Category Archives: U.S.A.

Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968)

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.

Gena Rowlands’ face in Faces.

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.

Lelia Goldani and Hugh Hurd, playing brother and sister in Shadows. Rupert Crosse, in the background, plays Hugh’s singing agent.

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.

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on The Western Front, Lewis Milestone’s landmark epic war film from 1930, is a powerful film.  The battle scenes are huge and spacious, the cast is large, and the size of the acting, typical for 1930, matches the size of the drama.  However, the greatest triumph of All Quiet on the Western Front, beyond special effects and epic battle scenes, is how convincingly the movie shows us the tragedy of sending young men like Paul, its protagonist, to war.

Paul in his (short lived) cheerful new recruit phase.

Through the course of the film, Paul grows from naive schoolboy to jaded soldier.  Along with his schoolmates, Paul decides to enlist in the German army for the First World War, encouraged enthusiastically by his high school teacher. We follow the young men through three years of training, living in the trenches and fighting in the war.  The movie’s deepest emotional punch comes when Paul returns home on leave after being on the front lines.  Back home, there’s an eerie distance between him and his family, not to mention everyone else around.  He tells a group of young students, who are in the same position he was in before he joined the war, the truth about how horrible fighting on the front lines really is.  The students call him a coward, and his old teacher objects to what he says, but Paul is simply telling the young boys the truth about what he’s experienced being a soldier in the war.  The film asks us if being a soldier and fighting for your country is worth the sacrifice it requires, and here Paul gives one resounding opinion on the matter: “When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all!”

The crew used real dynamite to create the shell holes on the battlefield, hopefully when no one was around.

When compared to other war films, the cast of All Quiet is younger, and this is a great strength of the film.  We believe that all the young soldiers are fresh out of grade school, because the actors were actually that young, and it makes the tragedy of seeing Paul at the end of the movie so much more powerful: we come to see him as a brooding and pained old soul, even though on the surface he is still so young.  Physically, Paul looks slightly older than the sixteen-year-old new recruits at the end of the film, but in terms of experience of the world and its tragedy, the difference is like night and day.  This is perhaps the most difficult part of the movie to take in: it’s one thing to see Tom Hanks struggling to live with war in Saving Private Ryan or Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter, but it’s another to see Ayres dealing with it at half their age.

Paul back home with his mother and sister. “You’re a soldier now, aren’t you? But somehow, I don’t seem to know you…”

We’re brought closer to Paul as the movie goes on, while in the film, he ends up all alone.  No one seems to understand what he’s going through, and perhaps no audience member can completely understand his experience unless they’ve been to war themselves.  It seems to me that this is why people make movies (and all art for that matter) about war.  When a war movie is successful, like All Quiet is, it may not be able to get us to know what it’s actually like to be a soldier, but it can help us begin to feel the tragedy of the sacrifice it requires.

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Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee’s film is all about heat.  In the hottest part of the summer, the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant do what they can to keep cool without the help of air conditioning, jumping in front of open fire hydrants and engaging in a rather liberal use of ice-cubes, but they’re still burning up.  Heat is the backdrop of the movie, and the heat spills over into the plot: Bed-Stuy is rife with hot tempers that clash and risk boiling over, and the hottest pressure point in the neighborhood is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, owned by an American-Italian family trying to get by in a predominantly black neighborhood.

Bed-Stuy residents generously helping a man, and his convertible, cool down.

The film follows Mookie, played by Spike Lee, a young pizza delivery boy who works for Sal but doesn’t take his job as seriously as his boss would like.  Sal has a problem with a few of Mookie’s friends, including one Radio Raheem, a generally silent character with a very loud boombox, and a young man known as Buggin’ Out who wants to organize a boycott of the pizzeria because Sal’s wall of fame features only American-Italians and has no blacks.  His complaint seems fair enough: Sal’s is in a black neighborhood, and serves black customers, but Sal refuses to adapt to the complaint, and the tensions mount to a breaking point.

Spike Lee as Mookie, and John Turturro as Sal’s angry son.

The plot is simple enough, but it’s really just a vehicle for Lee to showcase racial tensions and look into the mess people get into when they don’t get over their differences of color (speaking of color, the film is full of it – the colours are as loud as Radio Raheem’s boombox, and part of the sense of heat in the film comes from the bright reds and oranges of the buildings and costumes).  Lee takes enough time to play around with a great cast of characters, including, notably, Samuel L. Jackson’s ‘Senor Love Daddy’, a good-humoured and entertaining radio show host, who serves as the show’s grounding force, and links the other characters back into reality.  During a memorable sequence, Lee shows characters of various ethnicities yelling racial profanities at each other, and it’s Jackson’s character that Lee uses to get them, in his words, to…

‘Cool that shit out!’

The film leads us to suspect something catastrophic might happen – it’s too hot, the tempers are too testy for something not to give, especially from Sal’s overwhelmingly racist son played by John Turturro – but the climax the movie delivers is still shockingly disastrous.  Lee probably wanted something as dramatic as the ending to shock us out of our complacent indifference, and make us pay attention to what he’s trying to say about racism.  At the end of the film, he shows us two seemingly disparate quotes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr about racially inspired violence, where King says, very fittingly at the end of this movie: ‘Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral…[It] ends by defeating itself.  It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.’  And that’s the truth, Ruth.

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