In 1968, John Cassavetes stood out even in a year when radicalized artists were becoming the norm. He wrote, directed, and self-financed a film about American middle-aged people from the upper-middle class who were the counter to the counterculture. He said that this class was from where most of the radical youth came—and that bridging the generation gap was critical.
Cassavetes wanted to focus on marriage, perhaps not the most obvious source of conflict that comes to mind when thinking about the late 60s, but one that was especially being fractured by social pressures. He argued that being married was a trap, forcing people to drift along in their lives, too scared to leave even when circumstances dictated that it was the best option.
Faces opens in a screening room. Before the title appears, there’s a sales-pitch taking place, the selling of a film. One man says, rather pedantically, “We call it the, uh…Dolce Vita of the commercial field.” Another seems to go off script,
No, no. That’s not what I mean at all. We were talking facts and figures until we practically went out of our minds. Losses, gains, ratings, schmatings. You can lose your mind if you keep analyzing things like that. Then we came up with an impressionistic document that shocks.
With the characters, we watch the screen in the room; the title of the film being watched appears: “Faces.”
What are we watching? Is it the Cassavetes film, Faces? Or a different film that just happens to have the same title? The point is that we can never be sure of what film we’re watching—Cassavetes tries to shake us out of our own bad habits, our assumptions about what we think we see.
It’s not just a purely academic exercise, either. As Cassavetes put it, “To tell the truth as someone else sees it is, to me, much more important and enlightening.” It’s important to keep in mind that, at this point, we’re not even completely sure what’s happening. Richard Forst, the same middle-aged man in the screening room to whom the film was being pitched, is at a bar with Freddie Draper, his friend, picking up Jeannie Rapp, a prostitute. They go back to her place.
They laugh, sing, dance, carry on. Under the airs of joviality, the two men compete for Jeannie. Richard is winning. But the mood is broken when Freddie rudely asks Jeannie, “What’d you charge?” The two men depart, going their separate ways.
Richard goes home to Maria, his wife. Desperation hangs heavy in the air. They joke about his being late and smelling of alcohol, talk about their friends’ marriage problems, argue about what to do that night: Maria wants to see the new Bergman film; Richard doesn’t—he finds Bergman depressing.
An unbelievably awkward bedroom scene (which may or may not be a flashback) prompts Richard to tell Maria that he wants a divorce. Richard calls Jeannie and leaves. Maria goes out with her friends.
Although the signs are there, it’s amazing how fast, even in a real-time sense, Richard and Maria’s marriage collapses. A house is not a home, after all. Cassavetes commented that
when you can’t find your way home, that’s when I consider it’s worth it to make a film. Because that’s interesting. People are interested in people that are really in trouble. Not pretending to be.
Richard returns to Jeannie’s place to find two men already there, the younger man sucking up to his colleague, who is Richard’s age and clearly desires Jeannie. Verbal sparring turns into a physical fight between Richard and his rival. After winning in an almost comical way, Richard reconciles with the two men through small talk and a hasty promise to meet for lunch sometime. The two men leave. Richard and Jeannie spend the night together.
Maria and her friends pick up Chet, a younger playboy (and seducer of businessmen’s wives), and go back to Maria’s house. Chet takes turns flirting with the women, until he settles on Maria. The other women leave; Chet and Maria spend the night together.
The dual narratives of Richard and Maria feature excessive partying by men and women who cover up their fear of being embarrassed by playing it cool, often by telling jokes. They numb their feelings with copious amounts of alcohol. Beneath it all is a heavily conformist attitude that transforms every relationship into a winner-takes-all competition.
Equally as radical as the story about the upper-middle-class is the way that Faces was made. Cassavetes was well ahead of the New Hollywood movement that was abandoning traditional film making methods favored by the Old Hollywood studio system. When a lawyer told him in 1964 it was impossible to finance his own film, Cassavetes did it anyway. He used a small crew and refused economic measures, such as reduced time for rehearsals, filming fewer takes, or shooting scenes out of sequence.
Furthermore, he worked out conceptually how to create more open-ended and dynamic performances by streamlining the technical process of filming. For example, he had no director of photography (DP) or cinematographer credited in the film. He also waited to write and shoot scenes until the actors’ performances in previous scenes could be taken into account.
Cassavetes cared more about the freedom of actors, lighting every part of the set, than he did for aesthetic beauty, preferring that the film look as raw as what was being filmed. He said, “If it’s too perfect, you don’t believe it.”
He further refined the New Hollywood practice of using amateur actors. Lynn Carlin (Maria) was Robert Altman’s secretary. When John Marley (Richard), who worked with Cassavetes on A Child Is Waiting (1963), complained that he had to act alongside Carlin, Cassavetes told her what he had said to heighten their antagonism on screen.
Seymour Cassel (Chet) had little experience and lapsed into overacting on his first day. Cassavetes threatened to fire him which motivated his live-wire performance with the women. His stopping a dance with one of the women, admitting out loud that they were embarrassing themselves, humiliates her, causing her sudden exit. It’s a crucial moment, and Cassel is brilliant, keeping us guessing as to what his motives really are.
Gena Rowlands (Jeannie), the most recognized actor and Cassavetes’s wife, is heart-breaking, especially in her response to Freddie’s reminding her of her profession. She doesn’t seduce Richard, as much as subtly flatter him.
Cassel is remarkably gentle with Carlin (as Maria), who has a perceptibly nervous look, when they’re in her bedroom. The next morning, he wakes to find her unconscious, having attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills. In a rather graphic scene, he revives her. Showing genuine anger, he berates her for having nothing to say for herself.
Faces is group art, set up by Cassavetes’s collaborating with his actors, all people he knew. Cassavetes credited them with giving the film an honesty that was as compassionate as it was revealing. Without their assistance, Faces, starting with the screening room scene, might have become more of an acting out of Cassavetes’s anger about being fired from A Child Is Waiting, where he fought with Burt Lancaster, who had a starring role, and Stanley Kramer, the film’s producer (who finished directing the film and made many changes with which Cassavetes would have disagreed).
In a good mood after his night with Jeannie, Richard comes home and goes upstairs, just as Chet leaps out onto the roof and escapes. This scene was shaped by Cassavetes’s asking Marley and Cassel how they would act in that situation.
Richard confronts Maria. She tells him she couldn’t care less about his threatening physical violence. Both exhausted, the film ends—a captivating image of Cassavetes’s artistic vision: “The emotion was improvisation. The lines were written.”[This essay is excerpted from a chapter on my book on Cassavetes (under revision). Quotes and background on Faces are from Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001).]