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Faces & In The Soup: A Seymour Cassel Double Bill (American Indie #3)

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Seymour_Cassel_In_the_Soup

By the end of the 1980s, it was often hard to identify what qualified as an independent film. As Kim Newman pointed out in his essay Independent Daze, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing looked indie but was financed and distributed by Universal, while James Cameron’s Terminator 2 was backed by short lived independent Carolco.

Twenty years before in America, things were different. Faces was obviously independent. Director John Cassavetes ploughed his own money made from acting into financing it, as well as re-mortgaging his home. Luckily, he had a circle of friends who would also chip in cash and help out in any way they possibly could. Seymour Cassel was one of this group, along with Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands.

This resulted in Faces being made on a very modest budget of $40,000, and it was shot and edited over a number of years.

Seymour Cassel - Faces

Cassel got started in film in Shadows in 1959, Cassavetes’ first foray into the independent filmmaking scene. Here he played an uncredited, blink and you’ll miss him role, and acted as an associate producer.

On Faces, the next Cassavetes independent, he again took on double duties. As well as helping out as a crew-member, he also agreed to play Chet, a charismatic chancer whose dancing catches the eyes of a quartet of dissatisfied middle-class women while they visit a nightclub. One of this quartet is Maria (Lynn Carlin), whose husband John Marley has just announced he wants a divorce before storming out to meet up with Jeannie, a prostitute played by Gena Rowlands.

Faces is shot in grainy black and white and most of the action takes place in home interiors. It might resemble mumblecore in some ways, with its emphasis on dialogue, naturalistic performances and real locations – much of it being shot in Cassavetes’ LA residence, a spare room serving as an editing room – but don’t expect any mumbling here. Instead the characters drink, sing, argue, tell jokes, dance, suffer emotional meltdowns and shout at each other. THEN SHOUT SOME MORE AT EACH OTHER!

Seymour Cassel in Faces (1968)

You could easily imagine many scenes as a play and the length of some of these scenes might strike modern audiences as terribly overextended. Some dialogue could easily have been cut. It’s not my favourite Cassavetes film but the acting by everyone involved is absolutely superb, down to even relatively small roles – especially Dorothy Gulliver’s poignant turn as the lamentable drunk Florence.

Shot in sequence, so the actors had an improved chance of developing their characters, Faces never comes across as scripted. It looks like an early experiment in reality TV. Either that or a drama where the actors improvised extensively. According to Cassel, though, he was the only actor who veered off-script.

Uncompromising and unpredictable, Faces is raw but utterly riveting. Critic Roger Ebert judged in a contemporary review that it was the sort of film that made you want to grab people by the neck and drag them into the cinema to watch it.

Faces was recognised at the 1969 Academy Awards, earning Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lynn Carlin), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Seymour Cassel) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen (John Cassavetes), although it failed to take any gongs home on the night.

Seymour always retained fond memories of his time on Faces. Talking about this period during an interview on an extra feature on the John Cassavetes Collection, he noted that: ‘The closest I’ve come to having that kinda fun was doing In The Soup.’

He did liven up some big budget movies too like Convoy (1978), Dick Tracy (1990), and Indecent Proposal (1993), but Seymour Cassel remained drawn to independent work throughout his long career. ‘I like the excitement of not having enough money, enough film, enough time to do it, and still trying to make it work,’ he explained in an interview with IndieWire.

In 1996 he was cast as Uncle Al in in Steve Buscemi’s much underrated directorial debutTrees Lounge; he was Bert Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), and Dusty, the elevator operator in The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001.

Seymour Cassel - In the Soup 1994

Perhaps best of all was the role of Joe in the aforementioned In the Soup, directed by Alexandre Rockwell in 1992. Here, he played a minor-league mobster who somehow gets the idea that his money might be well spent by helping to finance the indie movie debut of wannabe filmmaker, Adolpho Rollo (Steve Buscemi).

As always, Buscemi puts in an excellent performance here: a wide-eyed dreamer, as desperate to direct as he is deluded about his talent. Jennifer Beals is very good too, but Cassel steals the show, and is at his irascible best throughout, drawing Rollo into his criminal world and constantly advising him how his film could be improved.

