House Logo
Explore categories +

Emotion Through Bodily Motion: Acting and the Frame in John Cassavetes’s Faces

Comments Comments (0)

Emotion Through Bodily Motion: Acting and the Frame in John Cassavetes’s <em>Faces</em>

To see a great cinematic tool once pioneered by D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish lay waste in a large percentage of contemporary movies is tragic. The close-up, which occupied a position of closure, desire, and eroticism, is now just the byproduct of lazy film-making and another excuse to ogle our favorite celebrity faces. The problem lies not in the amount of use—close-ups and medium shots usually comprise the majority of a film’s running time - but in the ineffectual way these shots are employed. Most movies today exist in a “curtailed space”, whereby the close-ups/medium shots of objects and bodies bear little to no relationship to the framing of objects and bodies in the following shot. Because these pictures tend to rely on expository lines and scenery-chewing as opposed to judicious scaling and editing, dramatic effect and filmic movement are virtually nonexistent. Actors raise their hands toward high heaven, their cries meant to queue in drama, but the frame they occupy is static and the film remains a lifeless standstill. How maddening, in a medium that exists as a series of images, is it to find that dialogue has replaced what visuals should say?

John Cassavetes’ Faces is a violent reaction against traditional (popular) methods of filmmaking.

Indeed, the close-up is Cassavetes’s shot of choice in his two-hour exploratory critique of the American idle rich. The form and strategies that shape Cassavetes’s style thrust the viewer into the middle of the film’s energy. Eschewing long shots almost entirely (among the most memorable: a half-naked hippie Don Juan scrambling over rooftop shingles), the filmic movement Cassavetes creates when he does cut to one from a tight composition results in a brutal, one-two blow to the senses. Also against tradition is the film’s narrative form, which does not rest on the classical tripartite structure of story-telling, but is shot and told through a cinema verité-esque expression, where characters are allowed to express themselves physically through scenes carried out longer than any conventional director would allow. Rebellion the third: lighting is not simply used to separate foreground from background, but light is repeatedly over/underexposed, where the placement of shadows often reveal something about the condition of the people we are watching.

In the vein of entries in Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots Project, what follows is an analytical breakdown of major scenes in the rhythmic and liberating Faces.

Richard “Dickie” Forst (John Marley) descends the stairs to work in a low angle, medium tracking shot, making distinct taps with his classy shoes, his dark suit in contrast with the white, jail-bar railings that separate him from the audience. If his name isn’t enough of an indicator, then his “don’t bother me with that stuff” and put-a-cigarette-in-my-mouth-will-ya bent reveal him to be a commanding phallus with an attitude. Dick is a prick, and coincidentally, a financer preparing for the screening of his latest investment, the “Dolce Vita of the commercial field.” In the film’s first series of close-ups, his colleagues describe the film to him: “An impressionistic document that shocks.” “Honest but good.” “A shot in the dark but attractive.” Dickie’s wide-eyed, fully attentive face—triggered seconds earlier by the word “money”—relegates to a blank stare at the ground. The shot says it all: he’s heard this rap before, and the opening numbers weren’t nice.

As the title Faces scrolls without stop from the bottom of the screen to the top, Cassavetes has established everything we have to know about the film we’re about to see: that it will be a reflexive look at cinema, will not shy away from the truths his close-ups threaten to reveal, and—as Forst is seen again, seconds later—that some self-discovery and re-assessment will be made by our wealthy, middle-class American lead. The lack of opening credits denies the association of the characters with real-life actors, because the film concerns the human condition. The wandering heads in the film are supposed to be proxies of our own faces.

