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All Night Long: John Cassavetes

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
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>John Cassavetes' films, as fine as they often are, play like endurance contests, endless acting exercises premised on the notion that if one keeps talking long enough an essential truth may emerge. But Cassavetes' movies weren't improvised -- they were devised in detail by the actor-turned-writer/director, and then reworked in endless bull sessions with his extended family of actors until deemed ready to be filmed. The results are nocturnal films, not meant for the light of day, although Cassavetes loved to film his bearlike protagonists in crumpled tuxedos, squinting into a too-bright sun. These are movies with the stink of stale cigarette smoke to them, a cinema of running mascara.

While Cassavetes' most popular films (Faces, A Woman Under the Influence) spent their energies exploring male-female dynamics, the director was also interested in generic male behavior at 3 o'clock in the morning. Thus this weekend's series of Cassavetes films at the Roxie, spotlighting the ursine prowlings of Ben Gazzara solo in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976; screening Friday) and together with his buddies Cassavetes and Peter Falk in Husbands (1970; screening Sunday). Gazzara, one of the least open actors in screen history, was a perfect target for Cassavetes' camera, his weavings and evasions as a delusional gambler and bar owner in Bookie pitifully fascinating. Like Cassavetes, Gazzara also directs -- in his case the lame spectacles at his nightclub, starring the world's tallest strippers together with an epicene MC with the moniker of Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts).

Cassavetes loved the nightlife, and devoted a good deal of his early work to the world of jazz clubs, site of his interesting TV series Johnny Staccato (1959-60) and early film Too Late Blues (1962), which screen together on Saturday. A wolfish hipster with a perpetual smirk, Cassavetes buzzed through his TV series like a caffeinated all-night radio host, solving crimes and exposing frauds, while Too Late Blues explores the flip side of the macho behavior that would come to dominate films like Husbands and Bookie in the person of Bobby Darin, revealed here as not manly enough to handle Stella Stevens. The perpetually underrated Stevens is especially good here; Darin's "Ghost," meanwhile, is a rare exploration in a Hollywood film of male inadequacy, and as such deserves reappraisal, as does all of Cassavetes' work.

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Gregg Rickman

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