2015 Film Essays

Laughter in the Dark: John Cassavetes’ Comedies

husbands

John Cassavetes’ films are a constant resistance to classical cinema, and his comedies are no exception. On the surface, Husbands (1970) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) appear to employ all the traditional codes, such as oddball characters or physical gags. Yet, these works refuse to play solely for laughs, as they twist and turn genre conventions to the point of near grotesqueness. The audience is left unsure whether to laugh, to cry, or to feel ashamed of their own amusement at the cruel jokes of life that unfold in the two films’ comical world.

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

The English essayist William Hazlitt, while discussing the thin line between tragedy and comedy, exclaims that man is capable of acknowledging the gap between “what things are” and “what things ought to be,” an ability that is in and of itself highly ironic. Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz are precisely about this painful power of self-awareness that forces their protagonists to evaluate the absurdity as well as the banality of life. Unfulfilled romantic love emerges as a shared subject in both films. In Minnie and Moskowitz, the eponymous characters are both hapless in romance. Minnie (Gena Rowlands) has just been left by her married lover while Seymour Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel) never manages to have any successful conversation with a woman. The unlikely duo is suddenly thrown together, and despite Minnie’s various attempts to break away from the man whom she deems as “completely wrong” with “nothing in common,” their relationship happily culminates in marriage after only four days.

Husbands, however, challenges the concept of marriage as a happy ending. The film begins with a jaunty montage of snapshots, depicting the jovial gatherings of four men and their families. These sunny days do not last long, for one of the guys dies suddenly of a heart attack, prompting the three remaining husbands, Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk), and Gus (John Cassavetes) to hop on an impulsive journey filled with drunken debauchery and fidelities, as they become increasingly disillusioned with their own marriages and aware of their own mortality.

Husbands (1970)

Husbands (1970)

The editing of Cassavetes’ comedies is completely different from that of Old Hollywood films. Screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday (1940) or My Man Godfrey (1936) are often fast-paced with rapid dialogues flying from one performer to another like a game of ping-pong, but this method is nowhere to be found in Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz. In fact, with the latter, the film curiously uses jump-cuts to a jarring effect. For instance, near the beginning of Minnie and Moskowitz, Minnie goes on a long monologue about the deceptive nature of cinema. “The movies, they set you up,” she says. “You go to the movies and-“ continues Minnie and suddenly the scene cuts her off mid-sentence exactly when her vulnerability starts to show. The film frequently chops off characters’ dialogues at crucial moments, denying the audience the cliche pleasure of grouping these goofy personas into archetypes. Minnie and Moskowitz, however, are not strange in a cutesy Hollywood fashion. They are genuinely weird in an organic, frightening way by fighting in a parking lot or kicking each other’s shins. To root for their reunion is quite difficult for their actions are so dysfunctional. Nevertheless, as the jump-cuts prove that words have failed to work, Minnie and Seymour’s strange behavior becomes their means of emotionally connecting with each other, a touching triumph for physical gags over dialogues.

Husbands on the other hand is strangely slow-paced. A scene where the three men sip on their drinks at a table while chanting songs lasts for more than ten minutes with relatively few takes. Moreover, the drinking binge is filled with dialogues that are fascinating but not exactly memorable or packed with punch lines. As a result, the editing here is not used to elicit a response from the audience in the way comedies usually function. The lack of a focus in these improvisational vignettes allows a certain freedom for viewers to find their own point of comedic contact. In other words, the film does not dictate the joke’s target, but instead lets the composition visually demonstrate the hilarious strangeness in the world of these middle-aged men/losers. A prime example is when Harry stumbles in the bathroom to see the equally drunk Gus and Archie wobbling on the floor. Harry, for no reason, wears a big red plaid hat that is seen earlier on a woman whose singing he ridicules. The emotional turmoil of the three men are subsequently put on full display; they are mere overgrown boys playing dressed up with other people’s feelings.

