On the last five years of John Cassavetes
He wakes that first morning after LOVE STREAMS is finished
To a strange kind of acidy light.
In his hands are the holes that he will tear from the morning,
The sharp shards and fragments of maybe a thousand lost fights.
A thousand more he has won and yet today he feels hollow,
Mere moments in he has faltered, for what feels like the first time in his life.
On his pillow, the print of what was left from the evening;
The slow hairs and wastage with which fate has taken revenge.
His sickness published on the sheet of sleep to be suffered,
Influencing the dreams he’s chewed over, while recasting him now
In its glare. Now, as he wakes he feels a dumb suffocation,
As the air he breathes muds and colours, thickening through sharp nose hair.
He can feel his liver corrupt and taste the oil in a teardrop.
He closes his eyes. The small screaming between eyelid and duct startles him.
He cough-stumbles now from his bed, heading to the angelic glaze
Of the bathroom. Phlegm scars his throat somehow, through which
The passage of air cannot sing. He has risen and read another endless
Poem to darkness. Watching as the words spread to shadow
Before the oncoming day and light flood. Now he halts and is speared
By the morning’s fresh accusation, an unintended film he’s no part of,
That will soon be projected back in chilled blood. As he rinses, he stares,
Newly horrified by the detail, the coarsening of the eyebrows,
The blotches across hands and skin. An Autuer no more, he is being rewritten.
As his character fades in the mirror, the story of his end now begins.
He first saw the stranger one day helping his father out in the garden.
He would have been a boy, six or seven, and there this thin man was,
Summer-eyed. He was as gaunt as a tree and the sun strewn haze
Masked across him, in a flicker of light, or light dazzle,
As if caught through a lens, that smeared smile.
The man’s suit was dark and John’s father of course didn’t see him,
They were gathering olives, lemons from the branch, fruit from soil.
The silent stranger watched close, his black eyes browned by the sunlight,
He darted along, bobbing branches as if playing a game with the boy.
Cassavetes glimpses this now in the sheen of his smudged bathroom mirror;
He sees the child he was and the stranger, playing his game
As they worked. His father talked on, educating still, with conviction,
While the distracted boy glanced this devil, this dark angel of light,
This fear clerk. Now John knows at last who he was
And what he was for that matter; after a lifetime of meeting
Stands his deathly observer revealed. Cameoing across time
And defining time as he does so, running the artist’s life
To a budget, while making sure that the contract between illusion
And truth remained sealed. The man was there in New York,
When John was out shooting SHADOWS. The man was shooting him,
In dark glasses, despite the black and white clouds in the sky.
The film of life in a film about the reasons why we keep living;
In John’s quest for love true desire still needs defending,
And always without knowing why. Now he knows. He’s been clipped,
His angel’s wings chosen for him. The flights he made slowly tempered
By the sudden heaviness of the air. Death was pressing the cloud,
Forcing it into place, close around him. He could move and think freely.
He could challenge all things. He could dare. But he could never quite rise.
His was the respect sent by others, whose lighter potential assisted
A faster ascent to fame’s sky. Some are made to create
And some to reflect that creation. John’s rightful role as first flyer
Involved such resistance with death’s dark grip grounding flight.
If John were to make a film now, it would have to come straight from Disney;
With his elephant ears, swollen stomach, withering arms and strained face,
He could be Pluto the dog or a decrepid Bugs Bunny, not the dirty dozen,
But the fear stained One, without place. When death calls you,
You hear, even if the ear doesn’t listen. The body receives that strange signal
On an entirely new frequency. You become the dog in LOVE STREAMS,
Or the cat aware close to midnight, that what the shadows bring is containment
To anyone dreaming that the waking world grants release.
But now he can’t work. He can’t write. Today will be spent chasing money.
And in that slow chasing he will be falling too far behind faster life.
John cleans his teeth, and the brushing turns his souring gums into canyons,
As the plastic head resounds, his cave spirit sends him spiralling back, to the past.
If he can’t make a film, he’ll be film, with the life that he lived caught by flickers;
Truth’s frozen capture in which the heat of his days forged bright paths;
The discontent who found joy in destroying what had become artificial,
The actor detached from pretending and keen to locate the true task.
But now the stranger appears, framing himself in the doorway.
The structure moves now, a wood river, or rippling of the real, glimpsed in glass.
John stiffens, throat cleared, he banishes night with cold water,
Ignoring at once all the questions that the stranger would of course
Have him ask. John showers. The spray bounces off his swollen stomach’s
Sad anchor. ‘How will they lift and bear me away, with this weight?’
