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Ferris Bueller, Quentin Tarantino, and the Construction of Whiteness in American Cinema

I remember seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the big screen in 1986, back when I was nine. I was amused at what I was watching — and yet, I felt even then, at that young age, that the protagonist was an arrogant, bratty little shit. Kids playing hooky is nothing new, but writer-director John Hughes presents Bueller (Matthew Broderick) as more than just a typical teen playing sick so he can spend the day seeing the Chicago sights. He makes him a folk hero. He’s the most popular kid in school (“They all think he’s a righteous dude,” Edie McClurg’s secretary memorably says). When word gets around about his supposed “illness,” his home is overrun by get-well bouquets and sexually suggestive singing telegrams. “Save Ferris” soon becomes a mantra that spreads like wildfire. (A skacore band later adopted the name.) He even has the respect of both cops and criminals.

Ferris is among the several vexing and enduring heroes of “BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness,” a fascinatingly curated series (Steve Martin’s The Jerk is even in here!) kicking off this Wednesday. He paints the town red with his girl, Sloane (Mia Sara), and his less-confident buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck). He exudes rock-star swagger, literally taking over a parade and wowing the crowd by lip-syncing the Beatles’ rendition of “Twist and Shout.” (I guess he didn’t think the versions made by Black groups the Top Notes and the Isley Brothers would sound right coming out of his mouth.) He is the coolest person in all of Shermer (the fictional town where Hughes set many of his movies), and when uppity haters like the high-school principal (Jeffrey Jones) or his jealous sister (Jennifer Grey, Broderick’s then-girlfriend) try to catch him in the act, they somehow end up abused and reprimanded while he gets away with his mad-dash adventure.

By making his ideal version of the Greatest Teenager Ever a cocky, scrawny white boy, Hughes subconsciously reminded audiences of a fact of American life: how white men usually get away with a lot and yet are still beloved and embraced by the (predominantly pale-skinned) populace. This is true even when it seems like the figure in question doesn’t appreciate the love all that much: We know school can be a pain in the ass, but what does it say about Ferris that he’d distance himself from the place where people treat him like a fuckin’ king? In fact, you could argue Hughes’s entire Shermer-set filmography comprises a universe where self-centered white kids roam free, while the minorities they meet — whenever they’re actually represented — are often characterized as shifty or intimidating. And, eventually, the white kids still come off as the cool ones. (Remember that scene in Weird Science where a shitfaced Anthony Michael Hall won over a blues bar full of black folk with a story about a “crazy little eighth-grade bitch” he was in love with?) If someone made contemporary sequels to those movies today, many of the beloved characters — Bueller, especially — would probably be Fox News viewers.

Much of “On Whiteness,” which is presented in collaboration with Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, communicates a general impression that being white can save your ass — if not the whole day. Several selections envision twisted takes on the white-savior story: Gran Torino (2008), where director-star Clint Eastwood assumes the role of a racist old man who evolves into a Christ-like figure, laying his life on the line to protect an innocent family in his minority-filled neighborhood; Claire Denis’s White Material (2009), with Isabelle Huppert as a coffee-plantation owner who stubbornly stands her ground amid a bubbling civil war in Africa; and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where Robert De Niro’s unhinged Travis Bickle emerges as a local hero after saving child sex worker Jodie Foster from depraved men by blowing out their brains.

Even Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is essentially a trilogy of stories about cool white dudes coming to the rescue, whether it’s John Travolta’s druggie hit-man Vincent bringing his boss’s wife (Uma Thurman) back to life or Bruce Willis taking a samurai sword to slash the hillbillies who sodomize that same boss (Ving Rhames) whom he previously double-crossed. Or take Tarantino himself, who cameos as a guy who lets Vincent and his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), temporarily stash their corpse-filled, blood-and-brain-soaked car on his property — but not before infamously clarifying to his good buddy Jules that there isn’t a sign outside his house that says “Dead Nigger Storage.” (In an ironic twist, the movie ends with Jules as the final savior, taking mercy on small-time thieves Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer during a diner robbery.)

In “Pulp Fiction,” the writer-director Quentin Tarantino (right) cameos as a man who shouts racial slurs.

