Deep explorer of human chaos

An ongoing tribute to the well-known Greek-American actor and director John Cassavetes taking place at the Hellenic American Union in Athens – featuring «Life is a Movie: John Cassavetes & Friends» and an exhibition of over 100 photographs – expands next week with a parallel retrospective of the artist’s films. The retrospective, to run from February 12 to 17, will also include «A Constant Forge – The Life and Art of John Cassavetes» (2000), a revealing three-hour documentary by Charles Kiselyak. An actor until the late 1950s, Cassavetes emerged as a director with «Shadows,» a juicy amateur debut whose making could be likened to jazz improvisation. In a certain sense, this debut effort marked the beginning of an American nouvelle vague movement. Cassavetes soon clashed with Hollywood authorities in reaction to the industry’s existing ways of production, where directors and cast were thought of as employees. Cassavetes, who considered independence and a collective artistic spirit as prerequisites in filmmaking, became a key figure of what became known as the New York School and the American underground in film. His clash with the industry led the way for numerous younger-generation filmmakers. «He was the major independent director in the USA. The biggest and most significant. His financial independence – he financed his own films – guaranteed him artistic freedom. John Cassavetes was my master,» noted the famed Italian-American director Martin Scorsese. Cassavetes liked to work collectively, with friends. «It’s often been said about me that I make films with my friends. Nobody’s ever thought, ‘Well, why not?’ I enjoy making films with my friends, with my family. The more you know others, the easier the work becomes,» Cassavetes said. In his films, the camera breaks away from the rules of Hollywood studios. It moves about restlessly, yet with calculated precision, capturing faces. But Cassavetes never settled for formula. He took cinema to the streets and also searched for the key elements in his films in familiar surroundings, such as the theater, working only with friends in whom he had complete faith, primary examples being his wife, Gena Rowlands, as well as Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel and Ben Gazzara. As for the shots in his films, they rolled like long improvisational phrases played by a jazz saxophonist. Based on this logic, the story’s development was spared its traditional role. It did not create stars. Instead, this was an enlarged shot of the human face that was in search of a way into the soul. The son of Greek immigrants, Cassavetes studied at the Actors Studio before working in theater and television – he earned initial fame in a late 1950s TV series, «Johnny Staccato,» as a jazz musician who also worked as a detective – as well as in cinema, where he was best known for his role in «Rosemary’s Baby.» Cassavetes married Rowlands in 1954. In contrast to the controversy of most celebrity marriages, Cassavetes’s marriage to Rowlands was one of great love. He made 12 films between 1958 and 1986 and died on February 3, 1989, at the age of 60. This article was first published in Kathimerini’s Sunday magazine K on February 3. All 12 films by acclaimed director to be screened at next week’s retrospective «Shadows» (1958-1959): A low-budget improvisational film that cost 40,000 dollars to make, with music by Charles Mingus, produced by Nikos Papatakis. «Too Late Blues» (1961): A woman prompts the demise of an established jazz composer. The film was made for Paramount in Hollywood. «A Child Is Waiting» (1963): Cassavetes’s controversial exodus from Hollywood with a melodramatic film. It stars Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster and Gena Rowlands. «Faces» (1968): Cassavetes’s first significant film, with a troubled couple as the focus. Stars Rowlands and John Marley. «Husbands» (1970): Three married men, closely knit friends, aimlessly wander the streets after the funeral of a friend. With Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. «Minnie and Moskowitz» (1971): A downtrodden middle-class woman meets a 30-year-old hippy. Starring Rowlands and Seymour Cassel. «A Woman under the Influence» (1975): Cassavetes’s masterpiece plunges into a bankrupt marriage and the psychotic behavior of a young wife and mother. Starring Rowlands and Falk. «The Killing of a Chinese Bookie» (1978): Melancholy turn to gangster and film noir, with Gazzara, Morgan Woodward and Seymour Cassel. «Opening Night» (1978): An actress (Rowlands) witnesses the death of an adoring young fan and then confronts her own life’s turmoil. «Gloria» (1980): A neglected masterpiece, starring Rowlands in a superb performance as a former Mafia associate who clashes with her former lover, an underworld big shot, to save a young man’s life. «Love Streams» (1984): A famous writer reunites with his divorced sister and lives with her for a while. Stars Cassavetes and Rowlands. «Big Trouble» (1986): A mediocre comedy produced by Columbia, starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin.