One Scene

John Cassavetes, Underrated Surrealist

John Cassavetes, Underrated Surrealist

I was twenty when I ingested most of Cassavetes’s work. (It was a real heavy trip.) Like many young men first encountering his films, I felt like I was being exposed to the raw truth. There was no evidence of staging or phoniness, ingredients that until then I had assumed were necessary to narrative. It seemed that the camera lens had been caked with bullshit all along, and Cassavetes was the only filmmaker capable of scraping it clean. Maybe so. But his truth is no vérité. It’s taken me until middle age (wherein most of his films take place) to appreciate that he was, among other things, a top-notch surrealist. I don’t doubt that every artistic decision he made was deeply felt in his gut, but that gut frequently led him to dissociative fugues and dream logic that could make David Lynch blush. The weirdness is omnipresent but doesn’t necessarily register as such because there are no signposts, and there’s no time wasted acknowledging a “normal” world from which we’ve deviated.

Alone among his films, Opening Night is built on a premise that would seem to beg for a “conventional” postmodern treatment (whatever that is). An intensely acted drama about an intensely acted drama: how blatantly meta! Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) is a star actor apparently suffering a breakdown during the rehearsals of The Second Woman, a play that requires her to face her own aging. Her erratic behavior agitates and frightens the director, the writer, and her costar Maurice (Cassavetes himself) as they struggle to hold the production together.

Now, at the very least, from Hamlet onward, plays-within-plays have provided a vehicle for some useful contrast to and commentary upon the overarching story, but Cassavetes takes none of the bait that any other writer would find irresistible. Indeed, the most extraordinary thing about The Second Woman is that it seems so wildly, unabashedly . . . Cassavetean. It may or may not be any “good”—we experience it only as fractured sketches, bits, and pieces that we can’t even trust are being played faithfully—but its rhythms are unmistakably that of our filmmaker. (And surely not because he, in reality an extremely experienced working actor, lacked knowledge of the fact that most people’s work doesn’t feel like his. I’m certain he had a long list of writers and directors he might have parodied or taken potshots at had he been inclined merely to tell a tale of showbiz.) The Second Woman and Opening Night are all part of the same dream for us.

The final eleven-minute theatrical performance of Myrtle and Maurice as “Virginia” and “Marty”—or is it indeed just Gena and John?—is, for me, one of the great wonderments of cinema. A drunken and deranged Myrtle takes the stage with Maurice for the show’s closing scene, having been hilariously praised moments earlier by a stagehand for being able to walk while so wasted (perhaps the sole laugh-out-loud zinger in the Cassavetes oeuvre). We are acutely aware that, either by self-destructive design or just physical collapse, she is likely to drive the scene off the rails. But it soon dawns on us, watching from beyond the proscenium, that we have no clue what on-the-rails would look like anyhow.

Initially it seems that Myrtle could be following the script. The scene is certainly peculiar (and Maurice’s “I am Superman!” shenanigans perhaps oddly reminiscent of Minnie and Moskowitz), but the actors give no indication that they’re in trouble . . . until Maurice repeats a line, suggesting that Myrtle has missed—or willfully ignored—a cue. “It’s hard to cover it up . . . It’s hard to cover it up . . . It is very hard to cover it up!” Soon he is clutching his chest, laughing, smiling, mugging to the audience, and apparently inviting them to laugh along with him at this calamity. And they do! Whether or not they understand it’s a meltdown, something electric is happening up there. And Myrtle, in the eye of her own storm, is stunningly unfazed, as calm as we’ve seen her in the entire film. She forges ahead with her improvisations, entirely committed—more than anything, paradoxically professional. We’re experiencing the kind of suspense that improv performers thrive upon, but with none of improv’s natural goals—punch lines, payoffs, callbacks, the pleasing guarantee of rules beneath the chaos.

After several minutes, Cassavetes finally cuts away from Myrtle and Maurice to reaction shots in the theater seats. It’s simultaneously a relief and a disappointment. Then he cuts out of the building entirely. When we return we have no idea how much of the scene we might have missed, almost as if Cassavetes fears we are in danger of latching onto plot progression and he has to reach beyond the stage, into his cinema-language toolbox, to reset our ignorance before he one-ups himself with an even more gonzo duet between his actors. Where can this possibly be going? At last, Maurice manages to improvise an exhilarating non sequitur of an ending, creating just enough opportunity for some clever stagehand to lower the curtain and bring about—of all things—delighted applause. It hasn’t been particularly elegant—at times their performances have seemed halfway to vaudeville—but Myrtle and Maurice have successfully negotiated their survival with the audience.

Why has it seemed so surprising, and thrilling, to see Cassavetes celebrating actorly behavior? Himself, his wife, his best friends: of course actors were his people. Yet his life’s work seemed to have been to wrestle with the contradictions of the job. The most naked and direct of creative artists, with only their selves as instruments, actors are also the most duty bound, always indentured to the director, the script, the show. Cassavetes worked hard to remove the crutches and excuses born of their servitude, even as he knew the freedom he offered might wound them (compare Peter Falk’s adorable Columbo to his work in Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence). Certainly no one thinks of his films as entertainment, yet in this scene, driven by desperation, entertainment becomes briefly heroic. I’ve never seen anything else like it: a tightrope act without a net, but also without the rope, or the laws of gravity—only the spirits of the performers precariously balancing upon each other.

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