The actor Peter Falk died last Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills, California. Although Falk was most known for his starring role as a disheveled, lovable detective in the television show Columbo, his death prompted me to remember his incredible, very different performance in John Cassavetes’ 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence.
Falk plays a construction worker whose fragile wife (played by Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands) has an emotional breakdown and spends 6 months in a psychiatric hospital. As the movie progresses, we start to see that Falk’s outgoing, tough character, is off-kilter, too — whether as a result of his wife or his own controlling tendencies. (He pulls his kids out of school to go to the beach and then barks at his children to run up and down and have fun.)
The movie is brilliant, harrowing, and brutal; it is also noteworthy for Cassavetes’ determination to make and distribute it. Its crew was largely made up of unpaid students from the American Film Institute. Cassavetes stole electricity and repeatedly mortgaged his home — it’s been reported that Falk put in $500,000. In a then-innovative practice that has become common for independent filmmakers, Cassavetes, Falk and Rowlands promoted and booked the movie with theaters directly. Cassavetes’ movie only made it to a larger audience because his friend Martin Scorsese threatened to withdraw his film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore from the New York Film Festival if the organizers didn’t show Cassavetes’ film. It was later nominated for two Academy Awards.
Considered by some the father of the independent film, Cassavetes’ influence can be seen in one of the most engaging films I’ve seen over the last year, Blue Valentine, also a raw depiction of a troubled marriage. The raw emotion in both movies is partially captured by the use of a hand-held camera, but more than the fragile realism imparted by that technique, both depend on deeply imagined scenes played by actors pushed to their limits.
The practice of using a hand-held camera has become a signature in American independent filmmaking; in fact, it seems like independent filmmakers sometimes try to purchase emotion with shots like the ones in A Woman Under the Influence (and less so, Blue Valentine.) But there is no camera work that can improve an emotionally thin film.
Although he wasn’t considered as much of a legend as a star like Elizabeth Taylor, the passing of Peter Falk feels like the end of an era. As cameras themselves get cheaper (and the more expensive ones get cooler) and get into the hands of more and more photographers/filmmakers, we’re deluged with images — far more, I suspect, than at any other time in history. And with the Internet, distribution of these images is easier for photographers/filmmakers, too.
More choices among images can be a good thing from the perspective of choice and social democracy. Ironically, the ease of making and distributing images today (the result of risks taken by Cassavetes and many others), makes it just as tough, if not more so, to locate filmmakers who are doing work that is groundbreaking, not just technically, but artistically, too. It’s a bit of a Where’s Waldo mission: where is today’s maverick, today’s Cassavetes — and would we recognize him?
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