A few Christmas’ ago I received the Criterion Collection John Cassavetes box set. For the longest time it sat on my shelf collecting dust, not for lack of interest, for believe me my interest was indeed piqued. I found this box set incredibly daunting for some reason or another, but recently, as I’ve been watching good films to aid in my staying away during overnight shifts, I decided to take on the Cassavetes challenge and have systematically watched all five of the films over the course of the past couple of weeks.

After the first film of the set, Shadows (1959) I had a slight idea of what I was getting myself into, yet it wasn’t until the next (chronological) film, Faces (1968), where I was introduced to the working relationship between Cassavetes and Gena Rowland that I really began to see the potential power of this American cornerstone director. While I truly enjoyed, and could go on and on about the emotional evocation of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), for me it was the duo of Cassavetes and Rowland that carried the most intense empathetic power. First in Faces and even more so in A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977) I found both Rowland’s performances and Cassavetes’ innately personal, beautiful and brutal treatment of his leading lady irresistibly and irreversibly pulling me deep into the inner workings of the disturbed yet average human mind.

In all three of the aforementioned films, but most especially on the latter two, Rowland portrays incredibly complex and inherently human characters. Cassavetes’ unflinching eye in cohabitation with Rowland’s’ no holds bared performances profoundly (and in many ways, disturbingly) moved me. While the characters and the situations were in essence very simple in execution they engulf the viewer in a very harsh, unstable and unforgiving world. Even when things seem to turn out fairly well the viewer is still left with an overwhelming feeling of being lost, while we may have weathered this storm there’s most certainly more where that came from.

While this effect is also achieved with many of the other characters through, what I’ve seen of, Cassavetes’ cannon and it seems to be his specialty of sorts, never before have I felt so insanely connected to characters as Rowland’s’ Mabel  and Myrtle (in particular). Upon finishing the viewing of these two films my mind was reeling, twisting and turning, overpowered and overcome by the immensity of the world. The often over the top yet perfectly warranted and subversivly subtle Rowland and the voyeuristic and up close and personal directorial style implanted a certain insanity within me, and one that only seems to grow upon further reflection.

Looking back my initial hesitation toward Cassavetes’ oeuvre, I was completely correct to see these films as dense and daunting, honest films, but having taken the plunge I’m forever altered and indeed enriched by the experience. Left now with haunting images of a bleak world of the past, that’s still directly relevent today, I was moved to attempt to put down in words the unsettling and amazing feeling I’m filled with. If you’ve been there I hope you’ve made it out okay, if you haven’t I strongly urge you to venture that way.