In the previous chapter, we examined laughter and dance as Cassavetesf favorite motifs and tools for expressing charactersf hidden emotion. In this chapter, Cassavetesf favorite theme will be explored. Most of his films involve middle-class family drama. Occasionally, a melodramatic tendency can be seen in his films, but this melodrama is ironically united with real life in its own way. In a sense, the term gmelodramah covers every film of his. Hence it is important to draw attention to the relationship between melodrama and real life in this chapter. In section one, certain melodramatic elements in Cassavetesf films are examined. In section two, family drama is discussed.
4.1. Melodrama and Cassavetesf Films
4.1.1. Melodramatic Characters and the Destruction of Melodramatic Structure
Before looking at melodramatic structure in Cassavetesf films,
it would be useful to define what a melodrama is. @At first, we
should recognize the difference between a melodrama and a tragedy.
gIn tragedy, the conflict is within man; in melodrama, it is between
men, or between men and things.
Tragedy is concerned with the nature of man, melodrama with the habits of men (and things)h.35 According to Jean-Marie Thomasseau, a French literary scholar of melodrama, a characteristic of melodrama consists in shifting quiet scenes and scenes with many actions, gay scenes and touching scenes alternately. In this way, their contrast is intensified. Melodrama sways the audience emotionally. In addition, it prevents the audience from thinking logically by providing many unreal highlighted scenes and allows the audience to become sentimental.36
What is also characteristic of melodrama is that gthe melodramatic text is balanced on the edge of two extremes, one of which is inertial (the paralysis of the system, its resistance to change or any form of external development) and the other of which is entropic (where action is expressed only as an irrational and undirected surplus energy)h.37
In this respect, reference to Thomas Elsaesserfs article about melodrama-based film, whose article is considered as a classic is used. In Elsaesserfs view,
[W]hen in ordinary language we call something melodramatic, what we mean is an exaggerated rise-and-fall pattern in human actions and emotional responses, a from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous movement, a foreshortening of lived time in favor of intensity - all of which produces a graph of much greater fluctuation, a quick swing from one extreme to the other than is considered natural, realistic or in conformity with literary standards of verisimilitude.38
It should be added that melodrama has many sub-genres such as family-melodrama, love-melodrama and musical-melodrama and so on. Especially, family-melodrama has been innovated in its original way.
In Elsaesserfs opinion, in the family melodrama,
[T]he social pressures are such, the frame of respectability so sharply defined that the range of estrongf actions is limited. The tellingly impotent gesture, the social gaffe, the hysterical outburst replaces any more directly liberating or self-annihilating action, and the cathartic violence of a shoot-out or a chase becomes an inner violence, often one which the characters turn against themselves.39
We should now turn our attention to how the family melodrama ends.
As seen in the previous chapters, most of Cassavetesf films should be considered as family dramas. In the following section, the relationship between melodramatic structure and family drama in Cassavetesf films is explored. Firstly, in Shadows, melodramatic signs are obvious. Raymond Carney argued that it was Shadows that cleverly revealed melodramatic structure in real life. In the film, acknowledging the existence of the melodramatic element, Cassavetes draws comedy from such a melodramatic element.40 To put it more clearly, Leliafs superfluous performance and Tonyfs would-be manliness should be considered as melodramatic signs invading real life. When we recall the scene in which Leria and Tony make love, after sexual intercourse, Leria finds that Tonyfs eagerness to have her has already dissipated. What Leria portrays is on two levels: a betrayed woman and a frightened child. What turns out to be comical is that Leria pretends that she has experienced sexual relations before and moans exaggeratedly throughout the act. In the meantime, Tony is at a loss for an answer to Leriafs insistence that they should live together because they have had sexual intercourse, but he soon pretends as a broad-minded man and soothes her. Here, Leriafs exaggerated moaning and Tonyfs unbelievable manliness should be considered as melodramatic. In that sense, melodrama is impliedly deformed and results in comedy.
