After playing Mia Farrow’s husband in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), John Cassavetes reportedly threw the money he made as an actor into the finishing touches on Faces, a personal project he had begun filming in 1966. Cassavetes spent months (some sources say a couple of years) editing the film into a “manageable” six hours, and eventually into its final 130 minutes.
Silent-film maverick Erich von Stroheim would have been proud of him – at least in regard to Faces’ (initial) length and to Cassavetes’ committed auteurship. Now, would the irascible Stroheim have approved of the frequently inaudible dialogue, sloppy editing, poor lighting, careless camera placement, and faux-naturalistic acting? Probably not.
Shot in 16mm – that looks like poorly developed Super 8 – black and white, Faces is John Cassavetes’ home movie from hell. When its characters began boozing it up, I felt like having a soothing drink as well. When they got philosophical, my mind went numb. When they screamed out of despair, I screamed, too – out of sheer boredom. Ah, I probably should add here that Faces is considered one of the greatest American releases of the 1960s.
The movie begins as a group of film executives get together to watch their newest effort: Faces. Now, before I proceed, I should mention that the “innovative” cinematic trick of having the main storyline be a film within a film can be seen at least as early as 1940. That was when Michel Simon, Ramon Novarro, Jacqueline Delubac, Micheline Presle, Sylvie, and Louis Jourdan all played characters in a movie/life within a movie/fantasy in Marcel L’Herbier’s unjustly forgotten La Comédie du bonheur.
Back to Faces (spoilers ahead): We then see two drunk, middle-aged businessmen babbling the night away in the company of a high-class prostitute. One of the men, Freddie (Fred Draper), is an insufferable bore who has strong misogynistic tendencies; the other, Richard (John Marley), a married man, develops feelings for the sex worker, Jeannie (Gena Rowlands).
Richard’s fourteen-year marriage has been suffering from chronic ennui for some time, and the cool, experienced Jeannie arises his long dormant spirit. It doesn’t take long before Richard returns to Jeannie’s home for more fun and games – plus some nasty arguments with a few of her drunk, woman-hating clients.
Meanwhile, Richard’s much younger but equally bored wife, Maria (Robert Altman’s former secretary Lynn Carlin), decides that she needs some excitement of her own. Joined by a group of female friends, she goes to a club where she meets a nice young man, Chet (Seymour Cassel).
Later in the evening at Maria’s home, the women try to figure out who’s going to bed with their eager-to-please guest. Maria is the lucky one. Their night of sex and physical solace is followed by a morning of guilt and emotional turmoil on Maria’s part. That unpleasant combination leads to a suicide attempt. She is saved by Chet, who slaps her some and then hands her a cigarette. He also tells her that “nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other.”
Eventually, husband and wife are left to their still empty – though radically changed – selves.
Faces’ drama failed to move me not because of either the film’s plot, however predictable at times, or conventional set of characters. Faces’ chief handicap is director-writer John Cassavetes, who apparently was too enamored of his own anti-Hollywood brilliance to let a mere story and a handful of distraught human beings get in the way of his stock-in-trade cinematic tricks. These include the use of a handheld camera that helps make the barely discernible action even murkier, and an overabundance of close-ups. True, the film is called Faces, but unlike Ingmar Bergman, whose close-ups (usually) transport us into the inner core of his actors, Cassavetes only presents us with talking heads. And do those heads talk.
What they actually talk about is anyone’s guess, since much of the dialogue is inaudible, but the sections that are intelligible are best described by one line in the movie: “Blah, blah, blah.” And when actors, no matter how talented, are given loads of such blah-blah-blahs (or if that’s all they’re able to ad-lib), their performances come across as one single, flat blah.
That is unfortunate, for underneath all of Cassavetes’ artificially created “rawness” there is a real, tragic story about two desperately lonely people struggling to come to terms with both the passing of time and their crumbling relationship. I should note that when Faces came out, Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, like the lead characters in the film, had been married for fourteen years. John Marley, in fact, looks like an older Cassavetes.
Faces is a historically important motion picture because it is, at least officially, the first independently made and distributed American film to reach mainstream audiences. (That is, if you choose to label something like Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, which released the Dustin Hoffman-Anne Bancroft blockbuster The Graduate in 1967, as a “Hollywood major.”)
And as mentioned above, Faces remains one of the most widely admired American productions of the ’60s. It was nominated for three Academy Awards – supporting nods for Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin (photo), and an original screenplay nod for Cassavetes – and earned John Marley the Best Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival. Even so, as far as I’m concerned Faces is nothing more than an overlong, pretentious, superficial bore.
Update: At the 1968 New York Film Critics Circle’s awards, when Faces lost by one vote to Anthony Harvey’s considerably more conventional The Lion in Winter (though actually an indie, as it was an Avco Embassy release), Life reviewer Richard Schickel became so incensed he labeled several veteran critics “deadwood” and – temporarily, as it turned out – resigned from the NYFCC. Following Schickel’s Faces fit, “some of those girls had tears in their eyes,” a Circle member told Variety‘s Stuart Byron.
Source: Damien Bona and Mason Wiley’s Inside Oscar.
Director & Screenplay: John Cassavetes.
Cast: John Marley. Gena Rowlands. Lynn Carlin. Fred Draper. Seymour Cassel. Val Avery.