We also have films that deal with assimilation, particularly as it pertains to Black girls passing for white. In the opening title in the series, the 1949 melodrama Pinky, Elia Kazan cast lily-white Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned Black woman who can pass for a sista. There’s also Shadows, John Cassavetes’s aptly-named 1959 debut, about a trio of African-American siblings, two of whom (including the fair-skinned Lelia Goldoni) are more light-skinned than the other. Black girls play white in a pair of shorts: Illusions, Julie Dash’s 1982 film with Lonette McKee infiltrating Second World War–era Hollywood by passing as a white studio assistant (this also screened during BAMcinématek’s “Strange Victories” series last November); and Free, White, and 21, a jarring 1980 piece wherein African-American artist Howardena Pindell verbally reveals the injustices she’s experienced while also going whiteface and playing a woman who simply dismisses her for being ungrateful.

Another extreme example of this identity-swapping theme is the madhouse 2004 farce White Chicks, in which co-writers-stars-brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans (with big-bro Keenen Ivory directing) perform a racial spin on Some Like It Hot by starring as FBI agents who pretend to be a pair of Paris and Nicky Hilton–esque socialite sisters in order to foil a kidnapping scheme. But being a privileged white girl isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, as evidenced by the inclusion in “On Whiteness” of Sofia Coppola’s 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides, which shows what happens when you keep a quintet of isolated sisters from going out and experiencing the world. (If you want to see white, middle-class ennui from the male perspective, the series includes the 1968 Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer.)

Additional intriguing selections deal with Italian-Americans taking on the throne of the white, all-American hero. In 1974’s The Godfather Part II, we get the origin story of the Corleone family’s immense crime empire; in his underappreciated 1999 Summer of Sam, Spike Lee dramatizes how Italian-Americans were on the lookout for the notorious killer Son of Sam; and, of course, the legendary 1976 Rocky features Sylvester Stallone’s Italian palooka going up against Carl Weathers’s Black-and-proud Apollo Creed.

It seems fitting that the series ends with Get Out, Jordan Peele’s surprise hit from last year. Besides it being among the best paranoid thrillers ever made about creepy-ass white people (take that, Stepford Wives!), the movie concludes with our hero Daniel Kaluuya literally taking out, one by one, a deranged white family who tries to turn him into a brain-dead brotha who can unthreateningly mingle with the white folk. The spectacle is virtually a violent battle cry for Black folk to stomp away white superiority and proclaim their blackness. You may not end up as cool and awesome as the Ferris Buellers of the world, but gotdammit — at least you’ll be yourself.

‘BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness’
BAMcinématek
July 11–19

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Thriving and Surviving Onscreen: How the ‘New York Woman’ Does It

In their 1977 track “Native New Yorker,” the disco band Odyssey sang of the New York woman as such: “You’re no tramp, but you’re no lady, talkin’ that street talk. You’re the heart and soul of New York City.” While the phrase “New York woman” can carry so many different connotations, this is probably how you picture her in your mind: She’s independent, fashionable, strong-willed, powerful. And talkin’ that street talk. This unfathomably cool, not-to-be-messed-with “New York Woman” is the subject of the Quad Cinema’s most ambitious series yet, a retrospective that includes fifty-plus titles about women thriving and surviving in the Big Apple.

These twentieth-century classics and hidden gems (playing through July 19) span decades and genres, but the newest movie of the series dates back twenty years: Whit Stillman’s 1998 Last Days of Disco, which actually takes place even earlier, in the decaying disco days of the Eighties. Because of this, the New York depicted in many of these films reflects earlier eras: the crime-ridden metropolis that endured the fiscal crisis of the mid-Seventies; the 1977 blackout that led to looting and arson; the crack and heroin epidemic of the Eighties; the statistical homicide peak of the early Nineties. It was during this lattermost era of New York’s highest crime rates that Kathryn Bigelow released Blue Steel (1990), about a rookie cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) who, in her first week on the job, must face off with a psycho criminal and survive her male-dominated workforce.

