An excerpt from my book GARAGE MOVIE: MY ADVENTURES MAKING WEIRD FILMS. In this excerpt, I talk about how I first got interested in the films of John Cassavetes and also when I first crossed paths with Cassavetes on Cassavetes author Ray Carney:
FLASH BACK TO: a couple months before the Tracey Jacobs rejection. It was Christmas of 2004 and Santa Claus gifted me with a Criterion Collection box set of John Cassavetes films. This was, in all seriousness, a life-changing moment. I popped Cassavetes’ first film Shadows into my DVD player and I never looked back. Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night—I watched each of John’s films over and over again. I was obsessed.
On eBay, I managed to find rare VHS copies of both Minnie and Moskowitz and Cassavetes’ last film Love Streams. I watched those over and over as well. It was like entering a new dimension, locking myself in my room at night, turning out the lights and escaping into the world of a Cassavetes movie.
Cassavetes’ films were so different from what I was used to. Most Hollywood movies were “plot-driven”, but Cassavetes’ films were the most character-driven works one could ever find. In fact, ‘character-driven’ isn’t quite the correct term. I would say his films were more like ‘human-driven’, which was a radical departure from Hollywood where the “humans” in movies are more like dehumanized pawns strategically used to tell a good story…or, in other words, a means to an end. Cassavetes, however, didn’t give a damn about entertaining an audience with a good story. All he cared about was capturing human behavior in its purest form.
Now, there is a misconception that Cassavetes’ films were “improvised”, but the fact is that they were all scripted and well-structured in their own unique, non-Hollywood way. They seemed improvised because Cassavetes was so talented at capturing real human behavior on the written page. Of course, his scripts weren’t etched in stone by any means. Actors—with the guidance of the director—were free to explore the complexities of their characters and alter their dialogue or actions as they saw fit. The script was always subject to changes and was never bound by a tight plot. In fact, ‘plot’ was a dirty word. Reality was more important than plot, the latter of which, if you think about it, is really the opposite of reality; it’s un-reality.
Indeed, Cassavetes’ main interest lied in non-contrived reality while Hollywood was more interested in contrived character arcs, plot beats, Acts, well-established character conflicts, clear-cut character goals etc., all of which are elements of a false reality. Cassavetes wanted to deliver audiences from this Hollywood-induced unreality and reintroduce them to reality.
As for me, I apparently craved this reality. For a period of several months, Cassavetes’ films were my addiction. I literally could watch nothing BUT Cassavetes. Hollywood movies were suddenly so stupid to me, with one-dimensional characters or ‘types’ with canned emotions, Hollywood feeling, not real human feelings that you would experience in everyday life.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was probably my favorite of all Cassavetes films. The Criterion Collection contained two different versions of the film and I watched both versions multiple times. Again, Cassavetes didn’t just write a script, shoot it and end up with the same vision he had from the outset. His filmmaking was more explorational and his vision was in a constant state of flux throughout the process of shooting a film and even throughout the process of editing it. If the editing process took him in a different direction from what he had in the script, well, he would simply go with it and pleasantly surprise himself with an end-product different from anything he had initially envisioned. If he wanted to explore two different creative pathways and end up with two versions of his films? Well, why not? Hollywood, of course, wouldn’t approve of this explorative process; they would want one version of the film finished on deadline, then they would promote the film, distribute the film, hope to make a lot of money off the film and on to the next. Cassavetes, however, liked to take his time and the filmmaking process was more interesting to him than making an end-product that would hopefully be a “hit” (i.e. a financially successful movie). In this sense, he was the epitome of the anti-Hollywood filmmaker. His filmmaking style was unprecedented at the time, especially in America. He completely subverted the Hollywood model of what a movie should be.
Anyway, it sounds sappy, but I watched so many Cassavetes films over the course of about a year that it felt as though Cassavetes himself was holding my hand the entire time, functioning as a kind of spirit guide, walking me through the spiritual experience of a lifetime.
Assisting with this “spiritual experience” were Ray Carney’s books on Cassavetes, my reading of which coincided with my viewing of the films. I re-read much of Cassavetes on Cassavetes, but I also read Carney’s book The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies, a British Film Institute (BFI) published book called Shadows, and a self-published book called John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity. Both the films of John Cassavetes and the writing of Ray Carney went hand-in-hand. Carney’s books were almost like an extension of the films themselves, meaning you got way more out of the viewing experience with his writing complementing them. Or, in other words, I guess what I’m saying is that Cassavetes and Carney were a package deal and many Cassavetes fans are in denial of this; in fact, many fans don’t even like Carney. Personally, I think they’re envious trolls, most of which are critics who could only dream of writing the masterpiece that is Cassavetes on Cassavetes. I thought and still think Carney is brilliant. He’s a bit of a controversial figure and he’s made several people upset in his passion for artistic truth, but I will always see him as nothing more than absolutely brilliant. Even if he tore new assholes in each frame of my own films, I would still think he was brilliant.
