John Cassavetes is known today as the father of American independent film, a pioneering writer, director, editor, actor who managed to make movies on his own terms, and has since inspired two generations of filmmakers. In his own day, however, he couldn’t catch a break–unappreciated and unseen by most of the public, lambasted by critics. But what contemporaries didn’t understand about Cassavetes’s movies may actually be his message. What can he teach us about authenticity and the ways in which we confront and avoid our own emotions? Wes & Erin give an analysis of Cassavetes’s best-known film, 1974’s “A Woman Under the Influence.”
This podcast is part of the Airwave Media podcast network. Visit AirwaveMedia.com to listen and subscribe to other Airwave shows like Food with Former New York Times food journalist and bestselling author Mark Bittman; and Movie Therapy, in which Siskel & Ebert meets Dear Abby.
Thanks to Nick Ketter for the audio editing on this episode.
Erin: So, Wes, do you know the famous story about Richard Dreyfuss watching this movie?
Wes: I actually have heard it because I…
Erin: Oh, shoot! Okay, I was betting on you not having heard it.
Wes: Maybe I should have lied about that.
Erin: Should I try it again and say, “What’s the story, Erin?”
Wes: Okay, but I’m sure many listeners don’t know.
Erin: Yeah. So the story goes that Cassavetes obviously had released several movies before 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence, and no one had really seen them, and he wasn’t… he would have to literally walk with the canisters of film under his arms and go to local movie theaters and beg them to play his movie. So nobody was really seeing them. I guess one night, Richard Dreyfuss was out and he got… it’s told different ways at different times. But he got super drunk, he was in his days or something, he kind of wandered into this movie theater that happens to be playing A Woman Under the Influence. And the very next day he was booked on Johnny Carson. So he goes on the Tonight Show and says that he saw this movie that was so amazing and upset him so much that he went home and threw up.
Erin: So Johnny Carson’s, you know, viewers, I guess, were so intrigued by the idea of a movie that was capable of making Richard Dreyfuss throw up that it became Cassavetes’s only mildly commercially successful movie because everybody wanted to see it for that reason. So he gave it this tremendous free publicity, and I guess we have him to thank for… maybe for Cassavetes being taken as seriously as he is now just because of Dreyfus’s plug for it. It did see a wider audience, and then as a result, it got a couple of Oscar nominations, and it was… Cassavetes started to be taken a little bit more seriously, I think from then on.
Wes: With my ignorance of film history before you introduced this to me, I think the name might have sounded familiar, but I knew nothing about it, and I didn’t know that Cassavetes was an independent filmmaker. I only knew him from Rosemary’s Baby, which is one of my favorite films, and I loved him in that, and then of course, he was in The Dirty Dozen,right?
Wes: So he was not only an independent filmmaker, but he was very dedicated and willing to put all of this energy into it and to make all these sacrifices regardless of whether the movies were going to be seen. So he put $750,000 of his own money into this film and re-mortgaged his house. And Peter Falk ended up -who plays the lead role, he’s Nick- I think, put $500,000 of his own money into the movie, and then he had film students do a lot of the work on the movie, and it’s pretty amazing.
Erin: His mom and his mother-in-law played two of the roles, which is…
Wes: Right. That’s one way to cut costs.
Erin: Exactly. Exactly.
Wes: His wife plays the lead role, is…
Erin: And the kids are… I think the oldest child, I think that’s Seymour Cassel’s kid, and the others were kids of people on the crew or friends.
Wes: Yeah, I think the four-year-old is the daughter of the guy who… I forget the name of the character, but he’s in the beach scene with her, and she’s… the other kids are professional actors, but the four-year-old is not, and Cassavetes tells this wonderful story of how she was actually a really terrible actress… [laughter]
Wes: …and she would ruin shots, if you did a wide shot, because she would mug for the camera. So she was a terrible actress under those circumstances. But if you did a close up of her, then she suddenly became wonderful. So you get all these close up shots of her face in the film looking… they’re kind of heartbreaking shots.
Erin: She looks like a little Rafael cherub or something.
Wes: Yeah, responding to all this chaos around her. One of the other bits of background trivia I remember is that he was friends with Scorsese and that Scorsese got… pulled a few strings to get the movie shown in theaters as well.
Erin: A lot of people think that Mean Streets, for instance, wouldn’t have been possible without Cassavetes. And a lot of Scorsese’s work was really influenced by him in addition to their kind of, you know, friendship.
Wes: So there’s an interview with him and Gena Rowlands, and it’s really great, about the film and the making of the film. And listening to him describe his technique as a director and the amount of effort and sacrifice they all put into this is pretty amazing, including, you know, certain scenes had to be… I think there’s one scene that he rehearsed for two days, one small scene -I forget which one it is now- before shooting. And he also had a reputation for not giving actors very much verbal feedback, leaving them kind of in doubt or doing weird things, like, I think he berated his wife for a while before one of those scenes in which she’s very distraught, so he berates her, they have a fight on set, and then he’s like, “All right, action!” [laughter]
Erin: Yeah, he was… it kind of bordered on abuse at certain points, but it was always coming from such a… like a place of love and empathy for the actors, as sort of a strange… I mean, it was like he was a God on the set, and he was, you know, sort of torturing people for their own good or something like that. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. So we wonder how much of him is in Nick, who’s someone who likes to be very emotive, let’s say, likes to yell a lot. And actually, Cassavetes wrote this for Gena Rowlands initially as a play because she asked him to write something about problems of contemporary difficulties faced by contemporary women. Initially, it was going to be a play, and then she thought that it would be impossible to do something that emotionally difficult, day in and day out, right, to repeat the performance over and over again. So it became a movie.
Erin: She literally, I think, would have been dead after three nights of this. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah. And it’s hard to watch.
Erin: Well, that’s kind of what I wanted to ask about. You know, the Richard Dreyfuss story getting started here, because I saw you watch it for the first time, and I was kind of curious if, you know, you went home later and threw up or something like…
Erin: Whether or not you think that’s a valid reaction? Or was it just Richard Dreyfuss impressing Johnny Carson on The Late Night Show?
Wes: No, I didn’t have that reaction. It’s a movie that relies a lot on… You know. it’s not relying a lot on suspense. It relies a lot on character and being absorbed in the minutia of what’s going on between characters in the film. And there’s a cinéma vérité quality to it, and the film seems improvised. It’s that natural. It’s that realistic. And so you are sort of sucked into how authentic and real it feels, apart from the subject matter. And then on top of that, you know, you have a difficult subject matter about a woman who is odd and is… she’s in a lot of distress, but it’s not just her distress that affects you. It’s her strangeness and her weird text, her… she engages in a lot of what… well, we’ll talk about that in the second. It’s almost like she’s a mime in some ways, or engaging in slapstick…
Wes: …and then, of course, ends up in the mental hospital, and returns from the mental hospital, and there’s a lot of abusive behavior from Nick, yelling. And although there’s also a lot of compassionate behavior, too, so it kind of jerks you around that way. But for the most part, the movie is really tense. For me it’s difficult to watch, but it’s not like something that I come away from disturbed. How about you?
Erin: Well, the first time I saw it… I mean, this really was my entree into experimental film, or into not having a purely enjoyable and or entertaining experience in film, I think. I was… I think I was about 14 or 15 when I saw this for the first time on my own just interest from seeing the cover in my public library, and at that point I had seen… I actually kind of… I think I saw it at the perfect time, maybe, because I had seen some Italian neo-realist films, early ones, with my grandmother, things like Rome, Open City and even some early Fellini and Bicycle Thieves and some other things which were, you know, still pre-New Wave, sort of just on the cusp and still had a plot, a very particular one. I mean, they were incredibly sad movies, many of them. But they had a very recognizable arc to them. And so… and then I saw this movie. I was so uncomfortable with what was happening on an emotional level, on a.. you know, I mean, it’s kind of designed to induce discomfort, as if you’re actually with these people. I mean, you point something out there about the fact that it feels improvised. I mean, I think most people who watch these movies just assume, and it’s become kind of part of the conventional wisdom about these movies, was that they were improvised somehow. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s very tightly scripted. And it feels…
Wes: Yeah. Cassavetes said right there, that absolutely nothing was improvised.
