Friday, October 24, 2008

Movie Notes: Faces (1968)

A landmark in American independent cinema, Faces is a home movie of domestic hell, shot in glorious black and white. The film was made by character actor John Cassavetes and friends at a time when men wore ties and jackets to bars, when executives had three secretaries waiting to bestow them with a cigarette, when fathers worried about their sons wearing tennis shoes in college: in other words, when being bourgeois meant something. Today, it is considered something of a modern masterpiece, and watching it is still a startling experience. I'm not sure that I've seen anything like it, although it strikes me as painfully authentic.

The film details a night in the lives of a suburban couple, John and Maria Forst, whose marriage seems to be falling apart before our eyes. He has met a gorgeous professional escort, played by the great Gena Rowlands, and heads to her house, where she and another escort are chatting with two clients, pickled in alcohol and misogyny, and pretending to be comfortable with each other. She, meanwhile, goes to a swinging dance club with some friends, where they pick up a young man and bring him home. Everyone spends the evening trying to escape themselves.

Independent films today differ from the major studio “tent pole films” by focusing more often on quirky and lonely middle-aged people who have trouble connecting; otherwise, they tend to share the same lightweight quality of the major studio productions. Faces is staged more like a play, with actors wearing body mics moving in single settings; but it most resembles a novel, with everyday behavior slowly revealing the inner turmoil of the characters. The film works by showing us 60s suburbanites drunken mockery and revelry and gradually giving hints of the desperation behind their “fun”, the sense that, at their core, these people have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. As a married man in suburbia, I could relate only in the most peripheral way- the pressure to conform can be binding, but I am usually too socially inept to notice it.

However, I know these people, or at least, people just like them, and the portrait painted in the film is just devastating. They’re miserable and they have no idea how to get out of that misery, so they lash out at each other with ridicule, contempt and cruelty. The misogyny in some scenes is thick enough to shovel. The film is painful to watch, at first because of the cinema verité style that it is shot in (the camera operators were put through their paces chasing these people around), and then finally because of the acute suffering on display. The movie is so realistic that it is a shock to hear it was entirely scripted: certainly, every line rings true. We’re watching characters who have no idea how to escape their unhappiness, but even being aware of that unhappiness is a revelation for them.

There have been many damning portrayals of suburbia in the last century- perhaps too many. Faces is among the most damning, as well as the most humane.

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