Faces

In a static frontal long shot, a man and four women stand in and around an entrance to a living room. The man, who is occupying the left-hand side of the frame and with his back to the camera, is placing a record on the record player. The women are almost completely still. As the record crackles, the man turns and looks at the women. For a brief moment, all sound and movement seem to have dissolved away. And yet they have not. Here the image tentatively sits between stillness and motion, silence and sound. It is almost as if the smallest thing could tip it either way-it is as if the image has the potential to become permanently and silently fixed or surrender to an unceasing state of motion and sound. At this point of stillness and silence, there is a feeling of uncertainty, of anticipation, of possibility, of a need for some kind of release. What I am faced with here is something like the moment one encounters after the steady and uneasy climb of a roller-coaster at the point just before its downward plunge. At this point, of both the roller-coaster and the film, there is an acute sense of time. All at once I become aware of the time that this seemingly brief moment is taking.

A sultry blues song then bursts out of the stereo releasing the man and the woman on the far right of the frame. The scene finally rushes headlong into sound and movement via the music and the dancing bodies of the couple. This dancing is quite suddenly interrupted by one of the other women-she turns off the stereo, pulls the couple apart, slaps the man’s face and tells them all to sit down. With this interruption an edit appears-the static long shot that has up until now had the characters at a distance becomes a medium shot and then a series of close-ups. Bodies and faces begin to fill the empty spaces of the frame. All five sit down and begin an overly polite conversation covering such social niceties as the weather. But the conversation quickly becomes an uncertain game-the topics become disconcertingly personal, provoking outbursts of laughter as well as long and uneasy pauses. It is this uncertainty, of not only the direction of the scene but also of the man and the four women, that once again makes me overly conscious of time. Time here is both too much and too little. It tells me nothing. I do not know anything. I do not know this man or these women. I do not know where this will take them or me. Yet I realise that while I may not know I most certainly feel. I feel the time that this scene is taking. Time has become a material presence. This time is not only their time it is also my time. (1)

In a scene from the second half of John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), Maria (Lynn Carlin) and three of her friends bring home a young man, Chet (Seymour Cassel), that they have picked up at a night club. The four women and the young man flirt, talk, argue and perform for one another. Yet the interaction between the characters in this scene, much like the entire film, is an unpredictable and often ambiguous game. All the talk, and more importantly, all the time that we are presented with here does not essentially explain these characters nor the way the scene will eventually play out. What we fundamentally encounter here is a ‘non-event’; moments of confusion, unease and uncertainty. Moments filled with ‘nothing of consequence.’ Moments of the everyday.

On the surface, the everyday is commensurate with an experience of boredom and tedium: to speak of the everyday is to speak of ‘nothing out of the ordinary,’ an incessant routine that we encounter and reencounter on a daily basis. Yet, the everyday in Cassavetes’ work is not simply the ordinary, the routine, or the banal on the level of narrative. Here the everyday is likewise an experience of time. Within examinations of the everyday by theorists such Henri Lefebvre and Maurice Blanchot, the everyday is an unwavering paradox. The everyday is, on the one hand, an experience of time as structured and structuring-a time that constructs and sustains the incessant repetition that characterises the logic of capitalism. On the other hand however, it is an experience of that structured time as phenomenally present and affective (2). As Blanchot writes, “[t]he everyday is platitude [.] but this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived-in the moment when, lived, it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity” (3). Here the everyday is an affective experience of time that pressures the coherence of meaning created by society, a meaning that is nonetheless constantly attempting to assert its presence. Consequently, the everyday ultimately becomes the constant and continual relation between temporalities that characterize both meaning and affect.

