Review Of A Woman Under The Influence
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/15/07
John Cassavetes was one of those rare artists of whom it could be said that his flaws were his strengths, and his strengths were his flaws. On a purely technical level, his 1974 film, A Woman Under The Influence, is not a very good film. It is often poorly lit, edited, and at times poorly acted, almost as badly as Cassavetes’ own Minnie And Moscowitz. Yet, there are moments when its dramatic power rivals that of his first great triumph, Faces, or any other work of drama or fiction. Consequently, the film has to rank somewhere between the two in the Cassavetes canon, and I’d opt for putting it closer to Faces, for, despite its manifest flaws, which I will touch upon, it has moments of sheer brilliance, illumination, and that often misunderstood quality of ‘artistic honesty’, that help it overcome its flaws. To say it is voyeuristic is to be too obvious. Comparing its ‘honesty’, though, with similar claims for modern crap like this year’s Oscar winner, Crash, is wholly ridiculous, for Cassavetes’ characters talk like real people, often too long, too stupidly, and too incoherently. They do not declaim prepared PC speeches and sound bites at the drop of a hat.
The film follows the doomed marriage of Nick and Mabel Longhetti (Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands), who have three children, Maria (Christina Grisanti), Tony (Matthew Cassel), and Angelo (Matthew Laborteaux), who are not the cute wiseass film kids viewers loathe. He’s a foul-mouthed, ignorant, and often physically and emotionally abusive husband and person, while she’s a flaming nut case. Many criticisms of the film have tried to leaven such assessments of the two lead characters, but this is because of obvious political or philosophical strains. Anyone who’s ever known a family of not quite there folks has known people like the Longhettis, and their bratty children. It is a dysfunctional household, in the modern sense, even though that term had not yet become prevalent when the film was made.
There really is not much of a plot to the film, as in most of Cassavetes’ films. The story follows Nick on the job, working as a foreman for some city’s water department, and Mabel as a depressed housewife. Nowadays she’d be permanently narced up, but in this film it’s apparent she needs to go to a nuthouse to cool off. What Cassavetes does better than any other filmmaker is give viewers archetypal situations from which we immediately viscerally understand where his characters are in their lives, as we first enter them through film. In Faces, we are immediately thrust into the life of an executive on a bender, and everything he does after that opening scene is to be expected- except that none of it is foreshadowed, quite an impressive feat. Similarly, in just two opening scenes of this film’s protagonists, we know exactly and fundamentally who the Longhettis are, for we have all known the types. Cassavetes tosses us right into the drama yet we are not disoriented, for he leaves out only those things he knows we can fill in from our own observational experiences. This is Cassavetes’ way of inviting participation in the film, and also balancing off his penchant for very long takes of scenes with a dramatic shorthand device.
Does Cassavetes dig and probe the human psyche in the overt way an Ingmar Bergman does? No. He crafts scenes, sometimes raggedly, and lets us get mere impressions, at times. Cassavetes might be though of as an emotional Impressionist, rather than a visual one. Most of the time, the emotions are spot on, yet every so often an emotional clunker hits. For example, Falk’s violent outbursts as Nick are hits. In a word, he’s an asshole. The only way he could ever get a woman as good looking as Mabel to ever look at him twice is because she’s clinically insane. She tolerates his rages, but when Nick yells at co-workers (causing a serious accident to one fellow, whom he paranoiacally feels was let on to some information about his committing Mabel to an asylum) he shows his true ugly, embittered, and bigoted self, and when he bitches at family and friends who constantly try to help him cope, he shows he’s a total ingrate. Similarly, there are a number of spot on emotional scenes for Mabel, such as when she drunkenly seduces a guy, Garson Cross (O.G. Dunn), she’s picked up at a bar, then gets violent when he responds, and then fucks him anyway. How many men have spent a night with such a deranged cocktease, only putting up with her shit because she’s hot and/or good in bed?
