Wednesday, August 8, 2007


Most of the best scenes in John Cassavetes' hyper-masculine 1970 film Husbands (which screened Sunday at the Museum of the Moving Image) come early on. The film, which charts an extended debauch by three married suburbanites following the funeral of a friend, reaches its high points in the immediate aftermath of that event as the men head to New York from their affluent Long Island suburb (Port Washington), drink at a bar, vomit, ride the train and, in the film's best scene, play an impromptu game of basketball at a sports club. Settled in their lucrative careers, married, the men (played by Ben Gazarra, Peter Falk and Cassavetes) ignore their familial obligations for four days of drinking, gambling, and picking up women, first in New York and then, later, London, a setting whose scenes, while still compelling, lack the manic offhand energy of film's first act.

But those early scenes are among the most effective in Cassavetes' oeuvre. In one, the three men ride a deserted subway car. As they kick up their legs, Cassavetes arranges them in a fixed side-angle shot and we get the first sense of the discontent in the men's lives as Archie (Falk) expresses his regret at not becoming a professional athlete. The film is filled with an endless stream of words, but since they largely come from three men who don't know how to properly articulate their discontent, what results in a series of amusingly oblique outbursts that only hint at the character's frustrations with their unredeeming lifestyle. In one of the film's signature monologues, Archie, arranged comfortably on the subway bench, after speculating on the appealing life of an athlete, proceeds to list all the sports he enjoys: "I like baseball, I like basketball, I like golf, I like track and field..." before coming to a stop after he can't think of any more. "What else is there?" he asks. Archie's speculation leads to a pickup game of basketball which relieves the men from their need to talk and lets them express their inarticulate anxieties in a matter more befitting their characters.

One of the reasons Husbands is generally not as warmly regarded as Cassavetes' other films is its unrelenting masculinity. The three characters often lapse into the most vulgar, debased forms of masculine behavior, as when Archie taunts a woman for her poor singing at a bar and then strips naked hoping to inspire her to better vocal efforts, and the tempering influence of family life is, despite its centrality to the characters' lives, conspicuously absent from the film's diegetic world. Except for a final scene when Gus (Cassavetes) returns home and we see his kids, the only time any family members are glimpsed is during a nightmare sequence in which Harry (Gazarra) goes back to his house after his first night out for a messy confrontation with his wife, a confrontation in which she pulls a knife on him and he responds by hitting her and which prompts the spontaneous trip to London. The focus on the more macho aspects of male behavior, telegraphed by a series of still photographs during the opening credits which show the friends flexing their muscles, is certainly a valid approach to depicting the way three frustrated married men, approaching middle age, might act when fueled by alcohol and stimulated by their own company, and, though occasionally off-putting, represents a quite genuine attempt at an authentic characterization of three very specific, hyper-masculine individuals. To be sure not all men would behave in such a manner, but the point is that these three would, a consideration that provides ample justification for Cassavetes' machismo-fueled indulgences.

The scenes in London, which consist of the men's attempt to pick up women at a casino and the aftermath of their success, bring the characters' crises to a breaking point, since they must decide whether to stay in London or to return to Long Island. Although he takes up with a quirky, British blonde (Jenny Runacre) who he's "crazy about", it is never in much doubt that Gus (and Archie) plan to return home and resume their lives where they left off, especially since, as Gus points out, between them they have "three garages, five kids, and two lovely wives." Harry finds his life at more of a genuine crisis following his violent encounter with his wife and, while the other men go back at the end of the four days, Harry remains in London to continue his debauch. Seeing the men interact with the British women gives us a different perspective on the characters (from Gus' charming loveplay to Archie's frustrated babble), but the film functions best in a world populated only by men where the characters are free to indulge in their (admittedly childish) antics. When the film forces them to engage in one-on-one conversation with women, it occasionally sputters, since their inarticulateness is not met with reciprocal understanding (as when the men are alone) and without this masculine affirmation, Cassavetes seems less sure of his characters, uncertain how to have them interact with individuals other than themselves. It comes as a genuine relief when Archie and Gus return to the familiar suburban streets of Port Washington.

After the screening, a woman was heard remarking that the film was "very real," a common assessment of Cassavetes' work among the uninitiated, given the apparent documentary quality of his filmmaking and the apparently improvised lines (they are actually almost entirely scripted), but Cassavetes' approach is not necessarily more "real" than that of other filmmakers. Certainly, this pseudo-documentary aesthetic aims to get nearer to the truth of its characters' lives than would be possible by more conventional methods, but the idea that Cassavetes' technique is somehow purer, less artful than that of other directors seems entirely false. If films' styles represent different ways of seeing the world, then they are all necessarily contrived by the director (or other creative members of the crew) to fit a personal vision and Cassavetes' approach is ideally suited to capture his unique understanding of the discontent of approaching middle-age, but his filmmaking uses just as many manipulations (careful compositions, a studied "authenticity") to achieve this effect as any more "conventional" director. Still, thanks to this distinctive style and three strong lead performances, Husbands remains a potent vision of suburban frustration that, if it revels in its masculinity to the point of risking alienation and if it runs out of steam a little bit at the end, ultimately leaves a lasting effect on the viewer that a more restrained aesthetic approach would be incapable of achieving.

1 comment:

SoMars: Literary Journal of Mayhem and Hysterics said...

Is this the one? Is seems to have enough controversy in it that it will be interesting to read although you might have to preface it with a little info for those unfamiliar with Cassavetes's work or oevre. You might include a little biographical info or mention of few of his most famous pieces or what type of director he is....etc...but good stuff here...machismo is oozing off the page...eek!