This month’s column reviews Husbands, Scorsese Shorts, and Dance, Girl, Dance.
The unhappy, unfulfilled lives of middle-aged men is a milieu John Cassavetes returned to several times during his career as a director, and one given full expression in his 1970 picture, Husbands. Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Cassavetes himself are Archie, Harry and Gus, three New York friends unravelling after the death of Stuart, the fourth member of their tightly-knit gang. After his funeral, the three men (pictured above) go on a bender – to use the English vernacular – drinking heavily and behaving badly, in between engaging in bouts of soul-searching and self-pity. In the film’s second half, the trio’s breathless 48-hour misadventure continues in London, where they add gambling and adultery to their repertoire.
Cassavetes seems keen to point out that these men have never really grown up and the director underlines it in various scenes where they chase, slap and race each other on the street, like school kids in a playground. Such hijinks are the least offensive aspect of their conduct, as the treatment the three mete out to the women they encounter is routinely dreadful (the infamous scene in which they hector and intimidate Leola Harlow as she sings in a bar makes particularly uncomfortable viewing). You’re never quite sure whether grief at their friend’s death has inspired these unpleasant antics or whether it’s their default setting, but the trio are pretty much impossible to like. Not that Cassavetes cares about that; he doesn’t want you to take these characters, or their clumsily-expressed masculinity, to your heart, merely to experience something of what they feel – their confusion, their fear, their sense of being cut adrift by Stuart’s death – and in that he succeeds. Husbands is long, difficult and self-indulgent, but wins you over with its excoriating honesty and ability to keep you on the back foot from beginning to end.
Recorded in 2009, Marshall Fine – author of Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented The American Independent Film – provides an authoritative but conversational commentary, packed with background and insight on the film and the director’s career, plus a splash of gossip concerning his feud with critic Pauline Kael. I particularly enjoyed Fine’s discussion of how counterintuitive Husbands and its predecessor Faces (1968) were at the time of their release. The latter was pro-marriage when free love was all the rage, while the former attempted to treat seriously the lives of the middle classes when it was fashionable to mock them. Elsewhere, Fine’s very good at detailing the film’s fraught journey to the screen – the production came close to running out of money before shooting began in England and the editing process was an interminable nightmare, with Cassavetes struggling to make sense of the 280 hours of footage he shot. At one stage, the director even dictated a 400-page Husbands novel to his personal assistant in a bid to make sense of it all.
Most of the other extras feature various talking heads discussing the film and Cassavetes’ working process – weeks of rehearsals, constant improvisation and rewrites, long takes in which the camera was allowed to run and run, and minimal use of blocking and actor’s marks. Producer Al Ruban (25 mins), actress Jenny Runacre (18 mins), and Gazzara, cinematographer Vic Kemper and Ruban again (29 mins) all provide fascinating recollections, and what emerges is a portrait of Cassavetes as the ultimate actors’ director, someone with unwavering trust in those with whom he worked and a driven perfectionist. Award-winning documentarian Daniel Raim’s video essay (13 mins) seeks to capture the essence of Cassavetes’s filmmaking philosophy and turns up some great audio, including one startling quote, in which the director tells us: “I would be prepared to kill, steal, lie to the outside world… anything to make that movie”. In a lighter vein, Gazzara, Falk and Cassavetes pop up together in an episode of The Dick Cavett Show from 1970 (33 mins). They are, to put it diplomatically, in high spirits and Cavett’s attempt at an interview is a total car crash as the three men talk nonsense and pratfall about the set. Support the Girls filmmaker Andrew Bujalski’s excellent essay in the accompanying booklet is the cherry on top of an essential package.
Cassavetes’s 1958 debut Shadows was one of the films Martin Scorsese credits with inspiring him to pick up a movie camera in the first place and five of the Taxi Driver director’s earliest non-feature works can be seen in Scorsese Shorts. What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1963, 10 mins) and It’s Not Just You, Murray (1964, 16 mins) were made when Scorsese was a student at NYU and are the work of a tyro filmmaker having fun, trying things out (there’s a song and dance number in Murray), and starting to develop his own style and voice. The Big Shave (1967, 5 mins) is shorter, sharper and carries a political wallop, starting off with a guy going about that most mundane of tasks – his morning shave – before things grow eye-wateringly bloody, Scorsese making allusions to the Vietnam War and, as he has put it, “a decade of assassinations, a decade of national suicide”.