Our hypothetical notion of an exciting New York City can often lend itself to imagery of seedy alleyways — and the films that depict New York as such thus make survivors out of their female protagonists, the heroines weathering the dangers of spaces in which men prey upon women. A terrifying rendition of this New York City can be found in Roman Polanski’s 1968 Rosemary’s Baby, which, with its tensions amid close living quarters, breeds to a demonic degree a certain New York–specific anxiety about invasive neighbors (and the idea of raising a child in the city). Then there’s Abel Ferrara’s 1981 horror Ms. 45, which takes on the vulnerable point of view of a young garment worker woman named Thana (Zoë Tamerlis) who’s mute but not deaf to the roving catcallers who yell out despicable comments like, “Hey, girl, you wanna sit on my face?” (Women, both of the past and present, in or out of New York, are sadly familiar with such jeers.)

In Ms .45, the unspeakable happens to Thana — she gets raped, not once, but twice in the span of one day. Her second rapist she kills with a clothes iron — the symbolic feminine object — but the first assailant (played by the director himself in a curious cameo) flees, inspiring Thana to become an angel of vengeance and vigilance. She doesn’t exactly seek out the anonymous masked man who brutalized her, but rather all men who might. Her transformation includes a smoking-hot, red-lipped makeover — as bait to seduce men and kill them — but her greatest means of survival comes from the gun that gives her that special nickname indicated in the title. In overpowering men, Thana adopts a phallic weapon — which perhaps speaks volumes as to how a woman must acclimatize in order to live.

Thana isn’t the only gun-toter in the Quad series. Another weapon-wielding woman can be found in John Cassavetes’s 1980 Gloria, in which the filmmaker’s long-time collaborator and wife, Gena Rowlands, plays one of her toughest roles: a former mob mistress tasked with protecting the young son of her friend after that person’s entire family is killed by gangsters. With a gun in one hand and a child in the other, Gloria makes mad dashes around the city, a place that can simultaneously make you feel so seen and yet so anonymous. Gloria seems to have a tougher time babysitting than beating the bad guys — a defiance of maternal gender roles — and, when asked what she’s afraid of, she coolly replies, “Nothing.”

Street-roaming is a key trait of the New York survivor, as can be additionally seen in two cult misfit-teen studies about punk runaways: Susan Seidelman’s pre–Desperately Seeking Susan picture Smithereens (1982) and Allan Moyle’s pre–Empire Records film, Times Square (1980). In a similar fashion, in Bette Gordon’s risqué 1983 Variety, Gordon’s protagonist, Christine (Sandy McLeod), embraces — read: fetishizes — the seediness New York has to offer, by taking a job as a ticket-taker at a pornographic theater. She later gets caught up in a dangerous chasing game after becoming obsessed with a mafia-connected patron.

Other Quad selections broach the idea of female survival in New York in a less life-or-death manner. Hugh Wilson’s score-settling comedy The First Wives Club (1996) finds middle-aged women enduring divorce while battling ageist double standards; one scene takes a musical break for a feel-good sing-along of “You Don’t Own Me,” a quintessential independent-woman anthem. Likewise, Paul Mazursky’s 1978 An Unmarried Woman sees Jill Clayburgh unexpectedly alone after her husband abandons her, leaving her to start over at an age where she may not be prepared to do so. But domestic perseverance arguably takes the biggest toll in Frank Perry’s 1970 Diary of a Mad Housewife, which opens with a husband being condescending to his wife barely one minute into the movie before continuing to show him belittle her for the next ninety minutes. (See who breaks first: you or Carrie Snodgress.)

Between the female horrors and the domestic dramas are all sorts of works in this sprawling Quad series: films about women surviving the workplace (most famously, 1988’s Working Girl); women surviving high school and a particularly shocking childbirth (1992’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.); women surviving … well, each other (1978’s Girlfriends; The Last Days of Disco). Then there’s a movie literally titled Survival in New York (1989), the rarely-screened Rosa von Praunheim documentary. It’s one of the many movies playing at the Quad over the following weeks that I’m eager to seek out. Even the most prolific of New York women cinephiles should be able to find here metropolitan tales they’ve yet to discover — and, of course, ones they’re giddy to rewatch.

