The disc of Faces that you now hold is the most beautiful copy possible of a film that was meant to look lousy. Digital technology painstakingly reproduces John Cassavetes’s lighting, which allowed his actors to move about freely, and so lent his average interior the aura of a dentist’s office; preserves the integrity of his compositions, which often had a lamp or table setting deliberately stuck in the foreground to block your view of the action; registers with exquisite sensitivity each vagary of his camera as it chased after the actors and lost focus. Cassavetes worked hard for these artless effects. He spent the first six months of 1965 filming Faces, and then devoted another three years to postproduction: a monumental, though unremunerated, effort that yielded a film that has come to be recognized by many as a masterpiece, and acknowledged by all as a landmark of American independent cinema. It’s more right than wrong, then, for the visual haphazardness of Faces now to be made immutable on home video. What were once the marks left by human thrashing are now available to us, forever, as pure flashes of light bounced off a binary code.
If I celebrate the dematerialization of Faces on a disc, its implicit change in register from the flawed to the immaculate, it’s because so much has been said over the years about the film’s anti-Hollywood style—too much, perhaps. I don’t deny that Cassavetes emphasized at every turn the sort of infelicity that movie studios have routinely banished from the screen. No old-time contract director would have willingly cast as his male lead an actor with John Marley’s pockmarks. If stuck with Marley, the Hollywood man certainly would not have lit him, in close-up, to reveal every pit. If forced to even that extreme by a mad cinematographer, the studio director at least would not have shown Marley eating dinner with his mouth open and food pulp on his tongue. Cassavetes ostentatiously committed all these crimes against the Hollywood aesthetic, then compounded them tenfold by creating abnormally protracted, seemingly amorphous scenes. All that is true—but I don’t believe it’s what distinguishes Faces, let alone gives it strength.
The fact is, for as long as Hollywood has filtered out of its movies the contingent, the clumsy, the mundanely unpleasant, some filmmakers have gleefully poured back in the quotidian sludge. Think of Charlie Chaplin in his very first appearance as the Little Tramp, in the 1914 Kid Auto Races at Venice—as defining a moment as Hollywood would ever have. The picture’s entire joke lies in the breakdown of convention, as the Tramp mucks up the work of a film crew on location. Think as well of Erich von Stroheim, flaunting the most grossly naturalistic details he could devise in Blind Husbands (1919), Foolish Wives (1922), and Greed (1924); or think of the Warner Bros. pre-Code films, with their tabloid-newspaper stories, acted out by stars who were too strong-featured for MGM. The anti-Hollywood style, which boasts of being too real for the movies, has always coexisted with—and been a part of—the dream-factory system that it seeks to supplant. I think this holds true even for the late-forties studio productions that came closest to prefiguring Cassavetes’s work: the film noirs shot on location in New York City, and the movies in which Method acting had not yet calcified into a mannerism but seemed like a welcome eruption of vitality.
So if we mean to give Faces our attention today, some forty years after Cassavetes shot it, we ought to have a better reason for our enthusiasm than the break with Hollywood conventions. We’d do better to ask, Where is the thrill in this picture? What do we get from all that human thrashing?
We might begin looking for an answer in the film’s moments of unmasking: those turning points that stand out both for their sudden change in tone and for their motivation, which is notably slight or even absent. Here are the moments, in order:
1. Two old friends and business colleagues, Dickie (Marley) and Freddie (Fred Draper), pick up a prostitute named Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) and go to her house for raucous, drunken revelry. All at once, Freddie becomes jealous of Dickie. He breaks the mood, dropping his antic manner to ask Jeannie to name her price.
2. Dickie returns home to his wife, Maria (Lynn Carlin), with whom he laughs, gossips, and playfully spars, until she casually speaks of seeing something from “the woman’s point of view.” All at once, Dickie erupts in a bitter tirade that culminates in his demand for a divorce.
3. Jeannie distractedly works with a partner to entertain two johns, all the while wanting to get away from them to meet Dickie at a nightclub. Another scene of drunken revelry, broken this time when one of the johns, out of nowhere, shouts, “What the hell do we care about
4. Maria and three women friends come back to her house with Chet (Seymour Cassel), a young hustler they’ve met on a daringly out-of-character venture into the Whisky a Go Go. Midsixties youth culture bursts for the first time into the middle-aged, Sinatra-style milieu of Faces, to good effect. Everyone enjoys the drunken revelry. (What a celebratory place is Cassavetes’s America, how busy with music and jokes.) Then Chet, out of nowhere, murmurs,
“I think we’re making fools of ourselves.”
The fifth moment of unmasking, and the most extreme, happens off camera, in the aftermath of drunken revelry. We have watched Maria take Chet to bed. The next time we see these characters, Chet is panicked and Maria is limp on the floor, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
There are, of course, other times when the characters drop all pretense (which is the same, in this movie, as admitting vulnerability). Jeannie curses Dickie softly and says that he gets to her; the older of the two johns (Val Avery) takes Jeannie into her bedroom just so he can talk to her about his son; Maria’s friend Florence (Dorothy Gulliver) rhapsodizes about how these “crazy dances” make her feel young; Chet performs a little pantomime for Maria to show her the absurdity of people’s posturings, his own included. These moments are all remarkably touching, even revelatory, but I would distinguish them from the unmaskings. They arise smoothly from the flow of the scene, rather than disrupting it. They tell us something about the characters, but nothing about Cassavetes.
The unmaskings, on the other hand, strike me as implicitly personal, even autobiographical, first of all because they are so strongly reminiscent of the place where Cassavetes got his start: the acting class. There is a common improvisational game—who knows, perhaps Cassavetes himself played it—in which the students must switch to a different emotion on cue, in midscene. In Faces, Cassavetes converts this mere exercise into something deeply serious, in much the same way as a great composer turns finger exercises into études.
The unmaskings seem to me autobiographical for another reason as well. Each of them represents a withdrawal from the immediate situation—a refusal to continue with the social performance. The refusals may be loud or quiet, thoughtful or instinctive, terminal or passing in effect, but they all tear up the agreement that the characters have tacitly adopted on how to behave. Each time a character says no in this way, we might hear an echo of the no that Cassavetes himself shouted when offered a normal career.
Of course, these moments also go far beyond the personal. They remind us of what makes Faces an invaluable time capsule: not only the dated clothes, decor, and music, not only the relationship between the sexes (which seems absolutely archaic today, in a society transformed by feminism), but especially the impulse to drop out. That urge was strongly characteristic of the sixties. Is it entirely unknown today?
Faces is a movie of scenes that never end, populated by characters who feel they can’t go on. Like all great period pieces, it deserves to be preserved, in as pristine a condition as possible. Like all great movies, it resists being sealed up airtight in final form. The uncontrollable promptings that the characters feel and embody in Faces remain as alive and unruly now as when the picture was made. Enjoy the permanence of the disc. Be grateful for the mess it can’t clean up.
Stuart Klawans has been the film critic for The Nation since 1988. He is also the author of Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD release of John Cassavetes: Five Films.