The most crucial misfire comes near the end of the film, at a climactic moment. Mabel has returned home after six months in the asylum. Many folks gather to lend their support, but Nick tosses them out, all but family and friends. Then, he erupts and tosses the family and friends out, as well. Mabel goes crazy, cutting her hand with a razor blade, bouncing up and down on a couch, and Nick tries to put the three kids to bed, but twice they escape and run to Mabel. Cassavetes was trying to show that they are more intuitive to Mabel’s needs than Nick, and this might work, if only one of the three kids did it. But, to have all three kids prove emotionally smarter than their dad is unrealistic, especially considering the ages of the kids- all under ten. If your average kid’s mom acts like a maniac, and is bleeding all over the place, I guarantee you that 99 out of 100 kids will be running as far from mommy as they can possibly get, and asking daddy for protection from her. It’s in moments like this that one sees that Cassavetes’ vaunted ‘realism’ is as contrived as any other filmmakers’, to say the least. This also exhibits some of his poorer writing choices. And yes, most of Cassavetes’ films were scripted, for good or ill.
However, Rowlands and Falk give terrific performances, in this acting dominated film. Falk is superb as a clueless, bigoted bastard, and Rowlands gives a real unhinged performance as the crazy Mabel. In the scariest scene in the film, she starts undressing neighboring children who come by, even as the father, Harold Jensen (Mario Gallo), is in her home. What would have happened, if she was not stopped, is hard to predict, yet Nick goes wild on the neighbor, not his wife, presuming the man is doing something untoward with Mabel, even though it’s clear she’s the deranged one. Nick is clearly what would later come to be known as an enabler of Mabel’s behavior, and thus even more responsible for her failures and their doomed marriage, for this film is not a love story. By film’s end, it’s obvious that neither party understands love, nor is able to truly show it. The film is as great a study in shared emotional impotence as Martin Scorsese’s later The King Of Comedy is in individual emotional frustration. When the film ends, with Mabel and Nick cleaning up, after her scene with the children and cut hand, the phone rings, and Nick ignores it. He has become so insulated from the outside world, and so focused on ‘helping’, and thus dooming, Mabel, that the very act of ignoring the loud rings becomes symbolic.
Some Feminist critics have tried to claim the film as a document for their wacky theses, stating that Mabel is not crazy, no more so than Nick, and, to a certain extent, they have a point. Nick is a lout, a moron, who lets his kids get drunk on beer with him, and rages against decent people at the drop of the hat. He is clueless as to the degree that Mabel is nuts, and there’s no denying this is part of his own, and the couple’s, pathology. The episode where Mabel undresses the neighbor children suggests a very disturbed psychosexual persona, yet this is an aspect few critics have picked up on, not surprisingly, the Feminists have not touched it at all. Yet, later in the film, after Mabel returns from the asylum, there is some uncomfortably sexually suggestive moments between Mabel and her father, George Mortensen (Fred Draper), when she sits on his lap and appears to want to kiss him on the lips, and fondles her father’s neck and face in a blatantly sexual manner. Nick must, at some level, sense this, for he explodes at his father-in-law, who does not want to eat spaghetti. Yet, spaghetti is not really the issue, even in Nick’s screwed up head. It has to be Nick’s macho insecurity- small men with big mouths like him routinely get their asses kicked in the world, and take out their frustrations at home. Yet, he also may sense the sexual bond between father and daughter, suggesting incest, which would explain the depth of his rages, as well why Mabel feels it’s alright for an adult to undress neighbor children. It also retroactively explains her wanton sexuality after Nick has to work late one night, and Mabel picks up Garson Cross at a bar, and is first attracted to him when he strokes his neck. She mistakes him for Nick, for we see him do a similar motion on his neck throughout the film. Thus, Mabel has likely transferred some sexual aspect of her father that she desired onto her husband, and onto her one night stand, yet none of these men fulfills her needs, sexual or otherwise. Cross leaves right before Nick gets home, and Cassavetes wisely does not allow for a trite confrontation, which only sets up the obvious conclusion- that Cross is not the first, nor likely the last, man whose neck will attract Mabel.
