Friday, January 28, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#27) Cassavetes' MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ

(Seeing this film as it was presented on Netflix-Instant reminds me to give a fair warning: if you see a 'Starz Play' logo in the corner of the screen, chances are this may not be quite the version you're looking for.  It was fine for a movie like this one, where it wasn't 100% necessary to see all parts of the frame as the pan/scan was decent, but for other movies like one I tried to watch- John Carpenter's Memoirs of an Invisible Man- it was unworkable as he always works in 2:35.  And hey, even if it a crappy movie, I still want to see the dimensions of it!  So, just so you know as you browse around, Starz-Play isn't always a surefire thing).

I love the characters in John Cassavetes' films  That doesn't mean that I always particularly like them, or would want to have dinner with them (or ala George W. Bush "have a beer with him/her").  I mean in the sense that they're not like a lot of other movie characters: the ones that come out of cookie-cutter scripts or the ones delineated by what's taught in screenwriting classes or demanded by convention-obsessed whores in Hollywood.  The world of Cassavetes is one of real, raw, emotionally vulnerable, high-strung, detached and sometimes downright crazy people.  We can love them or sometimes hate them passionately, but we can't just toss them aside as indifferent creations.  It always feels as if these characters have come out of life or real experiences, and that's something I respond to immediately in films in general, be it from old masters like Bergman and Woody Allen or occasionally in genre films.  You can still have 'types', but if they come from things that feel alive and recognizable that's a special thing.

For Cassavetes, Minnie and Moskowitz is just another day at work, but a good day, sometimes a great one.  The story he tells here is a love story, but one that is not (as we're told, somewhat meta-like) how we see it in the movies.  Minnie especially has this problem as she tells one of her friends how "movies are like a conspiracy, they get you when you're young".  Perhaps in a way this film is a way to break apart some of that conspiracy, if there is one, to show how two unlikely people meet and, one more quickly than the other, fall in love.  Minnie (long-time star and wife of Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands) is a museum curator who has a bad affair going on with a married man (Cassavetes himself), who breaks it off after a sudden tragedy.  Seymour Moskowitz is a parking attendant who parks the cars at restaurants, and looks like a refugee from the Allman Brothers: super long, bushy moustache and a long-haired ponytail, a "freak" as the squares would say.  Somehow he's made to be the "younger" of these two, but in reality the actors are not too far apart in age.

How they meet is almost like an anti-meet-cute, or what becomes an ironic meet-cute perhaps; Minnie is on a lunch date that goes very bad.  It's one of those scenes that you want to get away from if you're seeing it in real time, as a guy with a big loud obnoxious voice and disposition goes on about being low-self-esteemed and fat and bald, and poor Minnie sits with her big sunglasses (as she often does) as a way to back away from those around her.  When they go out to the parking lot- naturally she can't take much more of this honest but uncomfortable mess- he leaves without taking her, leaving Seymor having to call her a cab.

.. until the man suddenly comes back to face her again, to which he and Seymour get into a big scuffle.  Seymour then drives off with Minnie in a rush, his adrenaline charged ("I feel terrific! Not cause I, you know, hit the guy, I didn't want to, but I feel terrific!" he says), and tries to take her somewhere else to eat.  She's not having it, and finally she walks away.  Moskowitz then follows her, drives up on to the sidewalk to go after her (the one really laugh-out-loud moment in the film that is possibly intentional), and forces her in so he can drive her to work.  It's not exactly the classiest way two characters have met, but that's the point: these aren't Bogart or Bacall like they go to see in the movies (and they do like to go see them).

The characters in Minnie and Moskowitz lead messy, something explosive lives where being treated right is all one can really wish for.  Moskowitz certainly doesn't get treated right at his job, nor by patrons at a bar he goes to to try and hit on a girl early in the film (he's actually pulled out and beaten up, why exactly in such a mob-like fashion it's not totally clear).  And Minnie doesn't get treated right at all by Joe (Cassavetes), who should treat her well being that she's his cuckold, but beats her up for drinking with her co-worker, and then laughs as she tries to beat him back (later, when he reveals his next move to her at her work, it doesn't go over well).  This scene I should note is one of those examples of how film acting reaches a higher plane of art. It's not shot with any particular 'style', but then again Cassavetes is like how Kubrick described Chaplin "All content, no style", though Cassavetes does have a sytle, it's not immediately detectable.  What matters is how Cassavetes and Rowlands move on screen, reacting to one another, feeling what they are in the present moment and then what they'll do next, how available they are in such a harrowing scene.

The rest of the movie has that tone as well.  The chemistry between Rowlands and Cassel is odd but always present.  They're a true odd couple, as she's more a middle-class blonde house-wife type and he's basically a wild hippie.  He practically bounces around in his seat and asks, nay demands, that the love he gives out be returned.  Moskowitz is, delicately to put it, a high-strung kind of guy, hopped up on living and not one to always be totally PC.  This might be why a few times I was kind of taken aback by him, or maybe by Cassel's performance.  As Rowlands sits there as Minnie taking in the situations in front of her, trying to be calm, Seymour is like a little kid, sometimes running around (literally) in the night proclaiming his love for a woman he just met a little while ago.

It's refreshing and startling to see such a relationship unfold, and one that could veer at any moment into really crazy territory if, say, Minnie stopped taking in Seymour's advances, the likes of which are that he comes to the door in the morning banging away.  He is what some might call a "character", but never untrue or superficial.  He'll even give his hotdog to a mangy guy at a diner played by Timothy Carey, or he'll act all dopey ala Bugs Bunny to try and get a little girl to eat carrots by an abusive mother on an airplane.  He's a tough guy to peg, sweet-hearted but with a BIG temper, and if I had one minor criticism it is that Cassel plays him as so hard to peg that he's not as consistent in his performance as Rowlands is (though, then again, it might be simply how the character is written, which is very good writing).  When Seymour Moskowitz is at his most 'passionate' and angry and alive, he makes Stanely Kowalski look like a pre-schooler.

Minnie and Moskowitz is the 'alternative' date movie, alternative in that it's not on the usual tract, it's not done in studio, it sometimes very improvised (if only in feeling), its actors are not conventionally handsome or beautiful (but they are), and even its "happy" ending has the air of oddness about it.  When the two mothers, Seymour's and Minnie's, meet for the first time as an introduction prior to a marriage proposal it's a very awkward sort of dinner as we get to see where both of these main characters come from.  It's a wonder in some stories how a character is the way he/she is, and Cassavetes takes that extra step; I suddenly had a better understanding/sympathy with Seymour seeing how his mother acts/reacts to how him as a "nobody, shlepping cars", as she also gives Minnie some back-handed compliment about being an "attractive" woman with a "good body, good face."

I don't know too many other filmmakers who would take that extra step, but Cassavetes does, and it brings the realism to such a height as to be funny in that most cringe-inducing way that it's just... life.  It's a near-masterpiece for a director with several.

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