Review by Teddy Blanks
Posted on 02 June 2006
Source Columbia Classics VHS
A wholehearted advocation of John Cassavetes’s films is almost necessarily a defense of them. They don’t look, sound, or feel like movies, but they are as long as them (sometimes longer), and as a result are easy to dismiss as unscripted, amateurish, even boring. Such a dismissal is unfounded: the man worked hard to make his pictures as frustrating to their audiences as they are. And they were frustrating, to audiences and critics alike. Even so, he was angry with his biggest critics. He had a number of choice encounters with Pauline Kael, once famously yanking off her shoes and throwing them out the window of a moving taxicab the two were sharing. Appropriately, he tackled filmmaking with the same socially unacceptable gusto with which he tackled Kael. He would mock, confuse, and torment his actors until their faces settled into an expression he was interested in filming.
In Husbands, Cassavettes takes his own impulsive and lustful behavior and fuses it into three middle-aged Long Island commuters, three buddies—Harry, Archie, and Gus, played by Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes himself, respectively—who have recently been to the funeral of a fourth. Not ready to go home to their wives and children quite yet, the three friends go on a four day bender, which starts as a relatively innocent night of grieve-drinking and ends with the men in London, picking up chicks at a casino and wrestling with their mortality, unsure of what to do next and on the brink of madness. What comes to light during their escapade is that the square life, the standard path of their day—marriage, kids, picket-fence—is stunting their passion and vigor. This revelation is precisely why it is impossible to think of Husbands being made now: our generation simply has more choices.
The movie resembles real life, but its characters don’t remind you of anybody you’ve ever met: they behave and react in ways that no person, and certainly no other movie character, would ever behave. Cassavetes was interested in emotional truth, and for him, truth and realism were mutually exclusive. It is often difficult to tell whether he scripted his movies or allowed them to be totally improvised, but Cassavetes himself insisted he always had a screenplay, and probably his method was a combination of the two. Whatever this method was, it allowed him to capture some of the most bizarre and confusing moments we have on film. There is a scene in which Gus, the character played by Cassavetes, is in bed with a tall blonde in their London hotel room: they wrestle around exhaustively, and her responses to his come-ons range from wildly kicking him to tenderly kissing him. He tells her how beautiful she is, and then pretends (or does he?) to strangle her.
This scene, like most in Husbands, goes on for way too long, is confusing, cloying, and at times infuriating. Supposedly, Cassavetes really “found” his picture in the editing room, and re-cut it after his audiences’ initial response was positive. He wanted to annoy us, to test our patience. Cassavetes despised entertainment, so when critics call Husbands directionless and overlong, to paraphrase Julian Schnabel (out of context) in the recent Sketches of Frank Gehry, it’s like watching Apocalypse Now and complaining that Robert Duvall’s acting is “over-the-top.”
After two days of drinking, shooting hoops, and swimming laps, the men decide that it might be time to go home, maybe go back to work. When Harry returns to his wife—his is the only wife we see, making him the only one of the three to actively play the role of husband—she announces that she is leaving him, but that “it’s nothing personal.” This sends him into a rage, and — in a moment that is hardly mentioned in most reviews of Husbands and the turning point for the way we view its characters — she pulls a knife on him, and he hits both her and her mother, who happens to also be in the house. This piercing scene of domestic violence ends with Gus and Archie literally dragging Harry out of the house. Gus tells him to take it easy, adding that he’s “not the first guy to beat up on his wife.”
Before this moment, we were able to concentrate on Harry, Gus and Archie as a trio: laughing with them, singing with them, drinking with them, and trying to understand the power dynamic in their relationship. But after this glimpse of home life, the movie’s title looms heavy on its shoulders. These men are husbands— bad husbands. From here, Cassavetes follows them to work and later to London, where their depravity reaches its height.
The three husbands take their anger and regret out on the women around them, but Cassavetes doesn’t once give us a wink or nudge to let us know he doesn’t approve of their behavior. To him, the husbands’ misogyny is institutional, a natural effect of society’s suppression of their individualism. The most disturbing aspect of Husbands is that it is unclear whether the director has any strong feelings about his characters’ abhorrent behavior. Any other director dabbling in moral ambiguity would rationalize his characters’ drinking and wife-beating to the point where we could cautiously sympathize, or at least understand them; Cassavetes just lays it all out in front of us, asking us to merely accept it or stop watching.
Curiously, what redeems Husbands is Cassavetes’ immensely more celebrated film A Woman Under The Influence, made four years later. Whereas the husbands, for the most part, get away with their philandering and slouch home after their long trip, Gena Rowlands’ housewife Mabel is committed to a mental institution when she undergoes a similar mid-life madness. A Woman Under the Influence is the feminist counterpoint to Husbands: it shows us a society that condemns women but lets men off the hook for the same type of irrational behavior. Sympathizing with Mabel is easy: she is the oppressed party in the traditional husband-wife relationship. A Woman Under the Influence is a movie that makes us feel a little more comfortable about watching Husbands. Which, of course, Cassavetes would have hated.