For a moment the conundrum, appeals. Cassavetes retrieves the particular
Humour in horror. He’ll be the one with the contract at Hell or perhaps
Heaven’s gate. But then the situation returns, with all of its organ betrayal,
As if the lost prayers to beauty were listlessly played, to offend.
When the dynamic is dead, the former energies will rise, wasted,
And charge prevailing lights to start flashing and force a prior belief
To its end. John was beautiful once, but is an old man now
In his fifties, as his liver pumps poison in a bitter return on past drink.
Unholy Cirrhosis conjured by a corrupt circulation;
Celebration’s price for indulgence and for living a glorious life to the brink.
Elastic trousers let out where once a jazz man’s cut was attractive;
Johnny Staccato’s trim fashion, a fast run of notes, glistening.
Now the lumbering flesh rattles the brain in its prison,
Which continues on, writing stories that would keep the closed
And low listening. John edges into his shirt. The arms sag,
While the buttons scream at the pressure. He breaths in hard,
Sucking nothing and the spasmic move incurs hurt.
He calls for Gena who comes with their thirty years
To bring comfort. ‘’How do I look? Just be honest..”
“Like love in grey.” She replies. He smiles, kisses her, then leans
On her towards breakfast. “What would you like, John?”
“Love and grapefruit,” is what he grins and gives to his wife.
Through the familiar window, that light, which thickens fast,
Duly beckons. “Darling, stand by the sink,” He directs her.
“Just look at that light, its Vermeer!” He can see the art in all things,
With every move he makes like a brush stroke. Even buttering toast,
Slicing grapefruit; his quest for love’s undertaken on love’s behalf,
That stays clear. “Will you write today, John?”
“I can’t. I can barely sit at this table.. from now on its one-shot deals
Only, screenplay, or not, step by step. I’d like to see someone though..”
“Who’d you like to see?” Gena asks him. “Only you, baby..” He answers,
She turns to kiss him and her white and blonde beauty moves
The bright moment into a dissolve like effect:
1981.The Center Theater.
Built and made through love’s fashion and everyone’s dedication to John.
Cassavetes willed the space into place, constructing a new theatre from it;
Building the stage, fixing toilets and calling into play a new world.
With his trusted film troupe he pushed the work they formed
Through dimensions. The films they’d made, each so vital, would suddenly
Relocate into air. For four dollars a show, you could see Jon Voigt,
Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, all were there.
In this venture for all, everyone split each profit; a true community building,
A temple and yes, Shangri-La. Three Plays
Of Love and Hate; John’s fused subject. Bo Harwood. Ted Allan.
And anyone else keen to share. Giving the people the truth,
While the lie was sourced all around them. Daring all to be different,
Through the stark recognition that in our held darkness each one of us
Is the same. The effort of this was pure Cassavetes. His father’s commitment
To causes, his mother’s vibrant support, his blown shame.
Cassavetes lead from the front by placing himself at the Center.
And then he mixed them all. He cooked with him; people as potatoes,
Growing nutrition and change through each floor. JUMP CUT back to now.
That window light appears fierce. John’s thinning face now looks haunted,
His grey hair like scratches, added as a form of rough afterthought.
1968 in New York, the opening of ROSEMARY’S BABY,
The grand and great have all gathered to honour the devil’s dark work.
Here is Mia and Frank, biting his lip, smiling falsely, and there is Polanski,
Doomed Sharon and the sex fed perfection of Elizabeth Taylor’s face.
Everyone takes in her tits which have come to represent this bright business.
Their show of splendour and plenty is what everyone emulates.
Cassavetes’ flipness is key as he and his own Goddess peel from the limo.
He’s stunned. That glitz should surround horror stories will surely reduce their intent.
When you make the sensational tame and make sensationalism a product,
How do know that sensation is the way we make sense of the soul?
It is as of the known world had been forced to make a choice
And has chosen, but clearly too fast to consider just how they all
Lost control. Instead, they will bury themselves in Liz’s tits and star fragrance,
And with such a fast forming fervour that the form of glamour they grant her
Along with the pulsing lights and pumped levels be all they’re aware of
And all that they understand. The grand ship Liz cruises past,
The sparked breasts bobbing water, and though carrying weight,
They’d all fuck her, the entire city too, woman, man. She arouses such heat,
Little Mia’s just Sinatra’s ash as she passes. With the Oscar as condom,
The magnificent city would force Liz into loving each of its wrecked and wracked
Neighbourhoods. What she represents is a style that Gena and John have rejected.
Now they search for new signposts that fall between Liz’s toes.
They watch the film as light fails. John observes his own outward actor.
“That guy looks pretty desperate..” Gena says to him, smiling.
