Faces Review

This title is currently available only as part of Optimum's The John Cassavetes Collection boxed set.

Faces opens on a darkly comic note. Its first scene takes place in a screening room just prior to the showing of some film or other. Given the setup it could be Faces itself which is being screened, and as such the various industry babble we listen to beforehand takes on a more bitter, sarcastic edge. Making a film which returns to the independent roots of Shadows, not to mention its stylistic methods, such chitchat seems to have been included as a kind of fuck you to the Hollywood system. Indeed, if taken this way then it also undoubtedly emphasises the honesty of what we are about to see.

Eschewing the hip and the jazzy which was integral to Shadows, Cassavetes has a different group under scrutiny here. Rather than the young, black and working class, Faces offers up the white, middle-aged middle classes. Taking us straight in there, we witness them drunk and disorderly; letting us see, unadulterated, their obnoxiousness, bitterness, resignation and misogyny. Moreover, Cassavetes holds onto them, subjecting them to long scenes so that we are in never any doubt as to just how vile and pathetic they truly are.

What Faces does have in common with Shadows, however, is the fact that there are no great dramatic necessities for the film to hang onto. That said, there is a firmer sense of direction here as Cassavetes offers us two hours in which to witness a marriage slowly crumble. And yet this isn’t a tale familiar from countless other such movies; there are no big speeches, no big tears, no taking of sides and no moralising – simply the whole sorry affair laid out before our eyes.

Indeed, it is Cassavetes’ unerring gaze which makes Faces so captivating. He’s able to peer into the moments we think other people will never pick up on – an exasperated breath, a look of complete dejection. Yet, importantly, he also opens out the film and offers a bigger picture. The central couple (played by John Marley and Lynn Carlin) are of course treated with a certain fascination, but Cassavetes also allows us an insight into the scenes going on around the edges. As such we’re offered the wider context of these peoples’ lives and the results aren’t especially pretty. It’s a world of fragile, empty machismo and women suffocated by what’s expected of them.

Of course this all adds up to a certain realism, and understandably it’s not an easy one. The use of black and white is particularly telling as it means we don’t take this for granted. Had it been shot in colour then perhaps the closeness to real life would have been too obvious and thus easy to ignore. With the monochrome, however, we recognise this as a piece of cinema and are therefore urged to pry just that little bit closer. And what we find is an utterly superb filmmaking made from a truly dire situation.

The Disc

Released as part of Optimum’s excellent Cassavetes boxed-set, Faces easily matches the other titles contained therein in terms of presentation quality. We get the film anamorphically enhanced at a ratio of 1.78:1 and looking near perfect. Understandably, the rough edges are still present – hairs in the gate, grain – but we wouldn’t want it any other way. Indeed, it is the clarity of the image and its cleanliness which is important, and both are flawless, as are the contrast levels. Rather, the only problem to speak of is some intermittent flicker. Likewise, the soundtrack is similarly impressive. There are times when dialogue may not be perfectly audible, but then this is more than likely the result of the film’s production methods than any flaws in the disc’s authoring.

As for extras these amount to an interview with actor Seymour Cassel and a look at an alternative opening which comes with optional commentary by Al Ruban (the film’s director of photography) and Peter Bogdanovich. Both pieces are equally welcome, especially for the insights they afford us. As with Cassel’s commentary on Shadows, his 46-minute chat to film historian Tom Charity discusses as much what went on behind the camera as it does his role as an actor, whilst his associations with Cassavetes, which lasted many years, also allows for some choice anecdotage and some considered discussion of his working methods.

The alternative opening, on the other hand, is fascinating for other reasons. In some ways it feels more conventional than the version we have now, with a more formal way of introducing the characters and its use of full credits rather than just the film’s title. As for the commentary, this is an interesting piece, though not essential. Bogdanovich, owing to the fact that he had nothing to do with the film, acts as interviewer to Ruban’s interviewee, and as such we’re afforded insights into a number of areas. Note, however, that these 20-minutes come with a 4:3 framing rather than the intended widescreen ratio.

As with main feature, all extras come without optional subtitles, English or otherwise.

Addendum: Since the writing of this review it has been called to my attention by DVD Beaver that the image on this release has been horizantally stretched from its original 1.66:1 to accomodate the 1.78:1 frame. There full review can be found here and as such the "visual" rating in the sidebar has been downgraded from its initial nine out of ten.

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