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On the Set of Love Streams
By Michael Ventura
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2007 Michael Ventura
All rights reserved.
THURSDAY, MARCH 17, 1983 – Trying to get it
It's after 10 at night, the phone rings, I pick up, and the caller announces, "Michael! This is John!" Then he launches into a monologue I can barely follow, while I'm trying to figure who "John" might be. I don't know any Johns very well. It takes a few moments to realize that this is Cassavetes speaking. Surprised – no, stunned – I wish I'd listened harder to his initial barrage of sentences. The man is very enthusiastic about something. I'm trying to get my bearings while he's praising me for an interview we'd done six months before, the last time we'd spoken. During the interview he'd stopped suddenly and said, "This isn't going well," and I said, "Trust me, I see your words as printed sentences as you're saying them, and this is going very well." Now it seems he agrees, and that I know my business is something he respects. Of course this pleases me very much, but still his rap tonight doesn't compute – my impression of the man is that it's not like him to make conversation, and, at the moment, that's what he's doing. The thought occurs: maybe he's drunk. In his circles, as in mine, people often are.
Now he's saying that he's gotten a deal to direct Love Streams. Do I remember the play?
Yes, but more vaguely than I admit. A year, no, it was two years ago, John produced a trilogy of plays written by himself and Ted Allan. Love Streams was Allan's, and what, if I am honest, do I retain of it? An airy Jon Voight never quite connecting with the material, while Gena Rowlands played with that same material as a child plays in fresh-fallen snow, totally involved, utterly captivating. What I remembered most painfully, however, was how after the play John took about 20 of us to Ma Maison, where I drank too much and made an ass of myself, really made an ass of myself, conversing with two famous women. I wasn't used to dining with stars and I proved it.
But the play ... there was this dog ... strangest dog I've ever seen, because it wasn't really a dog, it was a man. That is, the dog was played by a man. The man – Neil Bell – wore no doggy make-up, wore nothing on his well-molded body but shorts. He had reddish hair and beard, and serious, penetrating, dog-like eyes. But why did we believe he was a dog? It wasn't only because his physical imitation was perfect – he growled, leapt, flinched and panted so very like a dog. It was that Neil Bell found that place where dogs and people understand one another; rather than just imitating a canine, Bell played that area of understanding. In what was otherwise a relentlessly realistic play, we accepted his dog-ness without question. I can't quote a line of the play, but I will always remember that dog-man leaping over furniture, growling, backing Jon Voight up against a wall.
And, now that I think of it, I remember very well another play of the trilogy (though not its title), written by Cassavetes, where Peter Falk is being questioned on the witness stand about killing his wife. The lawyer asks, "Did you love your wife?" Falk looks at the lawyer, looks away, thinks, looks at him again, says: "On which day?"
Meanwhile, on the phone, Cassavetes is saying of Love Streams, "Every bit of it there's no melodrama, it's just misplaced sincerity all the way through."
He is in the midst of his thought while I'm faking my half of the call, trying to catch up. He describes what he thinks will be the last shot of the film: a dog barking in the rain. "So it's the dog's picture! He has the last word!"
Now Cassavetes comes round to why he's called. He's always thought it would be interesting to have a book written on the day-to-day making of a film. To his knowledge, it's never been done. He wants not a book about filmmaking but about "the play between the people who make the film and the ideas within the film."
"It would be a daring book, a tough book," he says. Would I be interested in writing it?
Quickly I say yes. And stammer about how honored I feel to be invited, a subject in which John is not much interested.
He talks on while I'm kind of weirded out, as we used to say. Cassavetes is an inclusive man, he'll talk and listen to anybody high or low; but he's also a deeply private man. It doesn't seem like Cassavetes to want somebody staring at him, taking down his every word, making a book of the quicksilver ups and downs of his days. Yet he wants this book very much, he's talking now about its possibilities as enthusiastically as he's talked about his film, while I'm wondering if it's possible to catch what some people call "the creative process." Even if you watch its actions, can it truly be seen? Also ... I suspect John Cassavetes is not the easiest man to be around on a daily basis.
