This week you attended an event hosted by Transmission Gallery, London. The curator and director there, Cathy Lomax and Alex Michon, are also responsible for publishing a journal called ‘Garageland‘. The new edition, which they were launching, is edited on the theme of ‘Self’ and you wrote an article for it discussing why you use ‘you’ (rather than ‘I’ etc.) when you write this weekly Blog. So if you are a fan of this Blog, or someone who finds that use of ‘you’ confusing here, it might be worth obtaining a copy of the Garageland ‘Self’ issue and taking a look. (it’s available here).
Aside from discussing the contents of the journal the event involved a screening of John Cassavetes’ 1977 movie ‘Opening Night‘. Now, when you heard this movie would be a feature of the event your heart raced a little faster and you knew that you would definitely be attending. You are not really a film buff or a Caasavetes expert either but a few years ago you did go around saying that you thought that Cassavetes’ ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie‘ might be the best film ever made. You’d seen ‘Opening Night‘ too and had been similarly impressed.
‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie‘
So what is or was it about this director and these films that so elevated them in your eyes? Well, some films can impress you with their spectacular surface or their meticulously woven plot, actors likewise can stir you up with the way they master a part, but none of these values seem appropriate to evaluating the Cassavetes’ films referred to here. Instead he seems to have pioneered or progressed a certain American avant-garde, vaguely Brechtian way of breaking down the so -called ‘fourth wall’ (between stage/screen and audience).
The results immerse us all the more intimately within the brittle, broken, existential crises of his characters as we follow their clumsy, all-too-human narratives without any sense of being manipulated by an artful auteur (even if ultimately this proves to have been the case.) Most of all these films feel strangely ramshackle, as if they are as undirected as they are directed, and thus they are more synonymous with life, or at least late 20th century American lives.
In the closing seconds of ‘Opening Night‘ one of the central characters (played by the magnetic Ben Gazzara) quietly introduces the heroine of the film (represented unforgettably by Gena Rowlands) to the real Peter Bogdanovich, another justly celebrated director and Cassavetes’ colleague and rival for the crown of the short-lived American avant garde. As a teenager who felt socio-economically trapped for such a long part of your early life you feel you owe a debt to Peter Bogdanovich.
‘The Last Picture Show‘
In one of the many epiphany-strewn narratives of your development you give great importance to discovering his 1971 film ‘The Last Picture Show‘ late at night, staying up alone, watching BBC2. Something pierced and inspired you there and continues to guide your life and career. The self-reflexive references to cinema; the destitution of the dying town that echoed in some way how you felt about your own surroundings; the existential poverty, alienation and disappointment of characters young and old; all framed and incarcerated within barren scenes and quiet shots, occasionally augmented by country and western music. All of this strangely gave you some hope, some guiding light, some sense that there was indeed and in fact some way of sharing your own thoughts and emotions. Perhaps you too could make pictures, coupled to words, motion, emotion, and music? Your first plans to leave home and pursue the career that you are still pursuing may well have begun on that night.
But to return to Cassavetes and ‘Opening Night‘ (which, 40 years after it was made, still shares with The Last Picture Show’ and ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ in perpetuating that particular, critical, realist understanding of humanity), on second viewing it only seems far better, far more of a ‘masterpiece’ than you had previously thought. Here, the self-reflexivity seems to suggest that we are not just watching the breakdown of an actress but simultaneously the breakdown and breakthrough of a certain way of making art.
Just as Gena Rowlands’ character seems to ‘mess up’ for everyone else involved the play in which she is starring, ultimately her unprofessional shenanigans, alcoholism and hallucinations feel their way, clumsily, destructively (we might say ‘deconstructively’) to transcending the egos and abilities of all the creatives involved. And this, surely, is what Cassavetes’ directing is and was always itself aiming to do. You see similar radical techniques erupting in Martin Scorcese’s magnificent ‘Mean Streets (1973) but in Cassavetes you feel you are witnessing the beta version, the ‘sand box’ in which new possibilities of writing, acting and directing for cinema work themselves out, in close connection (and nowhere closer than in ‘Opening Night‘) with theatre.
Cassavetes shows us how time offstage, in the wings, at the stage door and behind the scenes is another time altogether to the time of the stage and its contrived narrative, but also other entirely to the time of the expectant audience -who also play their own important part in this movie. As both scripted and professional personae break apart before our eyes we, the meta-audience of this play’s difficult birth, seem to be invited deep within an intimate family to share and experience what Charles Baudelaire once described as “new emotions”.
Aristotle championed art as serving a necessary cathartic function in society. If so, as society changes, art must change with it, if only to reflect and echo and stimulate emotions appropriate to our times and our society. We seem to see and feel this happening before our eyes while watching ‘Opening Night‘. Elsewhere, Hollywood responded more crudely. The history of cinema’s mythology claims that ‘Star Wars‘ and other blockbuster type movies wiped out the American avant garde (the ‘… Last Picture Show‘ indeed!) or forced some of its protagonists to swerve a little closer to the mainstream (as perhaps did Scorcese). If so, we might argue that, rather than satisfying our new cathartic needs (as Cassavetes’, Bogdanovich and co. were very successfully doing), mainstream American cinema (avidly exported and emulated worldwide) only gave us more thrills, effects and violence as the crudest and most reductive means by which to assuage the emotional responses we have to: globalisation, neo-Liberal capitalism, climate change, terrorism, cancer, dementia, hot desks, new technologies and zero-hours contracts. Sadly, or rather ‘tragically’, America may have lost its mirror, its way, its heart and its soul just at this point, in the mid-70s, prior to what we might think of as the magnificent and spectacular denial of this fact that consequently set in.
Nevertheless, repeatedly in ‘Opening Night‘ the intentionally ‘serious’ and self-consciously ‘profound’ play dissipates into laughter and smiles as the actors break out of their roles and engage eyes and minds directly with the audience. No longer do they strut the stage in quasi-Egyptian profile telling a 2-dimensional tale to each other but surrender themselves wholeheartedly to the moment, to the audience, and thus to life in the world. But it is important that comedy is the cause, the connection, the key. Just as we all know in our own lives that a sense of humour can be the greatest of all redemptive tools and even a life-saver. In one of the most memorable lines in the play Gina Rowlands says to Ben Gazzara “ I’m not funny because I can’t take myself seriously any more“, and though this is a convoluted joke in itself, it seems to have the whole movie’s project caught up in its twists and folds.
In ‘Opening Night‘ ambitious and aspiring creative professionals are literally ‘propped’ up by costumes, colleagues, stage-hands, the audience, alchohol, cigarettes, hotel rooms, telephones, cars, sunglasses, lipstick, hats and hairdos, all of which seem to allude to America itself as a great ‘stage’ or mise-en-scene on which the ‘New World’ played itself out as the image that had been so long imagined by all those settlers who had the courage, the will and the gall to claim, to colonise and to compete so thoroughly to exploit it. Cassavetes – along with some of his peers in the short-lived 70s American avant-garde– captured and retained for us a crucial moment of rupture, when America briefly found the heart of its very own art form, only to immediately lose it again. Thus, watching ‘Opening Night’ is like watching a jewel rolling towards, and then into, a drain, then wailing, groaning and bemoaning the fact of its loss, but then realising that it is this narrative, this experience, this tragi-comic, wholly unplanned and unexpected image – as revealed only in and by the loss of any expected or presumed image – that actually tells you who and where and when you really are.