The amazing thing (and what-I-deemed serendipitous) was that Carney literally lived a mere five minutes away from me. One day in March 2005, I was out walking my Bassett Hound Anthony just down the street from my house and I saw this man rolling down the street on his bike. As he came closer, he started looking familiar and then he waved, smiled and said ‘hello’. I suddenly realized, holy shit, that was just Ray Carney! At the time, I had been drowning myself in all things Cassavetes, reading all things Carney as a kind of study aide to the films, and then, boom, there was the man himself riding right past me on his bike. It was so surreal. Too surreal. Serendipitous for sure. I felt a strong pull to contact Mr. Carney.
The next day, I wrote Ray a letter and sent him a VHS copy of my short film Sympathy for Hitler’s Soul. A few days later, I received an email from him thanking me for the letter. He said he enjoyed the film and, more specifically, he said, “You leave people thinking.” Wow, I couldn’t believe what I heard. Ray Carney thought my film was thought-provoking? It was very difficult getting a compliment from a guy like Ray and I received (what I saw as) a compliment. That made my day.
I emailed Ray back and forth and probably bothered the hell out of him because he was such a busy man, but he eventually invited me to sit in on his American Independent Film class at BU. I told him, yes, I would love to sit in on his class! Of course! I was honored by such an invitation.
So back to BU I went as a non-student and sat in on Carney’s class. He showed a film called Human Remains by an experimental filmmaker named Jay Rosenblatt. This film was about past world dictators, like Hitler and Stalin, and explored Hannah Arendt’s concept “the banality of evil”. It was quite brilliant and you can tell it was brilliant because I said “quite” and that’s a word smart people use. The film used what-is-called “found footage” of the dictators, so no actual “filmmaking” was necessary at all. Just editing of “found footage”. And voice-over done by actors.
After the class, my plan was to introduce myself to Carney, but he darted out of the room very quickly and I didn’t have a chance. I figured I would shoot him an email later, so I exited the classroom, walked out into the hall, but then I saw him coming back my way with a teacher’s assistant by his side. I gave him a wave, he took notice, and I told him who I was. He said, “Oh, I saw you [in the classroom]! Glad you came!” And then he told his assistant, “This is a very good filmmaker right here!” referring to me. I gave him an “Oh, shucks” look, but hearing those words certainly made my day. No, not my day; they made my week…month…year…lifetime…my entire stardust existence! Ray Carney, the mastermind who brought us Cassavetes on Cassavetes, thought I was a “very good filmmaker”. This was surreal.
The next day I sent Carney another email with my reaction to the Rosenblatt film. I quickly received a reply saying, “Wow! How deep! And how much I agree with you!” Then I went and sat in on his next class and he read my response aloud to the entire class like it was the most brilliant thing ever written. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Was I dreaming? This was Ray Carney, a super-difficult dude to impress, perhaps one of the most difficult men to impress in the entire world. And I was impressing him?
Thus ensued a period of a couple months where I would sit in on Carney’s classes, have email correspondence with him and very often cross paths with the film scholar while he was biking. He would post several of my emails on his website (it was cassavetes.com back then), I guess because he deemed them deep enough and worthy enough.
The connection with Ray was meant to be. For what? Perhaps for nothing else but validation from somebody I respected. But it was definitely meant to be. I realize that Ray Carney is a controversial figure in the film criticism world, no doubt about that. And, boy, the administration at Boston University does NOT like him in the least, mainly because their visions of what the BU film program should be differ so greatly. But I will say this and only this: with what limited interaction I’ve had with Ray, I have only seen him to be an extremely kind and brilliant man. He has an anti-Hollywood persona, there’s no doubt about that. And he’s no bullshit, pure truth, and this comes off as abrasive to people, probably because they’re so used to bullshit in our society. But I would vouch for Ray any day. Maybe I’m just saying this because he was supportive to me and my work, but, again, Ray was never anything but kind when I interacted with him and nothing less than brilliant.