When the car containing Dickie, hooker Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), and college buddy Fred (Fred Draper) rolls onto Jeannie’s driveway, Fred jumps out, shouting and dancing idiotically on the lawn. The night is hazy and our trio is drunk. Jeannie and Dickie help Fred inside through a dimly lit corridor, soon revealed to be the passageway towards a euphoric release of bottled anxieties. The overexposed lighting in this scene adds to the elevated high our characters are experiencing. That the light originates from multiple lamps placed on tables in the room’s four corners aids the realism in the scene, effectively brought about by two principal strategies. Al Ruban’s cinematography, not unlike the characters themselves, is characteristically loose, drifting in and out of focus as the camera floats through space. The effect is voyeuristic, though unlike the neatly framed compositions of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart’s peeping Jefferies remains an outsider looking in, Cassavetes provides a front row seat to the routines performed by our now grown-up college buddies. When Jeannie rises first to show the chickened-out males how its done, the low angle shot offers a nice close-up of their rear ends (Dickie’s hot off a well-delivered spank) as the two gentlemen cross paths and sit on the opposite sides of the camera. Sure, the viewer is an intruder, but Cassavetes shields nothing, understanding that this scene has been lived many times before by people. The childish behavior and naked laughter are raw feelings spilt without reservation—a timely visit to the past by our ex-frat boys.

The evoking of the past is further emphasized by 28-no-23-year old Jeannie’s facial expressions, which serve similar functions throughout the movie. Cassavetes habitutally cuts to close-ups of Jeannie after instances of characteristically bizarre male behavior—the ramblings of Fred and Dickie in this scene; the boxing confrontation between Dickie and another client later that evening. As Effie Rassos notes, “In Faces, the close-up image of Jeannie’s face continually recalls [the] relationship [between still photography and cinema]. As the camera lingers on her face, what is most striking is the way this stillness gives us an overwhelming presence of time as past rather than immediate. Here, there is a sense that time is both arrested and mobile.” The immediacy of the events being unveiled on-screen highlights their banality. “What a minute, what a minute! What the hell are talking about?” Dickie exclaims early on in the evening, to receive a nonchalant, simultaneous “Who cares?” from his two companions. Like other great films that tackle the problem of having to present life’s mundanity in a cinematically engaging fashion, Cassavetes achieves this through a precise mise-en-scene, highlighting the experience of everyday tedium by the space he allows between the camera and his leads, and how they move through space. This strategy effectively places us in the territory to talk about the function and art of acting in a Cassavetes movie.

The note-perfect performances Cassavetes draws from his actors is the second major component of the scene’s realism, and one of the core elements of his style. Admittedly, the present-day perception of acting centers heavily on the recreation of a character in an actor’s mind, complete with exaggerated facial expressions and italicized delivery of dialogue delivery. As Ray Carney outlines in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, the director’s notion of good acting ran contrary to such approaches like The Method. Cassavetes’s actors need not think about a character’s past, thoughts, or motivations because their characters do not exist inside the actor’s head. Cassavetes’s actors are conduits of physical energy manifested in the frame—bodies moving in space, able to channel surges of emotion simply by the way they control their limbs or shake their hips. As exceptionally scripted as it is, dialogue in Cassavetes’s films is never explicative, and is never the primary conduit of emotion. The pathos his films exude is always channeled through his framing and visuals, which enable the viewers to follow the characters.

Cassavetes’ philosophy on acting is inextricably linked with his outlook on everyday life, evidenced in a scene from Faces where Fred and Dickie theatricalize their routine in front of Jeannie, who occupies a seat on the sofa right next to the viewer. The routine performed by the two males not only reinforces the notion that we’re watching a film within a film, but also the theatricality of the characters within the reality of the film’s world. Cassavetes’s goal to reinstate realism into acting is lead by the belief that “the artificiality of expression of emotion was more than a dramatic problem. It was a problem in life.” His argument, having been a young actor and a young man, was that most lived experiences were as artificially staged as most dramatic experiences—the real problem “for modern man” was to “[break] free from conventions and learning how to really feel again”. The routine scene is a sublime fusion of these ideas—performance in film and artifice in life separated by a thin line.