I make the mistake of saying the word "genius." That is, calling him one. His response is sharp: "There are no geniuses. It's just a lot of fucking hard work and trying to get it."
We get off the phone and I want to pour a drink, but – doctor's orders – I'm not drinking this year, nor smoking either, alas. My ticker's been on the fritz. It would have been good to toast the honor I've been bestowed – before telling my wife (we've been married five months this day) that all our plans from now through August are cancelled.
Now-through-August is pre-production and shooting of Love Streams.
She takes the news gracefully, and has the generosity to be excited for me. She knows John and I go back a long way, longer than John knows.
In 1956, when I was an 11-year-old street-kid in a Brooklyn slum, I'd play hooky from school and use my 25-cents-for-lunch to go to a movie, any movie, whatever was playing. For me, as a kid, movies didn't have titles, they weren't directed, and I cared for no actors whose names weren't John Wayne, Tony Curtis, or Marilyn Monroe. Rather, to me movies were another order of existence, a fascinating form of life that ran parallel to the cockroach realities of my streets. I'd see any picture, often sitting through a double-feature twice, to experience this strange enhanced cinematic "other world" – very other, but somehow more real than ours. One day in 1956 I forgot very quickly (and didn't re-discover until decades later) the title of the picture I was seeing, Edge of the City. What struck me (and that is not a cliché, I was struck) was a black man such as I had never been exposed to (for I knew not one), a man of complexity, humor, strength, and grace – my street-prejudices would never be the same, I was so impressed with this man. It wasn't until years later that I'd fasten to him the name Sidney Poitier. The white man he befriended struck me just as hard, for he was the first I'd seen on screen who was like us – a person who embodied the street as I knew it. Edgy, contradictory, tense with violence and a desperate grace. You wanted to like him, but there was something about him you didn't trust. You wanted to dislike him, but there was something about him you couldn't help liking. Years later I would see that John Cassavetes never played to be liked or disliked, but played for both at once. As a kid, all I saw was someone I recognized. A real street-guy, not (as with James Dean and Marlon Brando) an artist's concoction. At that age I couldn't articulate my impression, and I forgot or never registered John's name, but he revealed to me this: what I knew to be genuine could find its place on the screen.
Years later, still innocent of the mechanics of cinema, I got off work as a typist in Manhattan and wandered into a theater called the Little Carnegie, around the corner (or was it down the block?) from Carnegie Hall, to see a movie, any movie. The movie was Faces. I was 22 or 23. I left that movie frightened, wishing I'd never seen it, but wanting to see it again. Its people behaved as irrationally, as compulsively, as the people of my life – as I did myself. Faces was a confirmation I did not desire: that craziness was normal, and that normal was insane. In a word, it helped me face growing up.
I was working a typing job in Boston in 1970 when Husbands was released there. In the course of 10 days I saw Husbands five times. After the first time I rounded up anyone I could find to go with me, and our friendships deepened or ended on whether or not, and to what degree, theygot that film. For here were men like my father, like my uncles, heroic precisely to the degree that they were not heroes, trying and failing every day to live a normal life. They would always fail and, in some screwed up way, they would always try. And this film made that beautiful. Who else had ever honestly conferred the quality of beauty upon such men?
As for A Woman Under the Influence, by then I was writing for the Austin Sun, my first writing gig. Woman played Austin in the spring of 1975. Watching Woman I saw not only my own childhood but the family-life of all my relatives. My cousin Rocco visited me and his first act upon seeing me was to lift me off my feet (Rocco is strong), saying, "Did you see that movie!?" I knew he was speaking of Woman. "Isn't that the way it was?! I kept sayin', 'Ok, now he's gonna lie,' but he never lied."
