Sunday, November 18, 2018

Cassavetes' Gloria revisited: Gloria, I never knew ye

Back during my days of obsession with John Cassavetes' canon, I never was that impressed with  Gloria - a film he initially apparently wrote as a kid's movie, then ended up directing himself, at the request of his wife Gena Rowlands, when she ended up getting the lead role. She plays, in case you've missed it, a tough New Yorker with associations with the mob who ends up protecting a six year old Puerto Rican kid from her former friends. Back when I first saw the movie, I found the kid annoying, Rowlands unconvincing, the screenplay corny, and the premise trivial; you can find elements of Cassavetes' concerns - the individual versus the mob, for example, better developed in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - if you are sensitive to them, but it basically just played (I thought) like a genre film, and not a very compelling one. Even if I had liked it, I don't go to Cassavetes for my genre movies, generally. I think I saw it twice: the first time filled with expectation and no awareness that I wasn't about to see something on the level of Faces or A Woman Under the Influence, and once, having read Ray Carney explaining and defending the film in one of his early books on Cassavetes, trying to come to terms with what it really was, to forgive it for not having been what I was looking for. I failed to achieve that end: it was still mostly just annoying. 

That last viewing was maybe thirty years ago, and - thanks to it being not so easy to find on DVD, and my genuinely not having liked it much even on second viewing - I was more than happy to leave it back there, as not being a real Cassavetes film, a lesser work, a digression in his canon - maybe better than Big Trouble, which I also haven't seen since my initial attempts, but still a failure. I mean, it almost always happens that the films I rejected or found problematic in my early 20's, should I feel compelled to revisit them, don't improve with time and maturity; I almost always end up feeling the same way, I did, and at best, end up rubber-stamping my own past evaluations:  "Oh, yes, I remember why I didn't like this the first time! I must have been a pretty perceptive young man." While in some cases it does happen that films I loved in my youth don't impress me much now, it seldom goes the other way. There really aren't many films that end up meriting a complete reappraisal, that turn on their axis, benefit from my years of living and having exposed myself to a wider range of cinema and end up seeming like great movies. So there aren't many cases where I end up second guessing myself and going back. 

Well, I sure am glad I did that with Gloria. A few scattered observations before I duck out the door for breakfast:

1. The Twilight Time Blu-Ray looks gorgeous,  and being able to appreciate the filmic qualities of Gloria more - the colours, the framing, the loving depiction of New York locations, even the colours of Gena's costumes and the jazzy/ painterly title sequence - really, really add to the experience of the film, which I'd previously only ever seen on VHS tapes. (Note: the images I'm illustrating this with are not screengrabs from the Blu, just things I found floating around online, so they're not a fair index of how good this BD looks). 

2. The story and performances actually work. The ending maybe is still a little hokey, but in fact, Gena and the kid do a pretty great job. You start to realize that, while not a "good actor," the kid - 
John Adames - is actually doing interesting and real "kidlike" things, like trying to talk tough or presume a level of maturity he doesn't have; the performance, as scuplted by Cassavetes, is almost a commentary on things that children DON'T usually do in movies. And at least one close-up of an angry Gloria stands up there as one of Rowlands' better moments on screen, where she really, really, really gets to show how tough she can be. 

3.  The film has a great time capsule quality of New York in the late 1970's, and there are faces at every turn that will give you pleasure - some quite random, like the black guy in the Subway in the "I'm a Pepper" t-shirt, and some because the actors will be people you recognize (Buck Henry, brief appearances from Tom Noonan and Lawrence Tierney, and a small but memorable role from Cassavetes' regular Val Avery). It plays as a sort of fond portrait of New York and New Yorkers. And aspects of that definitely do relate to Cassavetes' other films, even if they're on a lesser level of magnitude; you might note from movies like Love Streams that he has a particular fondness for taxi cabs, and surely this is his most cab-intensive film, with some of the taxi drivers - who I presume are almost always played by real taxi drivers - getting close ups all their own.  

4. The soundtrack is great! Bill Conti is the composer. I've probably enjoyed many of his other scores, but this one really stood out. It's good. 

5. It also turns out to be a pretty good place to engage your non-Cassavetes-obsessed friends, family, and spouses with his work, a pretty gentle stepping off point - or at least that's how it worked here. Erika enjoyed the story as much as I did, to my delight. Truth is, I have been kind of scared to expose her to Cassavetes' "real" films, in part to protect her from their more demanding/ harrowing qualities (she doesn't do "emotionally harrowing" all that well, as witnessed by the traumas of having shown her, without sufficient preparation, Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark); in part to protect myself from being hurt if, say, she doesn't get/ like them; and in part because I haven't been consuming much Cassavetes myself lately and am not sure how *I* will feel on revisiting his more demanding movies. Anyhow, I feel like we're now one step closer to being able to sit down to A Woman Under the Influence. Or maybe Love Streams. Or...

6. If Gloria is, in fact, not particularly great as a "Cassavetes film," if you can just park the baggage that comes with that name, it works just fine as a genre film. It's a good little gangster movie, a compelling story. There's a reason there's been one official remake (of the same name, with Sharon Stone in the lead - which, note, I have not seen) and a few obvious homages (Julia, with Tilda Swinton, which I have seen, and loved, is maybe the best of them; I don't care for The Professional - Leon, whatever - and I haven't seen Ultraviolet). If you shake loose the expectations and hopes that you might have, you might find yourself, as I did, pleasantly engaged with its story, caring about its characters, and - at the end, if you watch it without trying to force themes onto it from Cassavetes' other films - you might discover that there are actually a few of those present after all; you just aren't going to be pummeled by them, which is what I fear is how I'm going to feel the next time I try A Woman Under the Influence. In its own way, Gloria is a Cassavetes' film, after all - but a somewhat gentler, subtler one (which may seem an odd thing to say for a movie that has a car flip over in it, maybe, but there it is). And it'd be a great film to watch in proximity to those other very Cassavetean non-Cassavetes films, Mikey and Nickey (coming soon on Blu Ray from Criterion!) and Machine Gun McCain. 

Machine Gun McCain is still my favourite of the three, mind you, but Gloria has happily found a home next to it on my shelf and in my estimation.