Fred and Dickie are presented center screen in a medium shot between two lamps that act as the scene’s light source. As Fred prepares the act, he flails both arms enthusiastically about at Jeannie, and in effect, at the viewer. Cutting to a closeup of Jeannie’s anticipation, then one of Dickie’s in-all-seriousness acting expression in medium shot, Cassavetes effects the filmic movement that centralizes its energy around the viewer. The men begin a series of robust movements using their bodies: backs, legs, shoulders, arms, and fingers are used without reserve, topped off with a thud created by Fred’s body as he hits the floor off-screen. Cassavetes cuts again to a reaction close-up of Jeannie, who approves of the act and retires to her room to change. This offers Fred an opportunity to reminisce about the past, which Dickie largely attempts to ignore. During Fred’s spiel, the shot shifts into a first person close-up of Fred as he exclaims into the camera, “My God Dickie, you’re getting old and gray and I’m getting fat and gray!”

This assertion, in its literal sense, is Cassavetes bluntly noting that all present will eventually become past. More importantly, is his way of saying that men like Dickie exist in reality, and he suspects some viewers may resemble him. How many women have hung around assholes like him? How many people have been employed under his high-handed reign? Just as the viewer seemingly forgets Jeannie’s profession, Fred concludes the night’s hysteria with a bitter “By the way Jeannie, whadda you charge?” instantly reducing their crazed but liberating evening into a functional affair. The ensuing shot is an extreme close-up that peers over the back of Fred’s head, a pitch black patch that covers roughly half the frame, as Jeannie approaches in full body through the visible half to embrace him. The same shot is mirrored twice within the next thirty seconds, through the perspectives of Jeannie then Dickie, occupying that same space by the door where Fred once stood. However at ease they may appear to be with each other, these drunkards are wholly disconnected from one another, and Cassavetes recognizes this detachment exists in more than just a few people. Dickie follows soon after Fred’s departure, not knowing how to salvage Fred’s comment, aside from muttering a dull “you’re a lovely girl.”

If demons could mingle with angels, then the saintly way light falls on Maria’s face and the lively way she carries a telephone conversation might not seem so dubious. Richard’s wife (Lynn Carlin) fires away with one of her girlfriends in a conversation full of laughs as Richard is seen returning home from behind the reflective window pane. The contrast between Richard’s rugged, worn face and fading hair and the smooth texture of Maria’s young face says he’s less of a lover than a paternal figure; as the film progresses, one can see that she delights in the company of other women as opposed to men. Dickie’s inner jerk is revealed again as he snatches the phone, terminating Maria’s ongoing conversation. But Maria oddly doesn’t seem to mind. Her subservient character is almost too good to be true—too ideal in a movie that has already established itself and its characters to be realistically flawed and empty. Fred’s bitter interjection (“How many times a week does Maria ask you for some money!”) is reaffirmed by the midsection between the phone call and dinner conversation, which serves primarily to establish the Forsts’ financial stability. A quick pan across a room reveals a wall covered with paintings, a chandelier resting above the glass dining table, and a rather large, elegant bath mirror. Richard Forst’s other half is no angel, but a vessel through which Cassavetes delivers his agenda regarding rich, middle class women. Maria Forst’s tactics are no less rotten than her Husband’s squirrelly way of conducting intimate relationships as if they were business negotiations. Her Barbie doll smile and phony laughter pave the way for Cassavetes’ disapproval at women who consent to men’s states of affairs, trading their love for luxury and fancy furniture.

