"Cassavetes is a place," Jon Voight remarks in A Constant Forge, a 2000 documentary that rounds out Five Films, a box set of movies directed by John Cassavetes. As a thumbnail description, it works well enough: Once inside a Cassavetes film, there's no mistaking it for anywhere else. It's a locale where moods simmer and then boil, liquor flows at an unhealthy pace, and the camera shakes and pans and doesn't look away even when that means maintaining a painful intimacy. But it would be no less accurate to say that Cassavetes is a time. His characters exist in a perpetual moment of reckoning, the point at which the illusions they use to sustain their lives have begun to fade away. From a New York hipster forced to confront the limits of his open-mindedness to an actress falling apart when her new role starts to feel like a mirror, Cassavetes finds his characters at the point where life has driven a wedge between who they think they are and who they must become.
Born of the same frustration with the gap between film's potential and its actual use that produced the French New Wave, Cassavetes' directorial debut, Shadows, takes place in the jazz-soaked coffeehouses and streets of late-'50s New York, where a free-spirited young white man unwittingly falls in love with a light-skinned black woman. Shadows arose from an extended improvisation with an actors' group that Cassavetes taught. The film premièred in 1958, but played in a substantially different form two years later—first to European audiences, who hailed its groundbreaking technique, then to Americans, who followed the European lead, with good reason. Even though its rough edges (the wildly mismatched acting, the scenes that never take shape) look rougher today than they must have at the time, watching Shadows still feels like witnessing a mold breaking.
After a brief, unhappy tenure directing Hollywood projects, Cassavetes spent the rest of his career working in the fragments of that shattered mold. Financed by acting jobs in films like The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary's Baby, Faces premièred in 1968 and introduced the landscape that Cassavetes would return to again and again: the unquiet inner lives of those new houses that sprung up in the wake of WWII. John Marley and Lynn Carlin star as a couple testing the limits of their unhappy marriage, he with a call girl (Cassavetes' wife, Gena Rowlands), she with free-spirited gigolo Seymour Cassel. Partly improvised, partly scripted, and partly somewhere between the two, Cassavetes' films have frequently been likened to jazz. Faces bears the stamp of its particular era's jazz; it trades in long stretches of chaos, even ugliness, which produce unexpected passages of grace and beauty. As punishing as that ugliness can be, the graceful bits stick in the memory.
With Faces, Cassavetes began establishing his stock company of lead actors. Rowlands and Cassel teamed again on Minnie And Moskowitz in 1971, a year after Cassavetes placed himself in front of the camera with Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk in Husbands. This set skips both and resumes the Cassavetes story with three films about unhinged lives that find the director working at the height of his powers: A Woman Under The Influence (1974), The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977).
In Influence, that unhinged life belongs to Rowlands, a working-class mother of great warmth and questionable mental stability whose eccentric behavior both attracts and embarrasses her husband (Falk). His discomfort forces her eccentricity into increasingly uncomfortable forms as Falk and Rowlands—in performances of almost indescribable intensity—detail a marriage anchored by love, but tossed by the expectations of others and the unpredictable swell of madness. Rowlands sings a different kind of mad song in Opening Night, playing a diva-like actress preparing a part about aging that haunts her, at times literally, with a vision of lost youth. The Cassavetes equivalent of a backstage melodrama, Opening Night picks up a self-reflective tone begun in Bookie, in which Gazzara plays a strip-club owner committed to staging sad, unsexy, decidedly personal semi-nude musical revues. Already living on borrowed money, he starts living on borrowed time when his gangland associates ask him to commit an unconscionable act in order to clear his debts.
"I'm the owner of this joint. I choose the numbers. I direct them. I arrange them. You have any complaints, you just come to me, and I'll throw you right out on your ass," Gazzara tells an impatient crowd in Bookie. There's little doubt that Cassavetes identified with that inability to compromise, as evidenced throughout A Constant Forge. Disappointing as the set's main supplement, Forge collects great interview footage with the Cassavetes gang, but maintains a frustratingly uninquisitive tone. As one glowing testimonial fades into the next, it plays like a standard-issue DVD featurette, but it clocks in at a punishing three hours and 20 minutes. No doubt a great documentary can still be made about Cassavetes, but the films themselves—with their rawness, fearless awkwardness, unexpected lyricism, frustrating expansiveness, and gleaming moments of truth—make it clear that he already put everything he had up on the screen.