In Too Late Blues, Cassavetesf second film, the melodramatic construction can be noticed from the first half. The heroine Jessica appears as beautiful, but she is so weak that she cannot live without the protection of men. She is deserted by two men and has ruined herself by becoming a whore. She expresses herself as a typical, poor, weak and passive heroine. In contrast, the hero, Ghost displays manly power and manages to control his band, his friend and his girlfriend, Jessica.
Ironically, Ghost has to uncover his cowardliness when he cannot beat the man who has beaten him in front of his girlfriend. The tone of the film changes after this scene. The full-of-hope young band-men turn into cynic and depressed adults. Ghostfs phony manliness directs the first half of the story, but when his manliness turns out to be a fake, the story develops by its own way. Ghost becomes a gigolo, far from being manly. He literally becomes a ghost who only reflects his own shadowy ego. However, he might have lost his manliness but not his pride as a jazzman. He becomes a true jazz- man that probes his identity after he has been disgraced by his former manager, Benny. The interesting scene in which the Countess, the patron of Ghost forces Ghost to stare the mirror to face his real situation, appears after Ghost has lost face by Bennyfs appearance. Ghost has to watch real life which is given to him in the mirror. He might see in the mirror that false self which is made by his make-believe exterior. Also, the story line of the film follows the typical young-initiation film: full of conceit, failure, regret and awakening. Accordingly, this film can be defined as a young-adults-centered melodrama.
In another way, Too Late Blues can be considered a family drama. A beautiful and attractive woman steps into a family (the jazz band) that has no female members. Ghost plays the fatherfs role.
Jessica is the mother and also the childrenfs common lover. The problem is that the children and the father hold her in common in sexual relations. The family union breaks up. The father turns out to be a despot and is left alone. The ending of this film can be defined as an ambiguous one, because when Ghost and Jessica go to a dingy nightclub where his members are playing, he apologizes to them and Jessica sings with the music. The members do not allow Ghost and tell him to go away but Ghost stays there. This ending, which is recognized as different from a happy ending of ordinary Hollywood melodrama, may be open to the future. We can find curious change in the ending by Cassavetesf intention. According to Carney, in the synopsis of the film before releasing it, the ending was a bittersweet happy ending that Ghost plays the piano together with the members at last.41 Avoiding easy happy ending, Cassavetes increases possibility of interpreting several ways of future. This impossibility to predict the ending has something to do with his fondness of improvisation. Moreover, this ending suggests the charactersf situation which is difficult to escape from real life. The character cannot flee from harsh reality easily in Cassavetesf film.
Speaking of ending in Cassavetesf films, we can find three types of ending: ambiguous ending, happy ending, and unfeasible happy ending. We can safely say that the endings of films such as Opening Night and Big Trouble may be defined as happy endings. For the example of unfeasible happy endings, Minnie@and Moskowitz and Gloria should be noticed. What we call unfeasible ending here is that continuity of time is not maintained until the ending part and a jump in the plot is recognized. In Minnie@and Moskowitz, after the wedding scene of the couple, Minnie and Seymour, the next scene shows us the couple, their kids and their mothers in a country house. Time interval and transition of place are two elements that make unfeasible happy ending. As for ambiguous ending, we may find this type of ending in most of Cassavetes films. For instance, at the endings of Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams, we are able to find some possibilities of hopeful future, but these possibilities are not enough to determine the ending of the film as happy ending. Or at the endings of A Child is Waiting and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, we possibly notice some negative factors about future, but they are not decisive. Furthermore, regarding the ending of Faces, the protagonists are in the dangling situation.
What we draw from the style of endings in Cassavetesf films is that he ingeniously avoids easy endings and let the audience imagine plausible endings. He shows another type of ending which is neither sad nor happy. In a sense, the ending of his film does not tell us the end of the story as if real life does not end but continues. His film depicts streams of the charactersf emotion. In the same way, the endings of his films let us feel the endless stream of life.