As Cassavetes follows the couple to the dining room, he wittingly references the late Bergman, another auteur of the human face (his Winter Light is a masterpiece of drama and acting, strikingly similar to Facesin its strategic use of composition, though stylistically the two couldn’t be more different). The dinner sequence is composed completely of alternating close-ups, which reveal the significance behind both the tight composition and the way the light hits their faces. As seen earlier, Maria is lighted frontally to eliminate shadows, which accentuates her sleek, youthful complexion. Her bouquet of shiny dark hair rests like a crown above her head; Dickie is lighted to create more facial shadows, which emphasizes his aged face and gray hairs. When they are framed simultaneously, Maria is retreating into the kitchen with only the backside of Dickie’s left cheek available to the audience, a large open space filling the remainder of the frame. Other indicators of the couples’ distance: laughter dominates their conversation more than words, where Maria again assumes the role of the entertainer—her anecdote about Fred and Louise is what keeps Dickie hysterical. Their pathetic sex talk—about another couple, no less—is a pitiful alternative to love-making. “I am not a sex machine,” Maria cries, as Richard retreats towards a dark hallway of ascending stairs, a motif established by the very first shot. A bird’s-eye pan follows Dickie as he ascends into the unknown, and drifts to a lonesome game room on the second floor, where Cassavetes unveils the first and only chronologically ambiguous scene. Notice how, in this bedroom scene, the camera gawks in extreme close-up at Dickie’s howling amusement at his own flimsy grade school puns, as opposed to Maria’s reaction. In effect, Dickie’s jokes are a self-serving, self-pleasing alternative to sex with his wife. They both roll over to their side of the bed as the camera zooms in to Maria’s thoroughly dissatisfied face, an echo of the dismantling marriage between the Drapers Maria described earlier that evening: “They eat, they say nothing. They get into bed and they say nothing. He just rolls over and goes to sleep.” As Cassavetes cuts back to Richard in the poolroom, the limpness of their marriage has become as clear to Richard as it is to the viewer. Thereafter he descends the stairs, and, in a gesture entertained by Maria earlier that evening, terminates his marriage in a humorous (actually humorless) fashion.

At about the same time you sense there’s something amiss about the perfectly framed long shot that invites Maria’s seemingly solo return home from the rock club, Maria opens the front door for four guests, the lot of them assembling thereafter in the living room. The sense of space Cassavetes allows in the full-body framing—four women standing stiffly about a living room entrance, and a man towards the other end of the screen—heightens the awkwardness of the scene.

Chet (Seymour Cassel) helps himself to the record player. A beat of silence. The music kicks in. This beat receives full attention in Effie Rassos’ analysis of time and affect in Faces: “All sound and movement seem to have dissolved away. And yet they have not. Here the image tentatively sits between stillness and motion, silence and sound. There is a feeling of uncertainty, of anticipation…of a need for some kind of release.” The first to give in to this release is Florence. Her body, occupying the right, is released by the music, drifting slowly towards the center frame, meeting our man Chet’s. The two move in unison through this open space for roughly half a minute before Maria’s sharp smack across his cheek brings about a medium shot. As the girls relocate on the couch, another series of close-ups are promoted. The editing strategy employed suggests the camera is not independent of the characters, but both directly affects and is affected by the actions of the people it is framing. This scene epitomizes how an actor’s body is able to control the frame, while the frame is able to simultaneously control the body. When Maria breaks from the static mold of the far shot, the camera adjusts with her to the medium shot, which creates a chunk of empty space to the left of the screen. As bodies drift in to fill that space, the camera too starts zooming in on a target, thus beginning another series of close-ups.

The nature of the close-up, to occupy the position of ultimate closure, creates a challenge for directors, since you cannot move away from the center once you are there; you can only cut. What I find most interesting here is the editing strategy that allows the viewer to assess the relationship of each woman with Chet, although they are nearly never in the same shot. Maria begins with an icebreaker in an attempt to terminate the uncomfortable silence. The way she and Chet exchange smirks and winks at each other then glance away introduces the undercurrent an unspoken attraction between them that is more than the small talk being thrown around. Another gap of silence as the camera rests on a medium shot of Billy Mae, who tries to stir up a conversation. The camera soon abandons its gaze of Mae, as well as the lukewarm Louise, choosing instead to rest on Chet’s face during their busy chitter chatter. It’s as if the camera single-handedly decided that Chet’s flirtatious face-making at Maria is much more captivating, both in the moment and in the grand scheme of events leading to Maria’s “release”. It’s crucial that Chet’s comical faces are met with reaction shots from Maria, trying terribly hard to mask her laughter, because this distinguishes Chet from Richard. While Richard’s lame jokes were self-serving, Chet’s funnies are meant for Maria. There’s something attractive about his character, evidenced by the numerous close-ups of her sneaking glances at him, even though he may not be as sophisticated and verbal as the Forsts when it comes to sex talk (“Ya have a few belts, and ya go up to some chick’s pad and you make it, baby”). Maria’s laughter in the following close-up is undeniably precious and genuine. While Chet’s visit may not lack ulterior motives, his decision to come to the table full of older women—“trying to join in and not knowing how, looking like [they] were going to break into tears any minute”—ranks him at least a few steps ahead from the financially successful yet frigid Dickie.