Erin: Right. And it feels very loose, and it feels like nothing is… You know, it’s sort of shapeless. He was accused by a lot of critics of having these shapeless scenes. And in fact, the scenes are always moving in certain directions. The difficulty that people have, I think, and the difficulty that I had with it the first couple of times they saw it, was how long he holds the scenes, how long the scenes go on for, and because of that, you see these people in these extended scenarios that another director would have had a very specific purpose for the scene, cut it after a certain point when you felt as though, okay, the purpose of that scene had been accomplished. And obviously Cassavetes is writing this too, you know, like he was going to keep the scene going because he had more dialogue to go through. But what that allows you to do is actually kind of discover who these people are just by spending time with them, so that by the end you feel very, very familiar with them. And he really… he understood the way people talk. He understood, for instance, that a lot of people just say things like they don’t… the dialogue that we say on a normal basis is usually just a cover for something else. And so it’s very difficult to kind of get to the heart of who a person is and to the emotions and the intentions underneath the dialogue. So he realized, like in real life, obviously in a movie, dialogue has a specific purpose for advancing the plot. But he thought that in real life people were never quite saying what they mean, or they would say something, and really they would mean something else. They would use it as a kind of a cover. So what he did in his movies was he put in a lot of, kind of, BS dialogue basically, and then watch that sort of unravel, and you would watch the cover of the dialogue, what it actually meant underneath the surface. The camera was held on people long enough so that you could understand what they were actually really trying to say, and see the defenses that they had, and then the ticks that the dialogue was hiding, etcetera. So that that produces a lot of discomfort in people, I think, because it’s very emotionally raw when you spend that much time with characters in a scene, and it makes people, I think, embarrassed. And that’s why a lot of critics didn’t like his work. I think that’s why Pauline Kale didn’t like his work, for instance.
Wes: That’s a very good point about the extended scenes and the way in which you stay with people. And the fact that dialogue, in a sense, is not doing as much work is what’s… well, the content of the dialogue is not doing as much work as it’s the people’s emotional expressions, so a lot relies on what you see in people’s faces. There are often close ups or just shots of Nick’s face or Mabel’s face, and the sorts of emotions conveyed by their facial expressions, which often shift pretty rapidly. So what’s absorbing about the film… you know, it never gets… there’s always the danger of that just getting boring, these extended scenes, and the lack of… the looseness of the plot and all that. What they rely on instead is character, and as you’ve pointed out, character as it’s conveyed through emotional tone and through visual stuff. And I think that’s especially true with Mabel, and that’s what’s… one of the fascinating things about her is you spend a few seconds looking at her face and all sorts of different expressions are moving across it. And then, on top of that, she has all these strange behaviors, which I try to spend some time thinking about what they meant exactly, or how to describe them, and maybe you might be able to do a better job than me. So sometimes she’s sort of muttering to herself, sometimes she’s almost like a mime- she’s… at certain points in the movie she looks like she’s saying things without saying something out loud, or she’s doing gestures in the way that a mime might. But the most frequent thing she does is kind of throws a hand up or maybe over the shoulder a little bit, and sometimes it’s with a thumb, like a gesture to say… and then she’ll make a sound with her mouth as well, like a…
Erin: …a raspberry, yeah.
Wes: Yeah. A raspberry sound. And what’s being conveyed by all that? What is she doing with that?
Erin: I think, you know, it’s an inappropriate sound, like she’s just an inappropriate person because she doesn’t know what is appropriate. She has obviously a lot of energy. She is described, in the very first scene with her mom, and then later when her children come home from school, as being nervous. So she has a lot of anxiety and nervous tension, which comes out a lot, where you feel like she’s kind of just barely holding on, and it releases in these strange ways. So she basically is like a very kind person, a very loving person who has nowhere to put that love in a socially acceptable way. And she has no idea what social acceptability really is or looks like. And so I think we’re supposed to be kind of embarrassed by the fact that she keeps making these weird gestures and funneling her energy into them in these strange ways so that she looks kind of spastic or or whatever. One of my favorite scenes.. probably my favorite scene in the whole movie, is the scene where she is waiting for the bus, for kids to get off the bus, and which, actually, Gena Rowlands says that that was her favorite scene, too. And she said every time she sees a woman waiting for kids to get off the bus, she thinks of Mabel and wonders what she’s doing. But anyway, before they get off the bus, and there’s this kind of glorious moment when she sees the bus coming up the street and she gets so excited that her kids are coming home. But prior to that, she’s walking down the street and she’s… she has these ridiculous pink socks on that are pulled up really high and this super, super short dress. And she has a like a zip-up sweater over this really short dress, and her hair is all disheveled, and it’s hard to tell that she is supposed to look disheveled because she’s Gena Rowlands so she always looks gorgeous, but… so she looks kind of odd, and everybody else on the street is walking purposefully and looks, you know, very put together like they’re going to work in the seventies: skirt, suits or whatever. And she doesn’t have a watch on, so she wants the time, because she’s waiting for her kids to get off the bus, she doesn’t exactly know what time it is, and so she starts going up to people on the street and saying, “Hey, do you have the time?” And she doesn’t understand how she’s coming off to other people. She doesn’t understand that she’s kind of accosting these people, or she’s coming off in this really aggressive way. And so everybody thinks… everybody she comes up to thinks that this must be like a homeless person, or someone with a lot of problems. And so they just try to get away from her as quickly as possible and have no idea that she’s just a gentle housewife who just is actually legitimately asking for the time and not going to hit them up for money or assault [laughter] them or something like that. And she doesn’t understand why people are acting so afraid of her because she knows that she’s not scary, but she can’t…
Wes: She doesn’t do the normal thing, which is to say, “Excuse me, do you have the time?” It’s just…
Wes: “…what time is it? My kids are coming back.”
Erin: Right. And so when she’s doing this thing with the thumb, she’s doing it to express something ineffable about the way that she feels and it’s actually kind of a pretty effective expression of like, you know, whatever. And… but she doesn’t understand how weird that looks and how inappropriate it is. Like, maybe, if she was four or five year old, it wouldn’t be that bad.
Wes: Exactly. Yeah. There’s a child like quality to it, and she’s dismissing something as unimportant or saying, you know, get a load of this person over here and there. Bullshit. She’s doing that because she’s unhappy with the women who have ignored… by the way those women are played by Gena Rowlands’ friends, apparently…
Wes: …not professional actresses. But, you know, you get a load of these people who are ignoring me, and I almost think of the Three Stooges and slapstick and, you know, like, “Why this guy?” And the raspberry sound. It’s almost like letting the air out of a punctured balloon or something. So to suggest that certain pretenses aren’t holding up. So she’s not doing what other people do, which is to hold some of this stuff in and live according to the typical pretenses of polite society. So I think that’s part of what she’s expressing with those gestures. Like the first time we see them is at the spaghetti dinner or lunch… or is it breakfast? I don’t know.
Wes: Spaghetti breakfast scene in which Nick has brought his whole crew home. That’s something else we have to talk about, why he needs his whole crew to confront her. [laughter] So he’s a laborer of some kind. It’s never exactly clear to me what they do. [laughter] They fix the water main, I know that, at one point.
Erin: Yeah, he’s like at public works. He works for the city.
