Back to HOME
Introduction Chap.1 Chap.2 Chap.3 Chap.4 Conclusion
Chapter Three. The Laugh as Communicative Tool and the Dance as the Tool for Expressing the Charactersf Hidden Emotion

3. Introduction

In Chapter One and Two, we looked at stylistic and thematic changes by focusing on Cassavetesf two major films. In this chapter, we examine that which makes Cassavetesf film striking in light of his favorite motifs, because to find the stylistic and thematic differences is relevant for us to know the common features in Cassavetesf films. In the first section, attention is given to the laugh in Cassavetesf films. In the second section, the motif of dance is the object of analysis.

3.1. The Ambiguous Laugh

In general, Cassavetes has found a greater possibility of expression in comedy than in tragedy. Perhaps that is why all his films include some comical scenes. For example, Minnie and Moscowitz is a screwball comedy, which was a popular genre from 1920s to 1930s. To be more precise, the mere plot of the screwball comedy has gthree components: social and psychological unmooring as the initiating event; zany romantic conflict as a learning process; and psychological insight and emotional growth as the final outcomeh.25 Also Big Trouble, Cassavetesf another film, can be classified as a farce. @@
The French film cirtic, Thierry Jousse refers to the laugh in Cassavetesf films as follows : "tous les autres films de Cassavetes, le rire surgit a lfimproviste creusant un abime insondable dans la conversation".26 As he points out, the laugh in Cassavetes arises unexpectedly from the unfathomable depth in the conversation. We will examine the characteristic of laugh in Cassavetesf films in detail.

In Cassavetesf films, laughter may exist on the audiencef side and the charactersf. Generally speaking, four types of situations can be considered. In the first type of situation, the characterfs situation is serious but looks absurd and the audience accepts it as comical. In the second type, the charactersf situation is simply absurd and the audience thinks of it as funny. In the third, the characters laugh in a certain situation and the audience is allured by their laughter. In the fourth, the charactersf laugh is in a certain situation, but the audience feels it difficult to laugh in that situation. Cassavetese laughter may belong to the first and fourth type. The laughter in Cassavetesf films appears rather complicated; we have to read the hidden truth below the laughter. When we watch Cassavetesf films, we notice many jokes, forced laughter, bitter laughter and hysterical laughter.
The first type of laughter, mentioned above is often derived from the characterfs insane words or deeds. The audience may laugh at those albeit bitterly. We can laugh, because we find surprise in the insane act or unusual words. The laughter comes from seeing the franticness of the characters within that situation.

Let us begin our analysis of the laugh by considering Mabelfs case in A Woman Under the Influence. When she goes out to the street to wait for her children to come home from school, she asks passersby repeatedly what time it is in the manner of madness. She yells and finds fault with the pedestrian who looks at her suspiciously. We may laugh at Mabelfs eagerness because she should have checked the time before she left home. As another example in A Woman Under the Influence, we see that after Mabel returns from the mental institute, her friends and her family have arranged a party for her. In the middle of the party, she says shamelessly, gI want to go to bed with Nickh, twice. Her words may surprise us because she is so honest and displays her true feelings which ordinary people normally hide. We are surprised at the charactersf ginsaneh words or acts because we can see how unusual people can be. However, we anticipate the other charactersf unacceptable reaction to these ginsaneh acts or words. So the first type of laugh might be interpreted as a painful laugh.
In a sense, a kind of desperateness pervades through Cassavetesf characters which sometimes turns into a comic element. This desperateness cannot be understood by rationality but may be understandable if we put it into the product of excessive emotion. This overabundance might be derived from the influence of Frank Capra, a Hollywood director of screwball comedy, whose gsanguinityh Cassavetes was attracted by. Frank Capra, who made films with full of dexterous humor, idealism and dream at that time, was the celebrated director in Hollywood in 1930fs. Diane Yacobs presents a precious argument on Caprafs influence on Cassavetes as follows:@@
Cassavetesf art is as replete with dichotomy as with uneven quality: he yearns for the sanguinity of Capra and makes Faces; bemoans the social status quo and hedges the polemics of change; elevates the everyday to art, but refuses to turn around and intimate a cosmic truth from the evidence of the specific.27

Cassavetesf desperateness has shared emotional abundance with Caprafs sanguinity, but may be subtly different from Caprafs. Cassavetesf desperateness consists of the charactersf truthfulness of their desire and their stubbornness toward that desire.

