A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

Eddie Shaw, Peter Falk, and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence
Mabel Longhetti: Gena Rowlands
Nick Longhetti: Peter Falk
Martha Mortensen: Lady Rowlands
George Mortensen: Fred Draper
Margaret Longhetti: Katherine Cassavetes
Angelo Longhetti: Matthew Labyorteaux
Tony Longhetti: Matthew Cassel
Maria Longhetti: Christina Grisanti
Garson Cross: George Dunn
Harold Jensen: Mario Gallo
Dr. Zepp: Eddie Shaw

Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Cinematography: Mitch Breit, Al Ruban
Film editing: David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear

John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence was one of the first films I reviewed during my brief career as a professional film critic. I didn't like it much, and I compared it unfavorably to another film that had recently been released, the theatrical version of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage (1973). I have changed somewhat over the years, and while I still greatly prefer the Bergman film, I have developed an appreciation for what Cassavetes was trying to do. Presenting raw, unfiltered life in a fiction film is no mean task, and it helps greatly that, in Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, Cassavetes had actors who were more than capable of giving their all to the task. The problem for me is that the film comes off as an acting showcase rather than a convincing depiction of a real situation. Cassavetes takes his players and puts them in real surroundings: a construction site, a wintry beach, a rather louche bar, and most of all a cramped house. It's somewhat like the reverse of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads": In A Woman Under the Influence the gardens are real, if rather weedy and untended, but the toads -- Mabel and Nick Longhetti and their children and in-laws and friends -- are imaginary, i.e., actors acting up a storm. The title is a little misleading, too. Mabel is not "a woman," in the sense of a stand-in for all womankind, but a specific person of peculiar habits, and she is not "under the influence" in the sense that we use it in the phrase abbreviated as DUI. Her problem is not drugs or alcohol, although she certainly gets loaded on the latter and there are hints that she has been taking pills (probably prescribed by the odious Dr. Zepp). Her problem is the influence of other people, especially her husband, who give mixed signals about how she should behave: Sometimes she's told "just be yourself," but when Mabel is most Mabel -- giddy and affectionate and generous -- she can't help crossing the invisible boundaries others set for her. And of course her husband, Nick, is as crazy as she is, except in a different way, and he has outlets -- his job and his buddies -- that allow him to blow off much of his steam. Mabel's only outlet is her children, who adore her, and that proves threatening to people like her mother-in-law (in an extraordinary performance by the director's mother, Katherine Cassavetes), who have their own fixed and unalterable ideas about child-raising. Ironically, Mabel's encouraging the kids to dance and play dress-up are much healthier than Nick's bullying them at the beach and letting them drink beer while riding in the back of a truck. I still don't think A Woman Under the Influence is a great film, as critics like Roger Ebert and Kent Jones do. I'm not sure it's even a good one. But it's an important and even fascinating one and I'll let it go at that.

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