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There are certain movies which mark you forever. I have still not seen all of John Cassavetes’ movies, but every single one I have seen has left indelible acid burns on me.  His films are so unique in tone, narrative, characterization, and well, purpose, that the most curious thing to me is not how unusual his films are, but how mundane most other films are compared to his.

A lot of ink has been spilled about Cassavetes over the years. He remains the most important of the American independent filmmakers, yet most people I talk to are unfamiliar with his work as a director. Identifying this, TIFF has created a retrospective on his work ““ both acting and directorial ““ entitled Masks and Faces: The Films of John Cassevetes .

You’ll either love his films or hate his films; I don’t think there is any room for middle ground.

On the surface his films appear conventional as far as the camera angles and edits, the narratives are linear, but his approach to characters is where he completely departs from convention.

Speaking from my specific point of view as a director of independent film and theatre about what Cassavetes means to me when I’m working, I can honestly say that I can’t make a single damn thing without considering him throughout the creative process.

Among North American filmmakers, there is Cassavetes, and then there is everyone else.

I can’t count how many times this has happened:  I have just finished shooting a scene that I’m satisfied with, and told the cast we’re going to move on to the next scene. Suddenly my producing partner appears at my side and with quiet intensity says, “So that’s it?   You’re moving on?  You actually think you got everything you could out of that scene?”

Now, my producing partner, Samantha Swan, is a terrific writer, and a particularly fine actor, with impossibly high standards who never cuts herself a break.  She’s from a working class Scottish family, and her father was a painter.  To her, art is about work, not ego, and she doesn’t suffer laziness in her collaborators.   Also, art — the means by which we communicate our impressions about the nature and purpose of life with others — is all she’s got in this world.  In short, if she thinks you’re not taking it seriously, she will kick you in the balls, really hard.

Cautiously I reply, “Uhhh, yeah, I know we got all the coverage, and I thought we made the point of the scene very clearly.  I think the actors all did a really good job.  And we’re losing daylight here.”

“Screw the daylight.  You got the surface of the scene down.  But the characters weren’t actually alive.  Where’s the chaos of life?   Where’s the truth?  Your actors deserve to have more asked of them.  Cassavetes would stab you.”

And she’s right.  Cassavetes famously said, “I am prepared to kill any actor that will not reveal himself,” which means he would murder me for worrying about the light over getting to the raw emotions of the scene.

I just watched A Woman Under The Influence, his seventh film made in 1974, for the second time in 10 years and it stunned me all over again.

We all know the basic “rules” of Hollywood storytelling, and if we don’t there are bookshelves full of drab volumes on how to write a blockbuster screenplay.  The formula is always the same:  state the theme on page 5, set up the dilemma by page 10, introduce the “B” story on page 30, and a happy ending if you want the movie to make its money back.  Don’t try to make more than one point per scene, it confuses people.  Keep the characters clear and straightforward.

A scene from A Woman Under the Influence

Watching these cookie-cutter movies — which is most of them — gives the viewer as much satisfaction as putting the same old pegs into the same old holes over and over again.   Star.   Square.   Circle.   Rectangle.   Yay!   Nap time!

From the first frame of A Woman Under The Influence the viewer is off balance.  The behaviour of the lead characters was all over the map.  There was no shorthand. I had to watch and listen intently to a couple who were passionately involved with each other, but whose relationship refused to resolve into anything that I could confidently summarize in two words or a thousand.

The performances by Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands are extraordinary.  They react to one another with a reckless emotional abandon throughout the entire film that is so unpredictable that I remain shaken after seeing it, and still deeply involved with all the questions the film raises.  Is Mabel (Rowland’s character) mentally ill, or not?   Is her husband Nick (Falk’s character) loving and supportive, or jealous and angry and destroying Mabel?   Or all of the above?   Or none of the above? Or ?

It is impossible, or at the very least pointless, to watch the movie with a critical distance.  Cassavetes wants you to be hurled into the confusion of his characters’ lives and experience their turmoil as if you were actually there, and in this I think he is singularly successful.  This is a hallmark of all his films.  I’m never sure what exactly is going on, or what is going to happen next, or what it all means.  Far from being frustrating, this is an exhilarting experience.

To not be able to tick off all the boxes ““ good guy, bad guy, act three turning point ““ is dizzyingly liberating for some viewers, and maddening for most.  It is, however, an incredibly brave and necessary alternative to mainstream cinema — one that has resulted in a body of work which gives those of us who make movies about the human condition a very high standard to live up to.   And for that I will always be grateful.

Masks and Faces: The Films of John Cassavetes starts Thursday, July 14 at 6:30 pm with In Conversation with Gena Rowlands immediately followed by A Woman Under the Influence . The retrospective continues until July 31 with highlights from Cassavetes’ stellar career. Details, showtimes and tickets are available at tiff.net.