‘The New York Woman’
Quad Cinema
Through July 19

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A Turbulent Tale, Soft in the Head Is Never Less Than Thrilling

Nathan Silver’s last feature, Exit Elena, earned the Brooklyn-based director comparisons to John Cassavetes, with whom he shared an almost perverse affection for domesticity at its most volatile. And yet for all the discomfort its familial warfare sometimes provoked, Elena nevertheless remained a basically good-hearted film, exuding warmth and sweetness even as hostility threatened to take hold. Not so for Soft in the Head.

Silver’s latest finds the sweetness of its predecessor curdled, its warmth set ablaze, the result altogether possessed of a fiercer sensibility. Silver has gravitated away from Cassavetes, it seems, and toward the influence of another Hollywood maverick: Samuel Fuller, whose idiosyncratic riff on the hooker with the heart of gold, The Naked Kiss, Silver cites in Head‘s hair-pulling opening scene.

This change in temperament proves a considerable maturation. The bewigged heroine in this case is Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría, who delivers a performance of extraordinary intensity), introduced drunk and harried and rarely glimpsed, throughout the 72 minutes to come, in any other state. Noisily ejected from her boyfriend’s New York apartment one evening in a fit of sobbing and rage, Natalia hits the streets, penniless in a cocktail dress, before blithely disrupting the otherwise quiet Shabbat dinner of a friend.

From here we’re whisked through a sort of urban picaresque: Natalia is soon taken in by the denizens of a makeshift homeless shelter, a refuge for the down-and-out that Silver renders with a novelist’s eye for detail. The turbulence that follows is surprising, challenging, and never less than thrilling.

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CRIMINAL MINDS

“You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. All the rest is bullshit and you know it.” So begins the voice-over by Martin Scorsese of his anxious and vital 1973 breakout, Mean Streets. More than four decades removed from its debut at the New York Film Festival, the film has remained an essential Scorsese blueprint, stocked with virtuoso camera work (Harvey Keitel’s drunken SnorriCam saunter), a killer soundtrack (“Be My Baby,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Please Mr. Postman”), weighty themes (greed, guilt, the Madonna-whore complex), and pronounced cinematic influences (John Cassavetes, Samuel Fuller, Raoul Walsh — the film screens at BAM alongside several Walsh pictures).

Thu., March 13, 4:30, 7 & 9:30 p.m., 2014

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Track Down This Film: A New Leaf, Elaine May’s Unfinished Jewel

This month, President Obama awarded actor, writer, and director Elaine May the 2012 National Medal of Arts in recognition of “her contributions to American comedy”–an honor which, after more than 40 years of neglect of her films, seems rather like a consolation prize.

The four movies May directed, between 1971 and 1987, have each come, in their own way, to be eclipsed by the gossip surrounding them, and if her career is invoked at all today it is largely with an air of derision. Few films have been so widely and vehemently disparaged as her final feature, Ishtar, whose beleaguered production and notorious $40 million box office loss effectively ended May’s career.

Though well received upon release, May’s films remain either underseen or underappreciated. Mikey and Nicky, an oblique crime picture starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, is perhaps best remembered for its protracted shooting and editing schedule, which brought the production in at more than four times its $1.8 million budget–and ultimately cost May her rights to the final cut. The Heartbreak Kid, remade in 2007 by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, has been unavailable on home video in any format for years, and out-of-print DVD copies are so rare that they’re held hostage on Amazon for prices ranging from target=”_blank”> $100 all the way up to $1,998.

Watch the movies today, and you’ll see that her authorial voice was distinctive, to say the least, and that its absence in American cinema throughout the last three decades has been regrettable. The brashness and rigor with which she commanded her shoots, precisely the qualities that delayed them, is evident in the work, and her comic sensibility is close only to Cassavetes’s in its vitality and raw energy. For all their indulgences, racking up debts and enraging financiers, the films themselves ultimately justify her means–even in the case of Ishtar.

After that flop, May would not write again for nearly 10 years, and when she did it was only twice, both times for Mike Nichols–the other half of the once world-famous comedy duo in which she’d long ago begun her show business career.

