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Faces turns 50, and we still can’t face vulnerability

John Marley as Dickie Forst in Faces.

2018 marks a half century since 1968, that fateful year that went down in history marked with upheaval and rebellion throughout society and politics all over the place. Diabolique has been celebrating the golden anniversaries of many a genre film, and while a picture like John Cassavetes’ Faces is quite a different animal from horror or sci fi, its means of production certainly places it in the vicinity of “cult” cinema. A self-financed film shot on 16mm that caters to the actors more than the camera or mise-en-scene, is something decidedly different than the mainstream. Faces may take place in Los Angeles, but certainly not Hollywood.

The film stands out in the history of late 1960s American cinema because it focuses on a cross-section of life that wasn’t seen on screen in the same way that often. Sure, there have been movies about mid-life crises of the middle class, but they had more of a studio feel that Hollywood was breaking out of around that time. There aren’t many films about the love life of a man nearing age sixty, as actor John Marley was at the time of shooting; while older men are traditionally more acceptable to see on screen than their female counterparts, he was still a bit older than your average heartthrob. Faces is a film shot on location in real Los Angeles homes using realistic lighting, documentary-like camera work, and frank acting. Most of the films with such techniques around this time focused far more on countercultural movements and characters–the hippie bikers of Easy Rider (1969), political protestors in Medium Cool (1969), aimless piano prodigies in Five Easy Pieces (1970), etc.

Faces is about Richard “Dickie” Forst (John Marley) an aging businessman who abruptly asks his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) for a divorce one night. He goes out drinking with his boorish friend Fred (Fred Draper), who both hit on a classy call girl named Jeannie (Gena Rowlands)–Dickie gets to know her more personally, although it takes almost the whole film until they know each other intimately. Meanwhile, a 30-something tomcat named Chet (Seymour Cassel) goes out of his way to impress Maria and her other aging lady-friends. The film climaxes in emotional drama, actions blown out of proportion, shame, and realizations about the value of our longtime friends and lovers. There are a few other sequences within the film, all of them dealing with desire, tension, and revelation channeled through laughter, frustration, and love. Faces is about the imperfections of self and others, where hope and disappointment collide, and the instinct to hold onto those we are moving away from.

Few films are more alive than those directed by John Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977), both of which star Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands, are the crowning achievements in both of their careers–Faces is more like the gritty experiment that came beforehand, dealing with much the same slate of ideas–domestic turmoil essentially. The film is far from perfect, with a bunch of idiosyncrasies that make it unique. This imperfection is at the core of Cassavetes’ cinema, which is one of the many revolutionary moments in the vocabulary of cinematic emotion.

Some viewers are highly critical of what contemporary critics might call the toxic masculinity of the male characters–this is particularly most contentious and apparent in the men-acting-like-boys picture Husbands (1970). Yet in Faces, the way some men relate to women and other men is far more nuanced. The unhappiness and desperation of the men in Cassavetes’ cinema belie the fact that many of them are indeed helpless. It might seem like Dickie is a powerful individual at his office and at home, but his scenes with Jeannie show that he is really quite tired and aimless. Fred personifies this to an even greater degree, with moments of jealousy and inconsideration that are downright mean. These characters get through their downs via homosocial camaraderie or reuniting rocky relationships, and the resolutions are often devastatingly beautiful. One of the most remarkable things about the way Cassavetes sets up a sequence is the length–sometimes well over 20 minutes–and the breadth of moods the characters go through, ranging from uncontrollable laughter to solemn anger in real time.

