I've struggled to write this post for a long time now, because while I love the work of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, I've found it difficult to get across why I find it so affecting. On the surface level, it's easy to describe a John Cassavetes film. He was one of the most influential independent American filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, shooting his films cinema verite style, with an emphasis on unpolished performances and bare aesthetics. Most of his films were self-financed, funded by his acting career, and his major collaborators were a small circle of friends and relatives. My favorite of his films, "A Woman Under the Influence," used a crew of mostly students, and was self-distributed. This allowed Cassavetes total creative freedom, and the ability to tinker with his films in ways that few others could. Many of his pictures have multiple versions and cuts.
The result is a rawness and intensity to Cassavetes' work that was unlike what anyone else was making at the time. Many assumed his films were improvisational, but they were almost always fully scripted, presenting a startlingly candid look at intimate relationships and situations. "A Woman Under the Influence" is about Mabel, a housewife and mother of three, who suffers a mental breakdown and navigates a difficult recovery. She's played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' wife and most frequent collaborator. Like most Cassavetes protagonists, Mabel is desperate and on edge, unhappy with her life and unable to cope. What distinguishes Mabel, however, is that she's such an ordinary, believable woman. Her stresses - family, lack of privacy, stifling home life - are mundane and familiar. As depicted by Cassavetes, however, they quickly become alienating and unbearable.
I have trouble articulating what it is about Rowlands in this movie that is so electrifying. The film runs for two and a half nerve-wracking hours as we watch Mabel and her husband Nick, played by Peter Falk, fight and rage and love each other. The two spend most of the film playing the couple in crisis, but you can also see flashes of how they used to function, who they were and urgently want to be again. There is so much in the performances, especially from Rowlands, that conveys the magnitude of what we're watching transpire. It might be two and a half hours of screen time, but you can feel the weight of years of escalating stress and denial and uneasy compromises. The relationship has a sense of history to it, of past battles and too much swept under the rug. Falk has never gotten as much press as Rowlands for his work here, but he's fantastic, clinging to any semblance of normalcy he can for dear life.
I've seen complaints that the film is too long, and too bogged down by incidental small talk. However, this is what makes "A Woman Under the Influence" so unnerving. The audience knows that despite the casual appearances, there's something wrong with Mabel, but not when or how she's going to explode. And when she does explode, the scale and the severity of it is breathtaking, terrifying. Her world, her sphere, is not equipped to contain it. And what I love about Cassavetes is that he stays with Mabel, with her discomfort and her exhaustion and her devastating moments of clarity. The entire film is really two long sequences, each building up to dizzying emotional crescendos, but also full of little moments of quiet and contemplation, tension and release. Without that context, the film's effectiveness would be a fraction of what it achieves.
I've seen most of Rowland's other film with Cassavetes and enjoyed them, especially "Gloria," where she gets to play a flinty gun moll who discovers her maternal side. However, many of her other performances feel like variations on Mabel - the disintegrating actress in "Opening Night," and the codependent sister in "Love Streams." The hooker in "Faces" was perhaps a prelude. They're very good in their own right, but I can't help seeing the echoes of "A Woman Under the Influence" in them. And those echoes keep showing up in so many other films and performances, from "Raging Bull" to "Her Smell." American independent film wouldn't be what it is now without Cassavetes' efforts paving the way.
What I've Seen - John Cassavetes
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Opening Night (1977)
Love Streams (1984)