Regarding the forth type of laugh in Cassavetesf films, it may be born from the ambiguity of jokes. This can be seen in@scenes of films like Faces, A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams. @@@@
Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence tries to tell a joke about the inspector of the Regional Taxation Bureau at the family party, however some people intrude and her joke is suspended. We cannot laugh or feel empathy in this situation. There only remains awkwardness. We realize that the joke should be the lubricant of the conversation, but that it rather deepened the awkwardness.
In the early part of Faces,@Richard and his friend, Freddie go to a prostitutefs house. Richard and Freddie, who are attracted by her, try to entertain her, to tell her the jokes and to do some silly performances. To look at the pattern of frame, we see in the left-foreground, a part of a characterfs body like the arm and two characters with the full posture in the background. We possibly notice this kind of scene structure quite often in this sequence. In a sense, this scene composition may create a device of presenting the characters as an audience and two performers. The excitement of performers and the coolness of the audience are compared. The performance looked fruitless, because the part of the characterfs body, which is located near the audience did not show any excitement. The closeness of the part of characterfs body brings us a certain feeling that we may assimilate with him/her.

In this film, jokes are used for the aim of hiding embarrassment and awkwardness, although the result is mostly in contrast to the expectation. It can be said that the jokes in Faces are incomplete. The characters are forced to laugh at their own defective jokes. The jokes are not told to a certain character but to anybody at the same place. The eye contact among the characters is missing. The characters laugh for a few seconds without looking at each other. This makes us think the jokes are not completed. Another example is given in the scene when two men are trying to tell some jokes to two girls. They are interrupted by a sudden intrusion of Richard. The one of the two men tries to tell jokes in order to direct Geniefs attention. But he cannot reach the punch line.

In this scene, one strangerfs interference brought about undeniable awkwardness. The shaky hand-held camera in this sequence shows the instability of the situation. The frames jolt, sometimes showing us the part of the charactersf faces and at other times the full posture of the characters. At intervals, shots taken by the angle of elevation are used for the purpose of deforming the charactersf faces. It is hard to understand the changeable atmosphere of this scene, for we must read the situation from the fragments of the charactersf bodies. The changeableness of this scene is underscored by displaying the smiling faces and angry faces in a shot after a shot. After the jokes, we watch one characterfs smiling face and the other onefs chilled look rather than the charactersf smiling faces one after another. The laugh arises suddenly by the character who said the jokes by himself and he does not agitate others to laugh. Additionally, this nonintersecting glances may prove Cassavetesf anti-Hollywood-ness, for in Hollywood films, the shot-reverse shot must be used when two people talk.
Equally important is that the exaggerated laugh in Faces can be taken for the reverse side of gaiety, which covers the true feeling of the characters. Each time the characters traced the path of excitement, of the roar of laughter, of arguing at the gathering, they tried to revitalize the gloomy atmosphere. We cannot laugh with the characters because their performance is painful to watch. The screen is filled with the isolated faces from the group. The shot transition can be considered as rough, sudden and rapid. We hardly read the whole atmosphere of the company, because the characters do not laugh together. The voices of laugh stand alone, too. We know from the first that they are not joking but trying to find a clue for the subject of the conversation. The awkwardness of the situation where natural conversation has worn out brings the company a heavy silence. Here, the key person tries to entertain the company by telling jokes. But these jokes tend to deepen the awkwardness of the situation.

