#250) Faces (1968)

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#250) Faces (1968)

OR “Mid-Life Crisis: The Motion Picture”

Directed & Written by John Cassavetes

Class of 2011

The Plot: Richard (John Marley) is the proverbial “tired businessman” barely maintaining his marriage to housewife Maria (Lynn Carlin). One seemingly uneventful evening suddenly takes an ugly turn, and Richard declares his intention to get a divorce. After a lengthy argument, Richard leaves the house and spends the evening with Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), a prostitute he had a previous encounter/connection with. Meanwhile, Maria and her circle of friends go to the Whiskey a Go Go and pick up young stud Chet (Seymour Cassel). In a documentary-style of filmmaking that was very unconventional for 1968, “Faces” takes the relationships we think we know well and forces us to examine things a little closer, and confront how empty and shallow it may all be.

Why It Matters: Despite calling the film “[a]n example of cinematic excess” (still not quite sure what that means), the NFR write-up praises Cassavetes, Rowlands, Marley, and Carlin.  There’s also an essay by Cassavetes expert Ray Carney, who casually mentions that he was the one who discovered the presumed-lost extended cut of “Faces”. Nice humble brag.

But Does It Really?: I have to confess that this is my first foray into the work of John Cassavetes, and I found “Faces” to be quite engaging. The cinema vérité style takes a minute to get used to, but once I did I found myself unable to turn away from the screen. Everything about this film seemed so natural and unscripted I legitimately did not know where it would go next. “Faces” is way ahead of its time in terms of its frank discussion of married life, gender politics, and even women’s lib. I don’t know where “Faces” stands among Cassavetes’ other films, but its bold storytelling and status as a truly independent film ensures an inevitable place in the NFR. I look forward to watching Cassavetes’ other entries.

Everybody Gets One: Lynn Carlin had a string of episodic TV on her resume, but “Faces” is where she knocks it out of the park, in her film debut no less. She spent the next 20 years playing everyone’s wife or mother before retiring. This is also the only credited NFR appearance for producer/editor/cinematographer Al Ruben (he did some uncredited camera work for “A Woman Under the Influence”).

Wow, That’s Dated: This thing is very 1965, especially once we head out to Whiskey a Go Go. “Faces” is also a pretty thorough examination of the dying breed that was the “tired businessman”.

Seriously, Oscars?: Despite their love for big-budget studio epics, the Academy managed to nominate limited indie release “Faces” in three different categories. Newcomers Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin lost the Supporting categories to established veterans Jack Albertson and Ruth Gordon (respectively), while John Cassavetes lost his only screenplay nomination to Mel Brooks for “The Producers”. If only the Independent Spirit Awards had existed back in 1969; this film would have cleaned up.

Other notes

  • First off, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this film’s lead actor is John Marley, whose most iconic role is as movie producer Jack Woltz in “The Godfather”. He’s the one who wakes up to find the horse’s head in his bed.
  • I was trying to figure out if Cassavetes made this film with “Dirty Dozen” money or “Rosemary’s Baby” money. It turns out the answer is neither. Production of “Faces” took place in 1965, before he was cast in either movie. Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands financed this film themselves, along with a loan from Bank of America. I presume Cassavetes’ pact with the devil in “Rosemary’s Baby” was to get this film’s distribution deal.
  • We have a major readout on the Michael Douglas Scale. During production in 1965, John Marley was 58, Lynn Carlin was 27. Gross gross gross. Gena Rowlands was 35, meaning this may be the only movie where the husband leaves his wife for an older woman.
  • To save money, most of the film was shot at the home of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, as well as the home of Gena’s mother, Mary “Lady” Rowlands. Lady is credited as the film’s set decorator.
  • As is the case with any movie relying on natural on-set sound for the dialogue, Gena Rowlands’ handful of dubbed dialogue really sticks out.
  • The main difference between John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman is that Cassavetes’ characters know how to laugh. Almost everyone in this movie cracks a joke at some point, either to lighten the mood or to be ironic counterpoint.
  • I’m not an expert on Cassavetes, but shouldn’t Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara be in this at some point?
  • See the young blonde woman playing with coins at the bar? That’s Christina Crawford. Yeah, “Mommie Dearest”. That Christina Crawford.
  • As any Cassavetes expert will tell you, this film was not improvised. Cassavetes wrote every word of the dialogue, but the interaction among the characters solely belongs to the actors.
  • Gena Rowlands can say so much with just a look in her eyes. There are several scenes where she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but you are always aware of her presence in a way that enhances the scene rather than detracts.
  • And then we get to Seymour Cassel’s part of the movie. For those of you used to his more recent appearances in Wes Anderson movies, Cassel is young and vibrant and a little crazy in this film. I get the feeling he lost a lot of roles to Rod Taylor in his youth.
  • This movie lives up to its title; there are so many close-ups in this film. The screen is filled with faces.
  • With as few spoilers as possible, in the scene where one character revives another character after an overdose, the moment of the revived character being offered a cigarette is now unintentionally funny.

Legacy

  • Cassavetes was able to use the money from “Faces” to form his own distribution company: Faces International.
  • Many directors have cited “Faces” as an influence, from Woody Allen to Martin Scorsese to Robert Altman. Allen has the most transparent disciple of “Faces”: 1992’s “Husbands and Wives”.

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