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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to John Cassavetes

When we talk about the American New Wave in filmmaking, directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick usually pop into our heads. More than of these legends, perhaps, the shift in the filmmaking sensibilities of American independent cinema can be attributed to the enigmatic artistic investigations of John Cassavetes.

Before starting out as an actor, the only reason Cassavetes joined acting school after being kicked of college due to his poor academic performance was because his friends told him that there were a lot of girls there. Eventually, he discovered that he had a penchant for the performing arts and ended up starring in some of the definitive masterpieces of the 20th century like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

However, his biggest contribution to the world of cinema remains the endlessly innovative directorial oeuvre that he left behind. Due to his intricate understanding of acting, his films focus on the raw power of uncanny performances and explore the human condition through an uncompromising cinéma vérité aesthetic framework.

As a tribute to the unsung hero of the American New Wave, we take a look at some of the most fascinating directorial efforts of the pioneering auteur John Cassavetes.

John Cassavetes’ six definitive films:

Shadows (1959)

Although Shadows was one of Cassavetes’ early works, it was a surprisingly polished effort by the burgeoning filmmaker. The film was an investigation of the fraught race relations in America during a period where the Beat Generation was pushing the boundaries of counter-culture.

Set in New York during the 1960s, the film engages in an all-too-real commentary on the superficial racial prejudices that plague American society. Shadows changed American independent filmmaking forever and even nabbed the Critics Award for its originality at the Venice Film Festival.

Faces (1968)

A fantastic example of how Cassavetes developed his own brand of cinéma vérité aesthetics, Faces explores many of the same themes that Cassavetes was obsessed with in his early years. It documents the destabilisation of the corrupt institution of marriage through the story of an unhappy couple.

Since the beginning, Cassavetes had the ability to construct an uncomfortably incisive journey into the bowels of human relationships and Faces is no exception. It was lauded by filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman for redefining American cinema.

A Woman Under The Influence (1974)

Cassavetes’ blinding magnum opus is probably one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces that America has ever produced, ranking alongside the likes of Sunset Boulevard and 2001: A Space Odyssey but existing in a completely different and impenetrable space of its own.

My favourite horror film of all time, A Woman Under The Influence stars Gena Rowlands as an indecipherable suburban housewife whose eccentricities are so innocent that they threaten to destroy the social fabric of American civilisation. No other film has ever reconfigured the Uncanny Other as Cassavetes has done here.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

This 1976 effort by Cassavetes is a definitive interpretation of the neo-noir genre, starring Ben Gazzara as the owner of a shady nightclub that gets into trouble with the mob. Despite the owner’s serious passion for the art that his club offers, his customers are only there to enjoy the vulgarity.

While working on this particular character, Gazzara thought that the owner was a fictional reflection of Cassavetes himself. According to the actor, Cassavetes was just like the passionate owner whose perception of his art was completely different from the people who flocked to see it.

Opening Night (1977)

Cassavetes’ follow up to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was perhaps a more accomplished work in comparison even though they both have their unique appeals. Rowlands stars as a stage actress who experiences a nervous breakdown after being haunted by the death of one of her ardent admirers.

Just like in A Woman Under The Influence, Rowlands is flawless in her portrayal of a woman slowly going insane under the pressure of intense psychological trauma. Coupled with that masterpiece, these form Cassavetes’ own unique takes on the wildly popular horror genre.

Love Streams (1984)

The final independent film that Cassavetes ever made, Love Streams proved that he still had what it takes to be an innovator even in one’s last years. Cassavetes participates as an actor, playing the role of an alcoholic writer who meets his sister (Rowlands) after years spent away from each other.

Sticking with his unorthodox style, Love Streams might be uncomfortable viewing for audiences used to restrained dramatic economies but it is still an essential watch because it widens one’s horizons about what it means to be human. The film is routinely cited as one of the greatest American films ever made.