Why you should watch John Cassavetes' Faces right now.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
April 28 2009 10:31 AM

Essential Cassavetes

No one does the shock of emotional truth like he did.

Faces DVD cover.

Why buy the Criterion Collection's recent rerelease of John Cassavetes' second film, Faces? If you're already enough of a Cassavetes fan to possess the 2004 box set of his first five movies, owning this would be a redundancy: The DVD extras and digital restoration add nothing new to the version of the film in that collection. But if there are still cinephiles out there who haven't discovered this seminal director and who can't afford to drop a C-note on shelf candy like the eight-disc box set, this impeccably packaged and presented edition of one of the greatest American films of the 1960s makes a perfect introduction.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Faces,released in 1968, is the story of a middle-aged businessman, Richard "Dickie" Forst (John Marley), whose marriage to Maria (Lynn Carlin) has gone sour. One night after work, Richard and a colleague (Fred Draper) visit the home of a prostitute, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands). The three of them dance and drink and carry on for a few hours, after which Dickie returns home to his wife. They have dinner, then argue, and he heads out to spend the night with Jeannie while his wife visits a go-go club with some girlfriends and picks up a sexy young hustler named Chet (Seymour Cassel). Stripped to its bones, Faces is the elegantly simple story of two equal and opposite betrayals: Over the course of a night, Dickie will cheat on Maria with Jeannie, while she returns the favor by sleeping with Chet.

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The caveat, and the revelation, is that the experience of watching Faces has virtually nothing to do with the schematic plot description above. Shot on black-and-white 16mm film with a constantly roving camera and a soundtrack of overlapping, occasionally out-of-sync dialogue, the movie has a raw and at times near-unwatchable immediacy. What emerges from the series of encounters it depicts is less a narrative than a succession of alternating intensities: First Dickie, Jeannie, and Fred dance and cavort, tell bad jokes, and flirt until the men's competition for Jeannie's attentions puts an end to the hollow merriment. Then Dickie and Maria collapse in laughter at their dinner table, moments before he announces, "I want a divorce." When Maria and her lady friends bring Chet home from the nightclub, he woos them with nonsensical improvised blues songs, then suddenly grows quiet: "I think we're making fools of ourselves."

Everyone in Faces is constantly laughing, singing, and dancing—fully one-quarter of the dialogue must consist of half-remembered snatches of song—yet a more miserable cohort is hard to imagine. But while their forced antics and sudden bursts of cruelty are often cringe-worthy, these people are never the object of satire or ridicule. Cassavetes films his characters with such deep compassion that even the crudest sally comes off as a gesture of love, a misguided bid for recognition. And when that recognition comes, in brief flashes—when Richard, about to get a foot rub from Jeannie, suddenly blurts, "I trust you," or Chet imitates a robot to show Maria how mechanized his responses usually are—there's a shock of emotional truth we rarely get to experience in life, let alone at the movies. These moments are so alive and spontaneous, it's difficult to believe that Faces was entirely scripted; though the actors were given great freedom when it came to their gestures and motivations, there was virtually no improvisation on set.

"Making of" featurettes are usually a desirable if superfluous DVD extra, but Faces is one case in which learning how a movie was made actively changes the experience of watching it. A 2004 documentary included on a second disc, Making Faces, has lengthy and thoughtful interviews with nearly every key player whom you'd want to hear from (with the exception of Cassavetes himself, who died in 1989 at the age of 59). As Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' wife and longtime collaborator, puts it in an extensive interview: "[We] gave independent filmmaking a new name." With no budget and an unpaid group of friends who doubled as actors, grips, cameramen, and set painters, Cassavetes shot the movie at his own house over a period of six months in 1965 and proceeded to edit and postproduce it for the next three years, stopping when he ran out of money, then borrowing or begging more and starting again. (It was finally released in 1968, the same year Cassavetes played Mia Farrow's secretly Satanist husband in Rosemary's Baby.) Rowlands also discusses the fact that both she and Lynn Carlin were in the early stages of pregnancy at the time of filming—a detail that makes their emotionally and physically draining performances all the more extraordinary.

The extras disc also includes an episode of Cinéastes de Notre Temps, a French television show that interviewed Cassavetes during the filming of Faces and later when the film came out. Cruising Los Angeles in a convertible, snapping his fingers to the Beach Boys' "California Girls" as he jokes about making Crime and Punishment into a musical, 36-year-old Cassavetes is impossibly handsome, hip, and charming—you can see why the style-loving French lionized him, and how he sweet-talked hundreds of people into working on his movies for free.

There's also an alternate 17-minute opening to the film, with some never-before-seen scenes and others whose sequence was changed for the final cut. (The original edit of Faces, screened for a test audience, was three hours and 20 minutes long.) Watching this alternate beginning reinforces the impression that every Cassavetes movie contains an infinite number of other possible movies. Unfortunately, he lived only long enough to make a few of them.

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