The Grammar of Liquid in the Films of John Cassavetes

I came to the films of John Cassavetes relatively late in life. I was 30, maybe, and some new friends were ardent fans. I'd tried when I was  younger but could never find a foothold, a way in. I came to realize that that's because Cassavetes operates with a vocabulary and grammar of film that doesn't offer footholds or a ready way in. His films ask for a different mode of engagement, a different rhythm of sense making than anything I'd been used to — which, admittedly, wasn't much.

In college and my 20s, I was enamored of this newfound film category, "indie films" — Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, David Lynch as well as some more established folks from the 70s such as Robert Altman and Mike Nichols. Cassavetes, while certainly "indie film" if ever there were such a thing, was different. There weren't the quirky characters of Jarmusch; none of the surreal humor of Lynch; none of the cool groove of Altman and Nichols. He was up to something I simply didn't know how to reckon, how to watch, how to enjoy. 

Film viewers, in general, tend to to assume that films are made as naturally as they are watched. There are characters we like or don't like; they act together or alone as things happen. We identify with these characters as we excitedly follow the action. Will they fall in love in the end? (Spoiler alert: they do.) Will they get away with the heist? (Another spoiler alert: yes, some will, but not without a moral reckoning.) We see action from a point of view — either from a character's (think "Goodfellas") or a conceptual position (think "The Big Short"). Each scene has a point that propels the plot — some characters lost money; now they're thinking of ways to make money; they hatch a nutty plan; and on it goes. These films and this mode of viewing assure we, as viewers, know where we stand.

Cassavetes does none of these things. His films proffer the thinnest of plots — no elaborate heists here. The narrative structure inevitably turns on a shift of relations of characters to their world as well as to themselves. Even in "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" — in some sense, the most explicit action packed film of his, a genre piece in a sense — the action is not the actual killing: it's how the action creates a new relationship of Ben Gazzara to himself and, in turn, to those around him. Even this makes it sound like the film is plot driven which it is not. Like, say, the films of Wong Kar Wai, Cassavetes' films lead with affect. There is more drift than plot.

Mind you, Cassavetes and Wong Kar Wai have very different grammars of film, distinct ways of assembling sense with moving images. Wong Kar Wai privileges the affect of film whereas Cassavetes privileges the affect of human becoming.

This shifts the the very grammar of what a film is, what its basic unit of meaning is, how scenes relate to each other, the way meaning is generated and consumed.

Without a plot to drive the logic of scenes, Cassavetes' scenes don't have — or need — a center. But it's not like Altman for whom film is an ensemble which displaces the center. While Altman's camera often careens among and between characters and stories, his scenes are often centered — even if there are multiple centers.

What Cassavetes does is much stranger. His films emphatically do have stars, leading men and women who you'd think function as the center of the scene. But his scenes don't focus on any one character's emotional progression. Nor do scenes first and foremost propel a plot. For Cassavetes, a scene is liquid— to borrow a figure from Deleuze's incredibly difficult Cinema books and then use it differently. Affective relations slosh about as water in a bucket does. There is momentum but it's temporary and multi-directional.

This can throws viewer off as they literally don't know how to make sense of the film — much as they might find William Burroughs' writing nonsensical. There are different structures of sense making at work, different units of meaning and the relationship between those units — that is to say, a different grammar of film.

Look at this scene from Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight":

We know what's happening, what each character desires, how it fits into the plot. There is no doubt, no ambivalence — even if, say, J Lo's character has some ambivalence about how to proceed, that ambivalence is still the point (in this scene, she's emphatically not ambivalent at all even if she is the next morning). We know how all the pieces fit together: we know who these characters are, what they want from each other, and how the scene fits into the narrative structure of the film as a whole. (As an aside, I enjoy this film and its casual Hollywood sexiness.)

