Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001)

Ray Carney

What’s my take on Cassavetes?

Well I first heard properly of the man not as director or from realising who he was in Dirty Dozen or Rosemary’s Baby but from the Le Tigre song (lyrics below).

I picked up this book almost as a joke. 500 densely packed pages would surely help inform me properly as to what my take on Cassavetes would, could or should be. This was around the same time I started my ill-fated non-fiction, guilty-pleasure and punishing literature simultaneous reading plan. The basic idea of this plan was that I would read 10 pages of each book each night and so slowly work through varied readings. It was a fine enough plan that was perhaps the only reason I was able to finish Infinite Jest. Cassavetes on Cassavetes was the non-fiction, James Joyce’s Ulysses the punishing literature and Phil Klay’s Redeployment the guilty pleasure. But there’s nothing guilty about redeployment. It’s brilliant! And made me want to read more contemporary brilliance which I did in reading Holly Child’s No Limits before I was snowed under by work and school. In the meantime, Ulysses languished (it still does) under a pile of comics and Cassavetes on Cassavetes was picked up and read reluctantly over the course of eight months of being both busy and quiet but also joyful and bored in the reading.

This is a textbook rather than a biography and as such all credit should go to Ray Carney for the sheer depth of research. Carney is a fan which, like in the Updike, acts as a double-edged blade. He revels in every detail of Cassavetes’ life but sometimes this goes too deep and for too long, though, again, this is a textbook.

The simultaneous strength and weakness of the book is the choice Carney has made in its construction. Rather than a straight biography with quotations Carney has stitched together what feels like (and could be) every interview Cassavetes ever gave. His own input is used more to provide a chronological and subjective flow to these excerpts of interview. As such, and as the title implies, this is a book which details the life and work of Cassavetes in his own words. From a scholarly perspective, it is very effective. Cassavetes was very articulate and philosophical in his interviews. His voice is clear and consistent throughout. The problem is that Carney is often repeating or pre-empting what Cassavetes says and so at times the text feels repetitive.

Carney’s other choice in construction was to divide the book into sections based around each of Cassavetes’ directorial features. There is a section for his early life at the start and his later life at the end. In between each chapter doesn’t so much cover his life as the film or films he was working on. This is an effective move considering the book is a textbook designed for arts students. It would be valuable to study the intricacies of a film in a sectionalised manner like this. In terms of reading the book as biography it isn’t too bad as so much of Cassavetes’ time, energy and passion was poured into each film and often, always, also included much of his friendship group and family.

I would love to have read a more conventional biography of the life of Cassavetes but having now read Carney’s book I can’t imagine what any other author could possibly hope to contribute that I haven’t already learnt. The duel voices of Carney and Cassavetes himself effectively portray the passion and belief Cassavetes had in his art. There are the stories of self-sabotage, sabotage and extreme manipulation. Carney avoids, in part, too deeply examining the ramifications of Cassavetes characteristic anger and passion early in the book even as the actor and budding director buts heads with studio heads as a director and, as an actor, various directors, including Polanski on Rosemary’s Baby. By the end of the book much of this passion and anger has worked hand in hand with lifelong alcoholism and a perhaps unhealthy compulsion to his art.

There is too a marked lack of perspective from Cassavetes wife Gena Rowland or his family. In this way, Carney almost seems to be enabling Cassavetes and his acolytes into still placing his art above all else in his life even when it is to his, or this books, detriment. But, like Carney’s other choice, maybe this is the most accurate representation of the man.

Truth be told I’m no more sure of what Cassavetes was now than I was before reading this. Confusing, interesting, self-destructive, inherently creative and artistic, joyous, spiteful generous and yet also mean, counter-productive and almost oddly possessive of his various creations.

What’s my take? Messiah? Yes, apparently for a lot of people. Misogynist? Maybe, maybe not. Genius, yup. Alcoholic, definitely.

 

 

Le Tigre – What’s Yr. Take on Cassavetes

 

We talked about it… in letters. And we talked about it on the phone

But how you really… feel… about it… I don’t really know

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Genius, misogynist, alcoholic – Hey, where’s Gena?

Genius!

Misogynist!

Messiah!

Alcoholic!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on…

CASSAVETES?!?

 

[Dogs barking]

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