Friday, August 10, 2018

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

USA, 155 minutes
Director/writer: John Cassavetes
Photography: Mitch Breit, Al Ruban
Music: Bo Harwood
Editors: David Armstrong, Sheila Viseltear
Cast: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Katherine Cassavetes, Lady Rowlands, Fred Draper, Matthew Cassel, Matthew Labyorteaux, Christina Grisanti, George Dunn, Mario Gallo, Eddie Shaw

There is a lot of interesting background to the making of this movie—director and writer John Cassavetes mortgaged his house and borrowed heavily to get it done and then an unusual distribution strategy had to be pursued when even independents declined to work with it. I recall a lot of discussion at the time it was released of strategies of improvisation in the performances. Much about the picture did seem shaggy and rough. But somehow that is no longer the case. It feels to me now like a consummately professional production, and points such as the handheld shooting only give it more immediacy. It is excellent filmmaking. It looks great, its story is tender and surprising by turns, and except for the rich color stock of the film, which looks like 100% American '70s cinema, it could have been released even in the last five years. The movie it reminds me of now is Boyhood, with its penetration into the ways a family orbits itself.

It's Cassavetes's film by all the normal markers, but still it owes everything to the performance of his wife Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti. Mabel is married to Nick (Peter Falk) and they have three kids under 10. At first, in a reflexive sort of way, the movie might appear to be courting trouble by taking on the theme of insanity, which is so often the band-aid of fiction. But mental illness in A Woman Under the Influence is not a flimsy way to explain something. It's just the given, and as such the subject itself of the movie, focusing especially on the chaos it produces on the loved ones of the sufferer. In this case, Cassavetes seeks an interesting extra layer by casting his mother and Rowlands's mother as the mothers of Nick and Mabel, respectively. Medicine and attitudes have advanced since the '70s, but the portrait of the Longhetti family in crisis is still perfectly recognizable, with Nick attempting to come to terms with the reality of his wife's condition, fighting through denial and shame, even as Mabel continually loses her grip and blows every chance she gets in polite company.



What doesn't look as familiar, interestingly enough, is the blue-collar working class environment in which Cassavetes stages the action. Nick works as a construction crew foreman for the government, handling water main maintenance and highway and other work. He has the same kind of job Roy Neary has in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but Falk seems infinitely more authentic in the role. It's not unknown for Nick to be called away from home unexpectedly on emergencies and it's not unknown for him to be away overnight and appear in the morning with a tired and hungry crew. In fact, that's how the opening scenes here play. But there is tension in the marriage of Nick and Mabel. They had been committed to a date night that night and the stakes are obviously high. Nick acts like it could break their marriage and it tears him up to have to cancel. He might be right—Mabel responds by going out, getting drunk, and picking up the first guy who smiles at her in a bar.

That guy is gone by the time Nick and the crew shows up in the morning, but already we see signs that there's something more seriously wrong with Mabel than just the blues of a failing marriage. She drinks hard when she drinks, she constantly seems to be conducting some kind of argument within herself, and she's a little off in many small ways. Now here again we come back to Rowlands, who really worked out this role. I think the case can be made for it as one of the great movie performances of all time. On one level it is impossible to keep your eyes off her antics. Her mannerism suggests barely controlled torrents of energy. She randomly sets her body and moves her hands as if playing the piano or shaking free of water, whispers things we can't quite hear (and neither can the subtitler), makes a series of intense faces that obviously mirror barrages of internal emotion.

Nick wants so badly for her just to be normal and Mabel wants so badly to be that for him. "Tell me what you want me to be, how you want me to be that, Nicky," she says. "I can do that. I can do anything." This morning after, with the crew filling the house and shuffling around asking about water and glasses and ice, Mabel asks if they're hungry. She shakes the hands of the ones she hasn't met, or doesn't remember, and formally introduces herself, asking if they'd like spaghetti. They're not sure how to respond to her. It gradually becomes evident that they understand her as crazy but they try to hide it from Nick. They are guardedly OK with, even enthusiastic about, spaghetti. Yet some comments indicate spaghetti is what she always makes them, and they're a little tired of it.

The spaghetti dinner scene turns into one of the best parts of the movie, though it is strong really all the way. But that early dinner table scene is where we start to see how far gone Mabel is, and how hard she is trying to hide it and avoid Nick's shame. It's also a place where we see what feels like an effortlessly natural scene of working class life. After Rowlands's performance, this sense for working class life is the movie's strongest point. The workers in Nick's crew are varying shades of rude, funny, humble, and pathetic—alive. We know them all even in the small glimpses we see. They are racially mixed and it's mostly the African Americans who are unfamiliar to Mabel. One turns out to have an amazing operatic singing voice, which he unleashes to the astonishment of everyone there (including we the viewers) right at the table. But inevitably, in trying to feign a natural affection for them, a lost and addled Mabel goes too far and slips over into being flirtatious, which creates moments of wonderful awful awkwardness.

In fact, there is a lot of opera on the soundtrack of A Woman Under the Influence, which is appropriate given the operatic dynamics of the story. Yet Cassavetes wisely grounds it in the here-and-now immediacies of making a living and raising a family in an ever more complex world. We never really learn what's wrong with Mabel though eventually she is institutionalized for a period and then returns home again. But we see enough to know her condition is genuine, and so is her affection for Nick and their children, and his for her. A Woman Under the Influence is gripping, enthralling, and as fresh as ever, a notable product of the husband and wife team behind it, John Cassavetes and Gene Rowlands.

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