And now look at this scene from Cassavetes' "Husbands":

Sure, there's a notable difference in that this woman is a new character so of course we're not absolutely sure of her role. But that's not the point here. My point is: What's the point of this scene? What does Cassavetes' own character want from this woman? If it's sex, why does he want sex? How does it fit into the rest of what we know of his life? And how does it fit into the narrative, such as it is, of the film? We don't know as knowing is not the goal. For Cassavetes, scenes don't have a point as he's neither preaching an agenda nor explicating a plot. 

Watch how the action — in this case, the affect — moves between the two of them. And yet neither of them are a fixed point; this is not the banter of Thin Man nor the sexy repartee of Clooney and Lopez. These two characters are themselves unmoored, adrift in this event, less agents than participants. Yes, that may be the key difference: for Soderbergh (and, by extension, Hollywood), characters are agents of action while, for Cassavetes, characters are taken up by events — not subject to them per se but participants in them. They are never agents.  This is, in fact, the very plot of "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie": we watch Gazzara, the owner and MC of his own club, have his agency stripped.

And yet Cassavetes' scenes are not pointless, some affective aside amid the narrative flow. For Cassavetes, that is not a distinction that makes any sense as his films don't separate affect from plot. Affect is no dressing for the story; the flow of affect is the film. 

"Flow" makes it sound even keeled — which, rather famously, it is not. Every scene careens, the liquid in the frame bumped violently and disjunctively. And is stipulated by hard cuts. Cassavetes' transitions aren't smooth; they don't keep the logic of the narrative moving along its rails. Each scene in "Husbands" and "Faces" is a slosh of liquid that ends abruptly before moving to the next.

As viewers, we are unmoored along with the characters, participants in the event rather than its agents. His films — his camera — don't give us a point of view, either of a character or a position, concept, agenda. Consider the Coen brothers. We see and sense what the characters see and sense. One thing that makes the Coens so great is there is always another point of view, the POV of the film and of their oeuvre (one of that most fantastically ugly words): we know their disdain for human beings, their misanthropy, their disgust with it all. Ok, that might be hyperbolic but you know what I mean: the Coens operate with a grammar of perspectives that might challenge us but it never undoes us. We know what the characters in a scene are seeing and feeling and we know what the Coens think of it all.

Cassavetes proffers no such thing. His filming has a documentarian feel: it captures what's there. Cameras, of course, are stupid. They don't know what a person, chair, feeling, word is. They just take it all in without discernment: cameras have a voracious appetite! But the camera of the Coens, say, enjoys the intelligence of their point of view. Cassavetes enjoys the stupidity of the camera. His camera doesn't brush away the wash of information to give us the perspective of the Dude. Rather, it hangs back to let all that affective information pervade the celluloid. Look how the camera literally hangs back to let the plethora of information in:

Minimal plot; scenes without a point; a camera without point of view; disjunctive transitions that don't tell us where we are: so perhaps dialogue tells the tale, gives us what we need to understand, to know, to feel. In the Coens' outrageously near-perfect "Miller's Crossing," an incredibly complicated plot is delivered to us in rapid fire noir dialogue. This scene is essential to understand what's happening but it's all conveyed to us in Steve Buscemi's hilarious exposition.

But Cassavetes' dialogue is obtuse to the end. It never, ever, explains —  the plot, the action, what anyone is feeling. Look at this scene from "Faces." What do we learn from their dialogue? Nothing directly; we learn performatively of their mood.

Godard, too, deploys obtuse dialogue. He sees no need for dialogue to be expository. Even his voice overs feel no need to explain what's going on. And when it does tell you what a character is feeling, it's disconnected from the action in the film we're watching. To wit, one of the most glorious scenes in cinema.

Godard's films, and by extension his dialogue, may drift, may not be interested in narrative, but they always give us a point of view, making us feel like we're in on it — in on the great experiment of film, of what's possible. To watch Godard is to feel like a critic writing for Cahiers du cinéma.