Seymour surely deserved a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Yet another one the Academy got wrong. Saying that, In the Soup was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, ahead of Reservoir Dogs.

You win some, lose some, and I’ve just belatedly discovered that the world of cinema has lost Seymour, who has sadly died of Alzheimer’s disease.

Seymour Cassel: January 22, 1935 – April 7, 2019

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Tarantino, Rolling Thunder, Chungking Express & The Cocteau Twins

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Chungking Express

By Hong Kong standards of the time, Chungking Express was well represented at film festivals across the globe. In 1994 it travelled to Berlin, Toronto, New York, Chicago and London. That November it was invited to Stockholm, where it was joined by Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Derek Jarman’s swansong Blue and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which won the festival’s Bronze Horse Award.

Chungking Express did though blag a FIPRESCI prize, while Faye Wong picked up the Best Actress Award, the corresponding award going to John Travolta.

Quentin Tarantino made a personal appearance at the festival to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. This strikes me as at least a little strange as he’d only made two feature films at the time – albeit they were two exceptionally good ones.

The festival circuit was heaven to Tarantino, scooting around the planet, meeting fellow film fanatics and cramming in as many movies as he could see. The one he adored most in Stockholm was Chungking Express. Well, it wasn’t going to be Blue, was it?

Around this time he was toying with a plan to distribute some movies along with producing partner Lawrence Bender. The films the pair had in mind to release were to range from hard to find exploitation classics to newer, hip and underseen movies that could benefit from the Tarantino Seal of Approval. An imprint was set up in conjunction with – cough, cough – Miramax, named Rolling Thunder (after the 1977 cult favourite) and the first release was Chungking Express.

Here, QT motormouths his thoughts on the film, gives us some background detail on Kar-wai, and draws some parallels between Kar-wai and the French New Wave, which many reviewers of the time were also doing. Tony Rayns, for example, compared Chungking to Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) and as Quentin points out that’s where the name of his production company came from.

Feel free to play the Tarantino drinking game – every time he says ‘alright’ knock back a shot. Alright?

Set in the hyperactive, neon drenched cityscape that is Hong Kong, Chungking Express is both written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. It consists of two complementary stories, both concerning cops recently involved in break-ups.

The first is a sweet and sour tale that stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as He Qiwu (Cop 223), who has been dumped by his girlfriend May on April Fool’s Day. ‘So I took it as a joke. I’m willing to humour her for a month.’

Qiwu is very briefly drawn into the world of an enigmatic woman played by Brigitte Lin, who is never seen without cheap sunglasses and a blonde wig. The cop is too caught up in his own problems to ever suspect that May could be the type of woman who could kidnap a child, and be majorly involved in a drug smuggling ring. In fact, he’s more interested in pineapple rings and has become obsessed with buying a tin of them every day that will expire on the 1st of May. At which point he believes he can move on and maybe find someone new.

The second, and longer, story stars Tony Leung as Cop 663, a regular at the same snack bar that his fellow officer frequents.

He had imagined that he and his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) would stay together for the long haul but instead they have recently changed course. Luckily, you might assume, he immediately catches the eye of new assistant Faye, a girl with a boyish pixie cut – that reminded some of Jean Seberg’s hairstyle in Breathless – and a dream to travel to California, which is why we repeatedly hear The Mama and Papas’ Californian Dreamin’ throughout this segment. The lovelorn policeman fails to pick up Faye’s interest in him, though.

This is quirky stuff, not a million miles away from some of the indies being made in America at the time and Faye Wong gives a startling performance. She also plays an important role in the soundtrack, singing a cover of The Cranberries’ worldwide hit Dreams, renamed here as Dream Person.

VARIOUS

Like QT, The Cocteau Twins were big Chungking Express fans and Faye Wong was a big fan of the Cocteaus, repeatedly mentioning in interviews that they were an influence on her sound along with a number of other Western acts like Bjork and Tori Amos, in addition to more local performers like Taiwanese folk singer Teresa Teng.

Originally from Bejing, Wong had moved to Kong Kong and began a singing career in the latter half of the 1980s. In 1991 she spent six months in New York, and when she returned to Hong Kong her music would become more eclectic. By the time of hooking up with the Cocteaus, she was a major star in Asia.

