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A Woman Under the Influence

Divided Selves


A Woman Under the Influence asks the question of what influences are we under. In her New Yorker review Pauline Kael reckoned facetiously that the chief one was R. D. Laing, the Scottish psychotherapist famous for his anti-psychiatry clinic at Tavistock, and for books like The Divided Self and The Self and Others. “…It’s a didactic illustration of Laing’s vision of insanity, with Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti, the scapegoat of a repressive society that defines itself as normal.” However isn’t it more useful to look at the film from the angle of love and understanding, and the flipside, anger and misunderstanding – to look at the film from the human influences upon us? John Cassavetes’ films are often ragged with the sudden shifts of feeling, frequently exacerbated by the characters’ imbibing of alcohol, and sometimes by drugs – like the morphine Mabel takes here. In Faces, Husbands, Gloria and Love Streams, Cassavetes interrogates the problem of being with others, the often desperate need to be attached, and the equally strong desire to wrestle with that attachment. Gloria, for example, is a beautiful examination of a childless gangster moll left with a child after the family has been slaughtered. By the end of the film an emotional attachment has developed that leaves a mother and son not biologically connected of course, but contingently so: an accident of fate brings them together, but Gloria develops feelings for the child, and the child a sense of love for this stranger.

Cassavetes would say, talking of Gloria in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, “I have a way of taking a simple piece of material and complicating it and making it non-commercial – and having no guilt about it. That’s a tough problem for a studio or somebody trying to make money.” This complication he is talking about often takes the form of what we could non-arced emotions; that his films are emotionally terroristic, moving from one extreme of feeling to another. In the scene early in A Woman Under the Influence where husband Nick’s (Peter Falk) work colleagues come round for dinner after their shift, Mabel’s eccentric behaviour eventually leads her husband to tell her to shut up as a scene of embarrassment, with Mabel overly affectionate with the workers, becomes a scene of low-key terror with Mabel and her husband arguing. Later in the film there is a moment where Mabel, her husband and the kids are in the house with a neighbour, and the neighbour starts to go upstairs where Mabel and the kids happen to be and Nick asks him where he thinks he is going as they start fighting.

These are the sort of messy scenes Cassavetes talks about that undermine the commercial nature of the project, and they do so because the film doesn’t play fair with the viewer’s expectations, rather as someone might say a terrorist doesn’t accept the terms upon which extreme actions take place. If by analogy most Hollywood films play by a kind of Queensbury rules of emotional arcing, Cassavetes is a street-fighting man, evident in a comment on Husbands like “I’m a great believer in spontaneity, because I think planning is the most destructive thing in the world. Because it kills the human spirit. So does too much discipline, because then you can’t get caught up in the moment…”

The Cassavetian moment coincides with, rather than seems especially influenced by, Laing’s ideas. When Laing says “the greater the need there is to get out of an untenable position, the less chance there is of doing so. The more untenable a position is, the more difficult it is to get out of it”, this certainly helps explains Mabel’s crisis, but this is more because Cassavetes is interested in spontaneity in film just as Laing searches it out in life. When Laing says “what is called a psychotic episode in one person, can often be understood as a crisis of a peculiar kind in the inter-experience of the nexus, as well as in the behaviour of the nexus” (Self and Others), it could well sum up the sort of emotional terrorism Cassavetes dramatises. When the extended family is sitting around the table after Mabel gets out of the hospital late in the film, this isn’t only about Mabel’s behaviour as the crazy person, but a conventional environment pressurised. The need for everything to work smoothly seems almost to demand a reaction that is not smooth. The attempt at controlling the situation generates a sub-text that is untrue to the environment. Cassavetes’ use of subtext is the opposite of standard cinema’s, partly because, in standard film, sub-text is an aesthetic achievement, evident in David Howard’s comment in How to Build a Great Screenplay. “Subtext helps make the interaction in a story more closely resemble real human interactions. If every character says everything on his mind and only speaks the truth and only the whole truth, then we will start to reject the story as unrealistic.” Yet from such a perspective, Cassavetes’ film is full of subtext taking into account Kael’s observations that, “like all Cassavetes’ films, A Woman Under the Influence is a tribute to the depth of feelings that people can’t express.”