Minnie@and Moskowitz should be considered as screwball comedy which at the same time includes melodramatic parody. In a sense, this drama is produced from a sudden encounter of the melodrama and anti-melodrama. Minnie represents a dreamy, vulnerable and melodramatic spirit. Seymour expresses practical thinking and violence. Each@time Minnie creates a romantic atmosphere, Seymour destroys it. The melodramatic situations, such as the meaningless depression of Minnie and over-acted moving scenes of the lovers are often interrupted by Seymourfs violent acts and words. Confusion exists in this film; the characters who adore melodramatic world declare that melodrama does not exist in the real world. Minnie longs for romantic love, but she is beaten and yelled at by male characters. Seymour is far from being a strong, wealthy and romantic man. We are forced to see the gap between melodrama (cinema) and real life in this film.
As an example, in the driving scene, Minnie and Seymour drive the car beneath the sparkling stars accompanied by the Viennese waltz. The atmosphere is absolutely romantic until Seymour abruptly turns off the radio. Because of his action, we cannot help coming back to a realistic situation. After they have pulled over the car, Minnie tries to talk about their future, but Seymour interrupts and suggests running away together. The motif of music from a car radio can also be seen in Love Streams. Creating a romantic atmosphere and then breaking it unexpectedly seems to be one of Cassavetesf favorite ways of showing the gap between the melodramatic world and real life. It is a Brechtian way to show the dual aspects of life: may be partly comical and partly cruel.
In Love Streams, melodramatic elements may be condensed in Sarahfs third dream, the operetta scene. Firstly, we hear and see Sarahfs confessional song of excessive love and then her husbandfs taking her daughter from Sarah and finally we see the familyfs reunion. Sarahfs daughter stays away from Sarah, and after a while, her husband and daughter need her. What should be noted in Love Streams is that melodramatic factors are included in the dream sequences. It may be completely separated from real life. In the films which were made before Love Streams, melodrama and real life co-existed. But in Love Streams melodrama and real life cannot exist together.
Regarding the origin of melodrama, melodrama used to be accompanied by music (songs) and dance (ballet). It is obvious that Cassavetes purposefully designed the dream sequence as melodrama in its original sense of the word.
Cassavetes said about his films and melodrama as follows:
Les films doivent aller au-dela du melodrame pour explorer cette source eternelle de problemes et de conflicts mineurs qui forment le tissu de la vie. . . Dans Love Streams, par example, il nfy a pas de melodrame . . . simplement une sincerite toujours mal placee.42
For Cassavetes, his films may delve into problems much more than usual melodrama-based films. The charactersf overabundant emotion sometimes gets us to consider that Cassavetesf drama may be closer to family melodrama than any typical Hollywood film in that it strategically overuses melodramatic elements.
4.1.2. Stairs as Melodramatic Props
Stairs are often used as important props in melodrama-based
films. The talented filmmaker Nicholas Ray frequently used stairs
for the purpose of intensifying the audiencefs emotion. In family
dramas, stairs function as a privileged topos. According to Thomas
This letting-the-emotions-rise and then cringing them suddenly down with a thump is an extreme example of dramatic discontinuity, and a similar, vertiginous drop in the emotional temperature punctuates a good many melodramas - almost invariably played out against the vertical axis of a staircase. 43
It seems effective to turn now to Nicholas Rayfs representative use of stairs, in Rebel without a Cause. We possibly find seven scenes which are filmed near or on stairs. It can be said that most of the dramatic moments are the scenes with stairs. As an illustration, when the protagonist, Jim, who cannot decide whether he should go and fight with a bad boy in the high school, he goes up and down the stairs. This scene longs about four minutes. Jimfs going up and down the stairs illustrates his dangling mind between two possible decisions. As another example, when Jimfs friend who accidentally finds a gun goes out from home with the gun, he runs down the stairs. In the last part of the film, he happens to shoot the bad boy at a ruined house, he discharges a gun at the stairs. The bad boy falls off the stairs. The sudden-rushing up and sudden-fall intensify dramatic atmosphere and make the air strained. To put it briefly, Nicholas Rayfs use of stairs visually corresponds with the intention of the melodrama: to agitate the audiencefs feeling. At the same time, going up and down the stairs repeatedly lets the audience share the characterfs dangling situation. Stairs are used successfully in Rayfs film on the point that the stairs become visual metaphors of the charactersf feelings or they can change the atmosphere of the scene with sudden action and sound.
