A Woman Under the Influence

The Theories of R.D. Laing, the poet of schizophrenic despair, have such theatrical flash that they must have hit John Cassavetes smack in the eye. His new film, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, is the work of a disciple: it's a didactic illustration of Laing's vision of insanity, with Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti, the scapegoat of a repressive society that defines itself as normal. The core of the film is a romanticized conception of insanity, allied with the ancient sentimental mythology of madness centering on the holy fool and with the mythology about why Christ was crucified. The picture is based on the idea that the crazy person is endowed with a clarity of vision that the warped society can't tolerate, and so is persecuted. Laing's approach is a natural for movies at this time, since the view that society is insane has so much to recommend it that people may easily fall for the next reversal that those whom this society judges insane are the truly sane. Possibly it can be a healing step for some people to let themselves go, but Laing—in some ways a super-smooth snake-oil salesman—toys with the rakish notion that going crazy is a sign of health.

Laing has given modern weight to a persistent, emotionally appealing myth, and his books, such as the campus favorite The Politics of Experience, tell counterculture readers what they are already disposed to believe. For those who feel blocked or ineffectual, the view that the good are the victims of the family and of society's other authoritarian structures can be wonderfully satisfying. It's the furthest extension of the line taken by William Inge and Elia Kazan in the 1961 SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. In that simplistic Freudian film, the adults, who had lost the ability to love, frustrated their children; the adolescents (Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood) weren't allowed to consummate their passion, and as a result she lost him and went crazy. By the end of the sixties, the division of the world into bullies and victims had become an article of faith for much of the counterculture, with its emblematic figure James Dean, the misunderstood kid.

Whether or not Laing is right in seeing the irrational pressures of family and society as the cause of schizophrenia, his poetic myth that the mad are the pure ones—the ones with true vision—is a piece of seductive nonsense. It's this nonsense that has made Laing a messiah to the drug culture; some acolytes have felt they had to take acid to go fearlessly mad and be worthy of him. In A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE the schizophrenic heroine is the misunderstood kid as the ultimate Friendless One. Mabel Longhetti is basically spontaneous and joyful, but only children respond to her on her own terms. Every impulse she has is denied, and she's stampeded into madness by her violently irascible husband, Nick (Peter Falk). Mabel is as helplessly wronged as a battered baby. This frantic, wilted heroine is a Los Angeles housewife and the mother of three; a big, beautiful blonde in bright, short chemises, she darts about like an anxious speed freak, her manic gestures dissociated and jerky, her face changing rapidly from foolish smiles to uncontrollable punch-drunk agonies. After her husband and his harpy mother (Katherine Cassavetes) have had her locked away for six months of shock therapy, Mabel returns, chastened, a fearful, hurt-animal look on her face, and, in case we missed the point of the process by which society drove her mad, Cassavetes now provides a quick recapitulation by having the key people in her life gather to welcome her home, prepared to do her in all over again.

It's never suggested that there's something wrong with Mabel for not getting herself together. Others reduce her to pulp; she's not a participant in her own destruction. The romantic view of insanity is a perfect subject for Cassavetes to muck around with. Yet even in this season when victimization is the hottest thing in the movie market this scapegoat heroine doesn't do a damn thing for him. He's always on the verge of hitting the big time, but his writing and directing are grueling, and he swathes his popular ideas in so many wet blankets that he is taken seriously—and flops. In FACES and HUSBANDS Cassavetes might almost have been working his way up to Laing; his people were already desolate hanging on to marriages that made no sense to them because nothing else did, either. And his last film, MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ, a screwball comedy about maimed lovers—a loudmouth parking-lot attendant (Seymour Cassel), irrepressibly life-loving, and a bruised, beautiful woman (Gena Rowlands) —could almost have been a garbled sketch for A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE.

Mabel, however, is more (and less) than a character, since she's a totally sympathetic character: she's a symbolic victim, and a marriage victim especially. Cassavetes has hooked Laing on to his own specialty—the miseries of sexual union. The Laingian schizophrenic scapegoat is, typically, one who suffers the irrationality of the mother and father, and this was the pattern in the English film FAMILY LIFE—called WEDNESDAY’S CHILD here—which was directed by Kenneth Loach from a screenplay by David Mercer. Its heroine is a passive, weak-willed young girl who can't defend herself against her inhibited, respectability-centered parents and becomes schizophrenic. Sent to a hospital, she is at first treated in a relaxed, informal experimental ward run by a Laingian, and it appears that she needs to learn to stand up to her family—a wondrously simple cure for schizophrenia. But the Laingian is dismissed, and she is given shock treatment and is left, at the end, a vegetable. The Loach film was a far more obvious case of special pleading for Laing than A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is, but it was also simpler and made better sense. In the Cassavetes film, the husband, Nick, seems to be taking a bum rap, since it's hard to believe that Mabel would be so easy to cut down if she weren't already shattered. (A child can be without recourse, but a wife?) Both pictures suffer from a single-level, one-sided approach: the authoritarians who do the damage are despicable, comic strip conformists; the good people are liberal, open, natural. It's generation-gap psychology.

