The mistake that people have made about John Cassavetes, both those who fall swooning at the altar of his films and those who find them overwrought, irritating and indulgent, is in considering him as a realist. A mere realist. Cassavetes’ work may look realistic, spontaneous and controlled in the moment by emotional typhoons, but this is not your Italian granddaddy’s neo-realist peasant drama or anything like the new-ish introverted realism coming in thick bolts out of the global cameras of the Dardennes, Jia, Tsai, Reygadas, Costa, etc. The only Cassavetes movie that was truly improvised was his first, “Shadows” (1959); after that, the scripts were fleshed out in grueling detail through rehearsals, and what grumpy Hollywood turks like Sean Penn and Vincent Gallo have seen as letting the actor’s id run free in a psychodramatic hothouse of booze and childish regression — cutting through the bullshit and getting to the reality — is actually a deliberate contrivance, a kind of expressionism.
Let’s face it, grown Americans don’t really act like this, at least not for more than one drunken, embarrassing moment at a time, and Cassavetes knew it. He was pursuing a hyperportrait of people under pressure, an almost hypothetical vision of what middle-class folks — parents, mostly — would do if their firewalls failed and their anxieties, fears and frustrations bubbled to the surface like lava. Movies like “Husbands” (1970) have more spiritually in common with, say, “The Last Laugh” than “Bicycle Thieves.”
The one major Cassavetes film left out of the 2004 Criterion set, “Husbands” is on the surface an explosion of desperate buffoonery — three menopausal men go into tailspins after the funeral of a fourth. But do not assume Cassavetes and his pals just winged it (the actors were not, in fact, good friends at the time), or drank too much, and were reliving their acting workshop days. The discomfitures and disappointments we feel as an audience are consciously built in: the three Long Island men are never quite clever enough to entertain us, their break-free trip off the radar of their lives lands them in drizzly London (London?), their midlife-crisis escapade never amounts to anything (not a catharsis, much less an epiphany), they have no truths to impart about the lost meaning of their lives. The scenario does not offer great depths of histrionic intensity — nothing epic happens, just a series of lost-boy fuckups and drunken rants, and the characters’ pathetic strain toward something marvelous has often been mistakenly seen as the actors’. (Cassavetes’ catch-as-catch-can visual style is, of course, unimpeachably gritty and genuine, here with cinematography by Victor Kemper, whose ’70s resume makes it look like he might be the decade’s unheralded auteur.)
What we get is a diorama of American masculinity on its deathbed, iconicized by the three weathered fools in black wool coats stumbling around wherever they weren’t supposed to be (home, work), trying to elude mortality but not having a single inspired idea about how to do it. It’s a film about escape — spittle-flecked and soused as it is — and Cassavetes knows all escapes are futile searches and yet we try escaping, over and over again, all of which is as accurate a way as any to describe Cassavetes’ thematic vision. “Husbands” is a sad movie (originally subtitled “A Comedy…,” possibly in the Dantean sense), even if it dares you to pity its obnoxious heroes for their fear of growing old and dying and having chosen the safe path while they were here.
Masculinity also takes it in the neck and groin in Veit Helmer’s “Absurdistan” (2007), but in the gentle manner of bawdy Caucasus folktales. Bearing no relation to Gary Shteyngart’s bestselling novel of the same name, Helmer’s movie is just as cotton-headed as his debut feature “Tuvalu” (1999), which was German (like Helmer) but dialogue-free. The new film was shot in Azerbaijan and in Russian, and its tang is distinct to the region, limning out a tiny chunk of village wasteland no one wanted after the Soviet collapse, and which therefore has left to decay in the sun.
The hero and heroine were born simultaneously in the same room, were engaged at four and “married at eight,” but their mature consummation still awaits them, just as the village’s long and collapsing water pipeline ceases to bring in moisture. The lazy, hedonistic men hardly care, but the women band together to go on a sex strike (just like in “Lysistrata”) until it is repaired. It’s a familiar kind of Rube Goldberg magical realism (like Caro and Jeunet’s “Delicatessen,” but far less malevolent), where the village’s pre-strike coitus is often literally strapped and tied to the various industries at work (a blacksmith’s bellows, a baker’s tub of dough, etc.), when it’s not otherwise cluttered with rockets fashioned from old propane tanks, herds of ineptly shorn sheep, rooftop tubs of rosewater, belly dancing bonfires and, gradually, scads of cowboy-&-gunslinger iconography. Helmer’s is a ridiculous yarn, and constructed like one (there’s more narration than dialogue), but the forthright tale-telling is embraceable, and the Asia Minor-netherworld locales are hypnotizing.
[Additional photo: Maximilian Mauff and Kristyna Malerova in “Absurdistan,” First Run Features, 2007]