10 December 2010

Husbands, directed by John Cassavetes

To paraphrase Mark Twain, everyone talks about independence, but no one does anything about it.

Well, almost no one. John Cassavetes makes so called film rebels look like kindergarten pansies. This movie is all about balls, in all senses. Balls in the guts it takes to let scenes take their own tempo, instead of working on Hollywood time. Balls in the courage to show all aspects of these guys: good, bad, ugly, vomiting, baffled, lost, home. Balls in one of the subjects of the movie -- the splendors and miseries of masculinity.

It starts with a photo montage of four guys clowning around, striking he-man poses, families in the background around a summertime swimming pool. Then, one of the four musketeers dies. The film starts moving with the funeral. The three friends who are left deal with their grief by going on a bender. They get monumentally drunk, hit the gym, smoke, lead an impromptu singing contest. and ride around on a subway. Sudden bursts of anger, exhilaration, grief and self-contempt erupt. Two controversial scenes in this sequence are particularly tough to watch: an extended bit in the men's room where two of them vomit. They're drunk, sure, but the real purgation is that of the grief that they can't deal with any other way. The other is when they bully a older lady in the bar, trying to get her to sing from the heart.
Including the men's room scene made sense to me. It works on many levels -- as an objective correlative of their anguish and their inability to articulate it, as an illustration of the relationships between the survivors, and as a piece of realism. You get smashed and go on a bender, you're gonna hurl. But this is existential hurling.

I haven't read much about the film. Some writers, though, seem to miss a major point: that these men are locked into their own wounds and their own grief. They don't have the formal rituals of grief to fall back on. So they use the ones we have at our hands -- the bar and the gym. The extremity of what they're feeling isn't expressed directly -- it pops out at weird, wrong, rude moments. Just as grief does in life, if not in movies.
Then Harry splits from his wife in a shattering scene, grabs his passport and heads to London, taking the pals with him. They hang out in a casino and pick up some women. But here again, we sense a certain cheapness and melancholy beneath the bravado and animal spirits.

At Harry's urging, they hit on some women and end up taking them to their rooms. The scenes that follow are some of the most acutely observed, awkward and truthful moments I've ever seen. In movieland, they'd just hump the girls, in and out slicko style and have a tearful goodbye or enjoy the dawn of a new love.

Instead, they fail. Harry suffers a bout of impotence. Archie -- Peter Falk's character -- literally can't communicate. The Asian woman he's with doesn't speak English, and Archie doesn't even know what language she uses. He tries and fails. He finally tries kissing her. She's unresponsive, he's insistent. When she starts kissing him back, suddenly passionate, he can't deal with her desire.  Gus, the Cassavetes character, horses around with a tall blonde. It's not clear whether they have sex or not. The next morning, the the pouring rain, she tries cajoling and manipulating him into saying something romantic. He refuses.

They meet with Harry, who's already lined up some fresh women -- but the two, still married, men decide to leave. It ends with their homecoming, the two dads wresting with ridiculous bags of toys they bought at the airport. Guilt offerings, bribes, and maybe an attempt to smooth things over with their wives.

It's rough and grinding. I read that Cassavetes had one version that was a crowd-pleaser -- funny, warm and accessible. He ditched that for the version we have now, with the acting so real it seems unlike acting at all, with all the excruciating moments left in, the random epiphanies and the sudden howls.

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