This meeting of East and West could have benefits for both, potentially helping the Cocteaus make inroads into the lucrative East Asia market, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan, while it would also lend some extra credibility to Wong, and further mark her out from her more mainstream Cantopop rivals, Wong being highly critical of the commercial Hong Kong pop scene of the mid-1990s.

A snippet of her version of Bluebeard was also included in the Chungking soundtrack, where it was renamed Random Thoughts ( Wu Si Lyun Seong), and this became the title of her album of 1994, which also contained a further Cocteaus cover in Know Oneself and Each Other (Zi Gei Zi Bei).

Here’s Random Thoughts, which you could argue adds the square root of hee-haw to the song, but certainly demonstrates that Wong possesses an exceptionally enchanting voice.

On the Hong Kong edition of the eighth and final studio album of the Cocteaus, Milk and Kisses, the band included two versions of Serpentskin, one sung by Elizabeth Fraser, and one where Fraser duets with Wong.

Wong later recorded an acoustic version of Rilkean Heart (Reminiscence) for her 1997 eponymous album, and Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde wrote a new song Yu Le Chang (Amusement Park), especially for her.

‘[We] thought it might be a fun thing to do, as her voice seemed to be in a similar range and style to Elizabeth’s,’ Simon Raymonde explained in The Quietus, discussing their work together. ‘I think it was an interesting collaboration and while it probably didn’t work out as we might have imagined, I think musically and sonically it all worked out fine.’

Here’s that aforementioned duet, Serpentskin.

David Holzman’s Diary (American Indie #2)

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This week’s post is a guest contribution from Alison Lea and she’s chosen to cover one of those films that it’s probably best to know nothing about before seeing. She’s asked me to point out that she’ll be giving some thoughts on what happens during the film, before going on to add some background. Much of this will include spoilers. Be warned.

David_Holzman's_Diary

The film opens in New York slap-bang in the middle of the summer of love but David Holzman shows little interest in the flower power movement. Instead, he’s more concerned with having just lost his job and then received a draft card. Vietnam awaits. Bummer.

This guy is obviously a cinephile. Quad posters of Suspicion and Touch of Evil hang on his walls, he quotes Godard and Trauffaut and compares a neighbour to a character in a Visconti film. You can easily imagine him spending much of his spare time watching filmmakers who rejected the traditional orthodoxy of the Hollywood studio system like Warhol, Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith in small galleries and lofts on the Lower East Side.

Holzman hits on the idea of – you’ve guessed it – creating a diary, but not the kind that Samuel Pepys become famous for. His will be a cinematic journal, shot on his beloved 16mm Éclair camera – he even shows us some relevant pages from the user’s manual – with sound recorded on a Nagra tape recorder via a Lavalier mic. In doing so, he hopes to make sense of his life. ‘Film is truth at 24 frames per second’ after all, as a ‘noted French wit’ once observed.

He drives around his Upper West Side neighbourhood with Booker T and Green Onions blasting out of a tinny transistor along with news reports. There’s a riot going on in nearly Newark, and the Vietnam War is escalating. He ums and ahs as he tells us about his life. Or more accurately, what he wants us to know about his life.

Not everybody is convinced that his visual diary is a good idea. His friend Pepe stands in front of a sloppily painted pop art mural and insists that David’s life will makes a bad movie. He points out that Penny ‘looks like a very bad actress,’ before explaining a truth that everyone should know: ‘You don’t understand the basic principle. As soon as you start filming something, whatever happens in front of the camera is not reality any more. It becomes something else. It becomes a movie.’

Does David heed this advice?

Not a chance.

David Holzmans Diary still

He chats with a sex-crazed transsexual looking for action, includes a long handheld shot of old folks sitting on a park bench in Manhattan’s Verdi Square and records a frame of every show and advert he sees one night, including Batman and Star Trek, both then in their infancy. Covertly he turns his camera on a female neighbour who lives across the street from him.

Further creepy voyeuristic tendencies are revealed when he points his camera on the subway at a young woman. When she gets off the carriage, he does too. And he continues to film as he stalks her on the streets. She hurriedly tries to get away from him but eventually she stops and yells ‘Beat it!’ right in his face.