As Raymond Carney points out, Cassavetes also makes use of stairs quite often in his films.44 Here the function of stairs in his films is explored by considering the unique way in which he uses stairs in comparison with their ordinary use. The stairs in Cassavetesf films are employed as the barometer of the emotional tension experienced by the characters within the situation. When a character becomes excited, he/she goes up the stairs as the character in Nicholas Rayfs Rebel Without a Cause.
Stairs connect the upper space and the lower space. Stairs mediate between the zenith and the depth of the charactersf emotion, so to speak. The characters run up and fall down from the stairs. The charactersf tension rise in the middle of the stairs and the tension reaches its peak when they reach the upper floor. Stairs visually embody the charactersf inner turmoil between the uppermost and the lowermost. Cassavetes seems to prefer the goverlookh shot from the upper floor, because we can overlook the conflict between the characters or view the charactersf complications between two poles of emotion.
In the last sequence of Faces, Richard and Maria both spend a great deal of time on the stairs. They repeatedly go up and down the stairs passing by each other. Aware of each partnerfs non-chastity, they have to decide their future as husband and wife. They even sit on the stairs in thereby the same posture wondering, and passing by each other. The stairs symbolize the middle position and the dangling situation, and the upper floor and the lower floor symbolize the two possible aspects of their future.
Stairs are sometimes used for tantalizing the audience. In Opening Night, the important phone from Myrtle rings off-screen and the phone itself is located upstairs. Cassavetesf camera follows Manefs running to the phone for quite a long time. We, the audience have to wait until he finally gets to the phone. Of course, he runs up the stairs. The necessity that the phone should be located upstairs in the diegetic world of film cannot be found. The reason for using the stairs is to increase the thrill or expectation of the audience.
In@Minnie@and Moskowitz, the staircase in Minniefs apartment is used for dramatizing scenes like in a melodrama-based film. The lovers embrace and chase each other there. Minnie in Seymourfs arms goes up the stairs to the bedroom.
In Big Trouble, when Leonard and Steve break into the insurance company presidentfs house, a surprise birthday party is taking place and all friends and relatives are lining up on the stairs. This scene is an accidental happening that may cause a laugh. But what we get from this scene might be the embodiment of the theme of the family (friends) union and the parties of which Cassavetes is fond.
As seen in the first section, Cassavetes makes use of melodramatic elements in his own way. He also uses the stairs as typical melodramatic props. His characters full of excessive emotion go up and down the stairs frequently. The sound produced in going up and down the stairs adds to the dramatic atmosphere.
4.2. What is Cassavetesf Family Drama?
4.2.1. Family Melodrama and Cassavetesf Family Drama
Most of Cassavetesf films take up family issues including children.
Basically family melodrama depicts love affairs, marriage and
family life; namely, the change of generation. What should be
of concern in family drama is hthe survival of the family unit
and the possibility of individuals acquiring an identity which
is also a place within the system, a place in which they can both
be ethemselvesf and eat homefg.45 In Cassavetesf family drama, the characters
tend to seek the ideal of a family to search for their own identity.
This tendency may be quite similar to that of family melodrama.
In his films, forming a new family means to secure the place where
a character belongs.
