Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Constant Forge (Charles Kiselyak, 2000)

"Love, or the lack of it."

These few words encompass the only topics John Cassavetes ever wanted to tackle in his directorial career. Charles Kiselyak's A Constant Forge examines the filmmaker's career (from 1959's Shadows to 1984's Love Streams) and amounts to a marvelous, heartfelt love letter by fans, friends, and colleagues.

Few directors elicit such strong emotional responses from audiences as Cassavetes. His films attempt to go beyond the surface of human relationships, prodding and provoking the characters, and, as John hoped, the audience, into self-reflection and change. This is part of what good art always tries to do, but his method of presenting the true fragility of emotions and of man's understanding of himself and his environment, proved far too weighty and touchy a subject for most moviegoers and executives. Luckily his work never required huge amounts of funds, because filming people is much cheaper than filming things or locations. And people, and characters, was all that Cassavetes was interested in.

A Constant Forge is an insightful and quick 3 1/2 hours of the man's own words, film clips, and interviews with loved ones and acquaintances. After a brief look at each of Cassavetes's major directorial works, the film meanders through each phase and aspect of his career, from his early childhood and theater work to teaching acting to writing and directing. His assembled stable of reliable actors, including wife Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Seymour Cassell, are all on hand to provide anecdotes and as much insight as they can to the man they all loved and respected. Falk is especially adept at providing quotes, including that John was "the most fervent man I ever met." Mostly, though, the clearest path to understanding the filmmaker as an individual is to listen to the man himself and watch his films. Cassavetes was, and is, his films.

I'm still not sure why I respond so well to Cassavetes's work. The emotional nakedness, even with the understanding of the tight script and prowess of the actors onscreen, frightens as much as it fascinates. No one was more interested in people or feelings than Cassavetes; hurtful and glowing emotions were of equal weight and worth in his lens. Apparently the man himself was less gloomy and moody than his output would suggest, even though the basis of his work was internal and personal. His stature as a true artist in a medium full of phonies, and even some talented charlatans, seems assured. He tried what no one else did, and whether he succeeded or not, he should be constantly commended. And A Constant Forge provides a solid background to his life and work whether you are a neophyte, a fence-straddler, a lifelong Cassavetes fan, or wondering what all the fuss is about.

"A Constant Forge" IMDb page

Criterion Collection page

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