A New Leaf, May’s exquisite directorial debut, is a strange case. Released on DVD and Blu-ray by boutique arthouse label Olive Films last fall, the film was greeted enthusiastically by critics eager to revisit what they thought of as a forgotten gem. That the film is now readily available is worth celebrating, and that its return to circulation brought it new attention and acclaim is significant.

See Also: “May Days: Recapping a reclusive auteur’s brilliant career, from the Jewish new wave to a legendary bomb,” J. Hoberman, 2006.

But A New Leaf remains in thrall to its own legacy as an aborted effort, as though, even 42 years later, it can’t be viewed without deference to a speculative final cut that does not exist.

After 10 months of editing only yielded an incomplete version in excess of three hours, May was removed from the project by Robert Evans, then head of Paramount Pictures. Evans set to work whittling it down to a slender 102 minutes–a change he effected by excising a subplot that would have crucially altered the meaning of the film’s ending. May, in response, fought to have the film suppressed, disowning the studio cut and demanding, also unsuccessfully, that her name be removed from it altogether.

It’s hardly surprising, given both the extent of the studio’s interference and May’s public disavowal of the results, that A New Leaf should be so widely regarded as a compromised work. But this reputation fails to account for the caliber of the film. In some sense it even precludes the possibility of the film’s greatness. A clear-eyed look at the picture reveals a remarkable truth behind the rumors: A New Leaf, not so much despite its editorial interventions as at least partly because of them, is nearly a masterpiece, a film of such wit and comic invention that it belongs among the great American comedies.

A New Leaf tells the story of Henry Graham, a wealthy New York dilettante who, after living for years beyond his already ample means, finds himself plunged into bankruptcy, his lavish lifestyle vanishing before his eyes. Henry’s obsequious valet, naturally inclined to preserve his employment, advises him toward “the only way to acquire property without labor,” which is of course marriage to suitably affluent candidate. And so the quest to be married into prosperity begins: Henry, living on a six-week loan from his miserly uncle, must court, wed, and then preferably do away with a prospective bride–a feat that, once Henry meets klutzy botanist Henrietta (played by May herself), proves almost too easy.

Much more taxing, as it turns out, is the management of Henrietta’s estate, previously run by a lawyer content to fleece her. Henry sets to work sorting out the affairs of the wife he plans to murder, and finds himself not only excelling at something concrete for the first time in his life, but also, more perplexingly, growing fond of Henrietta herself. In the end, Henry begrudgingly saves his newly beloved’s life the moment before he had intended to end it, and if he hasn’t quite come upon a new sense of morality, he has at least decided to stick it out and give true love a try. Though far from classical romance, this ending feels remarkably touching and sweet, effective both as closure for two strange but lovable characters and as a metaphor for the sacrifices required of any of us when we commit to another person. By following cynicism through to its logical conclusion, the film exhausts its supply. What’s left in its place is hope.

Very few people have seen May’s cut, which is now believed lost, but a surviving draft of the original screenplay suggests its direction: A lengthy subplot involving Henry’s endeavor to murder his wife’s crooked lawyer after a blackmailing scheme puts his fortune at risk ups the body count and irrevocably damns our protagonist, recasting his last-minute resignation to a life of domesticity as cosmic punishment rather than reluctant love.

There’s no doubt that this version would have seemed more daring and audacious, particularly circa 1971. It’s impossible to say which would be superior, so perhaps, in the final estimation, it is better to regard the New Leaf we can watch as its own definitive, singular achievement, no less great in its current form than The Magnificent Ambersons or Greed are in their surviving versions. Whether it was intended to be this way is irrelevant; what matters is the film we have, which is worth celebrating on its own.

