…That’s the only thing to do, isn’t it?

As good as A Woman Under the Influence was, I had a sneaky feeling I’d have some problems with John Cassavetes’ other works on the list, in particular his earlier stuff. In the same way that Mean Streets was a very roughshod example of Scorsese’s style and attempts to start out in his endeavor of making films, I expected Cassavetes’ earlier films to be pretty much just that, and for Cassavetes, this meant they they’d be a little too bare bones, neorealistic, and barely scrimping by on the technicals for my tastes. So when Faces came up on my to-watch list, I readied myself for a film experience that I either would really like, or would end up getting caught too much in its faults to let its strengths wash over me. In the case of Faces, it ended up being clearly the latter.

The film is an exploration of a crumbling marriage, and the relationships between the two spouses and the others around them. As such, it consists mostly of people talking with each other, as things develop and story points are unveiled as the characterization of the people shifts and changes with each scene. And the laughter; oh, the laughter. Damn near every scene has the characters joking around and laughing themselves silly, even when what they’re saying isn’t remotely humorous, I assume to highlight even more the parts of the film that are deathly serious, but for some reason, those scenes just come across as empty rather than, as Cassavetes puts it, “like stepping off a fast train”. As befitting a Cassavetes film, and its hyper-realism, the look was as bare-bones as it could possibly be, so much so it was to a fault. To start with, the physical film itself; wow, was this film grainy. I can’t imagine how slow the speed of the film or how low the ISO was for the film stock; the nighttime scenes were much more visible than black-and-white film tends to be, but the daytime and brightly lit scenes are so grainy you can see the whole image flicker and dance across the screen like sandpaper. It made me wonder and conjecture as to why they made this decision, and aside from making the film as bleak as possible I couldn’t really come up with a good justification. The sound work was also really clumsily done; it sounded like they simply used omni-directional microphones that ended up picking up all the reverberation and echo of the voices around the room whenever the actors weren’t squarely facing the mic and the camera, and let’s not forget mentioning when the recorded sound was so unusable that they ADRed the lines, and they didn’t even bother to make it sound consistent with the rest of the dialogue, so it is REALLY OBVIOUS that they re-dubbed the audio. There’s also some points where, right after one of the characters says something that prompts them to laugh, the audio cuts out, so they laugh on screen with no actual laughter. It was something else that seemed intentionally done for some reason, though nothing came to mind when I thought about it.

As good as the film was at what it wanted to do, it was so badly put together that it was just distracting, and even more so as the film went on. As much as I didn’t want it to be so, the technicals were some of the worst I’ve seen in a professionally done film. I’ll try and put it in perspective; when the look of a film shot in Antarctica in the 1910s looks better than a professional production of the 1960s, then there’s a problem. Now, Cassavetes is clearly a director with a distinct vision for his films, but in my opinion, it is the fault of his equipment not being up to par, or a choice to have the production be as amateur as possible, rather than a decision to have it look this stark that gets in the way of what he and the film tries to accomplish. I went pretty much completely into what I think the film did wrong rather than what I found worked with the film, such as the script and the performances, but that was my experience with Faces; the poor was so overwhelmingly distracting from the good. Now, I should emphasize that this is pretty much my opinion; others will happily watch a strong and powerful film like this and take away from it exactly what Cassavetes tries to get across, without being as hung up on the technicals as I tend to get, but for me, it was a little too much. I can’t say whether or not Cassavetes deserves four slots on the list, and whether or not you should see his other works before potentially watching this one, but I can at least give a thumbs up or down, and for me, I just ended up swinging too far in one direction.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10


2 thoughts on “Faces

  1. “Faces” was shot on 16mm rather than 35mm, which would probably have some effect upon the look of it (especially once blown up to 35, if it was). I don’t know that I’d call it a “professional” production either, if by that you mean studio-standard; when he made this he’d just stepped away from a studio directing contract to go independent as he had been with “Shadows”.

    The one time I watched this film—at university in 1997, under the aegis of a tutor who actually wrote a book about Cassavetes—I *hated* it. Until i finally caved in and watched “Shadows” at the start of this year, I’d pretty much sworn off him for good, and I only watched “Shadows”, which I also hated, because it’s on the 1001 list. Which is pretty much the only reason I’ll be watching “Woman Under the Influence”, which I am frankly dreading.

    • Yeah, I knew about the 16-to-35mm blowup, which, yes, is a large part of why the film is as grainy as it is. As for professionalism, I did kinda stretch the definition here to basically include any experienced production crew that knows what they’re doing, but there’s the key words: “knows what they’re doing”. Cassavetes is hardly an amateur by this point in his career, directing or otherwise, so for his films to have so many rudimentary faults in them is, to me, almost inexcusable.

      As for A Woman Under the Influence, that’s the only other Cassavetes I’ve seen so far, and I actually liked it, if you check my review. It worked largely because the power of Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk’s performances (as well as the script, which was pretty solid) was greater than the faults of the film’s construction, in my opinion, which was not the case with this one. But yeah, if you’ve sworn off Cassavetes, you might end up going into Influence with a particular shade of error-focusing glasses on, and I probably wouldn’t begrudge you for it.

      Oh, and Cassavetes has one other film on the list, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, so unless you’ve seen that one too, you’re not quite over with him yet.

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