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)

The unusual pace of the editing also enhances the comedic mood by providing sudden tonal shifts. The jump-cuts in Minnie and Moskowitz sometimes impressively jam together scenes of different natures. After making love to Seymour for the first time, Minnie quietly leaves the house to go to an ice cream parlor. She calls her lover from the place and asks him to come, a request he responds with shouts of utter confusion. The scene stops while the couple is still in the middle of arguing and cuts to the scratching noise of Seymour’s truck stopping at the ice cream place. He storms in, confused, but nevertheless sits next to Minnie and eats their sweet treats, just like in the movies. The bumpy cutting effectively visualizes their bouncy relationship. Minnie wants an old-school romance and here she is, stuck with a guy who prefers hot dogs over fancy restaurant meals. Nevertheless, the jump-cuts hint that, no matter how mismatched are the couple, they somehow fit, and their unlikely compatibility touchingly smoothes out the gaps and rough edges, as evident in the small gesture of Seymour eating a big scoop of cold ice cream, simply to please Minnie. For a brief moment, he becomes Hollywood leading man material, fulfilling his girlfriend’s romantic wish.

The tonal shift in Husbands slants towards a darker side. One of the more disturbing scenes in the film is when Archie lies in bed with Julie (Noelle Kao), an Asian woman that he has just met. He asks Julie to kiss him and so she does, somewhat hesitantly. The camera lingers on the two lovers until Archie violently pulls away from the young woman, visibly disgusted that she French-kisses him. The sudden change from a moment of romance to total condemnation reveals Archie’s double standards. He is not free from marital responsibilities as he pretends to be. The previous shenanigans shown in the film cease to be funny anecdotes, for they represent the completely hypocrisy of the three men.

Besides influences from screwball comedies, Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz also follow the tradition of the comedy of manners, always with a little twist. The majority of the two films takes place indoors, and in crowded places, where characters often make fools of themselves. The men in Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz are exactly the types that would make audiences feel uncomfortable to share a common space. They are loud and physically imposing, throwing their hands while they talk or knocking over drinks. Whenever Minnie is with Seymour, she usually results to putting on her big sunglasses in order to avoid being associated with the crude guy. Yet, Seymour’s socially unacceptable behavior has a great amount of charm. The character, placed in constrained environments such as a fancy restaurant, proves to be incredibly refreshing as he tests and stretches social norms. Outside these crowded places, however, Seymour can finally be himself wholly and so does Minnie. At one point, they share an intimate moment, dancing in a parking lot, safe from the scrutiny of others.

The coarseness of the men in Husbands, on the other hand, is not so endearing. Their constant thirst for attention as a means to enhance their masculinity implies a certain sense of despair. They shout while at the blackjack table. They tell elaborate stories to pick up girls. Unlike Seymour’s carefree mannerisms, those of the men in Husbands are not at all genuine; they are mere sad, performative attempts for the middle-aged Harry, Archie and Gus to reconnect with their youth, to act as they please, a mode of living not allowed in their respective households. The irony lies deep in their desperation, and thus the audience is compelled to laugh at the men’s charades. Nevertheless, by laughing, viewers are also confronted with their own vanity. The laughter is uneasy for it indicates a realization of the truth. The crisis faced by these men does not exist solely behind the silver screen. In fact, it is a universal experience, and a tragic one at that. The film ends out in the open, with Archie and Gus no longer hanging around in bars or hotels but standing on their homes’ sidewalks, stuffed animals in hand but unready to face their domestic realities.

Husbands (1970)

Husbands (1970)

John Cassavetes’ comedies are ultimately a string of amplified, uncomfortable and embarrassing everyday moments. The characters’ blundering antics turn them into unbelievably hilarious portraitures of people who could never walk through life on a straight line. Their problems, however, speak to the fundamental need of every human being: to love, to communicate and to understand oneself. Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz are consequently funny movies that are hard to laugh at. As they highlight the comical concept of coveting an ideal and the tragic result of not achieving the goal, their images are the sum of what is and what could never be.

Phuong Le (@smallnartless) studies film at Manhattanville College and interns at Film Comment. Her writings can be found at Movie Mezzanine as well as her own blog, Cinematic Gloom. When not writing, she enjoys caring too much about David Bowie.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply