What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes?

08/18/2009 11:24 AM |

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Criterion’s box set John Cassavetes: Five Films certainly helped propel Cassavetes back into the limelight in a major way, expanding his reign as Lord of American Independent Cinema beyond the boundaries of hardcore cinephilia into semi-mainstream popularity. Noticeably absent from the box set was Husbands (1970), among the most unjustly under-seen of his films (along with Love Streams), mainly because of its scarcity. As with many of Cassavetes’s works, different cuts existed, and for a while the only way to see it (other than all-too-rare 35mm screenings) was on a long-out-of-print, pan-and-scan, truncated VHS. It was an enigma, for the most part, something one heard about more often than saw. All of which makes Sony’s release of the extended, 142 min, properly formatted (1.85:1 widescreen ratio) cut on DVD all the more exciting and noteworthy.

The film stars the manly trio of Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara (Saint Jack himself) and Peter Falk (Columbo still rules), who reunite at the funeral of a friend. After sharing a mutual, unspoken existential moment, the three take leave of their wives and children and dive into a lost weekend in New York City, spent playing basketball in the morning and boozing it up at night. Whether it is Gazarra, dressed in full-length wool winter coat, flubbing a behind-the-back pass, or all of them sitting around a table alternating drink and song, Husbands is rife with those iconic Cassavetes moments that seem too natural and loose to be planned, but also too significant to have been left up to chance. Each of these moments is filled with desperate male bonding, doomed escape into alcohol, and the dread of returning home to their conventional, middle-class suburban existence.

Husbands is an essential companion piece to A Woman Under the Influence, made four years later. To see one without the other is to get only half of the story of domestic discontent pushed to its limits. Just as Gena Rowlands’s Mabel of A Woman Under the Influence is frustrated and unfulfilled by her role as the stay-at-home mom who alternately waits for husband and kids to come home, the male trio at the core of Husbands are equally dissatisfied by the strict gender binary which has written out their role for them with little room for agency or expression. They are alienated from their wives and children, disconnected from their friends, and living only for “the job” and nothing else. In Cassavetes’ films, laughter is rarely an expression of joy, and smiles but a mask for rage or depression. Husbands is no exception: as funny as it is tragic, it offers the emotional workout that we’ve come to know and love from Cassavetes.

Also out in stores this week are Icons of Screwball Comedy Volume One and Two, separate box sets each offering a quartet of classic Hollywood comedies, all of which are making their DVD debut. The ladies are clearly the focus of these collections, with the four stars represented by two films each: Jean Arthur in If You Could Only Cook (1935) and Too Many Husbands (1940) and Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen (1942) and Should Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945) in Volume One; Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and Together Again (1944) and Loretta Young in A Night to Remember (1942) and The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) in Volume Two.

1934 saw the beginning of the craze with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century, with many other screwball staples appearing before the end of the decade. As the range of Icons of Screwball Comedy shows, the genre continued to flourish well into the 1940s, eventually becoming one of the dominant genres in Tinseltown, characterized by zany plots of marriage (and re-marriage), masquerades, and the iconic zippy banter, as though the physical comedy of slapstick was translated instead into wordplay.

Theodora Goes Wild, with Dunne, is the most celebrated and long-awaited release of the bunch, but it is by no means the only gem. If You Could Only Cook initially begins in the mold of It Happened One Night, changing Claudette Colbert’s runaway heiress into Herbert Marshall’s AWOL millionaire car designer, who is mistaken by Jean Arthur for a fellow victim of the depression. Teaming up, the two play husband-and-wife in order to get jobs as butler and cook for a big-shot criminal. On the whole, breezy with plenty of Jean Arthur’s characteristic earnest feistiness. And My Sister Eileen, with Rosalind “His Girl Friday” Russell as a wannabe journalist lost in the big city with her younger, man-magnet sister in tow, will make you nostalgic for a wild and crazy Greenwich Village that probably never existed except on film. Still, I wish a fleet of sailors would rumba through my apartment and cause a neighborhood riot. Sadly, these joys are only to be had in movies, but thankfully they’re now readily available for your home viewing pleasure.

Also on DVD this week:

Playtime (1967) (Criterion, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – Nothing compares to seeing Jacques Tati’s joyful, formalist masterpiece of modernity and urbanity in 70mm. But, in case you missed that at Walter Reade earlier this year, then commandeer your friend’s excessive widescreen TV and PS3 and get this Blu Ray edition.