Monday, June 25, 2007

OPENING NIGHT - Rowlands is magnificent; the rest is a mess

In the same year that Verhoeven released SOLDIER OF ORANGE - a film that satisfies the intellect AND gets the pulse racing - John Cassavetes was trying to get distribution for OPENING NIGHT. These days, Cassavetes is touted as the grandfather of independent film. In terms of the practical issues of making low budget films outside of the studio system, that's as may be. But I have always found Cassavetes work difficult. For that reason, I welcomed the UK cinematic re-release of OPENING NIGHT.

The movie centres on a beautiful and successful stage actress called Myrtle Gordon. She has opted out of marriage and family in order to focus her energy on her career. But now she is older than she cares to admit and she's scared. Scared that her beauty is fading. Scared that in her jaded old-age she cannot conjure up her emotions as easily as when she was young. Her reaction is self-destructive: she drinks and smokes to excess, throws herself at men, harrasses the writer and director, fantasises that a young adoring fan is by her side, and has a near nervous-breakdown in rehearsals. She is the very definition of a "difficult actor" but we sympathise because she is clearly deeply, deeply troubled. We also sympathise with Myrtle because the people around her are so self-serving and exploitative. Neither the writer, herself an ageing woman, nor her director, nor her leading man, sympathise with her. Instead, they taunt her, force her onward and exploit her vulnerability.

In short, this is a long intense film about rapacious people exploiting an indulged and self-indulgent actress who is having a nervous breakdown because she is getting old. These are not nice people. But they are real. Or at least they seem real, thanks to John Cassavetes piercing script and loose camera-work, and an astoundingly good central performance by Gena Rowlands.

However, this is by no means a perfect movie. Indeed, on balance, I rather dislike it. For one thing, it is at least forty minutes too long. When you create a piece of art that is so intense and brutal you do not need baggy repetition to hammer the point home. Second, the supporting cast is of varying quality. In particular, I did not feel that Joan Blondell had the strength of character to play opposite Rowlands in the role of her writer, Sarah Goode. It comes as no surprise to learn that Cassavetes originally wanted Bette Davis for the part. Finally, and most fatally, I find the final scene disappointing and unconvincing. It stretches credulity too far and feels as though nobody really knew how to end the film.

So I find myself where I began: acknowledging the important role Cassavetes played in the evolution of independent cinema but not particularly appreciating the substance of his oeuvre. I've been doing some reading to try to help me understand what others perceive as his greatness. Sadly, it's made me neither more nor less appreciative of the work, but certainly more dismissive of the man.

OPENING NIGHT got panned by US critics and did not find distribution. By contrast, it received a warmer reception in European art-houses. Now here's Cassavetes' hurt and angry response, taken from Ray Carrey's brilliant "Cassavetes on Cassavetes":

"There are a bunch of people around in this world who don't deal in concepts. They only deal in narrative and in cocktail parties and in what's going to be not only successful but acceptable to the way people currently are....I'm telling you we have something so much better, so wonderful, that you are just priveleged to see this movie! This picture is terrific!"

And that's the problem. You can't make a movie assuming people should feel privileged to see it! You have to respect the fact that when an audience watches your mvoie they are giving you two hours of their valuable time, not least their hard-earned cash! In his dismissiveness, Cassavetes is being just as patronising toward his audience as Hollywood can be patronising in churning out inferior blockbusters. Moreover, you can make films because you are indulging yourself, by all means. I'd bet some money that Tarantino fundamentally makes flicks because he likes those kinds of flicks and if the audience likes them too then that's cool. But to insult the audience because they don't like your film is just plain arrogant. If you look at the people who gave OPENING NIGHT bad reviews - critics like Kael and Sarris - these aren't intellectual light-weights looking for studio saccharine. They are pioneers of film theory, steeped in the traditions of art-house cinema. So it all smacks a little bit of sour grapes and does Cassavetes no credit whatsoever......

OPENING NIGHT originally opened in 1977. Though panned in the US, Gena Rowlands won the Silver Bear at Berlin for her remarkable performance. It is available on DVD and is currently on limited release in the UK.

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