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Photo: ‘A Woman Under the Influence’/Cine-Source
In Charlie Kaufman’s recent film, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’, a significant portion of time is given to a discussion of John Cassavetes’ ‘A Woman Under the Influence’, a conversation that involves one character quoting lengthy excerpts verbatim from Pauline Kael’s 1974 New Yorker review of that film. In Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 comedy ‘Don’t Think Twice’, Gillian Jacobs plays a member of an improv troupe who specializes in doing an impression of Gena Rowlands’ character from ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ as if she were a baseball umpire.
The Brooklyn band The Hold Steady have a song called ‘Slapped Actress’ that is technically about Cassavetes’ 1977 film ‘Opening Night’, but it debates the relationship between the director and his wife/lead actress, stating, “Some nights, makin’ it look real might end up with someone hurt.” In their 1999 song ‘What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes?’, the band Le Tigre makes the point even more pointedly, singing, “Genius? Misogynist? Messiah? Alcoholic? What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes?”
Who is John Cassavetes? Born in 1929 to Greek parents, Cassavetes was raised on Long Island and came up in the New York theatre scene, meeting muse and future wife Gena Rowlands there. Eventually, he began to book higher-profile film and television gigs, which allowed him to direct and independently finance his own projects. His films were character-driven dramas, and he focused on creating intimate relationships with his crew and his actors, often casting family members or using the same actors for multiple projects. He wanted his actors to interpret their characters in their own way, and he would rewrite scripts based on those interpretations. He was a prolific writer; at the time of his death, he had amassed dozens of unproduced scripts. He was also an alcoholic, a condition that eventually took his life at the age of 59. Cassavetes’ three children, Nick, Xan, and Zoe, all became filmmakers. He influenced directors ranging from Judd Apatow to Martin Scorsese to Darren Aronofsky. He is considered the Godfather of Independent Film; recent films like ‘Malcolm and Marie’ and ‘Pieces of a Woman’ unmistakably bear his influence.
‘A Woman Under the Influence’ – Psychic Inheritance
Despite Pauline Kael’s lambasting of Cassavetes’ long takes and Rowlands’ frenetic performance, ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ remains a fascinating film worthy of deep conversations and dissertations. It follows Mabel Longhetti (Rowlands), a housewife stuck in a codependent and occasionally hostile relationship with blue-collar husband Nick (Peter Falk), with whom she has three children. Friends and family suppose Mabel to be suffering from a mental illness, but one wonders if she simply has no outlet for her energy and creativity and is driven to anxiety. After several awkward incidents in which Mabel fails to ‘properly’ interact with adults (children seem to have no problem understanding her) Mabel is institutionalized for months to undergo electroshock therapy, as if she were McMurphy from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.
Modern audiences are apt to react with revulsion at the treatment of Mabel–she is perhaps more likely to come off as a matronly equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a quirky fun art mom. Peter Falk, an extraordinarily kindhearted actor who is probably best known as the loving grandfather from ‘The Princess Bride’, is here cast as an exasperated husband prone to bouts of horrifying rage and abuse. Nick’s total ineptitude for self-expression results in him striking Mabel in frustration and plying his children with beer to put them to bed when left alone with them during Mabel’s institutionalization.
While anti-heroes are certainly popular in modern entertainment, it’s difficult to imagine a character like Nick coming to screens nowadays. Yet, many audience members may recognize qualities Nick possesses in their own fathers or grandfathers–the kind of hapless abuse proffered by Nick is the psychic inheritance of so many. Mabel, meanwhile, is brought to life in a completely idiosyncratic way. Gena Rowlands eschews predictable signifiers of mental illness, instead turning in a performance reminiscent of the self-professed ‘nouveau shamanic’ acting style used by Nicolas Cage. It feels completely original and yet somehow authentic and familiar.
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The Spark of Love
‘A Woman Under the Influence’ runs for two hours and thirty-five minutes, but it never feels overinflated or indulgent. It’s a film that breathes. The audience is invited to take part in the lives of the Longhetti family; it is a mesmerizingly intimate experience. We break bread with them, we follow Nick to work, we accompany Mabel during a childrens’ playdate. Cassavetes had confidence that his actors could make these sorts of domestic affairs interesting without the handicap of excessive editing. After watching the organic unraveling of a Cassavetes film, aggressively cut and spliced films feel frantic and disingenuous in comparison.
Watching Rowlands and Falk negotiate physical and temporal space as the camera simply rolls allows us to witness the agitation and exhaustion of these characters. Nick, always misinterpreting the needs of Mabel, is constantly filling their small Los Angeles home with people–friends from work, their partners, relatives, and the family doctor come parading in like courtesans attempting to extract a favor from their king and queen. As the camera gives no respite from one end, this flood of humanity gives none from the other.
Mabel reacts to the pressures of this world with increasingly erratic behavior. Nick reacts with anger and violence. It feels as if society has failed to give them the emotional vocabulary they need to properly express themselves–the world is beating them both down. Nick, living a hard life as a construction worker, takes his repressed frustration out on Mabel. Lines are drawn, and the children become pawns in the psychodrama playing out between their parents. Having a real-life mother and father on set may have impacted how present the children were able to be for their performances–they are incredibly natural, even as the conflict becomes physical between Nick and Mabel.
Even as the final scene devolves into a disaster, Cassavetes doesn’t give up on the hope for love between Nick and Mabel, and the hope for their children. In those children, there is the hope for a more just and equitable future, and perhaps that lies in Mabel carrying the spark of love and creativity and fostering it in their hearts. At his best, that is what Cassavetes stands for. He is a patron saint of emotional understanding, creative empowerment, and the spark of love.
;A Woman Under the Influence’ is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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