In Shadows, we can see the backstage where the charactersf practicing how to present their jokes. Hugh has to introduce the showgirls and holds a rehearsal of the presentation with Rupert, his manager and the pianist. Rupert insists that Hugh should tell some jokes; one is about a magician, the other concerns a rabbit in a tree. Hugh practices the prologue without finishing the joke about the rabbit in a tree. In the nightclub, the two comedians walk through the audiencef tables making silly jokes. The audience highly appreciates the action of the comediansf performance. But the audience does not hear Hughfs singing or speech. Diane Jacobs wrote about this scene as being one of the most moving scenes in the film.28 This scene seems cruel, for we had seen the sequence of Hugh and his colleagues practicing the jokes, but on stage, Hugh was not given a chance to tell his jokes.
Let us now turn our attention to the film style of this scene. What gives the scene a painful image is that Cassavetesf camera shows the audiencefs indifference using many cuts while showing Hughfs disappointment by two cuts only. In detail, the scene of Hughfs practicing the joke lasts for about three minutes, while, the Hughfs singing at the nightclub lasts for about two minutes, we only watch Hughfs singing on the stage for about thirty seconds. What we see in one and half minutes are the audiencefs boring look and Hughfs managerfs anxious look. By the off-screen sound of Hughfs song, the continuity of the screen is sustained. The audiencefs indifference is emphasized. Additionally, after Hugh has been interrupted to sing, he tries to introduce the showgirls and to tell jokes, which he has practiced, but it only lasts for five seconds. He is pushed to the left side of the stage because of the showgirlfs entering on the stage. He is surrounded by many showgirls and casts a perplexed look. The density of population in the screen (many visitors and the showgirls) may promote the cruelty of this scene.

Symbolically, in Knives (the script), the protagonist, Larry says that he has to choose whether to work in the factory or to tell jokes( being a comedian) and he chooses to tell the jokes. Also, he mentions the relationship between laughter and pain. This passage condenses the sprit of the jokes in Cassavetesf films, because of laughter or jokes accompanied by a kind of pain. Besides, Larry says that for him, "Love is a joke, a laugh and is about people".29 That is to say, jokes may be offered instead of any expression of love.

The bad aftertaste of Cassavetesf jokes is similar to the sadness of clowns. Clowns feel very depressed when they cannot make people laugh although they perform well. The pretended gaiety behind the sadness might give the tragi-comedy aspect of Cassavetesf films. Cassavetesf characters always crave for affection and try to get it. This desperateness, which was mentioned before, may add the pathetic tone to the characterization of Cassavetesf characters. As Larry in Knives indicates, laugh is sometimes accompanied by pain. The desperateness and pain must be the source of the uniqueness of Cassavetesf laugh.

Hugh in Shadows is considered as the pre-figure of Mr. Sophistication in The Killing of the Chinese Bookie. Mr. Sophistication is the introducer of the showgirls in the nightclub. He looks like a semi-comedian and moans that the audience appreciates the showgirlsf striptease more than his speech. @
To sum up, Cassavetesf jokes can be interpreted as a kind of act of love including the act of reforming conversation. Sharing jokes and laughing together bear a very important meaning in Cassavetesf films. Recall the scene in which Richard and Maria roll about with laughter in Faces. Richard and Maria laugh while sitting at a kitchen table. She talks about a couple and he interrupts her by telling a dirty joke. They both laugh. At first, a clear laughter comes from them, but after a while, this laughter becomes incoherent. Diane Jacobs describes this scene as follows:
... Cassavetes intensifies the isolation of each character by cutting from one to the other, rarely portraying both husband and wife in the same frame. As they laugh at ostensibly shared jokes, the camera jolts uneasily-capturing a terrifying mutual uncertainty that underlies half a lifetime of intimacy .30

We do not see any shots in which both Richard and Maria are laughing within the same frame. What is clear from this is that the charactersf laughing together means an expression of love in Cassavetesf films. The couple losing their affection toward each other can laugh at the same jokes separately and at the same time but not in perfect harmony. Taking the form of the divergence of laughter represents the destruction of the couple or of the family.

The existence of laughter between married couples may be one of Cassavetesf favorite motifs. In A Woman Under the Influence, when Mabel begs Nick not to take her to the mental institution, she tries to recall the memory at their wedding ceremony, when the priest asks whether she would love Nick forever and she says, gyes, because I am pregnanth. Mabel forces Nick to admit the fact that they laughed together on that occasion. Strangely, Nick hesitates to acknowledge this although Mabel repeatedly asks him. What can be read from this scene is that the couplefs laughing together may be the essential factor of mutual understanding. The act of laughter seems to be the metaphorical of the charactersf open mind in Cassavetesf films.

The motif of laughing together seems to reach its peak in Love Streams. In the previous chapter, we have looked at Sarahfs second dream. She bet her love on whether she could make them laugh or not. As a result, she failed and jumped into the pool. Making them laugh functions as the device which tests her husbandfs and daughterfs love for Sarah.