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Exit Elena Flickers With Ordinary Madness

“The comedies of John Cassavetes cut deeper,” Thom Andersen explains in Los Angeles Plays Itself, “because he had an eye and an ear for ordinary madness—those flickers of lunacy that can separate us from our fellows.” Nathan Silver’s Exit Elena adopts many working methods typical of a Cassavetes production—shot almost entirely in Silver’s family home, the film stars his girlfriend (Kia Davis, who is superb), his mother (Cindy Silver), and himself—but its affinity with a film like Love Streams, its closest likeness, runs deeper than their shared independent sensibility. Silver locates the ordinary madness bubbling just beneath the surface of his own life, and flickers of lunacy abound: Exit Elena relates the story of a young live-in aide’s time caring for the elderly Florence (Gert O’Connell), but it proves to be the other residents of her suburban Boston home who require the most attention. Cindy, Florence’s daughter-in-law, counts her friendship among Elena’s responsibilities as an employee of the family, plying her with wine and whisking her along to Zumba class oblivious to her uninterest. Meanwhile Jim, Cindy’s husband, plans his days around the promise of vague “business meetings” that never materialize, lamenting the unprofessionalism of his home office. Desperation is in the air, and loneliness clings to the furniture. When their son Nathan, in a perpetual state of anxiety and agitation, returns home after an unexplained absence, the portrait is complete: Here is a family so lonely together that they long desperately for a new member, any member, to appear and shake things up.

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The Life Project: John Cassavetes Brings the Love to BAM

“Theater is the same as life, life is the same as theater,” said the American writer, director, and actor John Cassavetes about his 1977 film Opening Night. “The rituals may be slightly different. The problems are the same. They are always life problems.” The world of Opening Night—a 24-hour theater with people struggling together as they realize a show—mirrored the environment Cassavetes made for himself, in which artistic creation was part of life’s long, continuous stream. His own home served as a shooting location in several of his films, with regular actors that included his wife, mother, mother-in-law, and best friends. The problems his characters faced, both onscreen and off, demanded testing the limits of their capacity to love.

Their struggles can be seen throughout “Cassavetes,” the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 20-work, all-35mm retrospective presenting the films he directed (discounting early television dramas) as well as an additional eight in which he acted. Cassavetes began as a charismatic 1950s New York actor in movies like Martin Ritt’s heavy social drama Edge of the City (1957) until his dissatisfaction with how others directed him led him to become a director himself. He saw traditional dramatic modes squeezing the life out of actors to fit them into contrived characters, and believed it should work differently: Conflicts between characters should come from within the people playing them.

Shadows (1959), the first film he directed, emerged from a three-year workshop with a group of acting students. He called the final result “an improvisation” because the script grew out of improvisations between the actors, all of whose characters bore their first names. Shadows‘s plot strands involving a light-skinned black woman (played by Lelia Goldoni) who faces prejudice from her white boyfriend (Anthony Ray) and her brothers (Ben Carruthers and Hugh Hurd) showed how Cassavetes’s rebellion against impersonal film production standards served a greater battle with a society that refused to love people for themselves.

Subsequent films urged compassion for people otherwise deemed outsiders. His Hollywood drama A Child Is Waiting (1963) argues that developmentally challenged children can be valuable contributors to society, despite his producer’s efforts to edit the film to say otherwise. Other movies show people chafing at social norms, such as Faces (1968) and Husbands (1970), in which both women and men break the roles they’ve been assigned in bourgeois married life. Cassavetes’s protagonists fight against being compartmentalized. They seek to love others on unconditional terms, even as they fear losing love, or else losing themselves within it.

The Broadway star Myrtle Gordon (played by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’s longtime wife and creative partner) grapples with this fear throughout Opening Night. Myrtle sees a young woman killed in a car accident at the film’s outset, then breaks down while rehearsing a play about an aging woman. She dreads the thought of being typecast as someone she doesn’t believe herself to be, afraid that she might then stop being the person that she and others love.

She’s supported by the only people who can see her for herself—her family. In Cassavetes’s films, family extends beyond blood relations. Its members include all who pour their hopes into a communal space, whether the nightclub performers acting out their boss’s dreams in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), the working-class men and women filling a house in support of a beleaguered couple in A Woman Under the Influence (1978), or anyone involved in realizing Opening Night‘s show. Myrtle’s family includes her director, Manny (Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara), as well as his quiet housewife, Dorothy (Zohra Lampert), who attends rehearsals and grows complicit with Myrtle in overcoming their mutual crisis.

