May 9, 2004

Cassavetes: Boxes and Shadows

Criterion's announcement, right there on its front page, that it will be releasing in the fall a box set of five films by John Cassavetes - Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night - ought to be cause for pure celebration. Add to the good news that all versions will be new high-definition transfers and that the set will include exclusive interviews with Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Lelia Goldoni and others who worked with Cassavetes as well as A Constant Forge, the 200-minute documentary by Charles Kiselyak, and the celebration ought to be downright ecstatic.

Opening Night

Gazzara, Rowlands and Cassavetes: Opening Night

Filmbrain's happy; Nick Wrigley's May 6 entry at Masters of Cinema is generally upbeat, but it's here that one catches a first glimpse of an ugly shadow hanging over all this, a debate that pits Rowlands and her supporters against Ray Carney and his. It's a debate that caught Criterion in the middle and can be followed in gruesome detail (but, you know, gruesome in a sort of irresistible way) in online discussion groups such as a_film_by and the Criterion Forum.

To back up, briefly: Shadows, officially released in 1959, was Cassavetes's first film. But like many, Carney was aware of an earlier version, made two years before, that Cassavetes had decided was all wrong - only about a third of that original film survives in the 1959 version. Unlike many, Carney pursued the lost original with a dedication some would regard as admirable (others as so extreme as to border on the creepy) and, after a 17-year quest, thanks to equal parts perseverance and luck, Carney actually found it. It's a fascinating tale as he told it in the Guardian in February. Which is also about when it was screened at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam - a screening Tom Charity caught and wrote up in Sight and Sound, and a screening for which the festival now apologizes.

To whom and why? To Gena Rowlands and her company, Faces Distribution Corporation, which owns all rights to all Cassavetes films because he signed those rights over to her in his last will and testament and she feels (though some have argued otherwise) that Cassavetes never, ever wanted that original version of Shadows to resurface at all, much less be seen by anyone.

In a Postscript to Carney's retelling of the tale of his discovery on his own site, he paints a portrait of an angry and stubborn Rowlands refusing to acknowledge not only his writing on Cassavetes but also even the existence of any alternate versions of any of the director's films. But she's also demanded he hand over that print he found; his lawyers tell him he doesn't have to, and what's more, may go on showing a copy of in his classes at Boston University.

At the same time, the language that Carney uses in his own defense hints at what Rowlands might find at least irritating in his work and about Ray Carney in general. There is, for example, that eerie insistence on speaking on behalf of Cassavetes himself. "I'm convinced John is looking down on all of this and cackling away with that inimitable giggle of his." And of course, he calls the book he wrote Cassavetes on Cassavetes rather than Carney on Cassavetes.

Carney spent eight months preparing an essay and audio commentary for Criterion's box set, but Rowlands put Criterion on the spot, as the company president, Peter Becker's made clear in a letter Carney's posted on his site. Rowlands evidently delivered an ultimatum: "[S]he will not participate in or approve the release with you as a part of it. Cassavetes entrusted his legacy to Gena, so for us, her word is final. I wish it hadn't come to this." So the commentary and essay are out.

As it happens, the Seattle International Film Festival (May 20 - June 13) has just unveiled its lineup and the opening film will be The Notebook, directed by Nick Cassavetes and with Gena Rowlands in a starring role. Maybe she'll make an appearance in Seattle? And perhaps take the opportunity to clarify her side of the story?

No one doesn't adore Gena Rowlands. We want to believe there are good, solid reasons she's keeping us from seeing the 1957 version of Shadows.

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Posted by dwhudson at May 9, 2004 3:53 PM


An interview with Lelia Goldoni sounds interesting--wonder what she's been up to. Doesn't appear to have done much acting over the years...

Posted by: contrapositive at May 9, 2004 8:13 PM

I'm going to give Gena the benefit of the doubt. After all, who would know John's wishes better than Gena? I don't think she really owes the public an explanation. And even if she did clarify, most likely the clarifcation would still be, in essense "This is what John wanted," and wouldn't the naysayers still have the same complaints, regardless?

Posted by: drew at May 9, 2004 8:21 PM

Probably. I simply wonder if some sort of solution might be found if it weren't for the personalities involved.

Myself, I wouldn't even necessarily ask to see all of the 1957 version. But if selected scenes were made available and presented not as a complete work, with disclaimers, etc., etc., and as examples of some of Cassavetes's earliest work before he hit on the form he was after.... well, that'd be very, very interesting.

I suppose, though, the way things look at the moment, it'll be many, many years before that happens. If ever.

Posted by: David Hudson at May 10, 2004 9:04 AM

its a shame that Gena has decided to play this game with her husband's legacy. What right does ANYONE have to destroy or bury the work of an artist, wife or otherwise? Its not like Carney is trying to say Cassavetes was a child molestor. He's saying he was a GENIUS ARTIST OF THE HIGHEST ORDER! What the hell could be wrong with seeing his works in progress, as such? I can't see any valid reason for her actions. I'd love to hear her side, though. I too love this woman from her film roles, but I guess that's the lesson -- don't confuse the actor with the person.

Posted by: Matthew L. Weiss at June 22, 2004 1:46 PM