23 June 2013

Method and Madness in Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence

A funny thing happened to me on the way to adulthood. My mother was bi polar. And alcoholic. This made my childhood "interesting." Actually what it was is something that modern educators would refer to as "challenging." I faced "challenges" like not feeling I was to blame or not feeling traumatized or worrying that she'd have a manic episode when I had a friend over or worrying that I inherited whatever she had and would go starkers myself some day (jury still out).

It's been several decades since I was a kid and mom died almost 12 years ago and I've had a string of shrinks to recount my experiences with it and I've 12 stepped and learned all about letting go. So yeah I'm fine now. Maybe better than fine. Maybe so full of recovery and insight and introspection and personal re-inventions that I'm far wiser than your average Joe or Josephine. Then again maybe the post traumatic stress disorder from my youth will never go away and my eccentricities will only become more exaggerated and I've become something of oddity straddling the worlds of sanity and insanity with the dexterity of a 12 year old gymnast. Who am I to judge.

All of this preamble is for purposes of relating to you that earlier today I watched for the first time John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence (1974). I think it's a good thing that it was this late in the proverbial game before I saw the film because it was difficult enough today to watch the story of a loony wife and mother (Gena Rowlands as Mabel). Been there done that and not ready for a repeat performance.

Sit through it today I did but not without looking away a few times. The power of the film was all the greater because Mabel's husband Nick (Peter Falk) was quite the headcase himself. (My dad was a paragon. Except he never could sort out what to do about ma.)

I'm a relative newcomer to Cassavete's and I've to to say he's aces in my book. AWUTI is another huge point in his favor. It's difficult to write about -- at least for me based on my own experiences -- but I can affirm that is a rich and wonderful experience being not so much a slice of life as a big dripping chunk of it complete with seeds.

Mabel is a housewife. She smokes she drinks to much and it's not that she marches to the beat of her own drummer so much as she conducts unseen drummers with a flick of the wrist. What at first appears to be idiosyncratic behavior quickly blends seamlessly into madness as she wonders into a bar and picks up a stranger who she takes home. Our Mabel does not act out of nymphomania or vitriol against her husband or out of neglect for her three young uns. She just acts. Social conventions are best ignored in her mind and any moment is rife for a party. A father drops of his kids to play with Mabel's and she insists that he join in their fun which includes a spontaneous party and her dancing and whatever whim pops into mind. The dad decides to take his kids home. Its hard to blame him.

Nick is the foreman of a construction crew so can easily afford their middle class home in a bucolic LA neighborhood. He is variously apologetic and sympathetic and enraged by his pixilated wife. Nick is prone to rages of the very scary kind and has little impulse control. While Mabel is safely tucked away at an institution for treatment he spontaneously yanks the kids out of school and with a co worker takes them to the beach where he is most insistent on their having fun. Perhaps to assure this he lets them sip from his beer on the way home.

Anyone familiar with Cassavetes will now that though he writes the screenplays the films seem largely improvisational and outside the leads most of the actors are not professionals. In AWUTI Cassavettes utilized his and Rowlands's parents to play the in laws. There is a rawness a sense of reality to films like AWUTI. It is not a documentary style because actions and characters have a stylized reality which allows them to put subtle exclamation points throughout the film. Pacing is at times strained and some scenes seemingly drag until one sees where they end up. The long focus on the mundane gives special meaning to the unusual as when Mabel looks into the mouth of a man singing at her dining room table.

Cassavetes films are intoxicating for the manner in which they punctuate life. There is to me a sense of reality and fantasy about his pictures. By refusing to follow such film conventions as good and bad guys and by heaping on piles of ambiguity Cassavetes in films like this forces viewers to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. For the more pedestrian movie goer this can be frustrating but I find it liberating and exciting at the same I am discomfited. Particularly when the film recalls my own turbulent childhood.

And it is not an oh by the way to point out that Rowlands' performance is of the once in a lifetime category.

1 comment:

Tudor Queen said...

Women Under the Influence is my favorite Cassavetes film, mainly because of the performances. I think Rowlands deserved the Oscar that year, and will never forget her utterly natural reaction of shock to winning the Golden Globe. And she looked absolutely gorgeous.