Often misunderstood in his lifetime yet critically revered posthumously in the now-golden age of independent cinema, American actor-cum-director John Cassavetes is one of those artists who was maybe too far ahead of his time.
You can only wonder what the granddaddy of American cinéma vérité – who cast friends and family and favoured hand-held cameras and everyday lighting – would have made of the pioneering, offbeat and yet wildly successful Sundance Festival, for example. Or even of 21st century reality TV.
That’s not to say Cassavetes’s best, most powerful films – A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – have anything in common with Celebrity Rehab. But the same nakedness of emotion and renegade spirit is evident.
Smart money says those intriguing concepts and plenty more like them will be swirling in the ether during a Cassavetes retrospective titled Masks and Faces: The Films of John Cassavetes and launching today (July 14) at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. (It runs until July 31).
Of particular note to fans and film nerds are three in-person appearances by Cassavetes’s widow, muse and frequent star, Gena Rowlands. Tonight, Rowlands discusses her work with the director during an In Conversation With…, returning later to introduce her Oscar-nominated performance in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) at 8:45 pm co-starring the late Peter Falk.
On Friday (July 15) at 6:30 pm, Rowlands introduces Cassavetes’s second feature, Faces (1968).
Ironically, it was Cassavetes’s highly successful work as an actor within the Hollywood system he rejected (see his classic roles in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen and 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) that helped finance his own offbeat films.
As part of its programming, Masks and Faces: The Films of John Cassavetes presents those films plus 1976’s Mikey and Nicky in addition to all of Cassavetes own films save his disavowed final film, Big Trouble.
As the TIFF programmers note: Cassavetes’s dedication to his craft and his pioneering commitment to making emotionally honest films outside the studio system, inspired both his contemporaries in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a whole generation of film artists that would emerge and define the American independent film movement of the 1970s onward including such major contemporary directors as his friend Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn, and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Like many great filmmakers - Fassbinder, Godard, Pasolini - Cassavetes offers a reflection of his society in response to this grand illusion, a portrait of America suffocating its people with glossy dreams and illusions of happiness.