In one memorable scene we see Jeannie and her friend Stella (Elizabeth Deering) entertaining to obnoxious fellows, Jim McCarthy (Val Avery) and Joe Jackson (Gene Darfler). one point Jeannie and Jim sit alone in her bedroom as he complains about the failures of his life, which include having an adult son who wears tennis shoes all the time. Jeannie sits there listening to him, but just when we see a bit of humanity in Jim, he messes up his hair and returns to the living room, trying to impress his colleague by making it look like he had just been necking with Jeannie in the other room. This kind of behavior shows how Jim is quite a pathetic figure, and anyone in the audience who can identify with him are no doubt forced to confront their own disingenuous moments in life. Once Dickie arrives, he goes through an unprovoked pissing contest with Jim who ends up making a fool of himself further. Dickie may have been cold towards his wife Maria in an earlier scene, but is there really a friendly way to ask for a divorce? At least this guy is being honest in a cast of other men–Fred, Jim, Joe–who think that a woman’s promiscuity is somehow a valid reason to put her down.

Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin in Faces.

When Seymour Cassel steps on screen as Chet, it always takes me a while to take him seriously, but by the end of the picture he is a largely sympathetic character. Initially he’s the guy who will leave a bar with four older women, hoping that he’ll end up in bed with one of them. Yet it soon becomes apparent that he genuinely wants to make all of them, and perhaps everyone he comes in contact with, feel good about themselves. Chet is a clown who doesn’t always end up saying or doing the best thing, but he is a good person.

Although he does his best to save Maria’s life after she takes a bottle of sleeping pills because he doesn’t want to be held responsible for her death, the effort he puts into it brings the audience into the situation, so we are right there with him. When he goes on a tangent about how he felt while trying to save her, it is perhaps the most tear-jerking moment in the film: “We protect ourselves, so when you’re taught ethics and values and honesty and I’m a nice guy and you’re a nice guy… and this and that, you know it just doesn’t matter. Nobody cares, nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other…”

Earlier on, Dorothy Gulliver, who plays Maria’s 50-something-year-old friend “Florence from Torrance” acts in a way that is as shameless as Chet’s moves, not caring about how her desire for a younger man is perceived. Seeing her yelling “Criticize me,” at Cassel’s character first seems so embarrassing, but she straight up steals the scene by the time it is over. When Florence looks over to Maria and says dreamily, “I think he’s nice…” it becomes apparent that she is old enough to be unashamed of unconventional desire.

(l to r) Seymour Cassel, Darlene Conley, Lynn Carlin, and Dorothy Gulliver in Faces.

The characters are always telling jokes, going through comedy routines they perfected in college, posturing for those around them just as much as the camera. You can tell this was written by a filmmaker who was also an actor. Indeed, how people act in public, and the illusory qualities of these interactions, is one of the main themes of the film. The aging characters use bravado within attempts to impress friends and those they think can be manipulated through sex appeal, but of course really, maybe we should all just act normal and honest sometimes.

People aren’t attracted to Cassavetes films in order to tune out in some wild fantasy world (not that there is a thing wrong with doing that). On the contrary, audiences seek out these films to experience the rise and fall of emotion, the feelings that can go so low, only to swing back up to high points we chase for the rest of our lives. It is pretty well known that Cassavetes himself had a disdainful opinion of the more industry-oriented genre films he acted in to earn the money to fund his own films–but I’ve always found this kind of funny. Imagine Roman Polanski directing Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and thinking something like “Wow, this guy is stuck on all this fake improvisation,” or “it doesn’t seem like he knows how to make films.”–It’s hilarious. Imagine the contempt Cassavetes must have had when creating the mold of his head that explodes in de Palma’s The Fury (1978)… I wish I could have been there for that. The sacrifices made in order to get through the capitalist entertainment industry… Cassavetes is a great example because he also represents the variety of storytelling approaches such a society can result in. So many of these approaches are fascinating and none are objectively better than the other. Regardless, Faces is an amazing and real world to its own.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Joseph Dwyer is an assistant web editor at Diabolique, where he concentrates on the Legacies of Sade and Watching the Watchdogs columns. His major interests are freedom of speech, desire, and dissent in horror/cult cinema. He lives in Oakland, CA, and has academic degrees from the San Francisco Art institute and Hampshire College.

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