Watching a Cassavetes film is like sitting in front of a tornado. His actors engage in a kind of manic dance, spinning around living rooms and hurling emotional javelins at each other. Cassavetes often gave his actors freedom to do and say what they like, provided they conform to a broad outline of plot. What’s brilliant about his films is that they are concerned with what’s underneath all this movement. Cassavetes captures, in long emotional scenes, the underlying tone of the life of his characters, and follows it throughout his films. They are less about the details of dialogue and action, and more about conveying an emotional note that speaks to what’s really going on in these lives and relationships, underneath the surface details.
Shadows and Faces, Cassavetes two first independant films, are very different in terms of the emotional truth they’re searching for. Shadows tells the story of Lelia (Lelia Goldani) and Tony (Anthony Ray, son of director Nicholas Ray), who fall into a kind of messy love for each other, before Tony realizes Lelia comes from a black family, something he doesn’t like. The two split off quickly, and though the main thrust of the story is Lelia and Tony’s relationship, the movie spends more time between Lelia and her brothers Hugh (Hugh Hurd) and Ben (Ben Carruthers). The family’s relationship is (generally) based on trust and support, and this is the tone we get from the movie: despite the disastrous relationship between Lelia and Tony, we know the family has each other. In Faces, we see the breakdown of the marriage between Richard and Maria Frost (played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin). Here, all the secondary relationships in the film seem manipulative and untrusting, like that between Richard and the prostitute he’s infatuated with, Jeannie, played by Gena Rowlands. Even Maria’s friends seem disconnected, as they fight for the affections of Chet, a young man they bring back from a dance club. Faces may be a more mature film: the scenes are longer, more focused and intense, and the ending packs a heavier punch, but it lacks the kind of youthful optimism brought to Faces by the relationship of Lelia and Hugh.
The way Cassavetes shoots his films is a rebellion against Hollywood’s sterile tradition of capturing performances. The camera lenses are constantly doing battle with dirt and hair, the camera sometimes avoids the actors for no apparent reason, and often it’s hard to hear what the performers are saying. Part of the reason for his films being this way is the practically non-existent budget Cassavetes had to work with, but all the grainy elements of the film simply add to its style. Cassavetes is encouraging us to look beyond the glossy perfection of Hollywood productions, and if we can get over the imperfections of the recording itself, we can see the film’s graininess is actually encouraging us to hear what the actors are conveying at a deeper level. It doesn’t matter so much what they’re saying, what matters is what the tone of their lives sounds like, the emotional undercurrent of all his scenes, and that comes through loud and clear.