Reflections on the enduring power of one scene from John Cassavetes’ ‘Husbands’.
Husbands (1970) was the first John Cassavetes film I ever saw — probably a good way to start, because it’s like diving head-first into what he’s about. I watched it illegally on my laptop in a library, sitting at a desk in a straight-backed chair — which is a weird way to watch any movie, but especially this 2-hour-34-minute endurance piece — but it’s what I did, and for some reason it worked for me. I don’t remember feeling tired or uncomfortable at any point. I was kind of just in it straight away. I loved it. It bothered me and confused me and I loved it. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.
I remember feeling instantly ready to devour everything else he’d done, straight away. And I did so in similarly weird contexts — watching A Woman Under the Influence (1974) for the first time on a shitty library DVD where the movie was split into two parts, and I accidentally watched the second half first but didn’t realise until the credits rolled, and then I watched part one, and also the discs were scratched so it kept bugging out. Then there was the much easier experience of having my life changed by Shadows (1959) and Love Streams (1984) for the first time back-to-back at the Melbourne Cinémathѐque. And prior to all of this was my first brush with Cassavetes, before meeting him as a director — Mikey and Nicky (1976) on my laptop in my bedroom, a random Kanopy find that also introduced me to Elaine May.
I don’t think it matters how I watched any of these, though, because I don’t remember them cohesively. What stuck with me were pieces and fragments — memories, moods, moments, a shot, the twitch of an eye. I couldn’t tell you what happens in Love Streams except he brings her animals and they’re both tired and there’s some bonkers singing. I remember that Shadows made me laugh and feel energetic. I remember them sitting at the dinner table in A Woman Under the Influence, and the trucks driving along the rocky path. I remember a shot in Husbands of them lying against a wall after a game of basketball, and I think they’re wearing those old-timey all-grey sweatpant numbers. I remember — through a Youtube video in four parts — Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk drunk on Dick Cavett promoting Husbands (an interview I watched multiple times in awe).
But most of all, I remember the scene in Husbands where they’re singing. I remember the dark, warm colours and the men’s white shirts; I remember the beer and the bustle of the people and the poor woman, Leola (Leola Harlow), who gets yelled at for the way she sings. I remember this scene well because I’ve rewatched it more times than I can count. It’s not the entire bar-singing sequence that sticks with me, but specifically the part where they start digging into Leola, because when I first saw it, I felt like the men were speaking directly to me.
My introduction to Cassavetes happened in the middle of a tumultuous three years at film school. I was trying to figure out the kind of films I wanted to write, and very often getting lost along the way — hiding in the protective caverns of genre and wit and impressive little intellectual flourishes that meant nothing to me; trying to make things that looked and sounded good without considering how they made me feel. The writing’s evasiveness was obvious to me — the scripts worked on a formal level, but my heart wasn’t in them. I knew this, but wasn’t admitting it to myself. I needed to hear it point-blank from someone else. So I would return to this scene — in my mind, where its words are engraved, or in the screenshots of it I had saved on my phone, or on Vimeo, the only place where I could find the clip — and let these drunk assholes get me back on track. I can hear Gazzara now, admonishing: “No cute! Real, from the heart! From the heart! From the heart!”
The men in this scene aren’t kind, but they aren’t totally wrong, either. They are fired up because they care about that one thing that, despite all his jokes, Cassavetes always took seriously; the thing he spoke of with ferocity and respect and conviction — the heart. Gazzara’s exclamations in this scene are in fact a mimicry of Cassavetes himself:
Ben Gazzara reported that over and over during the filming [of Husbands] Cassavetes kept repeating: ‘No “cute”! Nothing “cute”.’ … Cassavetes gave himself, Falk and Gazzara permission to be bad in the service of being truthful.1
If Husbands is ever difficult or ugly, it’s because it is always trying to be “real, from the heart”. It is never trying to be cute. Cuteness obscures honesty, hides the soul, and doesn’t speak to anybody. When I hear Cassavetes speak about the heart and the truth, it is as if he regards them as sacred. “I won’t make shorthand films,” he once said, “because I don’t want to manipulate audiences into assuming quick, manufactured truths.” In Cassavetes’ world, obscuring the heart’s realities with the convenient shorthand of cuteness is cowardly, disrespectful, the deepest offense. The men in Husbands will not let Leola get away with anything less than the truth, and Gus (played by Cassavetes) reacts to her ‘cuteness’ violently: “Vomit”; “I’ll kill myself”.
“Can you recognise the difference between real sentiment and sentimentality?” Falk asks during the Cavett interview. “We’ve made a picture that doesn’t have any sentimentality in it, but has a great deal of feeling in it.” No matter how good a soulless piece of work might appear, it is nothing until it has feeling in it. This seems to be, for the men in this scene, the most important thing to get across. “You’re not speaking to us,” Gus tells Leola. “Do you understand? You’re not speaking to us. You’re not talking to all these people.” Archie (Peter Falk) chimes in: “You’re not speaking to anybody. Not only us.” Harry (Ben Gazzara) prods her: “Where’s the warmth? Where’s the warmth? Where is the warmth?”
It’s tough to watch — it’s not as if the men set aside their disrespectful behaviour in this scene to deliver some profound treatise on honesty. Rather, the treatise is there, but buried under the same acts of rowdiness, bullying, and sexual harassment that foreground much of Husbands. The scene goes on and on, with the men permanently dissatisfied with Leola’s performance, and on some level it can feel as if they’re just fucking with her — putting her through torturous mind-games for their own entertainment. But there is a lesson to be found, under all the debauchery and sweat, in the lengthy and punishing process Leola is put through. “The most difficult thing in the world,” Cassavetes once said, “is to reveal yourself.” The very fact of how taxing this scene is perfectly reflects the arduous task of arriving at the truth. The scene is not easy because the process is not easy, and this is what Cassavetes seems to be telling us — that we must be relentless in our pursuit of honesty, and staunch in our refusal of anything even remotely false. We should demand the heart be revealed in all its lumpy, bleeding complexity, and anything else should make us want to vomit and die. We must not accept a cute imitation of the heart in place of the real thing. We must remember, in the words of the poet Amy Key, that “the heart is permanently gory”.
1 Cassavetes on Cassavetes, Ray Carney & John Cassavetes, 2001
Husbands comes to the Criterion Collection on May 26, 2020.
Ivana Brehas is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Bright Wall/Dark Room, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She also makes lil videos. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.