“He really is, he ‘s quite desperate. Desperate to leave, so let’s go..”
Later, numerous people applaud, but Gena and John have moved elsewhere.
Beyond the electric lights they choose moonlight singling out inner life.
Hands are pressed. Others preen. Polanski essays midget glamour.
John nods across, perhaps sensing the different paths that lay waiting
For Roman and him and each wife. John has been making FACES
Through this; a complete coruscation of marriage,
Showing how that too is unholy if the love from which it has been made
Is misplaced. Unlike Rosemary’s husband, Dickie has no need
To attach himself to a demon; he knows inside he’s the Devil
Happy to remove his false face. He pushes her past the point
Of ordinary expectation; by calling time on his marriage he sentences
Them both to fresh flames. That these flames condemn does not mean
They’ll destroy him. Lynn Carlin’s rejected wife finds new passion,
While Gena Rowland’s muse mercuries. We are the demons we need,
Corrupting by turns our own angels. Perhaps this is the point made by FACES,
As each imprisoned love stalks the free. Not that Cassavetes’ films need a point,
As each one of them becomes music; something felt within us,
Intrinsic, no doubt, to real thought. Like Bergman, John’s joy is to ask
The huge question and then delight in the struggle as we stumble our way
To God’s door.
John glimpses it now as Death passes the window.
But John is not Max Von Sydow. Max Von Sydow is that. John is this.
“Kiss me,” he asks. And once again Gena does so. “its the breath of life, baby!”
His cackle like laugh fills the room. The laugh escalates to a glassy cough
That tears at him. He runs to the basin and empties his ill into it.
He can smell the sewer below as he remembers Polanski’s lost Devil.
Illness too is possession, like vomit released, or red shit.
Today there is blood in his stool and grey green bile where he kisses,
Twenty years on from that movie he is more than half in horror himself.
The body becomes cinema that shows its own twisted genre,
After an individual’s life, he’s conforming to the patterns most make
With ill health. The phone rings. John looks up. Even his stubble is aching.
Perhaps Death the stranger is calling, inviting him to his house.
John washes his face but not the words he will offer. “How fucking dare you,
Cocksucker..or whatever you are! Scum-cunt-louse!”
“Hey, John, it’s me..” Columbo’s called. “So, how are you?”
“How do you think, baby? Dying..just living it up by the sink..”
Peter Falk risks a silence.
“How are you, Peter?”
“Waiting. Waiting for you. We all are.”
The sincerity touches John. The worry too. He can hear it.
“How’s that stomach look?”
“Like I’m pregnant. But you know how I like to play every part..!”
“With that nose?” jokes Falk, his cigarette laugh sparking crackle
As the two friends share connection and the moments in which
Silence sparks. “I’ve made a new friend today,” John reports,
“I’ve known him for years, I just realised. Saw him as a boy,
With my father and I saw him today when I woke..”
“What is he, some ancient stalker?” Falk asks, expecting a somewhat
Jokey answer. “Not so much. I’m the stalker, if you want the truth,
“Exposed as what?”
“Oh. The next for what?”
“It’s no riddle. Its not a mystery, Peter,
Nothing for Columbo or for that matter, Holmes to bring home..”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Falk says but is quickly reading the moment,
In the heat of day the chill steals him, as if truth were a crime
He can’t solve. Cassavetes turns round and watches the billowing
Winds taunt the Curtain, wound like a whim there before him
On the treacherous turn of the breeze. He spares more than a passing thought
For his friend but has already begun his ghost movie;
The one he’ll make when he’s working in a very singular studio.
There all light shall be his to bend or shape as he wants to,
He can cast Sidney Greenstreet, or Bogart, or Orson Welles, who just left,
Reprising his doorway solo. Or maybe he can’t handle Welles,
Who could be a whole heap of trouble..maybe they could collaborate?
Maybe. Steenbecks at dawn, framing cloud. He could cast Veronica Lake!
Cagney! Christ! Now, there was an actor! The ultimate one! Dedication
And commitment like that ain’t allowed! “Are you Ok?” Peter cracks.
And the vision immediately shatters. And with it the peace.
Pain now re-enters, a stab from within; Liverville. John laughs at the wry
Joke that something called a liver will kill him. ‘It sure ain’t my life giver!’
He thinks to himself, “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a shudder. Relax”
Peter replies: “Ok, later, Captain..” .
“Ok. Well, I’m captaining this ship, and its sinking.”
