John Cassavetes has always been an interesting filmmaker to me. The first time I saw him was in Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic Rosemary’s Baby (I’m sure a lot of people have said that). I saw that film nearly 10 years ago as part of a mini-Polanski retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image. A couple of years later, I took a film class called “Study of Selected Directors,” which primarily focused on John Cassavetes, the chosen subject for that semester. We watched most of the independent films that he directed, and discussed and wrote about them. The only film I saw that I thought was bad was The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (a film that will always be terrible regardless of which version you’re watching). Without further digressing, I would like to focus back on 1968. Rosemary’s Baby is one of two major films that Cassavetes was involved with that year. The other 1968 film I’m referring to, of course, is Faces.
I had first heard of Faces 10 years ago when I used to go to the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (sadly, the theater closed down a few years ago). The Pioneer Theater would always screen a variety of classic independent and foreign films, as well as some Hollywood classics. They even did a Star Trek movie retrospective from January to May 2003 (showing a different Trek movie every two weeks) in honor of the then-recent release of 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. Faces was one of the films they had programmed that year, but I never got to see it. Even though I would later get to see Faces in my Cassavetes class, it would be a special screening at the IFC Center that recently gave me the opportunity to finally see it on the big screen for the first time (and this year also happens to mark the film’s 45th anniversary). Seeing it again reminded me of how terrific the film was, and I feel that it just gets better with every viewing. Faces was made after Cassavetes’ miserable experiences in Hollywood making 1961’s Too Late Blues and 1963’s A Child Is Waiting (kind of ironic considering that they still ended up being good films). Shot on high-contrast 16 mm black-and-white film stock, the film follows the futile attempts of Richard (an excellent John Marley) and his wife Maria (a terrific Lynn Carlin) to escape their empty marriage in the arms of others. The film also features Cassavetes regulars Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel. John Cassavetes, who wrote and directed, spent six months shooting the film in 1965. Once shooting was completed, he spent the next three years in post-production. It was released in 1968 to critical acclaim and among its accolades were three Academy Awards nominations (Cassel for Best Supporting Actor, Carlin for Best Supporting Actress, and Cassavetes for Best Original Screenplay). In 2011, it was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Faces examines the then-current state of marriage, deconstructing them and revealing how unhappy married people were. Husbands work boring and/or meaningless jobs to support their families/wives. The wives are/seem boring enough that the husbands go drinking after work before returning home. Even when wanting (or implying they want) divorce, characters continue to accept the misery and sad state of their marriage and lives. The only fun and/or happiness shown in the film are from husbands who cheat on their wives. Even Cassel’s single, aging hippie can’t conceal his unhappiness with his life despite all the “fun” he tries to have with Maria and her friends. What was considered the modern American lifestyle at the time actually left many Americans unfulfilled in their lives, contrasting with the picture-perfect lives that Americans supposedly had just a decade before. While much of what I just wrote hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, what has changed is the increase in divorces. 50 years ago, married couples were able to recognize that they were deeply unhappy, but they usually didn’t go through with divorces. Some spouses simply didn’t want to acknowledge their unhappiness while others stayed either due to children or believed they didn’t really have any other options. But today, divorce is an acceptable part of our society, and most spouses don’t feel that they need to put up with unhappy marriages. In a way, Faces is kind of polar opposite of the 1967 comedy Divorce American Style, a film that was made a couple of years after (but released a year before) Faces. Cassavetes’ film is a bold, uncompromising, and honest view of the then-current American lifestyle; the kind of film I wish Hollywood had the balls to make more often.