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Portrait of an Artist: John Cassavetes

In the ten years since his death, recognition of John Cassavetes’s significance has grown steadily—a recognition that often eluded him in life. Time has made apparent the unique figure he cut across the American cinematic landscape, both through his methods and his brilliantly iconoclastic works. Cassavetes’s dedication to the pursuit of his highly individualistic brand of filmmaking opened new roads of possibility for filmmakers disenchanted with the Hollywood Dream Factory. His debut feature, Shadows, is credited with nearly single-handedly sparking the American independent film movement, and his pioneering example of self-financing and self-distribution have become standard practice for many. The roster of filmmakers who have overtly acknowledged a debt to Cassavetes includes Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn, Tom Noonan, Rob Nilsson, and many others. Most significantly, Cassavetes left behind a staggeringly rich body of work. Devoted to the "small feelings" society at large so frequently attempts to suppress, the films continue to startle, surprise, and move us, challenging not only our assumptions about what a movie is but our deepest understanding of ourselves.


September 29 (Friday) 7 pm
October 3 (Monday) 7 pm

Shadows

Directed by John Cassavetes
US 1976, 35mm, color, 135 min.
With Ben Gazzara, Azizi Johari, Seymour Cassel

Made for $40,000 with an amateur cast and crew, Cassavetes’s first film established not only his reputation (it took five prizes, including the Critics’ Award at the Venice Film Festival) but a new approach to filmmaking. Expanding the improvisational techniques explored in an Actors’ Workshop class he was teaching, Cassavetes fashioned a deeply affecting portrait of three siblings who live "just beyond the bright lights of Broadway." Shot on location in New York with a hand-held 16mm camera, the film follows a struggling black nightclub entertainer (Hurd), his aimless younger brother (Carruthers), and their vulnerable sister (Goldoni)—the latter two more or less "passing" for white. Groundbreaking in its emotional complexity, its free-form style, and its striking naturalism, Shadows proved as much a landmark for American independent filmmaking as Godard’s Breathless (made the same year) did in France. For its director, Shadows remained "the film I love the best."

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September 29 (Friday) 9 pm

Love Streams

Directed by John Cassavetes
US 1984, 35mm, color, 141 min.
With John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Diahanne Abbot

Begun when Cassavetes was already quite ill, Love Streams represents a fond farewell to the director’s art. An idiosyncratic interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with an eccentric Prospero figure (played by Cassavetes himself) at its center, Love Streams is a richly self-reflective work that revisits scenes, characters, and events from his previous films in a cinematic meditation on the meaning of a life lived in art. Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’s wife and frequent collaborator, plays an estranged wife and mother who, according to the director, "takes every situation to extremes out of an intense need for truth." His role as a withdrawn author by contrast "does the same to escape the withering emptiness that is the truth of his life." Love Streams is one of the most accomplished films of the director’s career.

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September 30 (Saturday) 7 pm (Director Charles Kiselyak in Person)
October 1 (Sunday) 2 pm

A Constant Forge

Directed by Charles Kiselyak
US 2000, video, b/w and color, 200 min.

Subtitled "An Exploration of the Life and Art of John Cassavetes," this expansive new documentary is the film Cassavetes aficionados have been waiting for: a rich and meaty examination of the director’s working methods, thematic concerns, and artistic philosophy. Director Kiselyak interweaves readings of Cassavetes’s own words with in-depth interviews with members of the director’s "family" (Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Leila Goldoni, Lynn Carlin), friends, and admirers. New material on Cassavetes’s little-discussed work as a theater director (with commentary from actors Jon Voight and Carol Kane) and as a song writer (revealed through never-before-heard studio sessions with Cassavetes and composer Bo Harwood) is combined with impassioned, thoughtful reflections on what continues to make John Cassavetes such a unique and inspiring figure in the art of personal filmmaking.


October 1 (Sunday) 6 pm

Minnie and Moskowitz

Directed by John Cassavetes
US 1971, 35mm, color, 115 min.
With Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, John Cassavetes

The nearest that Cassavetes came to directing an outright comedy (the discredited Big Trouble notwithstanding), Minnie and Moskowitz explores the improbable romance between two dissimilar yet equally lonely people. Minnie Moore (Rowlands) is a successful museum curator and Seymour Moskowitz (Cassel) is a parking lot attendant who meet when Minnie’s blind date threatens her in Seymour’s lot. An affectionate tribute to the Frank Capra and Preston Sturges comedies Cassavetes first loved, the film is also something of a "home movie" that features supporting performances from Cassavetes’s mother, Rowlands’s mother and brother, and even Cassel’s mother-in-law and wife.

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October 1 (Sunday) 8:15 pm

Opening Night

Directed by John Cassavetes
US 1978/1991, 35mm, color, 144 min.
With Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell

One of the most neglected of Cassavetes’s masterworks (it was held back from wide distribution by Cassavetes and released only after his death), Opening Night is a complex, multi-layered exploration of the nature of "performance." The film features Gena Rowlands as an actress haunted by the accidental death of an obsessive fan and fighting insecurities about her ability to play the role of an aging actress in a new play. Critic Tom Milne described Opening Night as a "strange, tortuous, entirely absorbing exploration of the myths and mystiques surrounding the theater."

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October 3 (Tuesday) 9 pm

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Directed by John Cassavetes
US 1976, 35mm, color, 135 min.
With Ben Gazzara, Azizi Johari, Seymour Cassel

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a wry self-portrait of the artist as a struggling theater manager. Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a nightclub owner and director of its sleazy stage shows who, against all odds, fights for his artistic and commercial independence. In debt and pressured by the mob (which wants to foreclose on his property), Cosmo is ordered to execute a Chinese gangster in order to pay off his gambling debts. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes brilliantly plays with and against crime-genre conventions and, in the process, offers up a biting critique of the role of capitalism in art. A critical and commercial failure when it was released in 1976, Cassavetes re-edited the film and reissued it in 1978 in a shortened version to similarly poor response. Tonight’s presentation is the rarely seen full-length version.

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Author Ray Carney in Person
October 4 (Wednesday) 8 pm

John Cassavetes: Behind the Scenes

Join us for an evening’s exploration of the man behind the movies and the process by which the artist’s pioneering independent works were made. Ray Carney, Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University and author of The Films of John Cassavetes and the forthcoming Cassavetes on Cassavetes, will screen and discuss a selection of rare videos from his personal collection in which Cassavetes talks about his life and films and is shown working with actors in rehearsal.

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700