GENA ROWLANDS, SEYMOUR CASSEL, HASKELL WEXLER...
...Al Ruban, and Lynn Carlin all participated in a Q & A last night after a screening at UCLA of the revolutionary, devastating "FACES."
The talk was moderated by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "Wonderboys"), who was actually surprisingly thoughtful and appropriate--he seemed like a random choice initially, but he told a moving story about being a young photographer in Los Angeles in the 60's and finding himself on the set of "Rosemary's Baby" to photograph Mia Farrow. He struck up a conversation with her co-star, John Cassevetes, who mentioned that he was also editing a film he'd made with friends around Los Angeles (primarly filming in his and Gena's house as well as the house of Gena's mother). Curtis followed Cassavetes up Gower to Laurel Canyon and watched a lot of the raw footage (the film was initially clocking in at eight hours, with a 50 to 1 shooting ratio! It was finally cut down to a bit over two hours.). Hanson said that there was quite a bit of rumbling in Hollywood about these actors making an independent feature around town, which, in those days, was very rare. And from the first moment Curtis Hanson saw the footage in Cassavetes' garage, he knew something special was being created. He was right. The critical--and commercial--success of "Faces" helped initiate a solid decade of renegade filmmaking (coming a year before "Easy Rider," which is usually seen as the harbinger of 1970's American auteurism).
Gena, Seymour, and Lynn were all incredibly open and honest to questions from the audience, which primarily focused on the mythical and much-debated working process of Cassavetes. Curtis Hanson flat-out asked, "How much of "Faces" was improvised?" Of course everyone in the sold-out theater leaned in for the response.
Gena answered, "Except for some of the songs that Seymour sang, pretty much none of it was improvised." The other actors supported this statement, praising the excellent script.
When Gena was asked how John directed her, she answered, "He said less than any director I've worked with. He would get frustrated if I asked too many questions. He'd say, 'I wrote the script, I gave you the part, and you've done your homework--now act!'" Everyone suggested that part of Cassavetes' uniqueness was in his respect for the actors and crew--he gave them a remarkable amount of freedom to make their own choices.
Revelations also included the fact that the film was shot in continuity, as well as the aforementioned incredible shooting ratio. "John liked to shoot film," said Gena. Al Ruban added, "John always said that film is cheap--it's processing that's expensive." The actors couldn't stop raving about the sense of love and support that Cassavetes engendered in those that worked with him.
The results of Cassavetes' process are clear when you watch the film--there isn't a false note from beginning to end. It overwhelms you with its honesty, and while the script might come off as a scathing critique of a country in crisis during the 1960's, perhaps even brutal in its depiction of the characters, the end result has a sense of warmth and emotional charity that comes from the amazing actors who simply refused to condescend or simplify. When you watch "Faces," you're watching people that you could know, probably already do know, perhaps that resemble yourself.
This amazing event was the final night of UCLA's Festival of Film Preservation.
The festival ran for almost a month, and included an unbelievable array of rarely screened, endangered, damaged, and previously "lost" films. "Faces" is a notoriously troublesome film to screen, because it was so dirty, shot on many different stocks, and part of the original negative was lost. UCLA does a fantastic job of preserving these masterpieces and bringing them back to their intended state. It really does make a difference to see a film the way it was supposed to be seen--in the case of "Faces," that means in a 1:66 ratio (and the print was gorgeous).
A few of the other films that I'd seen at the festival included Eliza Kazan's controversial "Baby Doll," a collection of Kenneth Anger shorts, and the original film version of "Chicago," which was released in 1928, only two years after the 1926 Maurine Watkins play (inspired by articles for the "Chicago Tribune").
The (13th annual) Festival of Film Preservation was a real treat, and a reminder that in an over-saturated DVD and internet world, there are still film treasures out there that could, without the help of good people like the UCLA Film and Television Archive, be lost forever.
And tonight I'll be watching "Snakes on a Plane." If that's not a study in contrasts, I don't know what is...