Sunday, December 13, 2009

Film Review: Husbands

"Husbands" ** 1\2 (out of ****)
The first time I saw "Husbands" (1970) was in college for a class I took on the films of John Cassavetes and Robert Altman. The instructor had shown us a clip of the film and the clip seemed very powerful. I became instantly hooked and because it was a relatively short clip I was fascinated to learn more about the movie and the characters. That was nearly three years ago (where has the time gone?). I never got the chance to watch "Husbands" in its entirety until now. I think I was better off being left in suspense.

Have you ever thought what is the state of the American male? What is his role in our new world? What role does masculinity play in our society? What happens to men when they reach their mid-life crisis? Do men worry about immortality? I honestly never really thought about such things but, I suppose it could make for an interesting film. And these are the type of themes which float around in Cassavetes' film. On paper I must admit, it actually sounds right up his alley. Although I'm not a great admirer of his work, these issues, if dealt with properly, could have made for a very interesting film.

The main problem I have with "Husbands" is Cassavetes doesn't seem to understand these characters. What does Cassavetes think about these men and what I am, as the viewer, suppose to think about them? What message does Cassvetes want to leave us with. The movie doesn't have to answer any big universal questions. If that was Cassavetes prerogative I'm fine with them. But, at least throw out some questions and give me something to think about. Make me believe you know what you're doing. The film resembles a jazz musician. We start off with the melody (the film's theme) and then start to improvise around that melody and finally return to the theme. The problem is Cassavetes gets too caught up in the improvisation. The film steers off track too much. He goes away from his main focal point for too long a period of time. I suppose ultimately I wouldn't care if those "flights of fancy" were a little more interesting. But here they feel like dead weight, drowning the movie.

Cassavetes has always been a challenging filmmaker. He doesn't make movies in a tradition style. This is a blessing and a curse. I admire him personally. By that I mean he can be an inspirational story for young filmmakers. He found a way to work outside the Hollywood system. He made the films he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them. Deep down we should all admire that. But it is a curse because he seems too overwhelmed. He wants his movies to be about everything and not pass up a good idea. A movie can't be about everything. It becomes too chaotic. You need a little more discipline. More control as a filmmaker. Once you try to do everything you are left with nothing. His best films in my opinion are "Faces" (1968), which I actually had to watch three times before I was ready to say I liked it and "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) which I had to watch twice. Everything else he has made; "Killing Of A Chinese Bookie" (1976), "Opening Night" (1977) and his debut film, "Shadows" (1959) among them, which I have reviewed, have been mid-level to me.

"Husbands" has moments which seem to work but as a whole it doesn't amount to much. That is what makes my opening story such a symbol for the movie overall. If you watch clips here and there you can capture the best moments of the film. If you sit through it and watch the entire thing you might find it jarring.

The film takes place on the day of a funeral. Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk) and Gus (Cassavetes) have lost their best friend. The three of them go on a 48 hour binge. They stay out drinking, playing sports and eventually decide to fly to London to pick up some girls. Their friend's death as opened questions concerning their own life. Have they let too much pass? What happened to their dreams? Did they settle? Gus for instance loves basketball, and was an athlete in school but nothing became of it. Harry is married to a woman he says he hates. They have a violent fight which is one of the most startling things I have ever seen. Not because it is violent, you can see more violence in a Michael Myers movie, but because of its realistic nature it startled me. Think of Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage" (1974). "Husbands", at times, has that same level of intensity.

The flying to London bit struck me as a false note. Would three married men just decide on a whim to fly to another country leaving their wives and children behind? Keep in mind they have not been home in days and probably have no money. Not too mention they have no idea when the flight leaves, no hotel and no clean clothes. But I digress. This is a movie and I shouldn't take such things serious I guess.

When in London they head out to a casino where they win big at craps (another thing hard to believe. Who wins in a casino?) and pick up three very pretty ladies, who may or not be prostitutes. Honestly I couldn't tell. Though I never heard an exchange of dialogue dealing with money. But I just can't think of how easy it was for these guys to pick up women without paying for them. But again I digress. Its a movie and I shouldn't take such things serious.

The scenes with the women don't seem to be about sex. The men just seem to want to talk, to communicate with someone. Of course they can talk to each other but that misses the point I think. The idea is to communicate with women to prove they are still masculine. Pay attention to the photo I've chosen. They are all flexing their muscles. Showing their strength and dominance. The film's credits are shown over that image. Immediately establishing the film's theme. They have to prove they can still get someone besides their wives.

Cassavetes' films are not known for their great dialogue. Many people believe his films are heavily improvised. Cassavetes says no. He dealt with a script. No offense to Mr. Cassavetes, but, he has not been known for his honesty. And, if I were him I wouldn't want to take responsibility for the dialogue here. Better to let himself off the hook and say it was improvised. Very little of the dialogue here sounds real. At times it has a natural flow to it, it sounds like ordinary dialogue, but too often characters go off on tangents. Take for example a scene where Archie is kissing the woman he picked up in London. I guess she slips him the tongue and he takes immediate offense to this. He wonders how could she have ordered a coca-cola and then slip him the tongue while kissing. He assumes it must be an Oriental custom. What the heck does that even mean? And Archie gets really upset about this. He lectures the poor girl about this. It is not just a passing line. Then we have a sequence where a group of people are drinking singing songs, having some sort of contest. One elderly women starts to sing when the three men tell her she is terrible and begin to give her singing lessons. This must have gone on for a minimum of 10 minutes. If the film had an actual script by Cassavetes I think the movie would flow better and would only stick to dialogue which is informative and provides insight into the characters. Strangely enough the screenplay was actually nominated for a Golden Globe. It lost to Erich Segal's script for "Love Story" (1970).

There is an audience for "Husbands" I'm sure. Maybe if I watch the film when I'm 40 it might resonate with me. Maybe I need to live more, get married and face the disappointment of married life to really comprehend the movie. But I don't think I want to suffer that much just to enjoy a movie. But it is bound to happen regardless. Of course maybe all I need to do is watch "Husbands" a few more times. Though I still feel Cassavetes message isn't explicitly defined. Even the first time I watched "Faces" I knew what Cassavetes was going for. His dialogue reflected that. It felt like a meatier subject. "Husbands", like the men in the movie, seems to drift