Wes: Yeah, you know, And it’s… the night before, what’s delayed him is that he had to… you know, delayed date night, but she was supposed to show up, too, is a broken water main. And now it’s as if she’s the broken water main right. She’s the thing that is admitting all this, these inappropriate gestures and emotions and habits of behavior, [laughter] and it’s like he’s bringing his crew back to the house to try and fix her. Of course, they’re not really there to fix her, they’re there to be taken care of by her and have her make them spaghetti and that sort of her function in that context. But she wants to do more than that. So she ends up… because she’s flirting basically with these guys and acting in inappropriate ways. Nick gets angry and yells at her to sit down and she gets upset, and that’s the first time we start seeing her use those gestures. It’s not that she hasn’t been behaving oddly and having strange facial expressions up to that point, but I think that’s the first time we see her do the thumb over the shoulder thing.
Wes: Maybe I’m wrong about that, but… And meanwhile, while she’s doing that, he’s on the phone with his mother. You know, at one point he’ll come in and say, you know, “she’s got a pain in her abdomen.” I don’t know why he’s telling everyone that. That’s what made me think when, you know, when we saw it together, I asked you if that phone call was real or if it was like an excuse to ignore them and to get them to see that they had to leave, which is what they ended up doing, whether it’s real or not, she’s making those gestures, as if the phone call… as if he’s pretending that this is something of great urgency. You know, “my mother’s stomach pain” when it’s not. And you could say that in general, because Nick’s always yelling and is always acting as if everything involves this great sense of urgency, and you could read her behavior as trying to say that that’s all bullshit, those are pretenses that I see through.
Erin: Yeah. Nick is when he brings these guys home. There’s a strange contradiction in him, I think, where he is… he’s really unhappy when people acknowledge Mabel’s situation or whatever her problem is. But he’s also unhappy when they don’t acknowledge it. After he’s had her committed, there are several scenes where people are expressing their strange, you know, condolence and people actually being really nice to him and just trying to say like, “Hey, it’s okay, we could talk about this,” “you know, if you need anything, let me know,” and and some of it might be, I don’t know, maybe… it’s supposed to be kind of their BS in him, but they seem to really like Mabel and seem to be upset by it. And he gets really mad when they bring it up. And then when someone doesn’t bring it up, he brings it up and it’s like, “Aren’t you gonna say anything to me or…?” So he has this strange contradiction which I think really gets to what Cassavetes thinks is kind of wrong with men, [laughter] or men at this at this time, maybe. Just that men are these unexpressive people, that they suppress their emotions way, way too much. And the only time that they’re ever comfortable expressing their emotions is with this kind of, like fake public emotion. So he has all these guys come to the house even though it’s a completely inappropriate situation, and he keeps putting Mabel in these really uncomfortable situations so that things will be diluted in that public environment, and people won’t notice how he really feels about things, or he’s trying to cover up his real feelings by inviting people and making a big show of something so that he doesn’t have to confront anything like you say. And it’s a strange impulse on his part, because actually, when they’re alone together, they’re perfectly fine with each other. They’re very happy and very in love. It’s only when other people come in that there’s a huge problem. And Mabel kind of knows that and wants everybody to go away, and he knows that, and he wants everybody to come in.
Wes: Mm. That’s very good. Yeah.
Erin: So if they were just on a desert island alone together, they would have a perfect marriage. But he has this compulsion to have people over. And then he also is deeply embarrassed by his wife.
Wes: That’s really interesting. Your you’re reminding me of a scene near the beginning of the movie when they’re pulling up to fix the water main, and he tells one of the other guys to get out of the truck so he can talk to this one guy, and I think that’s the guy who ends up not coming to the coming home party. At the end, he realizes that it’s inappropriate. So he’s saying to this character, “she’s unusual, she’s not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy. This woman cooks, she sews. What the hell is crazy about that? I don’t understand what she’s doing. I admit that.” And then the other guy, I think he responds understandingly and ultimately he’s ready to get out of the truck and in the process of doing that, and Nick wants him to stay and then completely contradicts himself. And he’s like, “There’s something wrong with her She’s not like a normal person.” [laughter]
Wes: So “don’t say she’s crazy,” but really, he wants this guy to say that she’s crazy.
Erin: And this guy never even brought it up.
Erin: “Don’t say Mabel’s crazy” like the guy said absolutely nothing. [laughter]
Wes: Exactly. Exactly. And he does that later on when he sent her off to the hospital and he’s responding in a very paranoid way to people, as if there’s, you know, some stigma in her being in the nuthouse, as one guy calls it. The other thing I’m reminded of is the scene when the guys get there and then he goes into the… whatever room it is, their pullout bed is in, it’s a couch that pulls out into a bed. Is that the dining…? I mean, what room?
Erin: It’s the dining room. Yeah.
Wes: Yeah. So they’re in the other room, I think he calls the living room. And although all his worker buddies are in there and they’re waiting for her to come out and then eventually she does come out and those French doors opened up and she comes out looking very beautiful. Although I have trouble thinking of her as beautiful in this movie because of all the odd facial expressions and behavior.
Erin: Oh, really? Wow.
Wes: Yeah. Yeah. But there’s a kind of majestic quality, a goddess-like quality to the way she emerges from the bedroom/dining room. The guys are all very impressed. And you, you know, again, you get these close up shots on Nick’s face in which he looks very, very proud. So that’s one thing that happens quite a bit. You get this alternation between… it’s “Look at my wife.” You never directly get the information in the movie that what he’s proud of is that she’s beautiful. That’s possible. Or he could be proud of just the fact of having a wife, you know, having a family. So there’s something about that. There’s something about the way in which she is an item of display for him or something that lends itself to his… to some sort of status, which is important because he’s a worker, he’s kind of a… you know, someone who doesn’t have professional status. He’s a blue-collar guy and family becomes a… to some degree, a source of that status. And you, you know, you also get the sense that maybe he wants to show off her oddness as well, that he’s just conflicted about it. He wants to… she’s a unique person, and he wants to show that off. But then only to a certain point. And then he gets upset and wants to tell her to sit down and shut up and stop being crazy.
Erin: Yeah, I think Cassavetes is really smart about… he’s really he’s really smart about where he filmed, so this actually… it wasn’t filmed in their house, though Faces was filmed in the Cassavetes-Rowlands’ residence. This is a real house, though. They found this house. I think he’s really smart about what people’s houses reveal about them, like I think he must have thought that this was a great setup for this particular marriage, and I think that he’s smart about showing that the way the house is set up is actually… it’s like perfectly designed to kind of undermine the relationship, in a way…
Erin: …and that it must have been set up this way by Nick. So the fact that they have a bed… like they don’t have a bedroom. Their bedroom is in this public space in the house, and it’s in the dining room. He seems to think, you know, having a meal is very important, the ritual of that entertaining. And I think this kind of speaks to the fact that Nick is an ethnic person. He’s supposed to be similar to Cassavetes in that way, I think. And I think the fact that Mabel is this beautiful blonde, obviously not Italian person, is part of Nick’s pride in her.
Erin: Yeah. So the cover of these meals that he has and the fact that he puts their marital bed in the middle of where they eat all of their food, I mean, the couch folds up and everything, but they have no place to call their own. And it’s constantly being subsumed by crowds that Nick brings into the house. And Mabel keeps wanting everyone to leave and pushing them away, and he keeps inviting them into this kitchen. There’s also just, I think the space really represents the conflict between them. I mean, we can imagine that, of course, you know, Nick has been the one to buy the house, and Nick’s problem is that he’s ashamed of her on the one hand, but on the other hand, he does… he wants to show her off. There must be some… like their relationship must be very, I think, physically gratifying to him. And they must be very, you know, like, good in bed together or something like that, because I think that that’s part of it. Like he… obviously she’s a demonstrative person, she’s a sexual person. There’s something about, maybe, being like this sort of quasi construction worker, public works guy, where he wants to show off the fact that he has a sexy wife. But also that sexiness is always undercut by her insanity, her weirdness -I wouldn’t really call it insanity per se- her weirdness and the desire for intimacy with her is also undercut by this… his paradoxical desire for crowds, so it causes this incredible confusion in the relationship. But I think when you look at the space and you look at how claustrophobic it is, and how people are constantly on top of each other that he can’t, you know he tries to go to sleep after he’s been up all night fixing the water main and his mother in law comes in and starts having a conversation with him while he’s clearly in bed trying to sleep, you know. And then the kids come in and jump on top of him. And there’s this very pathetic attempt at privacy by putting a sign that says in large letters “private” on the bathroom door…
Erin: …that leads off the bedroom/dining room.
