By Jake Triola
John Cassavetes is a filmmaker whose influence is undeniable, not only in the way he “made” movies (as in the ways they were constructed and the methodologies he employed) but in the way he made them. He just made them, and he kept doing so. Over and over. No distribution? No big deal. He’d screen ‘em for a bunch of LA college students. Or his neighbor in his backyard. As long as he lived, his movies were made.
He’s the only example of an actor whose work as an actor took real primacy in the films he directed. His direction was for the purpose of displaying an actor’s range without anything of excess or fancy getting in the way. He didn’t care about sweeping cinematography, a constant stream of beautiful soundtrack or any tricks an experienced editor might’ve had. He simply strived for raw humanity. Such is best exemplified in 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence, which follows Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands), a wife of a construction worker, Nick (Peter Falk), and mother of their three children, as she battles her own mental illness in the most menial of scenarios. The illness itself is not named specifically, but that doesn’t matter. This is a movie about everyday people living in their own reality which, although difficult, is never uninteresting. And with Cassavetes’ lens fixated on Rowlands, Falk, and their fictional family’s foibles, cinematic virtue abounds.
We see her struggle to communicate with Nick’s coworkers, whom he invites for a spaghetti dinner. One minute, she’s a shining star of a wife and friend, amiably talking with the men and simply having a good time, which is all they want for her. The next, she’s insulting them. One minute, she’s interacting with a friends’ kids as they celebrate a birthday with her own. The next, she’s chasing them around the house, taking off the clothes of her own kids, and screaming at said friend. One minute, she’s walking down the sidewalk, complimenting strangers as she waits for her kids’ school bus to arrive. The next, she’s yelling in their faces, overcome by the blasé Angeleno attitude toward her zaniness. Problem is, she cannot distinguish between the two behaviors. It is heart-shattering. It is most of the film.
Though conflict is ever-present in the titular woman and the husband who tries so hard to help her, the first point of broader, bigger conflict really occurs when Nick, reaching a feeling of helplessness, commits Mabel to an institution to help her with her condition. He must work to provide for her and their children, and he does what he believes is best for the time being. However, in doing so, he realizes that the kids are no better off with him. His shortcomings as a father get in the way of their future just as much as her unpredictable antics.
When she returns, he invites people to dinner, though nothing has really improved for her. Everyone must leave, and Mabel turns to harming herself. Nick loses it. They run around in desperation, completely unable to control their children. It’s a circus. And did I mention heart-shattering? I’ve given you pretty much everything that happens. None of that matters—giving away the plot gives away nothing about this film. It’s a story which must be experienced by the subjective soul. This is not a film about the everyday man whose days blend into weeks, months, years. This is a film about those who must live life one minute at a time.