john cassavetes

Is Opening Night 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.

When I wrote about Husbands, I’d only seen one other movie by John Cassavetes. I’ve seen a few more now, but I’m by no means an expert. After reading more about the cult of fandom around him, it’s clear that people who like him really, really like him. I was especially fascinated by finding what I thought was a term paper from a film class but was apparently the personal website of critic Ray Carney. Most people can’t name more than one or two film critics, but as I’ve gotten more interested in film over the years I’ve grown more familiar with the big names. Carney is a new one for me, distinguished by being seemingly the world’s premiere Cassavetes expert. He very literally wrote the book, but the list of directors he hates includes just about everyone I, and probably you, like. It’s clearly contrarianism, but some people love that approach.

This seems to be the thing, though. Even among outsiders, Cassavetes provides space for you to like an outsider. Most of his films, even the ones considered classics, seem to have flopped. He has several films on most top films lists, no matter who you side with for your list of greats, but he continually struggled to get audiences (and often critics) to be interested in what he was making. He made very different movies, but often with the same central cast and with the same ethos. He had a way of viewing the world and a bleakness that was central to the tone of his films. Just as Tarantino, who Ray Carney hates, is obsessed with style, Cassavetes could be said to be obsessed with tone. But that’s just my opinion, you should probably ask Ray Carney, to be sure.

Opening Night is the story of an older woman who would not agree with that description. Myrtle, played by Gena Rowlands, is a recognizable star and a big name, but now is doing a play in Connecticut. The Second Woman, a fictional play that we never see all of, is the story of a woman who may be confronting her age or may be running from it. We never see enough of it to discern the message, but that’s the whole point. Myrtle can’t find the heart of the character, saying she has lost the “reality of the, well, reality.” She especially struggles with a scene where her co-star Maurice, played by Cassavetes himself, has to slap her. Director Manny, played by Cassavetes staple Ben Gazzara, has to make this whole thing work.

Most of the film follows Myrtle, but we see Manny drink scotch and wonder what it all means with his wife. She does some physical comedy while Manny stays on the phone in the middle of the night to calm Myrtle down. The scene ultimately ends in an immediate cut to the next scene, virtually in the middle of his wife’s line about how they should stop pretending. I had to rewind three times to catch it, as I did a few other times with other seemingly important lines. Some of this is the style of the day for the late 70s, but it’s also a sign that Cassavetes doesn’t really care about what is said in these moments. Maybe Manny’s home life is cracking up and maybe it’s not, but that’s not what we’re here for. It should all carry a certain tone to it, but what people are actually saying over those glasses through bleary eyes is a little less important.

Myrtle either can’t or won’t do the play as written. She insists on inserting her own dialogue or surprising the supporting cast during previews. She tells everyone involved that the part doesn’t connect for her, but we are led to believe no one has a choice. The show is happening and it’s happening with the name that’s four times larger than the others on the billboard still attached. Manny has to figure out how to make this work, which includes loud, drunken discussions about art and meaning and aging just as much as it does agreeing to let Myrtle go see a spiritualist after she continues to mention the ghost of a young girl whose death she witnessed after a show.

Most of the reviews of Opening Night center the story around Myrtle’s drinking, and it would be impossible to ignore it. Myrtle is a severe alcoholic, surrounded by lesser drunks, but she has problems that alcohol doesn’t intersect with. The young fan who dies in the opening scene haunts Myrtle, which some reviewers chalk up to drunken mania. It seems to me to be a lot more than that and actually a pivot away from the booze being the problem. Myrtle drinks to avoid the elements of her life she actually struggles with, which are then compounded by the drinking. It’s not possible to fully separate all of this, but it’s important to see this as more than the story of a drunk falling down.

Myrtle does fall down, though, and shows up disastrously drunk to the actual opening night. To this point, she has not really performed this play. It stretches credulity that the cast wouldn’t be furious, but Cassavetes addresses this by showing us a side character saying that she’s more honest in her crazed, unreal version of the play than when he’s really on. Her co-star is far less gracious and directly says he’s going to do it as written. The whole film builds to the moment where both approaches are put to the test. We get resolution on both points, but it may not satisfy every viewer.

Rowlands is an icon. She was married to Cassavetes for more than three decades and was in almost all of his films. Her performance here is excellent, going beyond the typical requirements of what a person following the beats of a destructive artist would do on the way down. This is a complex performance to the end. The ending is unambiguous on screen, but I really do wonder if we’re supposed to take it at face value. Cassavetes said he and Rowlands performed the final scene three times for the audience and escalated it a little bit each time. The third one is the one in the final film. You really have to see it to see where it goes, because I assure you that you cannot guess.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think so. I liked this a great deal more than Husbands and I do think I liked it more than First Cow, our last film in this series. I have fewer criticisms of First Cow, which maybe makes this feel like the wrong answer, but I feel pushed to see more Cassavetes after seeing this. I didn’t feel that going in, so it has succeeded in that regard.

Is it the best movie of all time? Nope. Persona retains the crown, though I think this is my favorite Cassavetes so far, except possibly The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The main issue I took with Opening Night is that it never feels very real in a macro sense. The author of the play is available and never gets as flustered as you’d expect and we addressed the cast responses in the review. The dialogue is all excellent, a strength of Cassavetes even if he seems uninterested in it, and visually this is a really fascinating movie, but it does not feel true to how people would actually behave. That may bother you and it may not, but it didn’t interfere with me enjoying the elements I did.

You can watch Opening Night on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or Amazon Prime ($2.99 at the time of this writing). 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.

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.