You know that seasick sensation when you’re up too late at night after you’ve been arguing with someone for so long you’ve forgotten what you were fighting about in the first place? That’s what it feels like to watch John Cassavetes’ Faces. The 1968 landmark of independent cinema began as a fit of frustration by a filmmaker who’d blown up his directing career and was slumming it to make ends meet as a television actor. The mercurial method man had been persona non grata behind the camera ever since he’d punched producer Stanley Kramer over edits to their 1963 collaboration A Child is Waiting, a melodrama about disabled children starring Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland that even in its compromised final version remains a fascinatingly schizoid document of two creative temperaments that never should have been working together in the first place. (You can see a raw, rough-edged Casssavetes movie trying to wriggle its way out from underneath one of Kramer’s prestigious social issues pictures.)
Faces was originally written as a play, and Cassavetes’ two-act structure remains visible in the film’s final form. The movie doesn’t break the rules of conventional studio filmmaking so much as it ignores them altogether, dropping the viewer into a long night’s journey into day with an upper middle-class suburban couple navigating the last gasps of their miserable marriage. There’s no frame around the proceedings, nor any character introductions for the sake of the audience. We’re thrown into the action via a herky-jerky, 16mm handheld camera bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter around the performers in black-and-white. Amorphous scenes stretch out for what feels like forever, following the characters’ rapid mood swings from boisterous, back-slapping gregariousness to chillingly sudden spurts of hostility. The destabilizing effect is electrifying. No matter how many times I may have seen them before, watching a Cassavetes movie is always such a volatile emotional experience that for a few days afterward other films feel anemic to me.
Even more radical than Faces’ aesthetic approach was its means of production — a more expensive extension of what the director had done with his 1958 debut Shadows, shooting without studio support with a skeleton crew of friends and family on nights and weekends at the homes of the filmmaker and his mother-in-law. As would later become his M.O., Cassavetes and wife Gena Rowlands funneled the paychecks from their considerable acting careers into funding a dream Hollywood accountants said couldn’t be accomplished. (One told him, “You can’t build a rocket ship to the moon in your garage.”) An artist who had fought the system and lost finally achieved true independence – eventually branching out into distributing his films himself – although the oft-broke Cassavetes admitted that this process required “a profound disrespect for money,” as well as his exceptional gift for hustling. At one point during the production of Faces, he couldn’t afford to pay the milkman’s bill so he traded him a percentage point in the picture.
Faces follows the unhappy infidelities of a successful businessman (veteran actor John Marley) and his wife (first-timer Lynn Carlin) who on the surface would seem to have it all, yet stew in solitary dissatisfactions and a mutual failure to meaningfully communicate. He falls hard for a working girl played by Rowlands, her natural patrician air marred by smudgy makeup and a boozy slur, while his wife spends a self-destructive night with a younger beach bum type (crew member and constant Cassavetes collaborator Seymour Cassel) that ends in disaster. It’s an incredibly sympathetic movie about an older generation bumping up against the new freedoms of the 1960s, jolted out of the consumer comforts that used to keep them from facing the fundamental emptiness of their lives.
Shot over six weeks in 1965, the film spent the following three years in a tumultuous post-production period financed by Cassavetes’ resurgent film acting career in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. His first cut came in at eight hours, Cassavetes having shot so much footage it was strewn in piles across his family’s homes. One sequence was destroyed after his mother-in-law’s dog defecated on it. “Everyone’s a film critic,” Cassavetes sighed.
At this particular cultural moment, it wasn’t exactly hip to make a movie about the plight of well-off suburbanites, a sentiment reflected in some of the more unkind reviews. (This trend continues in criticism today, picking and choosing people worthy of our compassion, a la the “sad white people movie” dismissals of films like Manchester By the Sea.) A year after The Graduate, here was a film that felt sorry for Ben and Elaine’s despised parents. But such was Cassavetes’ overwhelming empathy for his characters, one night on set he improvised a piano serenade confessing how he’d written them each to represent a different aspect of himself.
And they’re not particularly flattering aspects, either. So much of the booze-addled carrying on in Faces is foolhardy, masculine peacocking – every conversation between men in the movie is a competition, jockeying either for position or the attentions of a woman they don’t even respect to begin with. It’s a film full of phony, bellowing laughter and exaggerated social pieties that shatter whenever a moment of truth shockingly punches its way through.
“It is this need to prove – the bustling, bravura ego – that fatally wounds the people of the picture,” Cassavetes wrote in the introduction to the film’s published screenplay in 1970. “Society must chuck its petty prejudices and false idols and if necessary start again from a new beginning where men as well as women can be kinder to themselves.” We’re still not there yet.
“Faces” is currently streaming on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel.