Faces, by John Cassavetes, is a 1968 film generally credited as being the first popular independent film in America to make an impact in the public consciousness. But, it is more than that. It is a film that totally subverted the dominant themes and forms of Hollywood cinema, at the time, showed that ‘adult’ films, truly adult, not a euphemism for pornography, could have mass appeal, and paved the way for the great auteur decade of American filmmaking that was the 1970s. That things have regressed severely, since then, only shows how much a young Cassavetes is needed these days.
But, it was totally different from the European auteur films of the 1960s, in that it eschewed symbolism, framing, and Post-Modern techniques of storytelling. Faces is a raw film that is laced with searing, realistic dialogue, and gives the impression that the viewer is truly eavesdropping on the private lives of people who could be them, for there are no Hollywood goddesses nor buff Adonises to be found in any scenes. And, unlike a master like Ingmar Bergman, who also focused on the inner emotional and psychological lives of individuals, Cassavetes’ characters are not philosophizing nor posing in neatly framed boxes. This is not so much a criticism of the European poetic approach to film, merely to state that Cassavetes’ style was far more revolutionary, and felt like actual cinema verité. In that sense, while one can argue ceaselessly over the relative excellence of certain directors, it is impossible to deny Cassavetes’ importance in the pantheon of film’s first century.
Nor can one deny Faces’ importance, at least as a landmark, if not having lasting influence in Hollywood’s Lowest Common Denominator output. The film follows the demise of the fourteen year marriage of Richard and Maria Forst (John Marley and Lynn Carlin), two LA suburban children of the post-World War Two boom, at the height of American affluence, just before Vietnam, Watergate, and the 1970s allowed the Conservative movement of the 1980s send standards of living into a spiral that has yet to stem. Why are they breaking up? We are never directly told. He’s the head of a large company, and she a bored housewife, and while they still have things in common, and enjoy each other- as shown in a terrific scene of the couple in bed, laughing their heads off over lame jokes Richard tells, their marriage has just died. Neither could probably pinpoint where, much less why. But, the fact that they are still chuckling over the most inane jokes, just to please one another, says it all about most relationships- that they almost all end up as zombies. That’s what makes this film so real, potent, and discomfiting. Contrast this to the Hollywood paradigm of the mid-1960s, Doris Day comedies, when the film was first started, and the difference is stark.
Much of the film follows characters who are drunk, and while this also adds to the ‘realism’, it allows for a natural reason for the characters to spill their feelings without inhibitions. Cassavetes let scenes ramble on for huge chunks of time that other filmmakers never would allow. Yet, as in the poetry of Walt Whitman, there is a virtue in certain excesses. Richard, after a spat with Maria, moves out, and heads straight for the home of a call girl, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), but she’s entertaining two drunks, along with her prostitute girlfriend. Some really great scenes play out as Richard spars with one of the drunks, a businessman whom he has vague connections with. Meanwhile, Maria and three of her girlfriends go out cruising LA bars, looking to pick up men. There, they meet Chet (Seymour Cassel), who offends one of them, does little to arouse another, gets the third, oldest and fattest, gal hot and bothered, but ends up sleeping with Maria, who responds to their tryst by taking Richard’s sleeping pills, the next morning, in a vain attempt to commit suicide. She fails, as a panicked Chet awakens to find her passed out, saves her life by sticking his finger down her throat, forcing her to vomit, and then slaps her silly, to awaken her. Soon, Richard comes home, and Chet skedaddles out the bedroom window, with Richard in pursuit.
What follows, to end the film, are several minutes of some of the most searing and brutal images put on film. Yes, we’ve all seen violence, senseless, gory, etc. But, here are two people who, if they ever had things in common, are long over that. They argue, bicker, then just give up, and slump on their stairs, tossing cigarets and a lighter back and forth. they smoke, realize there’s nothing left to fight about, and he heads upstairs, to finish pack, as she heads out to the kitchen, for breakfast. The final shot of the empty stairway is not only great symbolism, but one of the most frightening images on film, made all the more so since the film was shot on 16mm film, in black and white, with handheld cameras, thus giving the film its distinctive nightmarish feel.
But, the real stars of this film are the writing and acting. Cassavetes reaches Chekhovian heights of drama, admixed with Tennessee Williams’ poetic realism, in his Oscar nominated Best Original Screenplay. It is truly among the greatest screenplays ever written, even if, as rumored, there was much improvisation in the dialogue. Here, for one of the few times on screen or stage, one gets to see the actor as creator, not merely collaborator. Lynn Carlin, in her first film role, is authentic as the clueless abandoned wife, and got an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress. Seymour Cassel, as he lover, is also fantastic, as a gigolo with a soft side, and also got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Gena Rowlands, as the prostitute, is neither victim nor saint, just a real person struggling with real problems, and gives her usual great performance, as one of the great actresses of all time in film. But, this film is dominated, from start to finish, by the towering performance of John Marley. How many of us have worked for a son of a bitch like him? How many women know a bastard like him? How many men reading this are a Richard Forst? The supporting actors- Fred Draper as Richard’s drunken pal Freddie, Val Avery as the drunken Jim McCarthy, Dorothy Gulliver as Florence, the old lady Chet deigns to kiss, when she drunkenly pleads for affection- are uniformly terrific, as well.
The cinematography by Al Ruban, as loose as it is, is used to great effect, with the herky-jerky motions, in and out of focus slippage, and things sometimes purposely inaudible or not, all adding to the sense that the viewer is an intruder, a voyeur. But, who could not watch such scenes? Who has not lived such scenes, at least if you are over the age of twenty-five? Even the black and white is used to great effect. there are shots, close-ups, mostly, that tell everything of a characters’ emotions without a word being uttered. Marley, Rowlands, Cassel, and Carlin give a clinic in naturalistic acting. It shows that however one achieves something in acting is meaningless compared to the end result. The same is true of this film, which has often been ripped for being ‘formless’. Not true. The film has form, but it is organic, not the tripartite structure of traditional drama, where form imposes itself on events.
The title of the film is based upon the notion that we all act in ways that are mere role playing for others, mere faces, and this has never been more true than in this film. A more apt title, though, might have been Personae, but since Bergman’s singular Persona had recently been released, to great acclaim, this title suffices. No scene better and more aptly depicts why it suffices than in the terrific, nearly twenty minute opening scene, after the title sequence, which hints at the fact that, as Bergman was doing in that era, this film may all be a film some of the characters are watching, as a presentation to Forst as ‘the Dolce Vita of the commercial field.’ That this meta-narrative aspect has not been commented on by many critics I find curious, but understandable, since no more than two or three minutes into the nearly twenty minutes that follow, we are given a bravura performance of drunkenness never before equaled, for its realism, onscreen. The strengths of this film are so many and so potent that things that in other films that would be weaknesses, such as fashions and dated slang, become strengths for this film has not dated. Its characters are as fresh as they were four decades ago, even if the film, itself, serves as a time capsule of the 1960s, yet one that is timeless.