Armchair Cinephile 

Monument to a maverick

Hot on the heels of their wonderful edition of Richard Linklater's Slacker ("Déjà vu all over again"), the Criterion Collection devotes its largest undertaking yet - surpassing last year's five-disc Truffaut set - to one of Linklater's forebears, the legendary John Cassavetes. John Cassavetes: Five Films is an eight-disc box set boasting the filmmaker's finest work and a wealth of supplementary material.

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Cassavetes was the prototype for the American independent filmmaker, employing working methods that created our concept of what it means to be a true indie. He financed his own films using money he saved by taking every sort of lousy acting job he was offered, and often used his home as a set. He built a family of actors (including Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazzara, and his wife and leading lady Gena Rowlands) and crew around him who would share meals after the day's shooting was done. His scripts evolved through long periods of rehearsal and incorporated so much improvised material that viewers often assume dialogue was created as the camera rolled. He insisted on showing all of the embarrassing, inexplicable moments of his characters' lives, and he dared the audience not to identify with them.

The two films that open the collection, Shadows and Faces, are stunning dissections of racial attitudes and sexual mores, as gritty as the high-contrast black-and-white film on which they're shot. In Shadows, particularly, there's a quality to the performances that suggests we're eavesdropping on real lives; more than 40 years later, many people still believe the myth (not discouraged by the filmmaker) that everything was improvised on the spot.

Faces introduces Rowlands, who delivers the heartbreaking performance at the center of A Woman Under the Influence. She plays a wife and mother who suffers an emotional breakdown in full view of the family she loves. The character Rowlands created is one of the most unforgettable in a century-plus of movies: stylized but completely real. Her husband, played by Peter Falk, tears himself up trying to sort out which of his wife's idiosyncrasies are the quirks he loves her for, and which are symptoms of an illness that requires professional help.

The set is rounded out by The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night, both of which feature Gazzara, a late addition to the Cassavetes clan. Bookie is presented in two versions, the original edit and a shorter version Cassavetes put together for a theatrical re-release. The filmmaker tinkered often with his work; the disc of Faces, for instance, presents a 17-minute opening sequence that began an early version of the movie.

There's another full-length alternate version of Shadows, one shot in 1957 containing a great deal of footage that the director later scrapped and re-shot. It was thought to be lost until recently, when Cassavetes devotée Ray Carney tracked it down after many years of trying. Unfortunately, this first version isn't included in the box set, and the many contributions that Carney (who has published books on Cassavetes and is probably the leading - certainly the most obsessive - scholar on his work) was planning to make have been omitted from Criterion's set. Evidently, this is the result of some bad blood between Carney and Gena Rowlands. The absence of this extra material is disappointing, but it's really a heartbreak for another day - Criterion needed Rowlands' cooperation for other components of this set, and what did make the cut is such a bounty that film lovers should jump for joy.

Amid all the essays, outtakes, video interviews, and archival material is one disc devoted to a documentary that could stand on its own - and, in fact, played a few years back at the South By Southwest film fest. A Constant Forge - The Life and Art of John Cassavetes, Charles Kiselyak's 2000 documentary, is an investigation of Cassavetes' career that is every bit as generous to him as he was to his characters. Through copious interviews with his filmmaking family, it examines his technique in great depth, and explores his famous talent with actors, his approach to life, and his belief that the only subject worth investigating onscreen was love, and the lack of love. At nearly three-and-a-half hours, A Constant Forge may draw the same complaint many made against Cassavetes' work, that it could stand a lot of editing. But it is so full of choice insights into his life and career, and so appropriately illustrated with clips from his films, that those whose attitudes toward cinema have been changed by this singular man will hold it dear to their hearts. •

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