book. Both Cassavetes and Carney are obsessive-compulsives in their own, unique way: twin maniacs seeking that same old elusive truth-thing.

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