Film: Independent Spirit

A new biography puts the spotlight on John Cassavetes, but which filmmakers are following in his footsteps?

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Accidental Genius

Well-known stories of artistic rebellion and no-money perseverance involving actor and independent filmmaker John Cassavetes make up the majority of chapters in longtime film critic Marshall Fine's lively and engaging biography, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film.

The one story unknown to the most diehard film buff is the unexpected death of Cassavetes' older brother Nicholas at age 30, in 1957. That sudden and inexplicable loss of a loved one is credited as the inspiration for Cassavetes' 1970 film Husbands, a masterwork about male friendship and midlife crisis. It can also be used as a metaphor for Cassavetes' charging lifestyle: You are destined to lose things you love, but you still push forward and live a life that matters.

Fine, critic for the weekly tabloid Star magazine and author of biographies of director Sam Peckinpah and actor Harvey Keitel, has an easygoing spirit and conversational writing style that makes Cassavetes' life story worth knowing for both film fanatics and casual observers. There's bold charisma in Cassavetes' story and continued relevance in his films. Fine brings the longtime actor and filmmaker alive and puts to rest any doubt about Cassavetes as a film artist worth celebrating.

The one unanswered question in Fine's book, which ends with storytelling from longtime friends at Cassavetes funeral service in 1989, is the Greek/American filmmaker's legacy. Placing the spotlight on Cassavetes, his work and his memory is one thing. Choosing those worthy enough to carry on the Cassavetes torch is something far more difficult.

Family bloodlines offer some suggestions. His son Nick Cassavetes has become a prolific filmmaker, even directing one of his father's scripts, She's So Lovely, starring Sean Penn. His daughter Xan Cassavetes recently cut her filmmaking teeth on the documentary Z Channel, about a Los Angeles cable TV station.

But if one were to concoct an honorary badge of honor to represent improvisational spirit and a skill for writing middle-age, upper-middle-class characters, two filmmakers come to mind. New York director Noah Baumbach credits The Squid and the Whale, his third feature film, as the movie that allowed him to be the filmmaker he knew he could be but wasn't able to become for some reason.

The Brooklyn setting is just a surface connection with Cassavetes' past as a kid on Long Island and an actor and filmmaker in Manhattan. The true Cassavetes connection for The Squid and the Whale, a family-in-crisis film starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, is the film's main characters: college-educated, semi-affluent, battling spouses caught in midlife crisis.

Its lightning-fast production schedule and New York City locations also come out of the Cassavetes handbook, but it's storytelling that connects Baumbach to the director credited with inventing the American independent film movement. The Squid and the Whale is a story that could come from Cassavetes' typewriter, although the children of the split family would probably garner less attention.

A recent film worthy of a Cassavetes comparison is A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, writer-turned-filmmaker Dito Montiel's autobiographical drama about his teenage years in mid-'80s Astoria, Queens. Its outstanding young cast, street-smart spirit and sexuality pay homage to Cassavetes' first film, the relationship drama Shadows.

Even the shrill, second-half melodrama from the film's adult leads — Robert Downey Jr., Chazz Palmintiri and Dianne Wiest — strike a cord with Cassavetes' films. When a director grants his actors the chance to experiment and reach with their characters, sometimes the performances become heavy-handed and reach too far.

The difficult post-production of Shadows plays an important role in Fine's book, and it's worth remembering that critics were heavily divided on the film, even to the extent that their verdict depended on which version they watched. The same mixed reception was true for Montiel after the debut of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

Any challenging film is going to divide audiences by nature of its complex content and a filmmaker's willingness to try something different. Perseverance is the Cassavetes mantra, one that Montiel should embrace as well as any comparisons.

Film books often slide into academic history lessons, but Accidental Genius thrives on its subject's passion for life and Fine's desire to give Cassavetes his artistic due. The hopeful effect is that others begin the guessing game of connecting Cassavetes with new filmmakers who follow in his footsteps.

Fine has crafted the biographical equivalent of a bar-side chat with an old friend. There's laughter and great yarns and reminiscing about times both hard and happy. What makes the stories better is the realization that someone else is continuing the tale with new films of their own.

That would matter most to Cassavetes. ©

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