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I. On Woman as an L.A. Film
It seems odd to talk about A Woman Under the Influence as a city film. A good two-thirds of the movie takes place indoors, in one house, mainly in the living room. Location — the familiar architecture, buildings, and monuments that distinguish a city — is never pushed. No character ever says the name of the city they’re in. Yet A Woman Under the Influence is unquestionably one of the greatest Los Angeles film ever made; one of the subtlest and most intelligent uses of Los Angeles committed to film; and, for my money, the most powerful melodrama to come out of the city.
What I'm loosely exploring in my brief film series on American cities (The Clock, Playtime, The Apartment, Bush Mama, The Exiles among others) is not necessarily how cities develop, or even what the architecture feels like. It is primarily centered around the people inhabiting those spaces. The women — resilient and oppressed. The husbands — violent and ignoble. The children. The friends, of varying religions and ethnicities and genders and classes. It’s these people that John Cassavetes consistently made the subject of the six lightning bolts he made outside of the American studio system between 1959 and 1984. By focusing so much on developing an organic, spontaneous, nuanced rhythm in his actors’ performances, he nails how a city like Los Angeles — with its wide vistas, hence its lonely bigness — plays heavily in the trials and tribulations of a working-class suburban family like the Longhettis: the housewife Mabel (Rowlands), the construction-worker father Nick (Peter Falk), and their three children.
L.A. is central to Woman, not just because Cassavetes lived in Los Angeles for most of his adult life. The city informs our characters’ reactions to the outside world, why Mabel may be so eccentric, why Nick may be so high-strung. The rotted aimlessness of domestic life is conveyed, silently, through Mabel’s late-night stroll along Hollywood Boulevard. How did she get there? Cassavetes elides this information — almost as if it is Mabel herself forgetting. The city dweller internalizes the streets and directions and freeways of a city which seems impossibly labyrinthine to an outsider. Where is she walking? We can tell it’s Hollywood Blvd., because Mabel walks — barefoot! — along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A less sensitive film director would have had an establishing shot, telling the audience which part of the city the character is in. Never with Cassavetes. Both infamous and celebrated for his choppy, violent cuts from scene to scene, we are simply transported along with Mabel to some undisclosed bar, where she tries to find love with a total stranger named Garson Cross. He hopes to get lucky with her; he doesn’t seem to understand that what Mabel wants is something far more complex, and far more difficult to describe through the conventional terminology of “affair,” “one-night stand,” “short-term relationship.” (And this is just assuming she’s even cognizant of her surroundings at this point.) Rowlands and Cassavetes are deeply concerned with showing the trickiness, ambiguousness, and specificity of love. No need to put a label on it. A vibrant, flowing sadness flows through every location in the film: in the melancholic beach, where Nick forces his kids to have fun; the languid trips through lower-middle-class suburbs, where a truck-drive melts yellow and green exteriors into one long, hazy, ennui-drenched blur; and, most hauntingly of all, in the “return” scene, set against the famous (to an Angelino) L.A. grey-clouds-and-drizzle that pops up at least one day in a fortnight. Cassavetes called that scene “a lucky accident”; he wanted it to rain for Mabel’s Return. In a window that lasted for no longer than a half-hour, Cass got rain. That overcast, drizzling sky is a lyrical prelude for the brutality of the final 30 minutes of film.
II. On Woman as an Pollockian film
I find it stunning how this film — really, Cassavetes' entire style — is in sync with the style of an Abstract Expressionist like Jackson Pollock. In writing on the crisis of the easel painting in mid-20th century American art, Clement Greenberg celebrates the wall-hugging, extending, "decorative" elements of Pollock's 1947-50 drip paintings. Greenberg notes that Pollock's paintings feel like they should extend beyond the confines of the picture frame. The goal in Pollock, for Greenberg, is an equalizing effect — a stripping-away of artistic, social, and ontological hierarchies — of the kind we see in such diverse items as Jacques Tati's Playtime, Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls, Robert Altman's Nashville, the early 60s free jazz experiments of Ornette Coleman, James Joyce's Ulysses, Schonberg's compositions, Gertrude Stein, and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust: "a 'decentralized,' 'polyphonic', all-over picture which, with a surface knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar elements, repeats itself without strong variation from one end of the canvas to the other, and dispenses, apparently, with beginning, middle, and ending." The familiarity of a traditional narrative structure is gone; done away with are the floaties of recognizability, "humanness" which elides diversity and human difference, and of popular formulae that will hit it big with audiences. Cassavetes fits perfectly into this avant-garde approach; no one Woman theme (marital inequality, ethnic self-understanding, family, gendered hypocrisy [Mabel's "crazy," but Nick's "overworked"], the insidious consequences of sticking to traditional gender roles in the household and elsewhere, the havoc wreaked by people motivated by an undiscriminating love, repression, motherly ties, fatherly bonds) is allowed to dominate the other; they are all presented as equally and integrally linked, a system that creates the conditions of one particular woman, Mabel. The Pollock-channeling Cassavetes lurches from one set-piece to the next, without spatial or sonic warning; just when we're getting into the funk of one scene (Dr. Zepp and Ma Longhetti takes the kids away from Mabel, as Doc says, "MABEL—I have a paper here that says..."), we're suddenly a million miles away, five days later, time condensed so choppily and yet with such breathtaking economy, attention, respect for tonal control and diversity. He knows exactly when to cut. The final bravura setpiece in the living-room ends with maddening ambiguity and an unresolved nature; the tacked-on happiness of the kazoo song does little to diminish the perverse, shocking, brutally vivid interplay between Nick and Label that preceded it. We feel, as with Pollock's drips, that the film could keep going for 3, 4, 5 hours without interruption. (Indeed, it did at one point; Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd saw the 5-hour rough cut and broke down, placing it on the cathartic levels of Dreyer). Alas, the artist knows when to cut, the actor knows how to modulate so that we're not stuck in one tone for too long.