As the conversation ends John is swimming through the masses
Of booze he once drank. If he could return each taste to the shore
He could successfully banish the stranger. That’s if he was as concerned
Or as frightened as everyone else losing credit in the account
They have placed with death’s bank. You’re here to work and find love,
To work for love, or to serve it. You’re there to understand and explode it
In whatever time you have, that’s the point. ‘They initially gave me
Six months, but I’ve made it years now, already..Its love for my wife,
Work and children that has kept survival’s thread strong and joined.
All I have to do is press on while whatever it is presses on me..
And if I break, then that breaking will mark the strength of the spirit
I had.’ John comes out of his john and stands watching Gena.
‘I married my muse and she blazes through playing both the dignified
And the mad. She’s a magician,’ John thinks, ‘and also my reason
For being. Or if not that, then for living, or living like this, free from fear.
She turns to look at him down the hall. “Am I Vermeer now?”
“Always, Angel.” And somewhere in the shadows, something ruffles,
Brushing against the wood panels of art on the wall.
Times passes. OPENING NIGHT was hard work.
‘I never got a proper feel for that picture.’John sits now, considers,
As today, all of his films play on air. The actress’s struggle was set around
A life of pretending in which the need to be real shows the dangers
Of denying what it is we’d all share. It is Gena at her best,
But there was never a time Gena wasn’t. He considers the others:
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, too was a story that he Scorsese
Dreamed up in darkness, like a turgid little root, flowering.
The night life in the film is that which LOVE STREAMS’ Robert Harmon admires.
Just as Sarah Lawson’s fight with her husband is MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ souring.
FACES shows that woman as was, along with her stunning streak of potential.
GLORIA’s genre trip reveals what would happen if that spirit had compromised
To the world. Each alternative view he has framed has formed a separate universe
For him, that inner life whose vast inner kingdom needs no flag or rules to unfurl.
His stomach shudders. Within, the engine and oil are congealing.
Now only air will bring comfort, the sweet blessings of air. He stands up.
And immediately falls. When he wakes, Zoe’s with him. “Are you ok, Dad?”
“Hi, honey..What time is it?”
A full day deep within.
If only he could remember.
The dark inside its own movie, now to be sequelled and remade
At odd times.
“I’m flying low, babies..”
“At least we can see you..”
“Yeah. You’re not lost to the clouds..”
“Soon I’ll climb..”
Silence profounds as only silence can. A year passes. Maybe two.
Days and daring. Each effort once made, redefines.
But illness does that as the life giver reclaims what’s been given,
And the significant phonecalls, with their exit lines call collect.
Cassavetes measures each one for importance of course and duration,
Embedding himself while bed ridden in places he was and will always be crucial to;
Colleagues, critics, friends, each one he thanks sagely, while mining them
For their progress, as if motoring them on to the next.
Through all of this he is still, or significantly reducing his landscape,
Moving through the house in slow stages, returning the flicker of film
To each photo, the images stalled, as light dims.
Whenever he liked certain scenes he was happy to go soft,
Out of focus; If the acting was real they would follow irregular shapes.
Now that’s him. Cassavetes the crow, with his long peaked nose,
And limbs thinning. His dark eyebrows and hair like a bird’s nest
Of wire and thorns as he’s dragged by the surreal size of his gut,
And death’s pregnancy growing in him. His black pupils too,
Seem much larger as the poison he hides keeps hope shut.
But he can still think. He will write. He can talk a script out to someone.
SHE’S DELOVELY he calls it, or GLORIA 2. The phone rings.
Suddenly they need him again to finish BIG TROUBLE.
Peter and Alan Arkin are in it and his trusted hands are held tight.
A comedic caper whose cloak becomes snagged in truth’s doorway
Proves to be no SPARTACUS for him, and his soldiers grow slightly lame
In their fight. It takes a year to refine. To reshoot and re-edit.
But if not a turkey, this songbird stubbornly refuses to sing.
Where his first, SHADOWS soared across the skies of invention,
His last nobly topples, while spreading at points, vibrant wings.
The outside world is kept out as his inner world deceives slowly.
He can’t stop the slide. He relaxes, letting the body fall where it will.
Enjoy the children. Read books. Research the world that you’re leaving.
Contemplate all you’ve given, all the hearts and minds you have filled.
Afterall, what is a face but a mask that a certain thought will be wearing?
What is a soul but the product when the body is pressed to give proof?
He takes a hand cranked camera and cranks, time travelling back,
Before Keaton, back to the Lumiere brothers to capture Gena
Or the kids as they live. Or the cat. Or the dog.
Or the trees that dance with their leaves through the window,
Filming it all to be filming, to feel some of the joy making gives.
He is renewing that soul with his hands as they engage
With the mechanics of capture and winding down the fouled muscle
Even as his mind’s powering. What does he see, think and feel?
