Director John Cassavetes broke all the rules, inventing his own and then discarding them as he went along. He improvised and experimented with everything from the cinematography to the performances to the actual financing of the film. He even mortgaged his own home numerous times to subsidize his movies over the years and took on acting jobs purely for monetary reasons. His directorial debut Shadows (1958), with its jerky, hand-held camerawork, vivid location shooting on New York City streets and edgy subject matter involving an interracial romance, is one of the most influential films to emerge from the independent New York City cinema movement of the 1950s. Yet, it was just a warm-up for Cassavetes’s next film, Faces (1968), which was even more provocative and unconventional.
Faces not only confirmed Cassavetes’s early promise as a director but set the tone and style for the rest of his film career, one in which he relentlessly probed the often dissatisfied lives of unglamorous, middle class Americans. The film was not the average filmgoer’s idea of a good time at the movies but it earned widespread critical acclaim (and three Oscar nominations) and was an inspiration to future filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese (Who’s That Knocking at My Door? ), Henry Jaglom (A Safe Place ) and Sean Penn (The Indian Runner ).
Dispensing with a conventional plot structure, Faces is a cinema verite-like portrait of a marriage in turmoil, rendered in chunks of real time. The film begins at the point where Richard Forst (John Marley) and his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) are already frustrated and resentful toward each other. Their constant quarreling and angry silences finally lead Richard to ask for a divorce. Then, in the presence of his wife, he calls Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), a prostitute he met recently, and makes a date. He walks out, leaving Maria in shock, but soon her female friends rally to her support and take her out for a night on the town.
At a dance club on the Hollywood strip, she meets Chet (Seymour Cassel), a fun-loving, free spirit who ends up spending the night with her. The two different storylines – Richard and Jeannie’s tentative romance and Maria and Chet’s one-night affair – play out in equally unresolved circumstances but that’s less important than Richard and Maria’s emotional rollercoaster ride to the film’s bleak conclusion.
Faces initially began as ten pages of dialogue Cassavetes had written as a two character sketch about two friends recalling happier times in their lives. Shadows producer Mo McEndree suggested that Cassavetes expand it so he produced a 175 page script that seemed ideal for a stage play. John Marley, who had appeared in Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting (1963), and Val Avery (who had co-starred with John on the Johnny Staccato TV series) both read it and wanted to appear in it. The play quickly evolved into a film project with Cassavetes juggling finances behind the scenes. Cassavetes recalled in Marshall Fine’s biography, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film: “…I went over to Universal [Studios] – my bank – and acted in two lousy TV pilots, which bought me a movie camera and film. I then had enough to start the picture and we shot for six and a half months. We wound up with an awful lot of footage.”
For the film, Cassavetes recruited his wife, Gena Rowlands, Hollywood friends and associates from his NYC days to fill the cast and crew positions and used his own home and his mother-in-law’s house as the main sets. With various working titles of “The Dynosaurs,” “One Fa and Eight Las,” and “The Marriage,” Cassavetes’s screenplay evolved from its simple beginnings to a more focused concept with John Marley in the central role of Richard Forst. Seymour Cassel, who had followed Cassavetes to Hollywood from New York along with McEndree and associate producer Al Ruban, had a minor part in his friend’s previous film, Too Late Blues (1961), but played a much more prominent role this time. In fact, Cassavetes created the part of Chet specifically for Cassel, incorporating aspects of the actor’s own personality – his carefree nature, penchant for practical jokes, and habitual womanizing.
Cassavetes also liked the effect he got when he mixed professional actors with non-actors and several minor roles were cast with family members, relatives, and acquaintances. More importantly, the central role of Maria was played by newcomer Lynn Carlin, who had previously been Robert Altman’s secretary at Screen Gems. Cassavetes had an office down the hall and had Carlin fill in for an actor during a rehearsal one day; it led to a new career path for Carlin.
The actual filming of Faces was a chaotic affair in the beginning. “John was letting everybody shoot,” Ruban recalled in Fine’s biography. “I would shoot the first shot and then John would say, ‘Ok, George [Sims], you shoot the next one, and Seymour, do you want to shoot the next one?’ he was giving everyone in the crew a chance to use the camera. John’s thought was that everyone should be involved and share the experience. What was happening at that moment was what was important. He gave no thought to the finished product…”
Occasionally Haskell Wexler, who was already a renowned industry cinematographer, would occasionally drop by the shoot and even film a few scenes. “It was like working on a film with a living sketch pad,” Wexler said, “when the artist has a sense of what the film should be, but he doesn’t know whether to use a pen or make this part longer.” This communal approach to filmmaking, however, varied wildly in quality and after a month of shooting, most of the footage was unusable, convincing Cassavetes to become more autocratic in his creative process.
