(A brief take 1 here.)
Oh man – sometimes you stumble on a work of art that gets under your skin with the mark of a passion or an all-out obsession – and most recently for me it’s the films of John Cassevetes. In A Woman Under the Influence, a movie about a married couple and their community, as they live through the mother/wife’s nervous breakdown, – but is that really all the film’s about? (of course not) – there are many beautiful scenes, many uncomfortable ones too, many both beautiful and uncomfortable, but one beautiful one where the husband brings back his crew of excavators to the house after a long night shift, and the ailing matriarch Mabel, in response to a felt obligation, says in faltering coquettish manner that she will feed them all – spaghetti for everyone! Cut scene, and there’s a handful of excavators in the kitchen with Mabel, boiling and straining the spaghetti as if it were a task of monumental difficulty – “watch out! get the plates! oh boy, move out o’ the way, this is hot spaghetti!” and so on. (Anyone who has suffered debilitating mental illness knows that boiling a pot of spaghetti can, indeed, be a task of monumental difficulty…) Cut to the dining room where a shot of Mabel depicts her nervously beaming but beaming, no question – that’s beautiful. The way life goes on, falteringly, alongside and despite mental illness.
I don’t want to try too hard to pin down what it is that so awes me about the Cassavetes films I’ve been watching (I’ve only seen 4 or so now – a good handful remain), even if that’s what I’m trying to do now in a way; I’m happy to leave these short notes here for now, and simply reflect on the emotional and narrative intensity, the way they are almost unlike any films I’ve seen before, and more honest, more funny, more sad, and more dangerous.
If not for Harmony Korine, I wouldn’t have discovered John Cassavetes’ films at the time I did. Somewhere in an interview Korine mentioned being bowled over by Cassavetes’ film Husbands; he described the experience as being like reading a book that had major sections cut out, and you couldn’t quite grasp the storyline. I was curious and sought out Husbands, which I thought was amazing. So many unforgettable scenes graven in my mind.
Now, this week I have from the local library the Criterion collection box set of Cassavetes. Last night I watched Shadows (1959). I have yet to watch the other films in the set (Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night), but what strikes me after watching Shadows and Husbands is that Cassavetes’ films depict adults (or men, rather) acting almost like children. A sense of irrepressible energy, of being unfettered by society’s niceties. There’s a sensuousness of the camera shot, a proximity to the body that often abstracts it from the surrounding space. These films are exquisitely alive. I’m hooked.
The simplest way to describe Toute la mémoire du monde is to say that it’s a short documentary film of the setting and institutional practices of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris as they were in the late 1950s. The film begins in the basement of the library, where gross heaps of documents are consigned to a process of slow degradation. Parce que leur mémoire est courte, les hommes accumulent d’innombrables prosthèses, Dumesnil announces. [Because its memory is short, mankind accumulates limitless prostheses.]
From the vaults of the Twilight Zone:
Mild-mannered and myopic, bank-teller Henry Bemis loves to read, but neither his shrewish wife nor efficiency-minded boss give him much chance. Sneaking into the vault on his lunch hour to read, he is knocked unconscious by a mammoth shock wave. When he comes to, he discovers that the world has been devastated by a nuclear war and that he, having been protected by the vault, is the last man on Earth. He decides to commit suicide, but at the final moment his eyes fall in the ruins of a library. For him, it is paradise. Gleefully he piles the books high, organizing his reading for the years to come. But as he settles down to read the first book, his glasses slip off his nose and smash, trapping him forever in a hopelessly blurry world.