A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Faces (1968)


          Faces was not the first film to be created by John Cassavetes. The actor did not intend to change the face of filmmaking when he created Shadows, a film that many believe to be the beginnings of independent cinema in America. When the film was created it was intended to be an exercise in acting and creativity. Commercial viability was never a consideration for this group of filmmakers, not in the same way creativity and exploration seems to be at the heart of the naturalistic film filled with ‘improvised’ dialogue. The film was shot with a 16mm handheld camera with classmates and friends shooting the film, as if it were being made by film students. The irony is that John Cassavetes was already a movie star. He created the film through improvisational exercises in an acting workshop he often taught, developing the plot through the workshop until Shadows emerged to be filmed for $40,000.


          The same respect to creativity above all else remained with Cassavetes even though it was over ten years since he had filmed the first version of Shadows. Cassavetes even invited a young man with aspirations of directing to work on Faces as a production assistant, despite his lacking experience. That man was Steven Spielberg. Like Shadows, Faces is also filled with scenes of seemingly ordinary people acting naturally and behaving as though nobody is watching. The honest approach includes the moments that the characters expose their true selves amidst other scenes of them wearing masks, usually held in place with the help of alcohol. The honesty also carries over into the way that Cassavetes chose to film the story, objects often obstructing the audience’s view in the foreground when the characters move freely around. The characters are also shown in all of their unglamorous glory, none more noticeable than the worn face of John Marley.


          Marley plays Richard Forst, a successful businessman who can’t keep his life together once he returns home to his wife, Maria (Lynn Carlin). The marriage doesn’t seem altogether unpleasant in the first evening we see them together, laughing and navigating the conversation near dangerous territory in a conversation about men and women when Maria mentions that she believes Richard’s friend to be a poor father and cheating on his wife. Marley laughs forcefully at the insinuation, but we are watching his behavior with the absolute knowledge that he is putting on a mask for his wife, having spent the previous scene with the two friends and a prostitute (Gena Rowlands). When Richard suddenly snaps at his wife, demanding a divorce, it would seem to come out of thin air had we not just experienced the tiring process of lies and manipulations.


          The process of this scene is much like every major scene in the film, with a character seeming to change emotions with no apparent reason. The reasons for the about-face emotional reactions are buried within the scene, often subtly explaining the bizarre changes. Maria is left by Richard, who returns to the prostitute to find that she is entertaining two unsavory gentlemen, and she gets a group of friends to go out with her. Later that night Maria returns with the friends and their own young gentleman, Chet (Seymour Cassel). He is a young man with lots of energy, and the women seem to enjoy him, though Maria quietly watches. When Chet suddenly reveals that they are making fools of themselves while dancing with one of the women he has cajoled into dancing with him, another conflict suddenly occurs. Chet’s enthusiasm makes his sudden feelings of embarrassment seem out of place, except for the brief moment in which Maria leaves the room followed by Chet’s eyes, which explains his motivations.


          The film was shot in high-contrast 16 mm black and white, and although there are some interesting and apparently deliberate camera choices within the film, it is much more about the characters and their moments of honesty among put on performances for the benefit of those nearby. Mostly it seems to be about the inability to keep the mask on in a failed marriage any longer.


          Faces was available in the John Cassavetes box set, but now the film is available alone in a two-disc DVD that includes the restored digital transfer of the film. The package includes a booklet with an essay about the film by film critic Stuart Klawans, which is fantastic despite the fact that the scholar doesn’t find any explanation or motivation for the character’s sudden changes in emotions, which just tells me he isn’t looking close enough. The special features on the second disc include an alternate opening to the film from an early cut of the film. There are also a few documentaries from 2004 and a 1968 episode of a French television program that featured interviews and behind the scenes footage in discussing Cassavetes.

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