In this paper the everyday is a means of exploring the performance of time in Cassavetes’ films. What seems to be at stake in the work of Cassavetes are the kinds of experiences that are produced and provoked in and by time. In Faces, what we see, or rather what we experience, is a very particular conception of time that is at once deficient and excessive. Time here begins to problematize an idea of classical narrative and character, and assumes a kind of materiality and agency that renders it an affective force for the characters within the film. In the scene involving Maria, Chet and other three women, time is not elided or compressed; the argument in this scene, between Chet and Louise (Joanne Moore Jordan), that erupts after Chet announces that the pair are making fools of themselves, is exacerbated by the amount of time that the scene is given. Louise eventually storms off into another part of the house and Chet follows in an attempt to placate her. Yet Cassavetes’ camera does not follow Louise or Chet; at no point do we see or hear the conversation that transpires between the two. Rather, as Ray Carney suggests, Cassavetes’ intensely mobile camera (and editing style) seems intent on generating an often unspoken unease and uncertainty (4). And at this moment, there is the sense that the emotions and affects that are provoked are not only a response to the situation but are likewise a response to time itself. At these points in the film, as George Kouvaros writes,

we are presented with ‘dead time’: an expenditure of energy and film stock that in narrative terms contributes little to our understanding of the characters, their motivations or problems. It is at this juncture, when, to borrow a phrase used by Antonioni, ‘everything already seems to have been said’, that [.] reveals itself as a deliberate attempt to open the performance of character up to resonances, questions and points of view which cannot be answered or contained by the narrative. (5)

As Kouvaros’ remarks suggest, the performances within Cassavetes’ films are informed by a very particular conception of diegetic time that runs counter to a classical temporal economy. These moments of ‘dead time’ in Cassavetes’ work are in fact charged and dynamic, whereby the notion of performance is opened up to include both character and actor, film and life. For Kouvaros, like Jean-Louis Comolli, the temporality that Cassavetes constructs in Faces is one that directly animates the performances within the film. The characters “define themselves gesture by gesture and word by word as the film proceeds,” Comolli writes (6). In Cassavetes’ work, the performance of character and identity is generated in the moment of filming, a moment that likewise leaves a trace on the performing body (of both character and actor) (7). Time in these instances, is opened up to a possibility and uncertainty that is experienced by the performers within the film as excessive (8). I would argue that the diegetic time that Cassavetes constructs here is distended and affective, much like the everyday. Time on the level of the diegesis is comparable to the everyday as an affective experience of time.

This performance of the everyday is distinct from an idea of everyday performance addressed by Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Reading Cassavetes through Erving Goffman, Wojcik argues, “what we see most often are moments of failure in which everyday performance breaks down and characters experience [.] a split between the social front and the personal front” (9). Wojcik goes on to propose that the performances within Cassavetes’ films exceed an idea everyday performance due to a collapse of social roles. However, I would argue that the affective and affected performances in Cassavetes’ work become the everyday through time. Rather than exceeding the everyday, Faces seems to continually emphasize the tension between a ‘nothing happening’ (that ruptures an idea of classical narrative) and the possibility of anything happening (in time).

This idea seems to problematise an idea of closure for individual scenes as well as the film as a whole. In the last scene of the film where Richard (John Marley) and Maria sit on the staircase smoking, (after Richard has returned home from spending the night with a prostitute only to find Maria recovering from her own liaison with Chet), there is a decided ambiguity and uncertainty regarding their status as a couple. There is the sense that this scene could go on without end. But the film finally does end, or rather arrests; Maria eventually walks away into the kitchen and Richard walks into the upstairs section of the house, and with a frontal long shot of the staircase the film stops. Structurally, the film as a whole mirrors the openness of individual scenes. In this film there is no conclusion just a break in the drama.

What becomes apparent here is the tension between meaning and affect; meaning associated with narrative progression and resolution, and the affects and emotions that are provoked. It is this dialectical experience of time that, for me, stages the crisis and anxiety of the everyday that has been addressed by Jodi Brooks. The dead time that we encounter in Cassavetes’ work, Brooks asserts, embodies modernity via the anxious relation between repetition and interruption (10).