There is nothing now to be quoted. He is moving beyond all the others,
As this new vision broadens he starts to truly see everything.
Cassavetes saw more than anyone else had a right to.
He would see ten new options when someone else just saw three.
‘Look at the football match,’ he said once, ‘now take out the football:
Look at those shapes, those strange movements, look at how they dance!’
His view freed. Cassavetes keeps on. His eyes now film and frame
Each new subject. ‘He sees the dawn,’ Falk once mentioned, ‘an hour before
Anyone.’ His house was his set. His life was art. Death spectated.
Banished now to those shadows, or the garden beyond, threat was gone.
As he weakens, John grows the spirit gathering in the stomach.
Deathly pregnancy mastered, is, if not aborted, becalmed.
‘Feeling is all, and not Photography! Fuck it!’ But still he keeps on
Recording, keen to imprint all he is. His was the family carved
From within the American statue. Close to O’Neill, John’s pure writing
Would enthuse Eugene to film this. If he had lived as John lives
Without the disappointments of actors, instead, with trusted friends,
And technicians, musicians and muse; art as gift!
It transmogrifies into film as its accuracy burns through format.
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE scars all vision because of the energy
It comes with. The dedication. The need to show some of the hope
Within madness; doesn’t this find fresh favour with the powers that say
Death’s the norm? Doesn’t that refusal to fade, or to fall in line with convention,
Betray the impossible binds THEY constructed, and show that love is itself
A life form? To conquer hope and expect that the highest reveal
Can be witnessed becomes the central theme to his dreaming,
And the soundtrack that plays as he dies. The work and titles appear,
Just as they might in a movie: In 1953 he meets Gena and sees
At first sight, his wife’s eyes. Born in 1929, his first days
And the return to Greece for six summers, the later death
Of his brother who was far more grounded than him.
Soon they will continue their talk in the ground, across which
Cassavetes once raced so proudly, devouring the identity of the city
In SHADOWS, or in 1969’s HUSBANDS with its gloriously crazed
Friend fuelled hymn. The Church of Cassavetes glowers
With the majesty of the moment. Man is God in ruins:
John sees the ruins and how both shattered and lost, we ascend.
He is filming Gena’s crazed assault in the street, or the five point speech
She gives Peter. In 1974. Three years later, they have their OPENING NIGHT.
As they laugh and despair and cavort,each lesson in love duly deepens.
As John’s vision pales, there’s the scour of an otherwise blinding light
That simply grants him new eyes with which he can witness
All he has made and created and permitted others to share and deem right.
John’s father works all his life in export and import, while devoting himself
To fresh causes that seek to advance the true fight. John tells his Dad, Nicholas
In or around 1950 that he does not want to deal with such business
But to become an actor, he hopes, and takes flight.
Fearing his father’s approach he receives love’s purety like a poem;
“What a noble thing,” his Dad tells him,
“ You’ll have to be so responsible, son, to the truth.”
This seals love’s deal and John’s fate. His task on earth is now written.
He gives the next fifty years to it and lets that constant forge shape his films.
The stranger draws close, staring in at the window. His axe is sharp,
But John’s fire will weaken that axe in love’s kiln. Artistic fury furores
At the falling away of this artist, releasing in death, a soul shadow,
A guardian perhaps at John’s bed. The strained pillow spreads,
Too threadbare now to support him. It slides away from him,
As if no earthbound comfort can ever appease the soon dead.
And yet in moments of softness, sleep comes, like the end’s brief rehearsal,
John’s breath, close to ghosting is rattling through the skin cave.
He sees the shadow, the fade and the hungry eyes of the stranger.
He smokes all of the cigarettes he remembers and forgives
All of the people and things that betrayed. He downs all of the drinks
He once drank, and recants the kisses he spent before Gena.
Then he re-engages her kisses, feeling them all on his face.
He reheats those meals, visits Greece and dances with Katherine,
His mother. He laughs with each colleague, and with each child
Of course and each friend. And then he defends each mistake
And revalues each glory. He sees that his contribution was his piece
Of earth and his peace. He was fire and form. He was deliverance,
Inspiration. He was and is the true standard for the unwarranted aims
Of the heart. Cassavetes was more than a writer, director and actor;
He was a fresh force for nature and the cause and claim
Of insight. Now he sits up in bed and collects the moon’s pass
Through his fingers. Seeing dawn first, he relaxes,
And as pain sees him painted, he finally admits the stranger
To drive him now, through the darkness. It is there in that riding
That John Cassavetes finds glory before changing places with light.
David Erdos, August 27th 2018