Paul Malikkal


Faces (1968)

Paul Malikkal

Being something of a dilettante makes it rather difficult to form definitive opinions about directors. After all, you can’t see the forest from the trees. I’ve seen at least one film from most of the canonical masters-- a few Hitchcocks, three Bergmans, two Kurosawas, one Tarkovsky, one Bresson, one Welles, etc. But when I’ve hardly even scratched the surface of these directors’ bodies of work, how can I definitively say I like or dislike them. Also, the more films you see from a director the less likely it is that one film will drastically alter your opinion of them. And I’ve found the converse to be equally true: the less of a director's’ oeuvre you’ve seen, the more likely it is that one will drastically change your opinion on their work.

And my feelings on directors flip-flop like this constantly, because I rarely sit down and marathon a director’s entire filmography. And so if I see work from a director I like followed by one I dislike, I have no evidence to tip the scale either way. And that’s where I currently find myself with John Cassavetes. I was first introduced to his work in high school and I recall being equal parts riveted and disturbed by A Woman Under the Influence. I asked for the Cassavetes Five Film Box Set for Christmas, soon after. To kick off my marathon, I popped in Faces and was captivated by the same raw aesthetic and naturalistic performances that made A Woman Under the Influence such a masterpiece. But Faces took that naturalistic aesthetic even further. It was content to linger on the same locations for huge sections of the runtime, eager to listen in on its characters digressions, and largely uninterested in curtailing its scenes into an orthodox narrative. I was stunned… for roughly an hour.

I do commend Cassavetes for employing a unique approach to depicting the disintegration of Richard and Maria’s marriage, intercutting between their respective infidelities, as opposed to conveying the conflict purely through scenes of them quarreling. The ingenuity of this approach becomes particularly evident during the final moments when Richard and Maria's subplots coalesce.

But, the film's skillful plotting doesn't overshadow the tedium of its glaringly lengthy quasi-improvisational scenes. I always assumed the film was largely improvised, but supposedly Cassavetes tightly scripted it, although he allowed some leeway with his actors for them to interpret the text. And while I’m impressed that Cassavetes could write dialogue this naturalistic and that his cast could sell the spontaneity of it, I don’t think naturalism is an end unto itself. Now, I’m obsessed with naturalism. And I’m not only willing but happy to sit through lengthy scenes of quotidian life. I love, for instance, watching Delphine Seyrig prepare a meatloaf in a ten-minute unbroken take in Jeanne Dielman because it serves a thematic purpose i.e., doing a mind-numbing menial task can erase your sense of self. In Faces, on the other hand, I more or less see a formal experiment in naturalism rather than an actual film. Thus, I remain undecided on Cassavetes until I delve deeper into his filmography.

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