Still, Faces was completely unlike any Hollywood film production and was an ongoing learning process for everyone, particularly Gena Rowlands, who at first had terrible arguments with her husband on the film. “My mistake was in thinking that since the director was also my lover, he would think everything I did was perfect. Once I began to regard John as a director, the problems straightened out quickly.”
Cassavetes’s love for the filmmaking process became an obsession. “Faces became more than a film,” he said. “It became a way of life, a film against the authorities and the powers that prevent people from expressing themselves the way they want to, something that can’t be done in America, that can’t be done without money.” Eventually, in between other jobs and working off and on during a four year period, reshooting some scenes to his satisfaction, Cassavetes ended up with approximately 250,000 feet of film – a massive amount totaling almost 115 hours.
The most difficult part was editing it down into a final version. The first rough cut ran six hours, the second pass was four hours and a version prepared for preview audiences in Canada clocked in at three hours and forty minutes. After numerous test engagements in Los Angeles, Cassavetes was finally satisfied with his 130-minute cut even though the film wasn’t well received by preview audiences in Hollywood. Undeterred, Cassavetes took Faces to the Venice Film Festival where it was nominated for the Golden Lion – the equivalent of a Best Picture Oscar – and John Marley won the best actor award.
The event that really made the difference for Cassavetes’s labor of love, however, was the New York Film Festival, whose importance at the time was crucial for the success of a film as difficult to market and distribute as Faces. It was rejected at first by the festival judges but critic Andrew Sarris, who was on the selection committee, met with the festival founder (Amos Vogel) and programmer (Richard Roud) and stated his case in no uncertain terms: “I feel very strongly about this,” he told them. “I’m not a fan of Cassavetes. I don’t believe in improvisation and I’m certainly not into naturalism. But if we don’t put this film in, I don’t see a point in continuing on the committee. There wouldn’t be hard feelings but that’s how I feel.” Faces was voted back into the festival and created a sensation at the festival premiere.
The film went on to garner Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin and a Best Screenplay nomination for Cassavetes. In addition, the Writers Guild of America nominated Faces as the Best Written American original Screenplay and the National Society of Film Critics awarded the film two honors – Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Cassel). Despite the accolades, not everyone liked the film and some critics absolutely hated it. Among them was Pauline Kael who wrote “There are scenes in Faces so dumb, so crudely conceived and so badly performed that the audience practically burns incense…I think embarrassment is not a quality of art but our reaction to failed art.”
Even today when Cassavetes’s work is more revered than during his own lifetime, the debate continues. David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, offered that, “The Cassavetes films are far more thoroughly written than was once believed; and they are badly written…as a director, he [Cassavetes] is like a guy who begs us to hang around because these people are fascinating – and not just drunks. What may be most interesting in his work is the sociology of his middle America. He chooses basic, unenlightened, and unhappily successful people. They are a rarity in American film, rigorously shunned by most directors: they are bores.”
Regardless of Faces‘s imperfections as a film or whether one loves it or hates it, its place as a pivotal moment in the American cinema is uncontested. For underneath the film’s messy and sometimes meandering turn of events is an undeniable sense of truth, a mirror is held up and the masks are removed. This was clearly the intention of Cassavetes who wrote the following in his introduction to the published screenplay of Faces: “Playboy magazine, tit films, and cocktail party diatribes have not only affected our society, but have shaped it with such discontent regarding men and women that sex is no longer in itself sufficient without violence, death, or neurosis as stimulants. The idea of love as a mysterious, undiscovered world has come to have no place in our innermost imagination. It is this confusing dilemma in which men find themselves trying to relate to a difficult life and their responsibilities in it that Faces attempts to explore.”
The Criterion Collection released a special edition of Faces on DVD in February 2009 accompanied by a host of insightful extra features such as a documentary on the making of the movie. If you’re a true Cassavetes fan, however, you should opt instead for the Blu-Ray collection: John Cassavetes: Five Films, which Criterion released in October 2013. The box set includes Faces plus Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night and A Constant Forge, a documentary on John Cassavetes.
*This is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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