Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Cool of Cassavetes

I first saw MACHINE GUN MCCAIN a few years back at a private screening in southern NJ arranged by a film print collector friend of mine. He had just made a trade for his print with another collector and was running it one last time, so he invited me down to a local theater after closing to check it out. The print was particularly impressive because it was IB Technicolor, which meant that not only were the colors rich and stable but that they didn’t fade a single bit in over 30 years. Sure, the print had some damage, but in some ways it looked as good that night as it did when the film first came out. As for the film itself, I rather enjoyed it, feeling it was a rather solid Italian crime flick that had the benefit of brisk pacing, an ample budget and a kick-ass leading man in John Cassavetes. This was one of his follow-up films to both his Academy Award-nominated work in THE DIRTY DOZEN and FACES and there is a certain weirdness factor to watching this indie film icon single-handedly robbing a mob-controlled Vegas casino (and not to mention such Cassavetes alum as Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands also showing up in the film). It’s Cassavetes who makes MACHINE GUN MCCAIN more memorable than it really should be, because of something that few people, much less few actors are born with, and that’s natural born coolness.

Please allow me the embarrassing opportunity to admit that I’m not up on Cassavetes work as a filmmaker, although his reputation is undoubtedly the stuff of legend. I know, I know, I call myself a film lover and yet I've never seen a Cassavetes film, so maybe I'm not a film lover, after all. There’s no real reason behind this outside of sheer laziness on my part (maybe if I got that Criterion set…), but his reputation is such that I’m sure I’m missing out on something if I don’t sit myself in front of one of them one of these days. I’m much more familiar with Cassavetes the actor, having seen various performances of his throughout the years, such as in the aforementioned MACHINE GUN MCCAIN and THE DIRTY DOZEN, ROSEMARY’S BABY, DePalma’s THE FURY, TEMPEST, WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?, Siegel’s THE KILLERS and CRIME IN THE STREETS (as a juvenile delinquent!) and John Hough’s THE INCUBUS, which I’m sure he left off his resume. Cassavetes had an ability that few actors could ever convey, of not just being a total badass but of being a very intelligent total badass. Obviously, Cassavetes himself was a very smart guy, very well read and no doubt a man of big ideas who liked to ask a lot of questions, but he also looked and acted like a guy who had been around some, spent some time in the streets and knew their rules. Cassavetes himself was a child of the New York City streets (although he later moved to Long Island and went to a private school in New Jersey ) and it seems like he picked up a lot from those experiences. The guy could never really play stupid, because he simply didn’t have it in him; like his sometime co-star Lee Marvin, he could play characters that were somewhat dense, but they would pick on things up very quickly. These were characters, while not always heroes, that you could never turn your back on. Cassavetes may not have played many violent roles, but he played plenty of characters you didn’t want to fuck with, and I suspect the man himself was not too far removed from this.

Another element of natural coolness is style, and again, Cassavetes was a natural in this respect. Obviously a very handsome man, he could look good in most any role (although his DIRTY DOZEN buzz cut did him no favors) and in several roles he sure as hell did. I love his look in MACHINE GUN MCCAIN, the tan suit with the blue shirt and tie doesn’t necessarily scream tough guy, but that’s part of the mystique. Make them think you’re harmless and you’re able to inflict more harm when the time comes. But Cassavetes would look good in a t-shirt and jeans and even in something like TEMPEST, where he’s basically dressed in a smock, he’s still the sharpest-dressed person in the picture. And when he played an authority figure, like the doctor in WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? or the S.W.A.T. Team captain in TWO-MINUTE WARNING, he still wore the outfits like he was born in them. He seemed to have casual wear down to a science, something I personally aspire to, but it all had less to do with the clothes he wore than the attitude he conveyed, one that said, I'm cool, I can't help it, and I don't want to talk about it. It just came to him.

In a lot of ways, I would consider Cassavetes as one of my style and fashion icons (and if you saw the way I dressed you'd realize I don’t have many of those), although like all the good ones he made it look so damn effortless. Again, it’s something that you’re born with and not something you can re-create, but if you’re going to have one of those it might as well be a class act, to boot. Now all I have to do is commit to watching one of his directorial efforts. Where do I start?

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