An Express Train of Thought, with John Cassavettes at the Throttle

The new issue of Bookforum, a publication that I find to be always worth a look, is ostensibly dedicated to film, although there are really only a handful of film books reviewed therein. However, in the course of a thoughtful reading of the new Cassavettes bio, Kent Jones makes an interesting observation, essentially to the effect that Cassavettes mise-en-scene was the human face. (I'm oversimplifying a bit, because I don't have the magazine close at hand, but I don't think I'm doing violence to his argument.) It has been a long time since I last saw a Cassavettes film but that struck me as fundamentally correct and it triggered an interesting thought. Given the chronology of his career, including his directorial work on his own show, Johnny Staccato, it might not be too far-fetched to say that Cassavettes was one of the first filmmakers to adapt the visual styles of television for the big screen, making the reliance of close-ups that was the hallmark of early TV into a basis for a coherent visual and thematic center for his theatrical films. I'm not sure I buy that idea myself, but it might be worth exploring further sometime.

On the other hand, as Jones and Phillip Lopate both drily observed in their reviews of the biography (which is by Peckinpah biographer Marshall Fine, by the way), Cassavettes would undoubtedly be less than thrilled to be described enthusiastically as the progenitor of the American independent cinema, at least in the milquetoast form it has taken in recent years. Faced with the endless flow of smarmy, warm and fuzzy coming-of-age films out of Sundance and its imitators, Cassavettes would probably have puked. I know I want to. I recently suffered through another of these enfeebled offerings, a prize-winner at the Hamptons International Film Festival and invoked Cassavettes as an example of everything that the film in question wasn't.

Which brought to mind another subject for a jeremiad. A few years ago, I briefly toyed with the idea of a book that would follow a handful of filmmakers through a year on the festival circuit. I figured one could do twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, and hit the major festivals -- Rotterdam, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Montreal, Toronto, New York and whatever. (San Sebastian? Locarno? Tribeca?) Then I began to do some initial research preparatory to writing a proposal for this epic and realized that there are now so many film festivals that one could easily cover two a week for a year. The festival circuit has gotten to be like the PGA Tour. You could play an event a week, 52 weeks a year, if you are so inclined. Of course, the only people who would do that are guys who don't have any family, any life beyond the golf course and any grasp on reality. (Or guys who desperately needed to pump up their money-winning totals to avoid losing their tour cards and having to go through the agonies of qualifying school again.)

Yes, you could play 52 events a year, but it would destroy your physical and mental health and probably wreck your game. And a critic could attend 52 film festivals a year or even more. But the result wouldn't be a book but a lengthy stay in a sanitarium.

All that from thinking about John Cassavettes. Imagine what I could do if I saw a movie occasionally.

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