All in all, laugh, which may be derived from the charactersf franticness, or laughter, which can hide the charactersf true feeling tends to be seen in Cassavetesf films. Also incomplete jokes often play a part. Regarding these factors of laughter in Cassavetesf films, let us think that the laugh is not just only a laugh, but that it has a kind of profound connotation. In a sense, laughter may bring about the surprise in the audiencefs mind. The complexity of laughter may add to the gtragich in Cassavetesf films. The act of laugh should be equal to the act of love in Cassavetesf films. The love and laugh are both necessary factors in Cassavetesf films, for a happy family is filled with love and laugh. In his films, love is not always obtained even if the characters desperately long for it. But the characters have to live without love. That is why the characters should laugh to live and get affection.

3.2. The Dance as the Spectacle and Dance for the Emotion

In most of Cassavetesf films, dance scenes such as the dance of one man and a woman, as well as show dance and ballet appear quite often. As Raymond Carney indicates, every film shows the process of the emotional, social and imaginary choreography of a personfs relationship.31 To put it another way, the dance scenes in Cassavetesf films embody the choreography of the human relationship. Basically, the dance scenes in Cassavetesf films can be divided into two types: an object for viewing, and the tool of nonverbal communication. In detail, dance as a spectacle includes some sexual connotation and dance as a form of nonverbal communication contains the metaphor of human understanding, which is very characteristic of the medium of motion picture by definition.

Cassavetes is likely to express the human relationships between men and women by means of dance rather than explicit sex. Dance connects men and women mentally and physically without the use of words. Many dance scenes in Cassavetesf films do not evoke in us a sensual impression. The dance becomes more spiritual and ritual rather than physical.

At this point, we will attempt an in-depth look at various dance scenes in Cassavetesf films. In Faces, Richard and Maria Frost did not dance together at all, though they each danced with somebody else. After Richard Frost leaves his wife Maria, Maria and her friends flock to the dance club. They do not drink much, nor dance there, but they cannot move and just sit down there. They look up the floor where Chet and many young people are dancing hotly. Dancing Chet cannot be captured in the frame, only the parts of his body and face are taken. He sticks out from the frame. This symbolizes his energy and youth that are compared with the calmness of Maria and her friends. This contrast is emphasized by seizing Maria and her friends by bust shot.

After they go to Mariafs home with Chet, they display the sexual desire of middle-aged women. In a public place, like a dance club where many young people gather and dance, they cannot act as lively as they want. Louise, Mariafs friend dances with a young gigolo, Chet, and experiences spiritual rejuvenation. Through Chetfs younger body, she regains the young energy and becomes sexually aroused. The liberation from a sofa may mean their spiritual and physical liberation. We can read sexual connotation from this scene, for Mariafs friends, who sat tight at a dance club, began to stand up and to dance. Perhaps in this kind of scene, the charactersf desire appears more outspoken than in usual sex scenes.

In Too Late Blues, dance is comprised of two types: spiritual and sexual. The couple, Ghost and Jessica feel awkward when they first meet at a party and try to dance. The dance breaks the ice between them. In this situation, the whole bodies or the upper halves of the body of two characters are taken in the frame. We see the shot in which the manager of a bar looks at them with a warm smile. Later, Jessica dances with the jazz-band-members except her boyfriend, Ghost. She takes her jacket and performs some sexy gestures. Her flattery stimulates Irish men at the bar. Jessicafs loose morals are revealed by showing her dancing with several different men. In this scene, Jessicafs bare shoulders and the backside are emphasized. The camera shows the Irish man who leers at her. What this scene suggests is that putting the shot of dirty-minded manfs face may add sexual connotation. The fact that Jessica dances with anybody supports the notion of her becoming a prostitute after losing her job and Ghost. When the dance scene becomes sexual, dance bears different meanings. If we consider that this subtle sexual stimulus caused the catastrophe of Ghost and Jessica and that of the jazz band, this dance scene is a decisive factor in the plot.