Wes: That’s great because you just imagine her… you imagine that it’s for her, and you imagine Nick or the kids like barging in all the time… [laughter]
Erin: Right. Right.
Wes: …to the one place, you know, you shouldn’t have to put the sign “private” on it because it’s a bathroom, but… yeah.
Erin: Right. Yeah. And it’s the only place that she has as her own, I guess, which is not sacrosanct by any stretch. I was trying to weave in what you were saying, but I’m not sure I went off in another direction.
Wes: No, no. This is very good. So you’re talking about the way he leavens his desire with intimacy, with all this, with the arrangement of the house in a way that will make all of it public.
Wes: And then there’s the bringing of the people into the house. And…
Erin: There’s this great three-and-a-half-hour documentary that I really recommend to people, called A Constant Forge, I think that’s what it’s called. It’s a.. It comes… if you get the Cassavetes five films box set from Criterion, which I own and I really recommend. There’s this very, very long documentary that goes into Cassavetes’s whole career, and his thinking about people in motion, what he was trying to express in his movies. And if I remember correctly, he said that the Shadows, the first movie that he ever did, the structure of that movie -which I think he uses in all of his subsequent movies- is something like people have a problem that begins the scene, and that’s the impetus for the scene. And then the problem is gradually overcome by a different problem. Another problem would develop and kind of like coincide with an overlap with the previous one. And this is what kind of carries the story forward. And I think that there’s the same structure going on, where there’s one problem, and then it sort of doesn’t get resolved, but it gets kind of like dovetailed with another problem.
Erin: And so the first big problem in the movie is this house. [laughter] I think, you know, I mean… or maybe that’s like… the constant problem throughout the whole thing is this house as it’s an expression of what is wrong, what is conflicting in the relationship. But there’s also the… just take a step back for a second, maybe. First shot we see in the movie is actually Nick at work and not wanting to come home and… or not wanting to call Mabel to tell her that he’s not coming home. But then we see…
Wes: Well, first we get him… you know, after we see the laborers in the river, we see them pulling up to the Crest Cafe and then Nick talking on the phone and saying, you know, “I’m with my family tonight. Forget about it. I’ve got an unbreakable date,” and then the other person in the line is confused and he has to keep repeatedly saying “With my wife, with my wife, you moron.” [laughter]
Wes: Yelling “my wife”. And then you see all these… kind of concerned reaction from all the laborers, you know, from all his fellow workers, finally says, “There’s no way we’re gonna work tonight” and he hangs up and then he gets applause from them. And then, as you’re saying, later on, we see him on the phone, when he finally does call her, right. Initially, he doesn’t because he’s scared of what her reaction is going to be.
Erin: Yeah, he only has to call her and just tell her what’s going on. You know, people have even asked him a couple of times why he hasn’t called her to let her know that she’s just sitting at home alone, waiting for him to come home, and he actually waits too long. And she’s already gotten drunk, out of despair, probably that he hasn’t come home. And then she takes off to a bar and continues drinking. So there’s also this suggestion that she’s obviously some kind of alcoholic on top of everything else. Yeah, and the guys with him are just like, you know, “Why haven’t you let her know? You shouldn’t just leave her alone.” And meanwhile, earlier in the day, it goes through this whole really silly thing with her mom, who’s coming to pick up the kids and take them away for the night. She’s extremely manic getting these kids into the car, and the kids are young enough that they’re kind of… they’re climbing all over the place, they’re very… as they’re getting into the back seat they’re wrapping their arms around their grandmother’s neck and kind of pulling on her backwards. Head is bobbing because kids are all over the place and you kind of get the impression that the kids are this way because of the way that the mother is, I think, always like, kind of tugging on people, pulling on people, constantly kissing, and they loved their mother very much, and they’re very, I think, demonstrative like her. But it has this effect of like, it’s claustrophobic. There’s no… when people are together, there’s no space between them, you know, [laughter] they’re on top of each other, either in anger or in love or some mixture. So it’s this really silly scene where she’s trying to unload these kids, but she also is giving off the impression that she doesn’t want them to go, and then she’s directly… like she’s telling them to go but she’s also drawing out this process way, way more than it has to be drawn out and then she even follows the mother into the street and helps her back out of the driveway and then tells her, “Okay, now go, now go, now go” when she’s facing forward in the street. As soon as she gets back in the house, she says, “Oh, all of a sudden I miss everybody,” you know.
Wes: Yeah. What’s interesting to me about that scene is just the sense of urgency and the way she is in a rush to load them all into the car. I mean, really, really frantic, when there’s no reason to be here. You don’t… because it’s not like her husband is about to come home.
Wes: There’s simply no reason for the level of urgency, except for the fact that she’s trying to move beyond the fact that she doesn’t actually want them to leave. And so she’s trying to get it all over with. And then after that scene, where she’s directing… ridiculously directing her mother like “turn your wheel, turn your wheel” and she’ll say to herself, “Shouldn’t have let them go. Shouldn’t have let them go.” So yeah, it’s interesting to see her operating under that sense of urgency and you wonder, again, if that’s something created by Nick, that’s part of the influence that she’s under, this kind of regime of control and urgency because you see that in him all the time, and when he’s not there, she seems to sort of inhabit that. I think when he is there, she is engaged in more of a resistance with all of her tics and her strange behavior.
Erin: I want to get to the scene with the guy at the bar.
Wes: Carson Cross.
Wes: That’s an interesting scene because she’s… She acts like she knows him, right? So she comes in, she flicks him on the back of the neck. She’s kind of humming to herself, and then she flicks him on the back of the neck and he responds in a kind of friendly way and sits next to him and starts tapping on the bar, and he starts tapping with her. And then she says, “You know, Nick stood me up tonight after I got the kids, blah, blah, blah.” And then you think, okay, so she’s… because at first, when she walks in you’re kind of… you wonder if this is an environment she’s been in, if she knows people, and then suddenly you’re clued into the fact, “Oh, she must know the guys in this bar, and that’s why she’s so familiar.” But she doesn’t. So he… and then he… because he immediately introduces himself as Carson Cross. And she’s like, “I know.” He says, “You know?” and she says, “I know, Carson. I know.”
Erin: This assumption of intimacy with people is, I mean, it’s what makes her so beloved as a character to me. It’s just that that’s her problem, right? She gets too intimate with people too quickly…
Erin: …and she doesn’t understand that there are barriers and Nick is very conscious of the barriers. I mean, what would you call what transpires between them? I mean, I would probably call it a rape. Ultimately, he takes her home. She is extremely drunk. She doesn’t really seem to know what’s going on, though she has managed to get him back to her house. And then she starts to kind of resist him, and he forces himself on her.
Wes: Well, it leaves it kind of ambiguous because we don’t see him force himself on her, but…
Erin: It’s heavily implied, I think.
Wes: Yeah. You know, they wake up together in the morning or he wakes up before her,I think.