The couples, who have no blood relationship, Gloria and Phil in Gloria(1980), Ms. Hansen and Reuben in A Child is Waiting(1963), build a mother-child relationship. In Gloria, Phil, a Hispanic six-year-old boy, whose family was killed by gangsters, tries to form a new family with Gloria, a middle-aged single woman in the neighborhood. He says g Gloria, you are my only familyh or gI will find a new familyh. The family may bring security and protection for him. He desperately needs to be loved by somebody in the name of a family.
In general, a family seems to provide a kind of security to family members, security from danger, loneliness, etc. A family might be viewed as the protector. But security and freedom cannot be obtained at the same time. When people want both, it may lead to the destruction of the family. In A Woman Under the Influence, we can see this kind of contradiction.
In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel, a middle-aged housewife goes insane. She deeply loves her husband and children. Her husbandfs friends and his mother judge her as mad. If Mabel wants to get real freedom and regain her true self, she must leave her family. But she cannot. For women, to marry somebody means to belong to an outsider's family. Mabel experiences her husbandfs act of betrayal, the result of which puts her into a mental institute. After a period of suffering in the institute she is reunited with her family just like in a family melodrama plot.
4.2.2. Love Streams
The curious coincidence between Love Streams and The Killing
of A Chinese Bookie are noticeable. In the former, Robert and
his girlfriendfs mother have a date in her house when Robertfs
girlfriend is not at home. They dance together. In the latter,
Cosmo has a date with his girlfriendfs mother. In both films,
the mothers seem to be more intimate with their daughterfs boyfriends.
Ironically, Robert could not get affection from Sarah and Albie,
who have a blood relationship with him. This means that the character
is trying to make a family beyond the blood relationship. This
is true in Sarahfs case, too. She rejects her brother Robertfs
proposal that he will love her forever. She goes out with a man
named Ken, who happens to save her from solitude one night.
In the beginning of Love Streams, Robert is walking with Charene, his secretary, while holding his secretaryfs daughter, Renee. We wonder whether Robert, Charene and Renee are a family or not.
Carney argues about the relationship between adults and children in Love Streams:
With two exceptions, there are no truly mature, loving relationships between adults and children in all of Love Streams. The interchanges between Susan and her child, and between the Las Vegas chambermaid and Albie, are the only examples of genuine intimacy and caring between an adult and a child in the entire movie.46
This may be recognized as an important observation, but there are more examples to be found. The relationship between Charlene (the secretary of Robert) and Renee, Susan and her mother also show us true, mature and loving relationships. In Love Streams, a mentally ill woman, Sarah, bought many animals, such as a dog, a horse and a goose. If she can create a new family, which needs her, it does not matter whether the family consists of animals or humans.
Love Streams stands out from other Cassavetesf films partly because it includes unusual dream sequences, and partly because it depicts a different type of family drama. Actually, if Cassavetesf family-drama films are classified into two groups; the drama of the family organizing and that of the family scattering, Love Streams(1984) and Faces(1968) belong to the latter group. On the other hand, A Woman Under the Influence(1975), Minnie and Moscowitz(1971), Shadows(1959) and The Child is Waiting(1963) belong to the former. In the broader sense that a family-like community can be considered as a family, Opening Night(1978)and The Killing of the Chinese Bookie(1978) belong to the former group. To sum up, it is noticeable that Cassavetes preferred dramas of family organizing or uniting to those of family scattering. So Love Streams could be an interesting example in the sense that the film has a pessimistic and relentless ending as far as the family is concerned. The most noticeable point is that the main character, Sarah, prefers an unrelated person to her own brother.
