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John Cassevettes was possibly one of the only genuinely independent filmmakers in cinematic history. Unlike those who claim they are independent because they happen to be working for Miramax, a Hollywood-type studio if I ever heard one, Cassevettes was truly in a league of his own. From 1960 to his death in 1989, he directed a number of films, financed mainly with his own money from acting jobs such as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary's Baby, and performed with many close friends, including his wife, Gena Rowlands. As well, he developed his own unique style. His films often involved a great deal of improvisation. The story went that the script for his first film, Shadows, was entirely improvised, and Faces (1968) has a very similar feel to it.

The plot is fairly basic. An ad executive, played by John Marley, goes with a friend to a club, and picks up a high-class call girl, played by Gena Rowlands. They are all drunk, and very happy, and return to Rowland's place. They joke around, say crazy things, and try to humor the call girl. The friend is younger, and therefore more crude in his attitude, but Marley`s character feels fascinated by the girl. At the end of the night, she kisses him, apparently out of a need to reach out to someone she feels is different from the losers who frequent her.

Later on that night, Marley returns home to his wife. And in a lengthy scene I still cannot properly understand, you are brought into a unique dynamic, ending with an enigmatic resolution. At first, we are under then impression these two people get along quite well, as they spar, joke and gossip about friends and acquaintances. Later, we get what is apparently a flashback of the couple in bed, with Marley making stupid jokes, and the two of them laughing. The moment ends with close-ups of the two of them, appearing alienated for some reason. You are returned to the present, and Marley, out of the blue, asks for a divorce. The rest of the film involves situations with Marley and the call girl, and Marley`s wife, on a girls night out, meeting a hip club dancer, played by Seymour Cassel, who insinuates himself into the group.

The production values are noticeably slim. The sound ranges from fair to poor. The lighting is often so bad that in some shots you wonder if perhaps the characters own way too many lights. The editing is also occasionally sloppy. But this is really the fault of the budget more than anything else. This situation seems similar to the effect placed upon such films as Clerks or Go Fish. After having witnessed the undeniably amateur theatrics of those pictures, however, I will be very fair to Cassevettes and say at least he had some true talent to smooth over the technical problems. The actors, for one, are very impressive. These are not Clerks performers, but truly accomplished actors who obviously played here out of faith in Cassevettes' vision and desire to make a film genuinely freed of studio constraints.

The only truly unsettling part of the film is the nature of the script, which definitely focuses more on character than on plot. Now, I always say that certain movies are more attuned to behavior than a formula storyline, but never more so than in a Cassevettes film. Many scenes go on for minutes at a time, with seemingly very little going on but a display of a bunch of drunken middle-class folk acting like....well, a bunch of drunken middle-class folk. A couple of notable scenes include the very first one with Marley, Rowlands, and Marley`s friend. They all are so drunk that they, on different occasions, burst into Christmas carols, call each other names, get into a bit of a fight, and pontificate on the meaning of friendship. Their conversation and emotions are one big mess, and while I doubt many real drunken nights get this intense, it certainly doesn't ring false. For me, it felt like those days when I suffered through many hours of those university pub crawls they insist on having, where people (especially those biology students!!!!) keep drinking and drinking, and acting even less and less like people who would go to a place of higher learning. At first, their antics are pretty funny, then, slowly but surely, it gets old.....then boring...... then painful to watch. Or perhaps a more accurate personal example would be the end-of-summer employee party for the restaurant where I worked. One girl hid away in the bedroom and cried forever because of something to do with a guy. Fights broke out. People became paranoid. Only now do I realize that on that night I was the extra in a John Cassevettes film, directed from beyond the grave. And in true low-budget, homemade (and, possibly, uniquely Cassevettes) style, my wages totaled to a hamburger and exasperation.

Exasperation, because if you aren't fully committed to this material, it doesn't seem to go anywhere. To be honest, there are many dull stretches. And Cassevettes does not seem as interested in creating fully developed characters as he is in improvisation, at least not in this film. The lack of development shows in many aspects of the storyline. I'm still totally bewildered as to why Marley`s character suddenly decides to divorce his wife, especially when it seems they get along fairly well, in a strange but humorous way. Their first scene together shows them in a very amiable light, joking about, gossiping, laughing at the peculiar erotic dreams of a friend's husband, etc. And then out of the blue, it seems, Marley demands a divorce. What's going on here? Unless it's something as narrow, selfish, and idealized as wanting perfect and instant gratification, without adding other human beings into the equation. Why else would Marley be fascinated by a call girl, who is "supposed" to always be available? And his wife's fascination with the Seymour Cassel character, a clearly hedonistic sort? This film was made in the 60's, after all, when everyone was dipping their toes into uncharted, uninhibited waters. And Faces seems to be an intense, if extremely difficult, attempt to show the ultimate emptiness of such a revolution. Watch the numerous close-ups of the actors and try telling me these people are truly happy, or honest, in their intentions. They all look rather sullen and/or phony to me. They all look as if they are lying to themselves, too immersed in alcohol and promises of eventual happiness to ever become serious and reflective about the choices they have made. I, for one, can't see the joys of drinking and acting stupid every night, and praising such a life, and, apparently, Cassevettes can't see it either. Maybe there is a purpose to this film after all. How about showing this to a willing teenager, ready for the fun, fun, fun, of teenage partying, and see if she/he really wants to become like these hopeless souls?

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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