Erin: Yeah. She wakes up because she hears these noises and he says, “Oh, I’m sorry if I disturbed you. I like to get up early in the morning and walk around and talk to myself,” which is really interesting, because I think Cassavetes is maybe saying here that certain idiosyncrasies are okay in polite society and some aren’t. And I think maybe the fact that this guy is a man makes it okay that he walks around and talks to himself, but it doesn’t make it okay for Mabel. But the idea here, maybe, is that everybody is strange, everybody has these idiosyncrasies and these problems with their personality, and some people are just more obvious than others. Other people can just suppress them more easily or explain them away as, you know, “I’m eccentric,” “I’m fun,” because they have the social graces to cast them in an appropriate light and then what makes this scene so amazing, and this is the thing I really remember from the first time I ever saw it, which is that the guy is still in the house when Nick pulls up to the house with everybody he works with, and this just speaks to how unexpected everything in a Cassavetes movie is, because you think “Okay, the plot is going to start now. They’re gonna walk in there. He’s going to see this guy. There’s going to be a confrontation,” and instead the guys walk in and there’s no confrontation. There’s someone in the kitchen, and it turns out to be a guy that Nick works with, who’s gone around the corner and got into the kitchen ahead of everybody else. And so the expectation of “Okay, this is going to be the engine that starts the plot” is completely subverted. And then we even find out later -Mabel’s mother-in-law mentions to the doctor later- that she brings men into the house, that there was a man in the house that morning. So Nick actually sees it. We don’t see him see this guy, but he does see this guy because he has to be able to tell his mother that there was a guy in the house that morning.
Wes: I initially thought that and then I came to the conclusion that the mother is actually referring to the guy that she’s doing the swan dance in front of.
Erin: Oh. Do you think…? Oh, okay.
Wes: Because, yeah, that becomes a source of a big fight between Nick and Mabel. And I think the mother is referring to that, like she let Mr Jensen, I think his name is, in. But I initially had the same reaction as you. And I think it’s an important connection, right, because it’s kind of shocking. For a moment you’re shocked. You think that that’s what the mother is referring to. And then, at least in my case, you know, you come to the conclusion that it’s the other guy, but they’re related, right? And so you know that if that’s a big deal…
Erin: She can’t be trusted.
Wes: …just having the guy who’s bringing his kids over for a playdate into the house is a big deal, then what would happen if he had actually walked in on her with another guy? I mean, you know, this is a guy who’s at one point in the movie, I think, threatens to kill her. He threatens to kill his mother. He’s like, you know, “stay up there or I’ll kill you.” And then to Mabel, he threatens to kill her and, you know, and then I’ll kill these kids…
Erin: “I’ll kill you and these…”
Wes: …son of a bitchin’ kids? What does he call them?
Erin: Sons of bitchin’ kids. [laughter]
Wes: The kids… The kids…
Erin: You know, digging the life of an Italian guy.
Wes: Yeah, right.
Wes: Let’s get up and run away from him at that point. But, you know, and slaps or twice. It’s… you see the capacity for violence and it highlights the danger involved in that scene, but retrospectively, because you don’t… I don’t think you know that upfront. And it’s… certainly it’s not something that stays, obviously, in the film. You don’t see her feeling… she seems a little guilty when he arrives, but it’s not something you see her brooding over or doesn’t play any sort of part in the plot.
Erin: Yeah, it’s as if it really didn’t happen at all.
Erin: And that she kind of just thinks, “Oh, well, you know, we, of course, made you wonder how many times this has happened in the past” and that probably, because of her, sort of, lack of reaction, it’s happened quite a bit, and she’s only lucky that her husband’s gone so much. Really. Otherwise, I think there would be a lot of dead bodies buried in the backyard.[laughter]
Wes: Yeah. Did you have anything more to say about the whole Carson Cross thing, bringing him home?
Erin: No. Just my main point was just the whole idea of, like, what constitutes appropriate behavior and how many… where can your tics end before you become too crazy to be around other people?
Wes: It reminded me of something I wanted to say, which is that when you see people behave that way, part of what’s scary about it is you’re looking at the way you would behave if you weren’t so controlled. If you didn’t have that [laughter] repressed… It’s very childlike, right? So you can… you see it in children as well. And it’s kind of endearing in children, not kind of, but very endearing in children. And in an adult, though, unless they are a clown or something like that, it’s scary because it represents a kind of lack of control. So it’s not that we don’t, at some level, have that in us. In a way, it’s a picture of what’s going on in our minds, her doing those gestures and making those facial expressions. It’s an external representation of what is actually going on in all of us. It’s just that we… we don’t let it out. And in fact, for the most part, we don’t even know how to let it out. To some extent, we can get that in play, right? There’s something playful about it or in work, creative work. But, yeah, it’s in us, but we’re not displaying it as much. So even though you know, as you point out, we all have our odd behaviors and ticks and things, just like Carson Cross, those are sort of leaks in the system, and for her it’s like a water main has burst. For us they are leaks, but for the most part we can put on this show for other people because that’s who it’s for, right?
Wes: We can put on a show of respectability and normality and observe all the social manners that are required of us, even if what’s going on inside of us is much, much different. And she’s looking for more of a match between the inside and the outside. At one point, she says, “You know, I’m a very warm person” -this is a spaghetti dinner- “and not like what you like.” And then she does an imitation of someone who’s snooty, right? Or people with their nose up.
Erin: [making voices] “Ooh, Ooh. Thank you. Mm.” [laughter]
Wes: Yes, that’s good. Yeah. It’s hilarious, but it´s a…
Erin: …which is a weird kind of upside down. I mean, we don’t really think Nick is keeping company with people who say, [making voices] “Ooh, awfully nice. Ooh” [laughter]
Wes: Or that he’s in any way himself restrained or, yeah, wants to be around restrained people. It’s just his lack of restraint is different, right? It comes out in anger, and that’s a much more typical… you know, that’s where the greatest leaks occur for most of us, or at least for men.
Erin: And it’s socially acceptable.
Wes: Well, that’s another question to ask. But yeah, it is… it’s more socially acceptable to get angry in the way that Nick does and yell.
Erin: Right. We should talk about Mr Jensen, the scene where Mabel has arranged a playdate for her children with the kids next door, at least one of whom is her daughter, Jensen, one of Jensen’s kids, I think, Xan Cassavetes. It’s hard to tell because you actually never really get a good look at them. All the kids are just kind of like one mass of… like the fish that travel in a school, that they all move together, or something. So Mabel has gone really over the top and done up a huge party for these kids, even though it’s just a normal playdate, where she’s put balloons outside and she’s kind of determined that they’re going to do creative activities, you know, led by her. The husband is immediately suspicious by… Sorry, Mr Jensen is immediately suspicious by the way that Mabel is acting, even just when she ushers the kids inside, and so he kind of follows her in and is watching her and one of the activities she does is she has the kids go outside in the backyard and she turns on the radio and wants to get them all to dance and, as she turns it on it’s The Dying Swan from the end of Swan Lake. And the kids know what to do. The kids are really happy with this activity of, you know, she says, “Okay, die, kids. Die from Mr Jensen” and they know what to do. They do that crouching with the, you know, the famous movement of the dying swan with the arms extended and up over the head with one hand on top of the other as they sort of slowly sink down. So they know, and they seem to be kind of getting a kick out of it, oblivious to any weird behavior on her part because she’s just like a big kid. But Mr Jensen is really disturbed by it, and some real chaos breaks out when the kids, who have been given these packages of… looks like just dress up clothes, like they’ve probably been given Mabel’s clothes to play with, and they get into makeup and stuff, so they’re, you know, half of them are running around naked in the house, and it’s in this chaotic scene that then Nick enters and sees that she’s caused this unruly situation to erupt, which becomes… I don’t know if you felt this way, but I always feel as though, like on its face and in normal circumstances, what the kids are doing is actually fine.
Wes: Yeah. Nothing… There’s actually nothing wrong with what’s going on, except that her behavior is… except that she’s not a person. There’s really nothing else that’s inappropriate.
Erin: Right. Right.
Wes: It’s what the man does or, you know, is… Yeah, really inappropriate things with the man doing this.
Erin: Exactly. Yeah, And I mean, maybe you feel a little bit of sympathy for Mr Jensen because I think he probably thinks, “Is it okay that I leave them alone with this woman just because she is acting like a kid herself?” So, are these kids safe? Like, is she going to notice if they run into the street and possibly get hit by a car or something?
