Is Husbands the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I feel like I should say this up top: I have not seen everything John Cassavetes has made. That seems to be an outlier position. There are a lot of directors like this, but if you like anything he’s made, you love everything. My first introduction to him was in Le Tigre’s “What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes,” a song where the band screams alternating takes of “genius” and “misogynist.” I apparently didn’t feel like that was enough to investigate further.

John Cassavetes directed twelve films. I suppose that eventually I will try to see all of them. That’s the mark of influence, to some degree, that you occupy enough of a space in the canon that people want to learn what you made and why you made it. Husbands was the first one I saw and it really, really surprised me. I mean several things by that.

The plot first: Three men go to a funeral and process the death of their fourth best friend. This was personal for the director, as he lost a friend early. Statistically, this isn’t uncommon. You can probably relate to this, maybe even in exactly the same terms. The film opens with the aftermath and the uncomfortable response all three men have to death and what comes after for those who live. They wander New York and get drunk. They play basketball, in a scene that sticks with me more than most of the rest of the movie. They want to keep the night going, not just out of a joy of being together, but out of a fear of returning to their own lives.

There are several ways to view this. Grief is complex, and a response like this isn’t even a strange one. It gets more complicated as they return to regular life and explode in various ways. There is some extremely uncomfortable and extremely long emotional and domestic abuse. We’re led to believe that this is a reasonable reaction. These men deserve their anger and their wildness and their response. I think any critical review of Husbands has to reckon with what Cassavetes intends these scenes to say. That’s what Le Tigre wants you to think about, too.

Time said Husbands was “the best movie anyone will ever live through” and Roger Ebert famously said “seldom has Time given a better review to a worse movie.” The Guardian drew a comparison in their review to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, another story where men say they would be doing great if all these terrible women would just let them live. Your ability to enjoy the motives behind Husbands will depend largely on what you think Cassavetes thinks of his main characters. It’s called Husbands, after all, but the relationships are deeply strained and get worse, mostly through aggressive, impulsive actions.

Even if you’re willing to view this as a critique, solely, on these actions, you have to contend with more than two hours of film. The distributor removed 11 minutes after release as audiences were walking out, but that’s even after the director removed over an hour of what he wanted to include. I wouldn’t wish that original cut on my worst enemy, because the finished product still feels like one of the longest movies I’ve ever seen.

Most of the “film paper” reviews of this movie talk about the choice to include a 25-minute segment in the first act of the film. The characters show up to a bar and host a long, long singing contest and then throw up in a bathroom. There’s really no other way to say it. It has to be the longest vomit scene in anything that has a Criterion Collection release. There’s speculation that it’s real and that the actors were really drinking to create the effect, but I’m less interested in that aspect and more in the director’s choice. Cassavetes really, really wants you to feel like you’re in this bar bathroom and you’re uncomfortable with these characters. The singing contest is more than ten minutes, with extended pauses and realistic, awkward exchanges. The bathroom scene feels true-to-life for a blackout experience in a tight-squeeze bathroom. It’s impossible to not feel the experience when it works, but it’s so long, so very long, that it’s impossible also to not feel like you’re watching a movie that wants you to feel the experience.

This is my second review in a row saying a movie “feels long” but Husbands is designed to do just that. Cassavetes wants this to feel like a wandering mess, or at least I hope he does. It fits the tone of the story he’s telling and the improv-feel of the dialogue (whether it’s scripted or not) tells us a lot about these three men and how afraid they are of what comes next.

The nicest thing I can say about Husbands is that it’s interesting. The choices here are surprising and the result is a movie that feels intentional and deliberate at every step of the way. The things I don’t like feel like things I just don’t like, not failures of filmmaking or screenwriting. I bought into the sadness and the angst of these men until they lost my sympathy and the story fell off a cliff for me after that. I will admit that might be the point, but it spends so much time making that point that it doesn’t matter for me what the aim here was in the first place. It’s all lost in the experience over time.

By the time the trio makes it to London to have a final hurrah, things feel even less critical. It’s winding down even before the climax, which is compelling in a sort of “bold choice” way but certainly not as a viewer. I don’t think I would suggest to anyone that they see Husbands, but I would want to talk to anyone who watched it right away. Responding to grief by running away is familiar territory for classic film, but the nihilism of Husbands doesn’t build on the premise. It just spends a lot of time drunk in a bar or drunk in London, hoping things will get better without doing any of the work necessary to get there. If the time was compelling to watch the lesson wouldn’t matter at all, but it just isn’t.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. Battleship Potemkin is groundbreaking and drags a little bit for a modern audience, but that’s a result of the march of time. Husbands drags on purpose to make you suffer. People walked out at the time, so this isn’t some modern view that can’t process what the director intended. I do think there’s something here, but it’s surrounded by the kind of tissue that needs to be cut out. The performances are fascinating and the best part of the film, but it all strings together so oddly that it never really works.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. Husbands is more fun to reflect on than it was to experience. Maybe after I finish every Cassavetes movie I’ll be able to understand the galaxy-brain approach and why you need ten minutes of confused vomiting, but I don’t think even then I would elevate this beyond an interesting oddity.

You can watch Husbands for free on Amazon (if you have Prime). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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