Not surprisingly, his relationship with Penny deteriorates. Because she is a model, he assumes that she has no right to say no to being filmed by him. She’s annoyed by him incessantly pointing his camera in her direction and tells him so. Later she has a snooze while naked in his apartment, and surreptitiously, he begins shooting her again – the sequence brings to mind Warhol’s Sleep but thankfully is around four hours and twenty minutes shorter. She wakes and reacts angrily.

End of David and Penny. And who can blame her?

David had hoped his project would bring his life into focus but before a week is out he is more confused than ever. Alone and alienated, he is finally reduced to angrily quizzing his camera as if it was human. ‘What do you want with me?’

David_Holzman's_Diary_L.M._Kit_Carson

The author Scott MacDonald has screened David Holzman’s Diary in recent years to film students without any introduction and most apparently assume that Holzman is a real person.

He’s not. As the end credits roll, we see that somebody called L.M. Kit Carson has played the role. And we’re then informed that this fictional tale has been directed. By Jim McBride.

McBride is an fascinating figure of the time. He was a contemporary of Scorsese and De Palma and pally with both. He would go see De Palma’s early experimental shorts like Woton’s Wake from 1962 at NYC’s Cinema 16 (Mission Impossible, it ain’t, incidentally). He studied film at NYU, where he was in the same class as Martin Scorsese. Later, when Scorsese was editing Who’s That Knocking At My Door, McBride was spending hour upon hour in an editing suite next door to him, working on David Holzman’s Diary. Michael Wadleigh helped out on cinematography duties on both films.

L.M. Kit Carson puts in a completely believable performance here as the insecure, self-absorbed and ultimately pathetic young man and the diary certainly feels authentic. When Holzman is drunk and gabbering on about at Penny (Eileen Dietz) it’s easy to believe that he’s just drank a six-pack of Bud. When he buys a new fish-eye lens, his enthusiasm shines through as he demonstrates how it makes his world look.

I would have thought Carson might have gone on to a very solid acting career, maybe like a young actor who appeared in some Brian De Palma low budget films of the time like Greetings called Robert De Niro, or Harvey Keital, who had been given a lead role in Who’s That Knocking in 1967.

Instead he’ll likely be best remembered for his screenplays. He shared a writing credit with McBride on the director’s 1983 loose remake of Godard’s Breathless and also co-wrote Paris, Texas with Sam Shepard, before gaining a solo credit on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. I think he’s better with a writing partner, judging by that script.

McBride himself went on to direct a good few more films. Unlike Scorsese and De Palma, he never achieved any massive box-office successes but along with Breathless, he also impressed with 1986’s The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin, and his Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire from 1989. His groundbreaking and still influential debut, made on a budget of around only $2,500, might just be his finest moment, though.

Years later, he did attempt to get a sequel off the ground – The Return of David Holzman being his favoured title – but, sadly, this was not to be.

Today, fake and real-or-not-umentaries like Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish are more common than ever. The term ‘catfish’ even entered the lexicon of pop culture speak after that documentary made a splash in 2010 and helped draw attention to the fact that there are now thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter, dating sites, forums and elsewhere online pretending, sometimes convincingly, to be someone or something they’re not. It’s even the name too of an MTV ‘Reality TV’ show but we all know how real those are, don’t we?

McBride’s debunking of the supposed truthfulness of cinéma vérité is currently available to see on YouTube, along with many hoax videos, possible hoax videos and vloggers whose self-representations really shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value.

Interestingly, as I performed some research on the director, I came across someone who in the comments box of a post about him, asked if anybody knew how McBride could be contacted. And McBride himself replied, freely making his email address available for the interested party, or anybody else reading his comment, to get in touch.

Or was this the ‘real’ Jim McBride?

La Pointe Courte & Faces Places (New Waves #7)

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La Pointe Courte & Faces Places

La Pointe Courte (1954)
Faces Places (2017)

Agnès Varda died last weekend, aged ninety. Unlike many artists she managed to keep her creativity levels at a very high standard right till the end.

Last year saw the release in Britain of her documentary Faces Places, which Peter Travers in Rolling Stone called ‘the year’s best, most beguiling documentary,’ before mentioning the phrase ‘sheer perfection’ to describe it.

He wasn’t its only fan. It was screened out of competition at Cannes, where it won the L’Œil d’or award, and was later nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 90th Academy Awards.