Wes: Yeah. But instead of handling that like an adult, he freaks out and starts…
Erin: Right. And then when Nick comes home, it actually makes everything that’s going on seem very dirty, almost, like… Do you know what I’m talking about? Like the fact that the kids are naked…
Wes: Yeah. I mean, when he comes up to, you know, the room… well, you know, his daughter, the little Maria, the four year old, is running around naked, which is also normal…
Wes: …but, you know, he seems to think that it’s inappropriate that she would have… It seems to be jealousy, like it’s inappropriate she would have a guy. And, again, this is what I took the mother to be referring to later on. And then because he goes up and says, you know, “What are you doing in my room?” and then he slaps her in front of Jensen and says, “See what you made me do? Having a party!” Then he gets into that struggle, that fight with Jensen, where he gets a bloody nose, and at some point, speaking of his threats to kill again, you know, he says, “I’ll kill you and your kids.”
Wes: It’s never just the person. It’s always… It’s also the kids. [laughter] Some reason where the kids gotta get brought into. But yeah, so I take that to be jealousy, right?
Erin: Sure. I mean, these are really little kids. The idea that Maria, for instance, is shamed for being naked and his mom is there, too. I mean, you know, Nick is just… I don’t know if he would react quite so violently if his mother wasn’t there, because his mother’s disapproval is part of…
Wes: This is a great point, actually, I was actually about to reverse myself a little bit about the jealousy, because early on, in that spaghetti dinner, something similar happens where she seems to be fairly flirty with some of the guys at the table. And he behaves in a way that you initially construe as jealous, when he yells at her and then all the guys end up leaving. But afterwards he tells her she’s done nothing wrong. She says, “I love those guys. I love anyone you bring into the house”, and he says, “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was just the way it was looking.” So I think this is a better interpretation of his motives. I don’t actually think we see him genuinely jealous at any point. I think he’s worried about how things look to other people, and this goes towards, you know, your initial point about his conflict between wanting to show her off and wanting to hide her. It’s as if he’s found some, like, kind of precious treasure, right, and he wants to open up the treasure chest and show it to people, and then he wants to say, “No, don’t look, get away.” But I don’t think it’s because of jealousy. It’s not that someone is going to want to steal it. It’s gonna… it’s that someone’s going to see that there’s… it’s going to see the imperfections, it’s going to see… and not even just imperfections, but going to see that it’s all external appearance and what’s on the inside is in some way distorted or deformed, or…
Erin: Yeah. I didn’t take him for a jealous guy in that spaghetti scene at all. And I don’t think that she was even flirting with those guys because… Yeah, I guess… the thought never crossed my mind because she just seems to be enjoying people and wanting them to have a good time.
Wes: Well, she goes to the guy and says, “You know, isn’t this a handsome face,” and tries to get him to dance. And that’s what I took to be flirty.
Erin: I guess I don’t think that that’s flirting at all. She just likes the guy’s face. She’s not trying to come on to him in front of everybody and her husband. You know she’s not…
Wes: You better stop saying that. I’m going to yell at you. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Yeah. She’s just a very warm person and she wants them to feel comfortable. But she doesn’t realize that her efforts towards trying to make them comfortable are so uncomfortable for them. And actually, I think if he just said, “Okay, you know, that’s enough. Come on, sit down,” and… or if the guys actually said “Okay, you know, I’m fine, I’m fine.” She’s a little too insistent on trying to get them to join in her games, and her children are her perfect audience because they have no inhibition so they can join in her games and not worry about it. But grown men don’t want to get up and dance on command the way she wants them to, and make a fool out of themselves because they’re men, you know.
Wes: So maybe the part of her that he wants to show off is just this maternal part. He wants to show off the part of her that’s going to make dinner for people. But the part he wants to keep hidden is… well, I don’t even know that it’s a sexual part of her exactly, because, you know, like we’ve been saying, I don’t think it’s sexual jealousy on his part. Nominally, it’s her oddness, but in general, I think it’s just her personhood, her individuality. He doesn’t really want her to be a person to other people.
Erin: When you get this impression, the guys at the spaghetti breakfast are… they are a little bit uncomfortable, but it’s not as dire as Nick is making it out to be.
Wes: Well, I think that some of the discomfort is over how he will react and the film has set this up by giving us their reactions early on to his phone call. I think they’re worried about his anger and explosiveness just as much as she is.
Erin: Right. No, but I was just gonna say that the scene when she comes back from the institution and everybody is there. They all really love Mabel. You know, all the women seem to really love her and understand her. And the guys too, to a certain extent. I mean, there’s the understanding that she’s, I guess, friends with all the wives of the people Nick works with. And they all say… one woman expresses real aggression towards Nick and says, You know, I’m here because I love Mabel. But I think…
Wes: But yeah, so she calls him a name. She’s like, “I love Mabel and I think you’re terrible…”
Wes: “…because you sent her to the hospital, but you didn’t pick her up. You could have picked her up.” So he arranges this big party, which is really inappropriate, and goes again towards his wanting to… like the arrangement of the house, wanting to make things public that ought to be private, this private moment of her coming home and greeting her. But he won’t be the one to actually go pick her up. You know, he needed to bring the whole crew to face her for that spaghetti breakfast, and now he needs the whole crew there to receive her for the reception.
Erin: Even her mother-in-law loves her. I mean, she’s a harpy. Part of it is that voice, which is really amazingly shrill.
Wes: Cassavetes’ Mother. Yeah.
Erin: Yeah. But she also has a lot of sympathy for Mabel, I think. She’s very concerned with appearances, and we can sense that this is maybe where Nick is getting it from, that you have to put on a good public face for people. And she’s concerned about Mabel’s kids, which we’re also a little concerned about Mabel’s kids. But it turns out that Nick is way worse for the kids than Mabel is, [laughter] almost in a sad and terrible way. He’s far, far worse of a parent than Mabel. But she is concerned, and I think that if I was the mother-in-law of someone who behaved that way, I would also be concerned. But again, she’s not concerned about Nick’s anger and Nick’s problems, because that’s more socially acceptable. But she also has a real affection for Mabel that you see in later scenes. So you think again, that Cassavetes is brilliant, like you think that the mother-in-law is setting Mabel up to fail, that she’s trapped her, she’s colluding with her son to get Mabel committed. And then when Mabel comes home from the hospital, the mother-in-law is very affectionate towards her, as if she’s her own daughter, and rebukes her son several times for giving Mabel a hard time. So you realize that she actually sees more of a nuance here, that she seems to be operating under the impression that Mabel is going to be bad for the kids and something does need to be done about this. But she also loves Mabel, I think, and understands, actually, her son’s flaws better than we think in the initial committing scene, which is a great scene which we should talk about, too. The doctor, who… so many great little roles in this, Mr Jensen is a great little role. The doctor comes in with Nick’s mom and Nick and is getting ready to take her to be committed, and Mabel understands that there’s, she says, “Oh, I feel like there’s a conspiracy going on here” and she starts to unravel, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but do you think that it’s just kind of the tension of dealing with Nick’s expectations for her that ultimately makes her crack? Or what? Because she’s not really crazy, but she’s tense, nervous.