Cassavetes himself plays Myrtle’s defensive former lover and current co-star, Maurice, who keeps himself at a safe emotional distance from all surrounding him. So do most of the corrosive antiheroes that Cassavetes the actor tended to play in other directors’ movies—the bulk of which, high-profile Hollywood films including The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), he did to finance his own–as well as in the four in which he cast himself. But even Cassavetes’s self-made brutes act in love’s name. His seedy adulterers in Husbands (1970) and Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) cease their follies by returning to reckon with their wives, and Maurice ends Opening Night by joining Myrtle in playacting the fantasy of a happy home.

Robert, played by Cassavetes in Love Streams (1984), does this with his sister, Sarah (Rowlands), who unexpectedly comes to live with him. Sarah’s husband has divorced her and their daughter has chosen to stay with her father, but Sarah holds on to them both because of her belief that “love is a stream, it’s continuous, it does not stop.” By contrast, Robert has closed the door to almost everyone in his life, even his own young son. Both he and Sarah have failed as parents by being sincere about what they can offer, and are ultimately sincere with each other. They embrace each other, then let go once their love shows them it’s time. Robert clumsily tries to protect his sister before being left alone, while Sarah leaves him to continue her life.

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Molly’s Theory of Relativity: More Confounding than Cosmic

Best known as a 40-year veteran of the indie distribution scene, Jeff Lipsky has latterly carved out a sideline as one of New York’s most idiosyncratic indie filmmakers—a purveyor of confessional, sexually frank relationship dramas clearly indebted to his acknowledged masters: Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes. The best of the bunch remains 2006’s Flannel Pajamas, based on the breakup of his own marriage. As for Lipsky’s fifth and latest feature, it’s an unclassifiable head-scratcher—a magical-realist mélange of ideas about the state of the economy, the state of the American family, and the state of the universe. The title character is a newly unemployed astrophysicist (Sophia Takal) on the eve of a life-changing move from New York to Norway, boxing up her cramped apartment while her husband (Lawrence Michael Levine) unleashes years of pent-up invective against his no-account father (Reed Birney), and a steady stream of Halloween dinner guests arrive at the door. They include a 9-year-old in an Albert Einstein costume, a possibly imaginary neighbor boy, and the ghosts of various dead relatives. Bon appetit! Lipsky is clearly reaching for something grand and cosmic here, but the results are mostly just confounding.

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Taking the Measure of Ben Gazzara, at Anthology

Green-gold eyes sparkling with seen-it-all bemusement, a smile that could express everything except unguarded mirth, and a baritone like creaking timber, Ben Gazzara’s brusque persona has often been described as “masculine”—but his masculinity frequently demonstrated what a wearying thing manhood is, with its aggrieved dignity, its itch to dominate, its jealousies and rages.

When Gazzara appeared in the obituaries this February, at age 81, he was largely remembered by boomers for the ’60s TV show Run for Your Life, in which he played a man diagnosed with a terminal illness who decides to live the hell out of what time he has left. Gen Xers might have tagged him as the heavy in Road House. Anthology Film Archives’ nine-film retrospective showcases the work he should be remembered for.

Born to Sicilian immigrants, Biagio “Ben” Gazzara grew up on East 29th Street—he claimed he could hear the howls from Bellevue from home. Benny tread the boards at the Madison Square Boys Club, was dazzled as a teenager by Laurette Taylor’s Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and, after working his way into the Actors Studio (James Dean was a classmate), originated the role of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Producer Sam Spiegel lifted the cast and crew from an Actors Studio production for his 1957 film The Strange One, Gazzara’s first screen role, a part he’d originated in Greenwich Village—the sadistic, strutting cadet Jocko de Paris (opening lines: “Whatta creep! Whatta fantastic creep!”) covering up a hazing incident gone awry at a military college. Much of the sardonic, sartorial character of de Paris—right down to the pompously wielded cigarette holder—was carried over to Gazzara’s part in Otto Preminger’s 1959 Anatomy of a Murder: Frederick “Manny” Manion, the ice-cold Army lieutenant accused of murder, whom James Stewart has the unenviable job of warming a jury to.