The strange thing is that Robert acts quite@tenderly to Renee, his secretaryfs daughter and very severely to Albie. This may result from the fact that Albie is male and Robertfs own son. Robert cannot act as a tyrant, but rather as a common father. Raymond Carney describes Robertfs pseudo-family; h[h]e played the role of a strong and commanding American guy as if he were a boy emotionally depending on Mammas and sisters who take care of him and protect himh.47 He is surrounded by a comfortable gfamilyh who gives him sexual satisfaction and cares for him in exchange for money. In his pseudo-family, he is the only male. He and his money make people gather around him. Albie can be said to be a nuisance in Robertfs harem. Every woman pays attention to Albie and encourages Robert to treat Albie decently. In the sense that Robert and Albie need to be cared for by women, they belong to the same category as that of a boy. Albie clings to Robertfs waist when they first meet. Robert kneels down and hugs Albie in the hotel in Las Vegas, when Robert comes back to the room after having left Albie the night before to spend with prostitutes. Moreover, this icon in which a person clings to another personfs body may be one of Cassavetesf favorite icons, which appear in Gloria and A Woman Under the Influence. Clinging to another personfs body shows a personfs desperate search for love.
Another thing that can be said about Albie is that for Robert, Albie was the product of eight years buried past, for Albie was born by Robertfs second marriage, which broke up eight years ago, and he has never met Robert since then. Robert does not want to nor need to become involved in an intimate, deep relationship. Carney argues about the difference between Robert and Sara as follows; g[b]ecause Robert has renounced his past, he is asked to meet up with it again. Because Sarah is trapped in her past, she is asked to shake loose from ith. 48 Until Albie or Sarah comes to his house, Robert shuts himself up with many females but none of them were blood relatives to him. Albie and Sarah come to his house on the strength of their blood relationship with him.
For Cassavetes, in Love Streams, g[i]l ne reste que le frere et la s?ur. . . . Robert et Sarah continuent dfessayer, comme nous tous. Ils continuent dfaller de lfavant, dfessayer de vivre une vie nouvelle, sans jamais assumer leurs peurs".49 In short, the families which used to be together are dissipated into individuals. Robert and Sarah continuously try to find a new family. The French film critic Thierry Jousse argues that :
[L]a famille nucleaire nfexisite plus; elle a vole en eclats qufon voudrait recoller. Le sujet de Love Streams, cfest la defection du noyau familial, avec son cortege de nevroses et le fol espoir dfune reconstitution ultime de la communaute originelle.50
In Love Streams, the structure of the nuclear family breaks up. The characters must find a new family style.
In addition, Love Streams betrays the melodramatic convention that "family melodrama usually ends by guaranteeing the protagonistfs happiness with the change of generation".51 In Love Streams, the protagonistsf future happiness is not assured at all. They have to try to continue to search a new family in place of a new generation of theirs.
Heilman, Tragedy and Melodrama, qtd. in Laura Mulveyes gNotes
on Sirk and Melodrama.h Home is Where the Heart Is. Ed. Christine
Gledhill. London: British Film Institute, 1987. 77.
36 Jean-Marie Thomasseau, Le Melodrame. Trans. Sinobu Tyujyo. Tokyo: Syoubun-Sha, 1991. 210. All translations are my own.
37 David. N. Rodowick, gMadness, Authority and Ideology: The Domestic Melodrama of the 1950s.h Home is Where the Heart Is. Ed. Christine Gledhill. 273.
38 Thomas Elsaesser, gTales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Drama.h Home is Where the Heart Is. Ed. Christine Gledhill. 52.
39 Ibid., 56.
40 Raymond Carney, Cassavetes no Utsusita America. [American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience]. 34.
41 Ibid., 72.
42 Raymond Carney, ed., John Cassavetes: Autoportraits. 18.
43 Elsaesser, op. cit., 60.
44 Raymond Carney, Cassavetes no Utsusita America. [American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience]. 306.
45 Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, gMinelli and Melodrama.h Home is Where the Heart Is. Ed. Christine Gledhill. 73.
46 Raymond Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes. 239.
47 Raymond Carney, Cassavetes no Utsusita America. [American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience]. 328.
48 Raymond Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes. 255.
49 Raymond Carney, ed., John Cassavetes: Autoportraits. 37.
50 Jousse, op. cit., 43.
51 Mikiro Kato, Eiga Jyanru Ron[The Genres of Films]. Tokyo: Heibon Sya, 1996. 192-193. All translations are my own.