The best stuff here, though, can be found in two longer documentaries: ItalianAmerican (1974, 49 mins) and American Boy (1978, 55 mins). The former is a warm and loving portrait of Scorsese’s parents – Charles and Catherine (both of whom appeared in several of his films) – in which the pair (pictured above) gently bicker while imparting a thoroughly immersive sense of their lives growing up in New York’s Little Italy, in the early part of the 20th Century (his mum lived in a three-room apartment shared by 14 people). The latter film – a profile of Steven Prince – is rather less cosy. A practised raconteur, as well as playing Easy Andy the gun dealer in Taxi Driver, Prince worked in the music industry, including as Neil Diamond’s road manager. He has a wealth of crazy stories (not-so gently teased out of him by Scorsese), starting out with light-hearted recollections about a friend with a pet silverback gorilla, and a 4th-of-July misadventure on a boat, before taking far bleaker turns into drug addiction and death. Prince is a captivating oddball (in the extras, Ari Aster calls him a “magnet for insane shit”), but there is a genuine touch of darkness about him too, which gives this an unpredictable edge.
The centrepiece of the supplements is a new interview with Scorsese conducted by critic and blogger Farran Smith Nehme especially for this release (43 mins). I particularly enjoyed his story about how The Big Shave scandalised festival audiences (“The reaction was outrageous – booing, hissing, laughing, people throwing things…”) and his indefatigable enthusiasm for the films he loved growing up (Scorsese first saw Citizen Kane on TV complete with ad breaks and the ‘march of time’ sequence cut out). Elsewhere, Hereditary director Aster joins fellow modern masters Josh and Bennie Safdie (Uncut Gems) for a lively but rather chaotic chat about the five films (25 mins), and there’s a thought-provoking public-radio interview from 1970 (22 mins), in which a 27-year-old Scorsese talks about his lecturing role at NYU and his curation of Movies in the Park, a showcase for upcoming filmmaking talent then running in the city.
Dorothy Arzner was one of a small collective female directors (Lois Weber, Mabel Normand and Alice Guy-Blaché et al) to work in the Hollywood studio system making silent movies in the 1920s, before a whole host of talkies through the ’30s and early ’40s. Dance, Girl, Dance – from 1940 – is her penultimate film, a slick, fast-moving comedy, with the odd musical number and a smart feminist edge. Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball (pictured above) are chalk-and-cheese dancers – O’Hara a demure wannabe ballerina, Ball the brazen burlesque performer for whom she plays the ‘stooge’ in a successful Broadway show. And while O’Hara might get the film’s best moment as she stops dancing to berate a crowd of sexist men for their wolf whistles and leering heckles, Dance, Girl, Dance truly belongs to Ball, whose slippery, hardscrabble Bubbles is an endlessly entertaining force of nature (“I ain’t got an ounce of class, sugar, honest!”). The storytelling is immaculate, with sub-plots involving Louis Hayward’s lovelorn millionaire and Ralph Bellamy’s dance school owner left simmering away, before being brought to the boil at exactly the right moment to provide an upbeat, beautifully worked finale.
Dance, Girl, Dance might be a little light on supplements but what’s here is fascinating. Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich offers a brief overview of Arzner’s life and career (15 mins), expertly hopping from point to point about the director’s rapid ascent (Arzner shot through the ranks very quickly after starting off as a typist and stenographer), her uniqueness as a queer woman in Hollywood who made little effort to hide her sexuality, and her ability as a ‘star spotter’ (she worked with Katharine Hepburn on the actress’s second film and inspired her ‘look’). It wasn’t all plain sailing though, and Arzner didn’t always get along with the female actors she directed (Hepburn and Ball), while her films – she made 16 of them – were pretty much forgotten after she quit the industry just before World War II.
After leaving Hollywood, Arzner became a lecturer in film at UCLA, which is where Francis Ford Coppola takes up her story (11 mins) because he was one of her students. The man who would go on to direct The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now calls Arzner “a wonderful figure in my life” and remembers a time when he was really struggling financially and how a few encouraging words from her (“You’ll make it – I’ve been around and I know”) stopped him quitting college and heading back to New York. In fact, the filmmaker-turned-entrepreneur was such a fan of his former tutor, he even named a rye whiskey after her.
Criterion has recently announced its slate of releases for September in the UK and US, the highlight of which is surely Claire Denis’s sublime Beau Travail, a film that has, for some time now, been tricky to find on DVD on either side of the Atlantic. Released in 1999, and loosely based on the Herman Melville novella Billy Budd, it stars Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) as Galoup, an officer in the French Foreign Legion who becomes obsessed with an impressive new recruit (Grégoire Colin). It’s a film about envy, repression, desire, and self sabotage, one that interrogates notions of masculinity in a way that might even make for an intriguing double bill with Husbands. Executed with the French auteur’s customary visual panache and poetry, Beau Travail is a worthy addition to the Collection which, frankly, hasn’t got nearly enough Denis in it. The film will be available in the US on September 15 and in the UK on September 28.
I’ll be back here next month to cast an eye over Criterion UK’s three July releases: silent classic The Cameraman (starring Buster Keaton), John Walters’ fantastically filthy Female Trouble, and Hideo Gosha’s chanbara banger Three Outlaw Samurai. I think that’s what you call a diverse line-up.
Husbands: New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
Scorsese Shorts: New 4K digital restorations of all five films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks.
Dance, Girl, Dance: New 4K restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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