While most people have tried to discern the meaning of the film’s title as being the alcohol or mental rages Mabel suffers, a deeper meaning might be that she is under the influence of two sexually domineering men- her father and husband, who still battle for control of her. Nick is so insecure that when Mabel loopily asks some of his co-workers for spaghetti, when they have breakfast after her tryst, and seems attracted to several of his black buddies, he goes apeshit, again. It is clear that his sanity is almost wholly dependent upon his controlling Mabel, and that’s best achieved by keeping her nuts. For example, after she comes home from the asylum he sent her to, she is acting calm and reserved, and what does Nick do? He tells her to ‘be herself’, even though she has no clue what that is, although he means he wants her to act weird. So, she does. Why does he do it? He may not realize his motives, but he must sense that a stable Mabel is one he cannot control. Of course, the other characters are similarly clueless. Dr. Zepp (Eddie Shaw), who committed her, is a worthless quack, and also an enabler. Mabel’s dad has ulterior motives, her mom, Martha Mortensen (Lady Rowlands), is ineffective, and Nick’s mom Margaret Longhetti (Katherine Cassavetes- John’s mother) is a shrew with no warmth nor emotion, and one actually wishes Nick would belt her, instead of Mabel. Yet, knowing how dysfunctional they all are, why would Nick invite them, and many other acquaintances, over for Mabel’s return, save to possibly sabotage her recovery? Then, he tosses them all out, and after the spaghetti argument with Mabel’s dad, he tosses all the relatives out. He is just as manic as she is, selfish, and wholly incapable of true love.
Yet, Cassavetes is not all about melodrama and dialogue. Given that the film clocks in at two and a half hours, he does make great use of silences, as he did in Faces. There is a scene, late in the film, when Nick has been worn down by Mabel and the kids, where he just passes through a doorway, holds it, then inhales deeply. It is a very effective scene, and one which Falk states, in one of the supplementary disks to this one, which is part of The Criterion Collection’s five film package, was an idea Cassavetes gave him after several takes had gone wrong. The pause works, for it lets the character, actor, and audience steel themselves for the coming end. There’s also a trailer, and a very interesting audio interview with Cassavetes. The DVD commentary, by Cassavetes collaborators, cameraman Mike Ferris and sound man Bo Harwood, is ok, as they relate some interesting anecdotes, but nothing of any depth is illuminated. Unfortunately, the same is true of a near twenty minute taped conversation between Falk and Rowlands on the film. It just goes to show that actors, even good ones, can do their work well, without fully understanding what they’re doing. Both conclude that the film ends positively, with Nick’s not answering the ringing phone as symbolic of his breaking away from his mother, yet clearly we see him dominate and threaten his mother. It’s not an act of liberation, but isolation, and one that dooms the family, for sooner or later we know that either Mabel will kill herself, or Nick will do it, for his threats to do so, earlier in the film, are very serious. The actors, after decrying Hollywood’s formulae, opt for the simplistic ‘love conquers all’ ideal as an interpretation for the ending.
Yet, Cassavetes is, in a way, the Walt Whitman of film, in that his excesses, while technically being excesses, also are indelibly part of what sets him apart from other filmmakers. He lets scenes play on in real time, and often loses control of the scene, but when he is on, he nails things no other filmmaker does- few films have ever portrayed the working class as well as this film does. This film also makes better use of framing and other technical aspects than his earlier films did. Yes, often he makes bizarre edits- such as the earlier scene, where Mabel goes nuts, and is institutionalized. It just ends, mid-sentence, and then we see Nick dealing with his co-workers’ knowing of it. But, overall, the film works, more often than not feeling realer than reality often does, and that’s the scary part to its success, far more frightening than any Hannibal Lecter film, and like flaws, fear can be a strength. Just as Nick Longhetti.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Culture Vulture website.]
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