Wes: You know, whatever ‘crazy’ means we’re all crazy, as Cassavetes pointed out. But in this case, she just says she’s someone who seems to be in a state of chronic nervous breakdown. Something like that. And she’s not functioning. Maybe [laughter] that’s the way contemporary and mental health professionals would put it. She’s behaving in ways that are… that cause a lot of problems for her, the way she’s relating to other people. But, yeah, you wonder to what extent this is primarily a function of Nick’s influence, right, and Nick’s control, and the way Nick treats her. It’s kind of like she lives under this tyrannical regime, and her behavior is a response to that. It’s the way she’s been coping with that, you know, as you point out, it kind of works inside the relationship. You know, it’s not… It doesn’t work for her, but as a pair, they have it worked out that way, that he can be angry and controlling and that she is going to be eccentric. That’s the way that she’s going to survive that. And it’s only when that’s exposed to the public that it’s obvious how… what a dysfunctional dynamic that is between them and that’s part of his conflict, right? He wants to show off this wonderful intimacy, and there is something wonderful about that intimacy, that’s true, even though it’s predicated on this horrible arrangement between them. But he can’t show off that intimacy because it’s predicated on that horrible arrangement between them. So that’s, I think, part of the conflict. But yeah, the way that you put it is good. Something about his expectations, which have a lot to do with appearances and a lot to do with what he wants to display to people, but not display. Maybe she’s living out that conflict that he has between those two things.
Erin: Yeah. Well, I think that, like, he must not be angry, and she must not be (quote-unquote) “crazy” when they’re actually alone together. They seemed very normal when they’re alone. So just as he is angered by her being out in public and exposed to others, I think she is… she reverts to this childlike state when she’s out in front of… put out for company or whatever. So when he says, his famous moment, everyone has left the spaghetti breakfast and they’re talking over what happened, and he says, you know, like you said earlier, that she didn’t do anything wrong, she says, “Tell me how you want me to be and I’ll be that way. I can be anything.” And later on, he’ll steal the refrain that he says to her over and over again, which comes up in a lot of Cassavvetes’ movies, is “Be yourself, be yourself.”
Wes: Right. Because… and he’s saying that in the context of her getting back from the mental hospital and she’s not using those mannerisms, he’s saying, “Just be yourself. Give me a pop” like the raspberry sound “Give me another one. Give me a better one.” And then he’s making gestures, “Make your gestures. Be yourself.”
Erin: But at first it seems as though he wants her to be as normal with other people as she is with him when they’re alone. So I think there’s actually kind of a distinction over what happens in the course of the movie in terms of… Nick realizes that he has drained… by committing her, he’s drained her of this embarrassing thing that he didn’t want. So it is successful, except now she’s different. And so there must be… he must get something out of the way that she behaves in public, because this is why he keeps inviting people in. It seems at first he wants her to be normal the way that she is when she’s alone with him. But then, when she is acting in socially acceptable ways, he wants her to be herself, and now that means being the uncomfortable, weird person that she is in front of outsiders.
Wes: The idea that she is normal when they’re alone…
Erin: That’s my speculation.
Wes: Okay. That’s your speculation. I’m trying to think of when we see them alone. I think we only see that for very…
Erin: …very brief moments.
Wes: …very brief moments, yeah. At one point where they’re in bed together, but one of the major scenes where we see them alone is at the very end of the movie, when we see them through the French doors, you know, they clean up. It’s almost like the end of a play or something, in which there is some kind of illusion between what the characters… it’s like the characters are cleaning up the set…
Wes: …which is a really cool effect at the very end of the movie. And they… you wonder, are they being themselves? Or now they are just the actors in there, because they’re kind of laughing and having a really, kind of, fun moment with each other, smiling at each other. He’s smiling as he takes off her dress, and just seeing some of this through the French doors into the (quote-unquote) “bedroom”, it’s a wonderful moment where… yeah, again, I think there’s some kind of confusion between whether this is kind of the actors having a moment of relief that they’ve gotten through all this, or whether this is the characters having the moment of relief that they’ve gotten through this little drama that they’ve enacted. And maybe this is what they do at the end of every day. Maybe they have their crazy day or crazy months or weeks, and then they have a little respite from that. That’s all the more wonderful because of that. So that’s some evidence for your theory that there may be some element of normalcy when they’re completely alone together. On the other hand, I wonder if he… the alternative, and this is something that I was, I think, leaning towards, was that he actually does like her eccentricity for himself, but he doesn’t want other people to see it, so he wants to show off intimacy. It’s like… you know, intimacy is not something that you can put on display because it is weird, deep down. I mean any form of intimacy is actually odd and strange when you look at it because it’s so particular. It involves vulnerability, it involves people exposing their eccentricities to each other. So when you try and put that on display for other people, instead of it being kind of impressive, it’s like, “Ugh! Yuck!”
Wes: So that’s what I wonder. I wonder if he wants to show off his intimacy, but it’s vulgar to do that, or it seems odd and eccentric. And then he has second thoughts.
Erin: Yeah, obviously she’s the same person, alone with him and out in public, but I just think it becomes heightened and when it’s exposed to other people, is actually when it becomes (quote-unquote) “wrong”.
Wes: Right. Right.
Erin: Yeah. Because it’s all about context, in the same way that the intimacy erodes when you are trying to put it on public display, because then it’s no longer intimacy. So the rejoinder to, you know, “be yourself, be yourself” takes on this kind of pathetic quality at the end because she has tried to be herself, or she is herself. She can’t help it.
Wes: Right. [laughter] There honestly is no need, because she really isn’t that much changed when she comes back and you don’t really get the sense that she’s not going to revert to her mannerisms. It’s probably not going to take very long. [laughter] But he quickly gets freaked out by her, just trying to, you know, for 10 minutes, act semi-normal. It freaks him out.
Erin: One normal, as she says, is not displaying emotions. That’s normal. And we are told that in her… she does a little explanation of what her days were like in the institution, and she was subjected to E.C.T., which at that time was still, I think, really barbaric in terms of the way that it was gone about. I mean, now it’s completely different than it was, but…
Wes: I don’t know how it was then, but it is a… it’s an effective treatment and you’re put under anesthesia.
Erin: Right. I’ve read descriptions of this being done to Vivian Leigh and how it was really… They would give you something to bite down on, and I mean, you know, it was really not a great experience, shall we say. What’s disturbing about this is that she’s clearly… all she’s learned from the institution is that she should try and suppress her emotions. But she doesn’t have anything wrong with her that electroconvulsive therapy would actually help, I think. You know, like, that is a very effective treatment for a certain type of mental disorder…
Wes: …and for depression.
Erin: She clearly doesn’t have… right.
Wes: But you don’t really get the sense that she’s depressed in the movie.
Erin: No, And so she’s just been… she’s been institutionalized and put through all of this stuff because she doesn’t know how to behave, and she’s a very odd person. But just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you need the E.C.T… [laughter]
Erin: …so there’s like this… she’s put through all this stuff…
Wes: She would probably be diagnosed today as having schizotypal personality disorder, I suspect. Among others.
Erin: But she has been subjected to this for six months, for 10 minutes of her saying, “I don’t want to get excited,” and then “bam!” it’s over, and she’s right back to where she was before. So she’s learned something about how to keep the lid on, but only for a certain amount of time. Because I think also something about Nick is making her be more emotive, and they’re feeding off of each other. So probably she was able to be more normal when she was away from him. But being yoked to him in this marriage means that she’s never going to be really normal.
Wes: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And he needs her to be. He needs her to be eccentric in private because that’s the only way he can have his power and intimacy at the same time. And his power, the exercise of his power, produces the eccentricity as a kind of deformation, but he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want it in public.
Erin: Yeah, yeah. No, I’m just thinking about the scene in Faces where Gena Rowlands is also in that movie. She plays a prostitute, and there’s a scene where a character tells her, “Be yourself, be yourself” And she’s not crazy in that movie. She was a normal (quote-unquote) “normal” person, as normal as you can be in a Cassavetes film, I guess. And she says. “But I am myself.” How can you…? No matter what I do, I am myself. So you know the futility of this exercise. It’s just…
Wes: Well, it’s funny what his concept of normality is. The great [laughter] part of these ending scenes involves conversation with the family around the table, and there’s some joking around and then he gets up, Nick gets up, and he’s like, “That’s the end of the jokes”, angry for no reason. And he’s, you know, “Now just gonna have a conversation. Hello, How are you? Weather conversation.