Faces

But it is not time alone that enforces the tension of the everyday on to the image. In the scene at Maria’s house with Chet and the other three women, the image is at one point on the verge of immobility. Sound and movement are drained away and for a moment the image gestures to the photograph. In Faces, this stillness is also associated with the close-up, particularly of the faces of Maria and Jeannie (Gena Rowlands), often at moments of anticipation and heightened emotion-at times emotional outbursts seem to enforce a formidable stillness. Coupled with a distended temporality, the facial close-up forces a kind of immobility that begins to pressure the divide between photography and the cinema. Moreover, this stillness seems to produce an affective experience of time that is associated with the photograph.

For André Bazin and Roland Barthes, the photograph is essentially an encounter with death. In his essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Bazin argues the cinema has a memorial nature, a nature that is connected to the way the photograph preserves time via “the mummy complex” (11). As Bazin writes, “photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption” (12). Hence, the photograph is not only the representation of reality via the photographed object, it is likewise the preservation of the time in which the object existed. Photography then, is indexical, where the referent will always be time. Roland Barthes echoes these sentiments in Camera Lucida, where he recognises that the photographic referent, a time “that-has-been,” facilitates an encounter with death that ultimately complicates the experience of viewing the photograph. This essentially arises from the co-presence of two opposing forces within the photograph: the studium (the elements in the photograph that are culturally coded and that render meaning transparent) and the punctum (the elements that disturbs cultural meaning via an affective experience of time that exceeds language) (13).

In Camera Lucida, Barthes’s conceptualisation of the studium and the punctum, that is meaning and affect, as well as the tension between these concepts, can be related to the tension within the everyday. What we find here is a comparable rupture of meaning by an affective experience of time. In Barthes’s work, the punctum stages and unleashes a tension between meaning and affect that gestures towards the dialectic of the everyday. And although Barthes argues that the affective experience generated by the photograph is unavailable to the cinema, his idea of the punctum in conjunction with Bazin’s idea of time, reveal the possible connections between the photograph and a cinematic practice that addresses the immobilization of time and movement. Cinema here does not become photography, but rather cinema reveals the way the two mediums are “glued together, limb by limb, like the condemned man and the corpse” (14). In Faces, the close-up image of Jeannie’s face continually recalls this relationship. As the camera lingers on her face, what is most striking is the way this stillness gives us an overwhelming presence of time as past rather than immediate.

For Bazin, the photograph and the cinema are inextricably connected by time and an experience of death. In the cinema, Bazin writes, “the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were” (15). For Bazin, the cinema’s referent is also time, but it is an embalmed time in motion: it is the preservation of time as dead. Here, there is a sense that time is both arrested and mobile, an idea that gestures to the kind of time that we encounter in Faces. Time not only enforces a stillness of movement, but a stillness of movement likewise enforces an arrest of time. Time, so to speak, seems to stop dead in its tracks. Yet, as Bazin’s ideas suggest, it does not. A seemingly immediate time is experienced as dead: time is concurrently materially present and absent. This idea gestures to the ‘dead time’ that characterizes Cassavetes’ Faces. As I have suggested above, the distended temporality in the film continually animates a tension between meaning and affect, narrative progression and temporal excess. Moreover, this idea seems to suggest a tension between an idea of cinematic presentness and an experience of the past (as death and history), whereby time is affective and excessive. Nevertheless, for Bazin this idea of time is predicated on the relation between time within the film and the experience of time by the viewer (16).

