Thursday, December 2, 2010

#255: Opening Night

(John Cassavetes, 1976)

Opening Night is the last Cassavetes film in the Criterion boxset John Cassavetes: Five Films, both chronologically and for me personally. The five films, Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, are also the only Cassavetes films I've seen (though I did see most of Gloria a long time ago but remember little of it). Within the group, A Woman Under the Influence is the only one I really loved and this final one, Opening Night, is my least favorite.

Without any of the crackling energy of Shadows or Faces and none of the dramatic resonance of A Woman Under the Influence or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night felt extremely dull. It didn't help that the movie was about the stage (which, as I've discussed before, holds little interest for me), but what really got to me was the trademark Cassavetes looseness of the tone and dialog. Certainly the director that has most carried the Cassavetes torch since his passing is Mike Leigh, another actor's director who turns intense rehearsal and improvisation into tight literary works that operate as a kind of technical exploration of personal interaction. It shouldn't come as much surprise to hear that I'm not much of a fan of Leigh's either.

One thing I want to get on this blog is some opening thoughts on a dismissal of either a great film or a great director. Obviously in this specific case I don't think Cassavetes is a bad director, I don't even think that people who love his films are wrong. They simply do not have any kind of significant impact on me, and his style rubs me the wrong way. I think there is a big difference between this perspective and tearing down someone's work in the way that I believe, say, Lars Von Trier's films deserve. Honestly, with a director like Cassavetes, I would much rather stay silent on his work, simply because I don't feel like I bring anything to the table since his films didn't engage me, and I certainly wouldn't write on them if it wasn't for the format of this blog.

I think this tends to be a big problem in film criticism, where new work must be reviewed regardless of the impact (or lack thereof) it had on the writer. This makes for a lot of mediocre work that sometimes dismisses films that deserve a closer look and praises films that should have a sharper critical eye taken to them. The former is the true tragedy, and I think emphasizes the responsibility of critics as cultural gatekeepers (though really in this age of technology overload more as cultural quality control). Just because a work doesn't move you is no reason to dismiss it. But it's also not a reason to discount your own personal experience with the work. Genuine art - as opposed to commercial skill-based product masquerading as art - must always demand respect, but it does not demand appreciation. John Cassavetes spent his entire life struggling to navigate a difficult studio system and the trials of raising the enormous sums of money necessary to produce films because he deeply believed in the work he was producing. While none of this separates him from Ed Wood, the fact that his work isn't merely about making films for the sake of films, but about examining the human condition makes his work worth examining, and his technical skill sets him apart. What this means is that my word, like the word I have given on every film on this blog, is by no means meant as a definitive look at a film or his work, but as a personal response meant as a soundboard for both readers and myself as I look back on these thoughts. Just as reviewing L'Avventura gave me a new perspective on the film that greatly improved my opinion of it, twenty years from now I may feel very differently about Cassavetes. Considering how well made his films are, I wouldn't be surprised.

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