It’s easy to see why so many film fans enjoyed Faces Places. Varda is so damn likeable, it’s impossible not to enjoy seeing her scoot across rural France in a van – doubling as a photo booth – with her companion for the tour, JR, a thirty-three-year-old photographer who co-directs the documentary along with her and is never seen without his sunglasses on.

Yes, the format could be compared to the sort of TV show where a celeb or celebs embark on a road trip but here wherever Agnès and JR head to, they end up memorializing some of the most interesting folk (and animals) they meet. JR specialises in making massive format photographic prints, which he (along with his team) plaster up on the walls, water towers, trains and other surfaces of the villages they visit. Even a huge tower of shipping containers is utilized at one point.

Agnes Varda & mural

Varda was a key figure in French New Wave cinema although she wasn’t French (being born and brought up in Belgium) and had started her long career in filmmaking before the term New Wave had been popularised, so you could easily argue that she is a precursor to that cinematic movement.

Like a number of visually interesting directors – Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick and Lynne Ramsay spring to mind – she started off as a photographer. A spell studying at the highly regarded Ecole de Vaugirard led to her to finding a job at the Théâtre national populaire, where she met many actors including Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret.

She set up a tiny independent production company Cine-Tamaris, a co-operative with the lead actors & crew members in order to make her debut film La Pointe Courte. No one was paid during filming and the budget was tiny.

Filmed in Sète on the southern coast of France, where Varda lived during her adolescence, this is a study of a married couple – played by Monfort and Noiret – in crisis, wondering if they should stay together.

La Pointe Courte

It’s also a portrait of the fishing village where Noiret’s unnamed character was born and raised, which, as the film opens is about to see the arrival of government inspectors, visiting to see if villagers are fishing with the legally approved permits and also possibly harvesting potentially poisonous shellfish.

Shot in a gorgeously luminous black and white, Varda documents the lives of the locals vividly as they eat, fish, argue, gossip, take down sheets from a clothes line in a billowing wind, and even take part in a local sporting tradition known as joutes – a kind of water jousting event that still takes place in the area and is something of a tourist attraction.

Critics adored La Pointe Courte but sadly it was denied the opportunity to ever become any kind of commercial success at the time.

La Pointe Courte - Agnes Varda

The Centre National de la Cinématographie, a government agency whose remit included the promotion of cinema in France, deemed it as ‘amateur’, as Varda had shot it without their authorization. This meant that it was not allowed to be shown in any commercial cinemas. A real shame, although it was screened at Cannes and later enjoyed a two week run in Paris at the Art et essai Studio Parnasse in 1956.

Varda didn’t make another feature length film until Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1961 by which point the New Wave was very much up-and-running with Le Beau Serge, The 400 Blows, and Breathless, having all been keenly discussed hits and international successes.

For someone who had only seen a very limited number of films by the time she turned twenty-five, it’s extraordinary that over sixty years after her debut, Varda was still involved in filmmaking.

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In Faces Places – or Visages Villages, to give it its French title – Agnès is obviously very old. She knows she’s very old. She struggles to get around as she once did and her eyesight is beginning to fail her.

She compares JR’s penchant for never being seen without shades with that of her old pal Jean Luc-Godard, who decades before shared the same habit, and she wants to see JR’s eyes properly while she can. This leads to a melancholic moment that is simultaneously predictable and unpredictable.

Equally sad is her trip to visit Godard. Once close comrades in the heyday of the New Wave, Varda is keen to meet him once more as it’s been years since they met. On the day, Godard refuses to open his door and a disconsolate Varda later closed the door on their friendship and wasn’t sure if Godard had even bothered to watch the film.

Luckily, the bulk of Faces Places is much more enjoyable for the director with plenty of offbeat humor and unexpected moments of joy.

The Agnès/JR double act has been described as a clash of generations and several critics called the pair an ‘odd couple’. Maybe what is really odd though, is the idea that the old and young can’t bond the way these two did. I’m sure Faces Places must have been a life affirming experience for both. And for the villagers who took part in it and the viewers who have watched it too

Agnès Varda 30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019.

To see the trailer for La Pointe Courte, click here. To see the trailer for Faces Places, here’s your link.