Then ... 1979, Los Angeles. Ginger Varney and I helmed the film section of LA Weekly. In those days before videos, Los Angeles boasted more "revival" theaters than any city in the world. A dozen at least. On Melrose Avenue, a block or so from Paramount Studios, on the south side of the street, there was a revival house that I believe was called The Continental, where one night they featured a rare screening of A Woman Under the Influence. Ginger and I plugged it in our paper, thinking we'd draw crowds. There was almost no one. Then, just before the film screened, John Cassavetes entered with a gaggle of friends. His friends were dismayed – they'd expected a full house, a kind of party. Cassavetes tried to appear undismayed, but his eyes were crazy. The picture began. The film broke. Was mended. Continued. Broke. Several times. It was excruciating. And every time it broke Cassavetes cackled. When it was all thankfully over, I went to him and asked to shake his hand. Names weren't exchanged. His eyes asked, "Friend or phony?" Mine tried to convey, "Friend." He shook my hand. I never expected to see him again.
John and I finally met professionally in 1981, through my function as a journalist. There was a screening of Woman at USC. I was asked to moderate a discussion with John and Gena after the film. I arrived early, saw him across the lobby, walked toward him, and while I was still several yards away he said, "Ventura, right? I know by the walk."
I never quite got that one.
Now this night, March 17, 1983 ... John calls me. He doesn't know he's calling the kid who saw him in '56, or all those other versions of me, to whom he's meant so much.
I tell my wife, "I've gotta be careful not to hero-worship this fucker."
"Well he is a hero."
"Then recognize that. Just don't worship him."CHAPTER 2
THURSDAY, MARCH 24 – No more room on the napkin
We're to meet at John's production office and discuss the book. This morning over tea (no more coffee, doctor's orders), I re-read my interview of the summer before.
Cassavetes: "I'm a totally intuitive person. I mean, I think about things that human beings would do, but I am just guessing – so I don't really have a preconceived vision of a way a performer should perform, or of 'the character.' I don't believe in 'the character.' Once the actor's playing that part, that's the person. And it's up to that person to go in and do anything he can. If it takes the script this way and that, I let it do it. But that's because I really am more an actor than a director. And I appreciate that there might be secrets in people. And that that might be more interesting than a 'plot.'"
As I read I hear his voice. The page does no justice to the way he says appreciate. Spoken, he said: "And I apPREciate that there might be secrets in people – and that – that might be more interesting than a 'plot.'" His eyebrows shot up on secrets and slammed down on plot.
"I like actors, and I depend on them a lot. I depend on them to think. And to be honest. And to say, 'That never would happen to me, I don't believe it.' And to try to decipher what is defense and what is a real irregularity in someone's behavioral pattern. And then I try to find some kind of positive way to make a world exist like a family – make a family, not of us, behind the camera, not of the actors but of the characters."
"A shared world?" I'd asked.
"That they can patrol certain streets, patrol their house, and – that's what I feel people do, they know their way home. And when they cease to know the way home, things go wrong."
"How do you mean, know the way home?"
"You somehow, drunk or sober or any other way, you always find your way back to where you live. And then you get detoured. And when you can't find your way home, that's when I consider it's worth it to make a film. 'Cause that's interesting."
I notice this morning what I didn't during the interview. In those last sentences, Cassavetes shifted from talking about characters to talking in a kind of first-person "you," then shifted from "you" to "I." Had he lost his way home, and could nothing but making another film get him home again?
It's not the kind of question I ask people because I feel it's none of my business. Still, it feels like a question that won't go away. And it occurs to me, uncomfortably, that what is and isn't my business could become a sticky issue during the course of this book.
The offices of Cannon Films are in a building near Sunset and Vine. Seventy years ago on that corner, where a bank now stands, there was a big old barn. Cecil B. DeMille set up production offices in that barn when he directed The Squaw Man, the first feature-length movie shot in Hollywood. D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Mack Sennett were in town by then, so were Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, making one- and two-reelers. Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks would arrive soon. The hills were green and flowered, there were many farms, and they say you could smell the sea all the way into the city. Now, what with the smog, you have to stand on the beach to smell the sea. But would-be filmmakers still flock here for the same reasons that brought DeMille 75 years ago and Cassavetes 25 years ago. Movies can be made anywhere, but you still can't be part of the filmmaking community anywhere else.
Excerpted from Cassavetes Directs by Michael Ventura. Copyright © 2007 Michael Ventura. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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