Cassavetes Directs

By David Jenkins

opening-night-john-cassavetes.jpgJohn Cassavetes in Opening Night, 1977

John Cassavetes and the making of Love Streams by Michael Ventura

Many believe that with films such as Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands and Opening Night, capturing madness on film is what John Cassavetes excelled at. Within the pages of Michael Ventura's stunning Cassavetes Directs – a caustic and boisterously detailed cine-biography of his 1984 film Love Streams – it’s the director himself who is placed on the analyst’s couch as his film set becomes an open house and his eccentric foibles are laid bare for all to see.

Though Love Streams may be considered an odd choice of focus (considering the quality of his past works), it does allow Ventura to riff on themes, scenes and leitmotifs from those previous films to supply the reader with an idea of the relevance of the director’s oeuvre. Following a short introduction about how the project came into being, the book documents the day-to-day shooting of the film in painstaking detail, with Ventura shadowing the director (the first time Cassavetes had allowed a journalist such free reign) and diligently jotting down his thoughts, feelings and observations.

Though there is the sense that Ventura is a writer in awe of his subject, that doesn’t stop him from suggesting that there were times when Cassavetes’ soundbyte-like vernacular didn’t quite serve its purpose. In a scene where Gena Rowlands character, Sarah, is making a call from a Parisian station to find out the details of her divorce from Seymour Cassel, Cassavetes’ gives one direction: “Gena, accept nothing.” After a short pause, Gena replies, “I don't understand.”

The writer also pulls off a simple yet clever trick by including a short paragraph at the end of each chapter explaining whether the shot being discussed ended up either in the final film or on the cutting room floor. In an early scene, Cassavetes’ own character, Robert Harmon, is in bed with three younger women and he is trying to capture a moment when they are woken suddenly by the telephone. This seemingly innocuous little take manages to drive the director to distraction (“if we rehearse this more than once, it won’t have the sloppiness it needs – technically it shouldn’t be sloppy, but the subject should be sloppy”) and it’s made all the more hilarious by the fact that, a few sentences later, Ventura announces that “nothing shot today will be used.”

But, if you put Cassavetes’ wild-eyed decision-making process and from-the-gut judgment calls aside, there's a creeping tragedy at the book’s core. The director starts to tread a thin line between showmanship and self-immolation and emerges as a tragic, Capra-esque fall guy who chooses to enfold himself entirely in the production of the movie, blithe to the detriment of his physical health. Not only is this book a detailed insight into the delicate process of film-making, it also portrays a director with death in his sights, slowly feeling the strain of his legendarily massive drinking problem and immersive working methods. However, the book never slips into moroseness, choosing rather to celebrate Cassavetes’ lust for the moving image instead of bemoaning the passing of a fallen hero. As the director himself says, “this is a sweet film. If I die, this is a sweet last film.”

Michael Ventura, Cassavetes Directs: John Cassavetes and the making of 'Love Streams' (2007) is available from Kamera Books.

David Jenkins works on the film pages of Time Out London.