In Love Streams, we see the dance sequence twice. (Not including Robertfs glonelyh dance.) The dance scene of Robert and Sarah in front of the jukebox illustrates another important aspect of Cassavetesf work, which is gthe vulnerability of the beauties--both those in life and those in arth. Indeed h[t]his moment is one of the most gorgeously lit and framed scenes in Love Streamsh.32 This scene declares gtheir own fragilityh because it never lasts gfor more than a few seconds. The beauties are momentary and fugitiveg.33 As Carney points out, the scene may be said to be a visionary one. In the dark, Robert turns on the jukebox, gyrates himself to the rhythm; and then Sarah comes into the room. The scene is lit only from the window. They say nothing to each other and just dance together for some time. We may view this scene as a reunion of the siblings and know that the siblings can understand each otherfs feelings without words. Thierry Jousse wrote about the siblingsf nonverbal dance as follows: gDeux corps enveloppes par la musique, vivrant au meme rythme, non plus dans une choreographie ideale mais dans une danse instantanee, ultime possibilite de dialogue entre deux etresg.34 In the miedium of motion picture, the dance becomes the visual dialogue of ultimate possibility between two persons.

We now give attention to the show dance or the ballet. This kind of professional dance is distinguished from the private dance between one man and a woman because of the need for an audience and because of their function within a group. The showgirls and ballet dancers become the objects to be watched. Besides, they represent the night life of the city. In a big city like New York, people may lead quite lonely lives. The place in a big city where many people gather is usually a bar, a nightclub, and at parties. In the night, people feel more solitary than in the daytime and drift along with the wave of gathering people. At night, theatres and nightclubs, revues and ballets would be the main spots of any town. People can dream and see illusions more often at night than in the daytime. Despair, loneliness and excitement exist there only ambivalently. In a nightclub, people may console themselves by watching the show-dancersf performance. Show dance can be a spectacle, which capitalizes on the female sex; at the same time it brings a kind of illusion in the domain between the audience and the showgirls, whereas ballet as performed by particular characters, such as Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence, expresses innermost feeling. Mabel is fond of Tchaikovskyfs Swan Lake and dances three times in the film. The second time, she dances the part of the dying swan. The dying swan is nothing but the true representation of her spirit. Basically, ballet should express emotion through expressive movement. The characters in Cassavetesf films can represent unspeakable impulses and feelings through the use of their whole bodies.

To sum up, by showing the private dance between one man and a woman, Cassavetes might depict nonverbal communication in a very ephemeral way. At the same time, the same dance may sometimes bring about sexual attraction. In contrast, a professional dance requires professional or trained dancers, an audience and the outside (open) world. In this sense, the professional dance has its meaning in the "spectacle", which is what we may see in any film. As for the private ballet dance, the motion effecively describes the emotion held deep within the charactersf internal world. To express the charactersf excessive emotion, Cassavetes uses close-ups of the minimal motion of faces. For instance, by ultra-close-ups, Cassavetes shot the motion of lips and eyeballs. We can read the characterfs mental condition whether he/she is getting angry or laughing from the movement of lips. Or, the eyeballs which shift from left to right show us the characterfs uncertainty or disturbance. Also from the characetersf furrows on the forehead, we are able to guess their feelings. Besides, if the character closes his/her eyes, we can suspect the mental situation that he/she may be sad or contemplating something. What Cassavetes tells us is that sometimes minimal motion tells more than maximum motion in a very subtle way.

Moreover, Cassavetes succeeds in describing the charactersf innermost feelings not only by the close-ups of the faces but by the motion of the body, such as in ballet and dance. In conclusion, the existence of laughter between two persons may indicate that when two bodies are detached, their open mouths symbolize that their hearts are open to each other. Regarding dance, attaching two bodies shows us their invisible chain. In this sense, laughter and dance may appear to have different meanings at first, but what Cassavetes tries to express through them in his films is fumdamentally similar.

Introduction Chap.1 Chap.2 Chap.3 Chap.4 Conclusion
Back to HOME


25 Raymond Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes. 115.
Thierry Jousse, John Cassavetes. 72.
27 Jacobs, op. cit., 28.
28 Jacobs, op. cit., 40.
John Cassavetes, Knives, Ed. and Trans. Riho Mitachi. Switch 3 Jan. 1990. 136.
30 Jacobs, op. cit., 40.
31 Raymond Carney, Cassavetes no Utsusita America. [American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience]. 221.
32 Raymond Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes. 265.
Loc. cit.
Jousse, op. cit., 85.

Page Top