Cassavetes doesn't give us such a place to stand. His dialogue is obtuse but doesn't have Godard's poetic reverie or playfulness, that relentless reckoning with cinema. Dialogue, in Cassvetes' films, functions as affect delivery systems — it's all mood, no exposition.

And yet Cassavetes' films are not chaotic per se. They're not surrealist or avant-garde art pieces. They are, as Adrian Martin argues, thoroughly constructed: "It was all written down, all thoroughly rehearsed, all staged and ‘blocked’ – although Cassavetes’ blockage, his mise en scène, again looks like nobody else’s (even those who most slavishly try to imitate him). It wasn’t ever the words that were improvised by the actors..." No, as Martin maintains, Cassavetes proffers a new form, not the absence of form. He invents a new grammar of film, a new way of making sense of moving images. 

Narrative constricts and reduces human becoming by making people (qua actors) serve a narrative — the remainder that is their becoming is forgotten, repressed (pace Derrida). Cassavetes, like the great writers who reinvent language in order to express the abundance of life, reinvents the grammar of film to give us the abundance of human experience — while making it look good. ("The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" is so gorgeous it hurts.)

Cassavetes doesn't give us the meta cinematic critique of Godard, the Coens, and Tarantino, that love of film history — and the point of view that assures us, as viewers, that we get it. Rather, he gives us this torrent of human becoming, this great swashing complexity of what it is to be human by inventing a film grammar that doesn't seek to reduce this complexity, this seething, this tumult.

There is sense here. In fact, Cassavetes' films overflow with sense. He invented a grammar, a rigorous organization, to forge this torrent of human becoming. Rather than agents, he works with participants; rather than pointed scenes, he proffers affective billows; instead of dialogue that explains, he gives us dialogue that performs; in the place of plot driving film, he offers relations; instead of the camera's point of view, he gives us the camera's great stupidity.

To watch his films is to learn a new grammar of the moving image and its sense. As viewers, we can't rely on identification: we are forced to confront images of difference. This, in turn, displaces our sure footing as viewers: we enter the tumult, as much a participant as his great cast of actors. To watch Cassavetes' films is to swim in the ocean of becoming, to speak — and be spoken by — the grammar of liquid.


jenna said...

This is why his films are so seductive and feminist.

Daniel Coffeen said...

So deeply honored to have you here, Jenna! And I love that: "seductive and feminist." Yes: it's all jouissance, working without phallocentric narrative structures.

dg said...

I identify as an ICU physician. Would you let me intubate you (or a loved one) if my phallocentric narrative structure(s) were found wanting?

Daniel Coffeen said...

I only like my phallocentric narrative structures wanting.... You can intubate me any day. Oh, wait, that's not quite right....

jenna said...

I had to look up "phallocentric"--is this different from "phallic"?
Linguistics aside, it's not the lack of traditional (and therefore necessarily phallic/phallocentric/masculine) narrative that intrigues me so much. I'm a little spoiled; I like a good plot. I like to be entertained. I like to wring my hands and worry and wonder how these characters I get attached to will ultimately prevail, and become better people in the process. PSomehow, Cassavetes entertains me without a good old-fashioned conflict/journey/resolution story arc. Something to do with how he brings the internal cognition of his characters out, much like well-done first person narrative fiction. I don't know how he did it. His understanding of the feminine psyche is just so compelling. And because it's such uncharted territory, it is very seductive. He was way ahead of his time in getting around the male gaze to really see women, as they experienced life. It wasn't until the past 10-15 years that we started seeing this in movies: women who weren't just eye candy/objects of desire. But I've also noticed that often, these modern female characters are quite masculine. Look at that superhero/CEO/"taking care of business" lady--equality at last! It is a very difficult thing to get around.

The Ethics & Architecture of Pleasure (& the Dying Art of Enjoyment)

Pleasure marks a complex juncture in the world: it's intensely private and yet to experience pleasure is precisely to be occupied by ...