Like all Cassavetes' films, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is a tribute to the depth of feelings that people can't express. As a filmmaker, he himself has a muffled quality: his scenes are often unshaped and so rudderless that the meanings don't emerge. This time, he abandons his handsome, grainy simulated-cinema-vérité style. The shots are planned to make visual points that bear out the thesis (though there are also arbitrary ornamental angles, and vistas that make a workingman's cramped house big as a palace). But once again he has made a murky, ragmop movie. Actually, he doesn't know how to dramatize, and one can try to make a virtue of this for only so long. When the actors in his films strike off each other, there are tentative, flickering moods that one doesn't get in other kinds of movies, but these godsends are widely spaced, and it's a desert in between. He still prolongs shots to the point of embarrassment (and beyond). He does it deliberately, all right, but to what purpose? Acute discomfort sets in, and though some in the audience** will once again accept what is going on as raw, anguished truth most people will—rightly, I think—take their embarrassment as evidence of Cassavetes’ self-righteous ineptitude.

His special talent—it links his work to Pinter's—is for showing intense suffering from nameless causes; Cassavetes and Pinter both give us an actor's view of human misery. It comes out as metaphysical realism: we see the tensions and the power plays but never know the why of anything. Laing provides Cassavetes with an answer. However, his taking over Laing's views has cost him something: he didn't have comic strip villains—or villains at all—before he swallowed Laing. In his earlier films, he commiserated with those who couldn't make contact except by brutalizing each other. Their drunken hostilities and blighted, repetitious conversations weren't held against them; their insensitivities were proof of the emptiness they felt. He used to love violent characters and outbursts of rage. Now the actors, no longer given their heads, are merely figures in a diagram. When Nick yells, the picture's only concern is the effect on Mabel. Cassavetes has gone so far over to the most literal-minded Laing position that the society he shows us is implausible—a society of boorish people with such limited awareness that they're barely human. Since they are principally blue-collar workers, it looks as if he thought that hardhats were retarded.

Mabel Longhetti is bombed out because she has always wanted to please everyone, so she can be considered one more victim—heroine for "women's liberation"—but only by women's liberationists who are willing to accept textbook spinoffs as art. The Junoesque Gena Rowlands (Mrs. Cassavetes) is a prodigious actress, and she never lets go of the character. Now, at an indeterminate age when her beauty has deepened beyond ingénue roles, Rowlands can look old or young, and shades of expression transform Mabel Longhetti from a radiantly flirtatious beauty into a sad, sagging neighborhood drunk. Rowlands externalizes schizophrenic dissolution. Mabel fragments before our eyes: a three-ring circus might be taking place in her face. Rowlands' performance is enough for half a dozen tours de force, a whole row of Oscars—it's exhausting. Conceivably, she's a great actress, but nothing she does is memorable, because she does so much. It's the most transient big performance I've ever seen.

Mabel tries to slash her wrist, and Nick puts a Band-Aid on the cut: the idiot symbolism may make you want to hoot, but this two-hour-and-thirty-five-minute film leaves you too groggy to do more than moan. Details that are meant to establish the pathological nature of the people around Mabel, and so show her isolation, become instead limp, false moments. We often can’t tell whether the characters are meant to be unconscious of what they’re doing or whether it’s Cassavetes who’s unconscious. Mabel’s children keep murmuring that they love her, and there are no clues to how to decipher this refrain. Are the children coddling her—reversing roles and treating her like a child in need of reassurance? Or are they meant to be as unashamedly loving as she is? And what are we to make of Nick the pulper’s constant assertations of love? The movie is entirely tendentious; it’s all planned, yet it isn’t thought out. I get the sense that Cassavetes has incorporated Laing, undigested, into his own morose view of the human condition, and that he somehow thinks that Nick and Mabel really love each other and that A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is a tragic love story.

**As it turned out, more of them than I anticipated.

[December 9, 1974]