The voice on the phone was oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“Who is this?”
“I’m the guy who changed your life.”
“No, seriously. Who is this?”
Well he played a role. But the guy who changed my life was named John Cassavetes.
I was a very pretentious, insufferable teenager. I loved Bob Dylan and played in a string of rock bands. I would devour writers—I read every word that Tolstoy wrote. I flirted with “radical” politics. But my big passion was the theatre, in particular Eugène Ionesco, Alfred Jarry, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett. I wanted to be an actor and a playwright. I wrote horrible poetry and Theatre of the Absurd plays and still shudder at the memory my performance of “Krapp’s Last Tape.” My love was for Art-With-A-Capital-A,; movies were just TV distractions or handy venues for making out with my girlfriend in the back row.
I grew up in Monona, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison, site of the State Capitol and the University of Wisconsin campus. Hanging out by myself in downtown Madison one Saturday, I happened to pass by the Majestic theatre, our local arthouse/grindhouse theatre. It was fun to look at the cheesy exploitation movies that often played there, but this week the window of the theatre was plastered with reviews for a movie called “Faces.” They weren’t blurbs, but in-depth essays. It was as if the film’s director, John Cassavetes, could be mentioned in the same sentence with the novelists and playwrights I admired. It was ridiculous, but I was intrigued. I decided to go in and see what all the fuss was about.
It was black and white. It was about unhappy adults behaving badly. It didn’t possess much of a plot, more like situations: a man (John Marley) breaks up with his wife (Lynn Carlin) and spends the night with a prostitute (Gena Rowlands); his wife’s friends come over to support her and she ends up meeting a free-spirited guy (Cassel) and taking him home. There was a lot of talking, a lot of it uncomfortable and very sad. These were very, very sad and lonely people, aside from Seymour Cassel’s character who provided glorious energy and high-spirits.
It didn’t seem to be written and the actors—if they were in fact actors—didn’t seem to be acting. Was Allen Funt hidden behind the wall with his “Candid Camera?” I didn’t know what it was or what I thought about it. But it had my attention. And then it ended. I didn’t know if it was a really sad ending or a sad ending that might have some hope in it, even if that hope meant that you accepted that life sucked instead of trying to run away from it.
When I left the theatre I had to walk around for a few hours to shake it off. I realized that the artlessness of the movie was in fact where its art was located. Once I understood that, I started thinking about the over-the-top Theatre of the Absurd acting styles I was so enamored of. I loved acting where everyone in your zip code knew you were acting and how fantastic you were.
I kept acting and I did have a lot of conversations with my high school director and advisor, Donald Robinson, about “Faces” and other movies, in particular “Five Easy Pieces.” I suppose I could have set my sights on becoming another kind of actor, a more realistic one, but as time passed I became focused on movies themselves. I skipped school every afternoon and went to film classes at the UW campus. At night, I went to the university film clubs. I saw Bergman, Fellini, Godard, De Sica, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Satajit Ray, Antonioni, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles. I kept a notebook on every film I saw. I also starting driving around town with my Dad’s Super-8 camera, stopping to record anything that caught my interest.
One day I set up my tripod at a big hippie party that was going on in Mifflin Street. All these long haired tie-died t-shirt wearing people were dancing with wild abandon to the sounds of a local garage band. A big breasted girl got up on top of a truck, took her shirt off and started flopping around. This was meant to show that we were all innocent and free and nudity didn’t matter. She drew a big crowd of leering guys, including 16-year-old me. I didn’t have the guts to film her though. After a while I noticed there was a pair of dogs fucking nearby. I set up my tripod behind the dogs and composed an image with the dogs in the left foreground and the debauched hippie revelry on the right. After getting about thirty seconds of pure gold, I looked up from my eyepiece to see this college girl standing above me, smiling sweetly. Without a word, she kneeled down, took my head in her hands and kissed me—a real kiss, on the mouth and everything. Then she got up and walked away. As I watched her disappear, I realized I had made her day.
But I hadn’t been attempting to use my composition as satire--I totally bought into the hippie ethos. I just thought dogs fucking was hilarious. But whether I meant to or not, I had created a cinematic metaphor, and not unimportantly, one that a pretty girl who was older than me liked a lot.
The passion for movies that Cassavetes had set in motion was picking up momentum.
Addendum: Why did Cassel call? I told my “Faces” story to Alexandre Rockwell, when I was trying to work on his film “In the Soup,” which starred Cassel and Steve Buscemi. Rockwell told Cassel, who ambushed me. I didn’t get the job, by the way.