As Gazzara wrapped the third and final year of Run for Your Life, John Cassavetes pitched him on the film that would become Husbands (1970). The premise is not so far from Run for Your Life, really: Both involve a mania to live spurred by the sudden proximity of death. In the film, three married, middle-aged men come together for the funeral of a fourth friend, then light out on a mad bender. But the execution is radical, submerging the viewer in undiluted boorishness and abusive horseplay. Gazzara, his hair now tinged with iron, joins Cassavetes and Peter Falk; glommed together with booze sweat, they make a three-headed monster that wreaks havoc on whatever it encounters. Himself a carouser, Gazzara was drawn to such “road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” material, lending his bonded Scotch voice to Marco Ferreri’s 1981 Tales of Ordinary Madness—the first attempt to film the work of Charles Bukowski—as his career bounced between America and Italy. (While featuring some striking sets by Dante Ferretti and the lovingly shot bottom of Ornella Muti, Tales fails entirely to put across the laconic humor in Bukowski, leaving us with a lethargic and pompous film.)

Cassavetes has a paycheck walk-on in Capone, a pedestrian Roger Corman–produced gangster pic of 1975 starring a Gazzara too old to convince in the rise-to-power scenes. In 1976’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes and Gazzara achieved a far more satisfying, middle-aged, lower-echelon take on the gangster film, with Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli, a strip-bar owner with the pride of a Renaissance prince. The film’s swervy, bleary Los Angeles is unforgettable, and Gazzara is profound in its climax, an uncontemplative man-turned-philosopher as his life leaks away.

Gazzara’s other vital collaborator was Peter Bogdanovich, the hotshot New Hollywood talent whose box office downturn coincided with Gazzara’s perfection of stubbornly alone, debonair lowlifes—fantastic creeps, if you will. He plays a private dick specializing in divorce cases in 1981’s They All Laughed, a film whose charms are marred by Bogdanovich’s attempted star-making of untutored actresses, and its philanderer’s fantasy of one’s girlfriends getting along swimmingly. Still, Laughed makes fine use of New York locations, including a sequence on Fifth Avenue that plays on the affinity between window-shopping and girl-watching and a relentless slapstick performance by John Ritter.

Bogdanovich serves Gazzara better in 1979 Saint Jack. As Jack Flowers, an expatriate Buffalonian running a Singapore cathouse, Flowers is a Cosmo Vitelli who’d give you the shirt off his back, a fount of back-slapping, glad-handing street-corner patter who works every room with the timing of a nightclub comic. Where Laughed is stultified by its stiff imitation of screwball comedy, Saint Jack rejuvenates the brokenhearted expat from a Casablanca cliché. Shot on location—like Laughed—by the incomparable DP Robby Müller, it’s a voluptuous twilight movie, suffused with a nagging sense of what might have been. Gazzara’s noble stoicism elevates Flowers’s failure to a triumph—for, as Anthology’s series gives ample evidence, no one could lose with more panache than Ben Gazzara.

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Sinister

In a neat bit of poaching, Sinister uses a premise borrowed from anti-horror pundits—the idea that some images can’t be unseen once seen, are poison without antidote—as the basis of a proficient, rattling horror story. Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a “true crime” writer who has been 10 years without a hit, moves his wife and two young’uns into a house whose previous tenants were mysteriously slaughtered, hoping to get a lead on the family’s still-missing daughter. That Oswalt manages to keep this bit of history secret from wife (Juliet Rylance) for as long as he does strains belief, but in every other respect, Hawke’s taut performance—lightly parodying his own career doldrums while playing an egotistical hack who’s a close cousin of John Cassavetes’s self-loathing actor in Rosemary’s Baby—is totally credible. A trove of profane 8mm home movies that Oswalt discovers in the attic links the events he’s investigating to a series of children’s disappearances, occult murders, and a corpse-painted boogeyman, as the addictive snuff imagery infects the house with mischievous spirits who, in one of many inventively crawly scenes, hide-and-go-seek scamper through the halls around worry-seamed and whiskey-addled Oswalt. Opposite Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio and James Ransone contribute excellent supporting bits, the latter as a comic-relief deputy, offbeat funny without resorting to obvious Keystone laughs, scarcely diluting the film’s sickish sense of a horror that begins at home.