Erin: “Too hot. Too cold.” [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, his mother says, “You know, he’s one to talk. He doesn’t have to put two words together.” and someone else says, “Jokes are conversation.” [laughter]
Wes: And he’s like, you know, “What did you see? Weather. Yeah, where have you been?” “Too hot, Too cold.” [laughter] She says she doesn’t know how to make that kind of conversation.
Erin: And most people don’t. [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, yeah, So it’s strange. It’s… I mean, it’s not like the joking around is especially abnormal. You know, it’s a normal part of the way people function socially. But [laughter] at this point, I guess it seems like what he wants is pure triviality at the level of public interaction. Maybe maybe he just wants her to be seen and not heard.
Erin: There’s a feminist way to read this movie, which a lot of people have, which is, I think a lot of people have rightly pointed out, sort of does a disservice to Cassavetes because if he’s any kind of “-ist”, he’s a a humanist, but he does love women, and it’s very interested in women. But the most heartbreaking part of that scene for me is when Nick is giving her a hard time. This is, you know, another instance, like you say, of the mother-in-law, actually recognizing what’s wrong with Nick in this situation and the fact that Mabel is actually being more normal than Nick, quote-unquote “normal”, and Nick is giving her a hard time, and she asked her father, who is also at the table, to stand up for her to Nick, and the father stands up.
Wes: [laughter] Takes it literally. Actually, he stands up. Yeah, that’s great.
Erin: Yeah. It’s actually… I mean, the first time I saw that, that really made me upset. Men are clueless. I mean, that’s [laughter] maybe what we’re supposed to get from this, you know that she’s kind of a truth teller, you know, she’s crazy. She’s kind of of like a…
Erin: She’s like a Holy Fool…
Erin: …you know, she’s doing the things and saying the things that other people don’t want to hear or she’s… She’s connected to her emotions in a way that other people can’t be. They have to put up these barriers, you know. And men, especially, I think Cassavetes is trying to say, are closed off to that kind of reality and that kind of truth. And so when she says something metaphorical, her father takes her literally. And when she says something literally, people take it metaphorically. There’s a disconnect there.
Erin: You understand in this moment that this cycle of her relationship with Nick is never going to be broken because people don’t understand how to help each other and how to express things in a healthy way. She’s stuck in this situation, and her father is not going to help her, because he doesn’t know how either. He’s just as clueless as everybody else.
Wes: Yeah. I mean, part of the truth-telling she does is quite comic. She’s coming out of the kitchen. She’s saying, “Did you see Tina’s ass? Her ass is this big?”
Erin: [laughter] So… so mean!
Wes: And ultimately Nick pulls her over to him and says, “You can hurt Tina’s feelings by talking about her ass.” And then I think it’s the mother who might say this, you know, “Don’t worry about the asses. I’ve got a big ass, she’s got a big ass,” [laughter] and someone across the table says, “And Betty has got a small one.” [laughter]
Wes: It’s a great moment where people are induced to talk about something that they normally would not talk about with their families.[laughter] But yeah, so she wants to say what’s on her mind in a way that the child does, in a way that we, as adults, can’t get away with. But back to whether men are clueless, [laughter] I don’t know… Should I defend men? Should I…?
Erin: Oh, let’s not. Um… [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] Let me say what the mother said about asses. You know, men are clueless, Women are clueless. Everyone’s clueless. [laughter]
Erin: Right. That’s that’s the thing. It’s just they’re just clueless in a different way. But this, uh, behavior, I think on Mabel’s part, it’s opening up people to a certain kind of exposure that they’re uncomfortable with.
Erin: I think ultimately that her behavior is, if you start to play her game, you will make yourself extremely vulnerable, getting up and dancing in front of all your buddies after you’ve just been doing tough man’s work, to get up and dance on command because this crazy woman wants you to. People don’t want to do that because, I mean, maybe you didn’t really want to get up and indulge her for some other reason. But I mean, it’s embarrassing and she’s embarrassing people. So she’s puncturing something unspoken in all of our interactions with each other, and therefore I think there’s this element of the truth-teller, the Holy Fool, who is revealing everybody else’s contradictions and inconsistencies and masks. That’s part of what makes her such a lovable character for everybody in the movie, that they love her and that she’s held to a different standard, I think, than other people because she has this convenient excuse [laughter] of being this crazy person where nobody gets mad at her for saying the thing about poor Tina’s ass, which isn’t that big. I mean, come on. She’s got kind of a normal ass.
Wes: No. She’s saying it as a compliment, we should say, but…
Wes: Honestly, I don’t find her lovable. I find her fascinating, but…
Erin: I think she’s very, very lovable.
Wes: She reminds me a little bit of Beloved. If people have seen that movie, the character played by Tandy Newton, who at some point has had not enough oxygen get to her brain. So sorry [laughter] to make that comparison, but there’s a kind of deformed or agonized quality to her facial expressions and behaviors create sympathy, but for me it’s not lovable, even though there’s that hint of… because it’s child like, you know, it’s evocative of something lovable. But I… yeah, for me, I don’t get that feeling.
Erin: It’s interesting.
Wes: Shall we wrap up? Anything to wrap this up? You know, the one of the things the movie reminded me of is just what it feels like to go on a family vacation. [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] Oh, Gosh.
Wes: I have two large families and lots of nieces and nephews, and the level of chaos makes me want to just… I feel like I’m on the verge of losing my mind, sometimes. That’s part of what this movie captures, is the chaos and craziness of domesticity and family life and even intimacy, I guess, with other people.
Erin: Yeah. I just also want to say that this movie puts me in mind of this great essay by Roland Barthes called The Third Meaning, talking about movies having different levels or layers of meaning. There’s the informational level, you know what the shot is supposed to be telling us. And then there’s the symbolic level, that he uses the example of the Eisenstein movie Ivan the Terrible, where the young Czar is getting gold poured over his head during the coronation by these two courtiers, I guess. And so he’s saying “Okay”. So on the literal level, what is happening is just he is getting gold poured over his head at his coronation, right. At the symbolic level, there’s something here about you know, showering him with gold, whatever we can think of, that’s the second meaning you know, is the symbolic meaning. And then there’s this third meeting, which is ineffable and obtuse, which is just that Barthes is saying that he loves this scene because of the way that the facial expressions are captured of these two guys and the look of the gold pouring over his head. And there’s something, like, amazingly special about the feeling that this particular shot in this still photograph that he gives in the essay makes him feel. And I was reading this in grad school, and I was trying to put this into my own terms of when I’ve seen a movie and had this feeling. And one of them is A Woman Under the Influence, like this… he calls it the filmic part. The third meaning is the filmic, is this inexpressible, ineffable, obtuse sense, which is just like the way that the light hits somebody’s hair in a particular moment or something like that, and I feel like A Woman Under the Influence is a movie full of filmics. There is so much happening on an emotional level and everything else but then also just that scene, when she’s in the backyard and she’s dancing and says “Die for Mr Jensen”. And the way that the hair hits her head and gives her this kind of halo of sunlight, and the fact that her l sweater is zipped all the way up to her neck and her… the way that her hair is falling. I mean, the way that this movie is shot is just so gorgeous. And I think that ineffable quality is really kind of essential because the interplay between these extremely violent, chaotic, upsetting, dirty moments it has to be shot through with this kind of transcendent, surprising beauty in order to really be as realistic as it is. And that’s what makes this movie so effective to me and beautiful are these moments in the everyday that we all have in our lives where something beautiful happens, even if it’s ugly at the same time or something.
Erin: Yeah, so that just contributes to this incredible spontaneity and realism, I think, that Cassavetes is able to achieve in these movies, which is really just unlike anything… any other movie I’ve ever seen, I think.
Wes: Yeah. I think, listeners, if you listen to this without having seen the movie, it’s difficult to capture all of this in words.
Wes: More difficult than it would be with most other movies. So you really do have to go, to go watch it.
Wes: That was fun. Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.