Are we arriving at a contradiction here: on the one hand claiming the absence of subtext; on the other acknowledging Kael’s insistence that Cassavetes’ characters cannot express depth of feeling? Perhaps it is not so contradictory if we notice that Cassavetes’ characters do not articulate that depth of feeling, but they do express it. Expression and articulation are not one and the same, and one of the achievements of Cassavetes’ cinema is constantly to search out the expression without demanding its articulation. In this sense, his psychodynamic cinema is very different from another director fascinated by the texture of human emotion: Ingmar Bergman. Indeed Cassavetes’ film was made around the same time as Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and could have the latter as its own title, and yet the characters’ sharp cadences in Bergman’s films often strip layers off each other: expression meets articulation. Cassavetes is interested in how expressed emotion doesn’t become articulated but trapped between the feeling and the language required to shape it. In the scene where Nick and Mabel are lying in bed together, Nick says “are you alright”, and Mabel replies, “why do you keep asking me that? Do you think there’s something wrong with me or something?” John Orr compares the two directors in The Art and Politics of Film, saying “We could say that he [Cassavetes] takes the place in American cinema that Bergman had in European cinema, but without obvious direct influence or transcription of mise-en-scene. What is the same in both directors is the unrelenting intimacy, the use of close up, the privileging of the close witness who is neither voyeur nor detached observer.”

But of course in Bergman films like Cries and Whispers, The Passion and Persona, the emotional crisis is contained by a precision of form. Bergman would frequently talk about composition and lighting. “I am a voyeur”, Bergman insists in an interview in Ingmar Bergman Interviews, “To look at somebody, to find out how the skin changes, the eyes, how all those muscles change the whole time – the lips – to me it’s always a drama…and I have been experimenting with how to light close-ups.” For Cassavetes, however, commenting in Directing the Film, “it’s not really interesting, to me at least, to set up a camera angle. At some points in the filming you really want to take the camera and break it for no reason except that it’s just an interference and you don’t know what to do with it.” Indeed, now established cinematographer Caleb (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff) Deschanel, worked on the film and was fired after a few weeks. Years later, in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, he would say, “I think John would just as soon pull the film through his brain and expose it that way as worry about what it took to record something on film through the camera…he really never accepted film as a craft that is mastered in order to make it work as art.”

This doesn’t mean Cassavetes’ films don’t have a style: the camera has to do something. What they don’t have is the meaningful mise-en-scene of a Bergman, a sense that the camera and lighting shape the emotional resonance of the scene, just as he doesn’t offer characters that are articulate in the Bergman sense. The use of reds and yellows in A Passion, the manner in which Bergman will light someone by the window in The Silence, carry strong connotative connections. Cassavetes wants figures not placed in the frame, but actors forcing the mise-en-scene, and the director tries to capture this performance led cinema by using close-ups and long lenses. Cassavetes’ voyeurism is different from Bergman’s: more pushy and unpredictable, yet the dialogue was not at all improvised. He insists in Cassavetes on Cassavetes that, “the emotion was improvised. The lines were written, the attitudes were improvised. I give somebody some lines, and the interpretation must be their own. There was no verbal improvisation in Faces…” Cassavetes also adds that his wife, Gena Rowlands, who has, of course, appeared in many of his films, “is not an improvisational actress.” Cassavetes searches out the feeling through the inevitability of narrative event. “I never instructed anybody to laugh in Faces, but I never said ‘cut it out’ either.” The style in Cassavetes’ films is usually that of an improvisatory form and feeling, accompanied by strongly written events.