After all the women but the mercurial Florence has left, an essential shot reveals the expressive dancing between Florence and Chet that takes place in Maria’s mind. It begins with the shadowy black of Maria’s hair in the foreground on the right side of the frame, as Chet and Florence engage in a dance in a long shot in the distant left. As their bodies shift, so does the camera, to the right, passing behind and literally through Maria’s mind, so her head now occupies the left side of the frame and the dancing duo’s in the right. As the shot is cut to present Florence and Chet in the foreground, it nevertheless zooms slowly into Maria’s soulful gaze at the two dancers. She exhales smoke from her nostrils and closes her eyes in thought. A myriad of possibilities: thoughts of love unfelt, reflections on a life cheapened by luxury at the expense of joy. Again, pathos is personified without a hint of expository dialogue. As soon as she shuts the door following Flo’s exit, blues music makes an entrance in as Maria meanders about the house. The camera follows unapologetically as she wanders about a labyrinth of dark halls, until she is ambushed by Chet in the darkness, his ghostly appearance ready to set her free.

Dickie returns home, singing, spinning, dancing in a hand-held tracking shot, ready to make peace with his wife. The stairs are ascended via the bird’s eye perspective, where the realization of another unacknowledged truth awaits. In Faces, stairs continuously serve as the bridge that mediates the depth of the characters’ inner ailments and anxieties. Characters are always in heightened emotional states while scaling or descending from the walkway between the upper and lower spaces: Dickie’s sullen despondence prior to his ascension into the pool room; Chet and Maria’s flirtatious cat-n-mouse chase prior to an adulterous copulation; Dickie’s elated return home to find his disheveled spouse. In all instances, Cassavetes engages the stairwell in an overhead look, allowing the viewer to view the complications that develop between two emotional extremes. Chet’s swift disappearance in what would be the film’s only extreme long shot confirms his role as the angel to aid Maria’s rebirth, disappearing as quickly as he appeared. A close-up on Richard’s back is maintained as he processes speechlessly what had just occurred. He rises to gaze at Maria, shown via close up of her runny mascara, half-naked, wet body through her rough awakening, slowly shaking her head. She is no longer a trophy wife with a plastic smile; her once tidy crown of hair has now collapsed atop her head.

He mocks her as “the noble adultress,” before descending the stairs, formulating theories in his mind about the kitchen to fuel his anger. His dark suit contrasts against the overtly white background, much like the opening shot of the film, but without the stairway bars, suggesting at least some degree of change and emotional expression free from constraint. “You want me to be violent?” he shouts. He’s in his serious business mode, but whose effete masculinity is soon razed by a slap across the face from an also reborn Maria. “I hate my life. I just don’t love you.” An honest, unbridled remark is finally uttered from a face that, for the first time, is marked with the same shadows that cover Richard’s face—perhaps the first time the couple has been fully honest with one another. For years they’ve play-acted and bickered, but as of this moment, desire nothing more than to exchange smokes on the midsection of the stairway, a vertical axis of rising and falling conflict and inner unrest. The last shot of the two ascending and descending the stairway, leaving their loaded situation surprisingly open to various possible prospects, suggests the narrow but assessable channel that leads toward emotional catharsis.

Simon Hsu is a San Diego-based cineaste. This is his first article for The House Next Door.