WHO is he?

American film actor, director, producer and screenwriter of over 70 television series and films and directed 12 features between 1959 and 1986. Cassavetes is widely considered the pioneer of the American independent film movement and improvisational acting method, which he had been teaching prior to making films. His films Gloria (1980) and Love Streams (1984) took the top prizes at the Venice and Berlin Film Festivals respectively.

WHAT are his films about?

Themes

Cassavetes’ films are highly character-driven and portray their eccentricities, convictions, shortcomings and insecurities in fine detail. Emotional isolation is a major theme in his films. His characters have trouble expressing themselves and often find themselves lonely even in a crowd. These films are about coming to terms with one’s life and with aging, about living life authentically without the fake masks we wear and the false structures we have erected around ourselves.

Style

Cassavetes’ films are characterised by improvisational performances by actors, which rely on actors exploring themselves as the scene unfolds and allowing for gestures of inspiration and accidents, within the bounds of the scripted scene. These films are typically shot in a Cinema Vérité style, with a handheld camera, often on location and with natural lighting, with a plethora of extreme close-ups. A soundtrack marked by ambient noise and a rough-hewn jazz-heavy musical score is another notable trait of his films.

WHY is he of interest?

Shadows (1959), Cassavetes’ debut feature, has often been compared to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), in the way it broke away from studio-based filmmaking practices. Critics have traced his enduring legacy in most major independent film movements in the country — from the New York-based underground film movement of the 60, through the Sundance-inflected New American Independent Cinema of the 90s and to the Mumblecore movement of the last decade. Especially the latter’s approach to acting and staging owes much to the method and spirit of Cassavetes’ cinema.

WHERE to discover him?

A Woman Under The Influence (1974) revolves around Nick and Mabel (played by Cassavetes regulars Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands), a couple whose matrimony is slowly crumbling owing to Mabel’s deteriorating mental condition. Suffused with telling details and mesmerising acting, the film is a subtle, wrenching and often uncomfortable depiction of the precariousness of working-class immigrant life in America and the ensuing struggle for dignity and truthfulness.

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