This is perhaps why the set piece is important to Cassavetes films, the set piece not as spectacle of course, as in the action set piece, but a type also evident in a filmmaker whose work resembles Cassavetes’s: Mike Leigh. Both are interested in different ways in the emotionally resonant scene that bring to the surface mixed and contrary feelings within the characters. There is in them a hint of the comedy of embarrassment, but while in Leigh’s work the characters tend to be more passive and inhibited, in Cassavetes’s films they are rumbustious and unruly. Whether it is the scene where Nick hassles the neighbour going up the stairs, or the moment where Mabel talks of a family member having a big bottom, Cassavetes pushes the comedy of embarrassment that Leigh flirts with into the direction of the terroristic we have already commented upon.

At the beginning of the piece, we asked about the notion of being under the influence. What the film tries to do is show Mabel’s fragile personality against the onslaught of social and familial forces. In one scene she picks up a man in a bar; in another, she stands on the street wearing a short skirt and haranguing passersby. Mabel’s attitudes are constantly inappropriate: constantly asking more humanity from the situation than she can realistically expect. “Man is always between being and non-being,” Laing says, “but non-being is not necessarily experienced as personal disintegration. The insecurity attendant upon a precariously established personal unity is one form of ontological insecurity, it is this term I used to denote the insecurity inescapably within the heart of man’s finite being.” How does Laing’s statement in Self and Others fit with Cassavetes’s film? The question resides in the dangers available in non-being, misunderstandings that lead to the social awkwardness Cassavetes searches out. Whose influence should someone be under, since we cannot avoid our identity being shaped by others?” Cassavetes puts it well when he talks of casting Rowlands’ mother as her mother in the film.” It was difficult because she had to not like her, because the relationship is both like and love.” The problem for Mabel is finding people who are well-disposed enough towards her so that her personality can hold. Nick clearly loves her, but there are too many moments when he can’t quite find within himself the love that can counter the social irritation he often feels as his wife makes a scene. “Most of the arguments between men and women are based upon somebody’s inability to express what they really mean”, Cassavetes says “…the things that really count are very rarely expressed, no matter how long a marriage goes on, no matter how long the love goes on.” The influences upon us are often subtextual in a manner very different from Howard’s remarks, and how many relationships, no matter the love, are full of ill-disposition?

This is exemplified here in somebody whose personality is so obviously fragile. It is as though Mabel wants constantly to push into text what in other situations remains subtext, constantly wants to address the very core of the emotions rather than their periphery. She wants to have her full being recognised but doesn’t possess the necessary tools to make that awareness come across as anything but that of instability. Kael may have believed that “Laing’s approach is a natural for movies at this time, since the view that society is insane has so much to recommend it that people may easily fall for the next reversal that those whom society judges insane are the truly sane.” However, it seems Cassavetes is interested not so much in promoting a propaganda of insanity, but in musing over the difficulty in being in this world as an emotionally raw human, constantly searching out feeling and not hiding from it. In response to some comments Kael made on Faces, Cassavetes said his characters are generally “everyday people. They have some money but find themselves discontented with their own loneliness, their own mortality, the sameness of life.” Perhaps Cassavetes is finally more Emersonian than Laingian, taking into account the philosopher Stanley Cavell’s comments in Cities of Words. Here he is talking of our inability to pronounce, to fail to articulate, and invokes Emerson’s idea of conformity: “…the perception of our inability to pronounce as it were of our own, or for ourselves, our cogito, taking upon ourselves our existence, is part of a perception that we, so far as we have a say in the matter, persist in a state of pre-existence, a metaphysically missing person, ghosts.” Mabel is someone trying to find a means with which to non-conform, to express her own mind, however fractured, and Cassavetes’ own fractured and fragmented film captures it so well. Is it not film form as compassionate mode? It is a means by which to hint at the co-feeling between humans, rather than the social norms that too superficially bind us together.


©Tony McKibbin