The distended diegetic time that structures Faces implicates the viewer by creating temporal equivalence. The time that is occupied by the characters is likewise occupied by the viewer. Their time is my time. In much of the scholarship surrounding Cassavetes’ work, this operation of time is often theorised as ‘real.’ Cassavetes, Maria Viera writes,

prefers not to elide time. The situations of his characters tend to work themselves out in real time. Faces is made up of eight long scenes with a story time of two hours, taking place late one night and roughly half an hour the next morning[.] This is one of the reasons Cassavetes’ films do not produce pleasure for those whose expectations are that a film shows only those things that are ‘important,’ that move the narrative forward, with all other action eliminated. (17)

While the use of an idea of ‘real time’ is somewhat reductive as it does not indicate the specific operation of time in film, Viera’s comments gesture to a distinct viewing experience that is generated by a particular temporality. As Viera points out, time in the films of Cassavetes rupture a particular viewing position and experience that is associated with classical narrative cinema. Yet, I would like to take this idea a step further in order to suggest that Cassavetes’ films rupture this position by generating an affective experience of time for the viewer: a time that becomes exorbitant on the level of reception, fundamentally problematizing an idea of equivalence, and creating a spectatorial position marked by crisis. Eric Rohmer says as much when he argues, “[w]e all know that cinematic time is not the same as time in real life. Films that have tried to show in an hour and a half an action supposed to last an hour and a half-Rope or Cleo from 5 to 7-seem to run much longer” (18).

In Cassavetes’ work, time allows us to take up questions surrounding the affective exchange between a specific filmic practice and performance, and the experience of viewing. The films of Cassavetes, Kouvaros writes, “make us look again at how the cinema constructs a sensory world of gestures, affects and meanings” (19). What seems to be at the heart of an affective and sensorial cinema is time: an everyday time that provokes an often anxious affective experience for both the performer and the viewer. Yet, the very temporal structure of films such as Faces not only generate a performance of the everyday but more significantly actually perform the everyday. The distended temporality that frames the diegesis of Faces creates an overwhelming temporality that reanimates the inherent tension in the everyday, as well as problematizing the divide between the film and viewer. The result is a filmic and spectatorial practice marked by crisis and anxiety, one that is continual and never resolved, a crisis that may force a reconsideration of the everyday itself.

Endnotes

  1. Author’s personal reflection/reaction to a scene from Faces.
  2. Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World, Allen Lane/Penguin, London, 1971; Maurice Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, Yale French Studies, no.73, 1987
  3. Blanchot, “Everyday Speech”, p.13
  4. Ray Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1994, p.90
  5. George Kouvaros, “Where does it happen? The place of performance in the work of John Cassavetes”, Screen, 39:3, 1998, p.251
  6. Jean-Louis Comolli, “Two faces of Faces“, in Cahiers du Cinéma, 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood, ed. Jim Hillier, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986, p.326
  7. As Gilles Deleuze has suggested, the body (in films such as Faces) is marked by everyday gestures that are generated in states of time such as waiting. For Deleuze, the body performs and reveals an excessive and affective temporality. See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, pp.189-193
  8. This idea of time as open to possibility and exploration has also been connected to an idea of improvisation. See Maria Viera, “The Work of John Cassavetes: Script, Performance Style, and Improvisation”, Journal of Film and Video, no.42, 1990.
  9. Pamela Robertson Wojcik, “Impromptu Entertainment: Performance Modes in Cassavetes’ Films“, Senses of Cinema, 9, September-October, 2000
  10. Jodi Brooks, “Crisis and the Everyday: Some thoughts on gesture and crisis in Cassavetes and Benjamin”, in Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance, ed. Lesley Stern and George Kouvaros, Power Publications, Sydney, 1999, pp.73-104
  11. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, What Is Cinema?, University of California Press, Berkley, 1967, p.9
  12. Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, p.14
  13. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London, 1993
  14. Barthes, Camera Lucida, p.6
  15. Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, p.15
  16. Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, p.13
  17. Viera, “The Work of John Cassavetes: Script, Performance Style, and Improvisation”, p.37
  18. Eric Rohmer cited in Christopher Williams, Realism and the Cinema: A Reader, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1980, p.252
  19. George Kouvaros, “Intoxication, The Body, Burlesque: Cassavetes’s Love Streams, Metro, no.120, 1999, p.46