Too Early, Too Late

I’ve never understood why “Too Late Blues,” John Cassavetes’s second film as a director (1961) and his first for a Hollywood studio, is so seldom mentioned in discussions of Cassavetes’s work. It may not be a fully mature effort, but the outlines of his style and thematic preoccupations are there — more vividly, in many ways, than they are in “Shadows.” But somehow — with perhaps from encouragement from Cassavetes — “Too Late Blues” has been classified as a concession to commercialism, when in fact Paramount seems to have been far more liberal in its accommodation of Cassavetes’s eccentricities than Stanley Kramer, who produced Cassavetes’s next film, “A Child Is Waiting” (1963), and did his best to remove any trace of Cassavetes’s style from the final cut.

Thanks to Olive Films, there’s now a fine Blu-ray edition on the market, which I review in this week’s New York Times column, along with Olive’s DVD release of another second feature by a promising young director, Joseph Losey’s 1950 “The Lawless.”

59 comments to Too Early, Too Late

  • D. K. Holm

    Interesting to contrast Losey and Cassavetes. Both are “social problem” directors in their way, but Losey was interested in public policy and problems, at least early in his career, while Cassavetes dwelt on interactions within small social groups in which politics per se was not at the forefront. Losey was offering a critique of society while Cassavetes was examining or exploring it. Losey was public, Cassavetes was private.

  • Alex

    Guess I’ll have to see “Too Late Blues” again. In memory –going back at least a few decades—“Blues” seems, with “A Child is Waiting,” like one of Cassavettes’ two classical Hollywood efforts (commercial followups to the Ritt-Newman “Paris Blues” and the Perry’s “David and Lisa”). Indeed, I recall the acting intensity of “Child,” playing through highly emotional, largely un-scriptable riffs, as quinessential Cassavettes, making light of the precious behavioral eccentricities of “David and Lisa.” Perhaps in viewing or recollection I cast “Blues” in the mold of “Paris Blues” but “Too Late Blues” framed as Cassavettes into his knack for riding the emotional waves with half crazy people. “Shadows,” at least, had no ostensible precursor as apparent or recent as “Paris Blues” was to “Too Late Blues.”

  • It’s been years since I saw Too Late Blues, but I have to admit I was pretty disappointed. Yeah, it’s interesting if you look at it in the overall context of Cassavettes’ work, but to my mind it’s one of his least successful movies. While there are good things in it, the plot follows a conventional Hollywood arc, and even his technique seems stiff. Maybe my expectations are part of the problem, since I really love Cassavettes. I didn’t feel the exhilarating freedom or the scary intensity that is so much a part of his best work.

  • Barry Putterman

    Fortunately, it is not too late to sing songs of praise for Stella Stevens. She is still here to hear them.

    Unfortunately, too many things related to her career were, in fact, too late. She arrived too at be well enough established to properly compete for all of the roles Shirley MacLaine got throughout the 60s and 70s. Too late for for a studio system to support and nurture her talent with roles which could have established an alternative, distinct persona for her. Alas, we never got enough of her. But at least we can revel in what there is as often as we like.

    There is an extensive interview with her among the extras on the THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE disc. Fans of Sam Peckinpah may choose to skip that one. One thing she said in it rather surprised me. She said that she thought that she was much better in comedy than in drama. Well, anybody who has seen her in THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER and THE SILENCERS and even ADVANCE TO THE REAR will not argue with the first part. But, not good in drama? I look forward to another chance to see TOO LATE BLUES in order to put that thought to rest.

  • Alex

    Some Peckingpah fans think that “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” is one of Peckingpah’s best — or did back in his prime years. (Or should I say “The Day”?.) Indeed, I’d say that his gentler films, like “Cable Hogue” and “Junior Bonner” — and “Ride the High Country”– are among his very best, better than such ongoing adrenalin hits as “Straw Dogs,” and “The Getaway” and “Alfredo Garcia,” though not threats to the abidimng greatness of “The Wild Bunch” (zoom shots and all).

    I never saw Cassavettes in the only Western I recall him being in –Robert Parrish’s “Saddle the Wind”; but Parrish could be good; and Cassavettes could look like he’d spent the day throwing one too many steers.

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, I may not have been clear in what I was saying. As the first sentence of my second paragraph may indicate, I was dealing with a spot of feline interference while I was trying to post.

    My intentions were not that Peckinpah fans might want to skip THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE. But rather, tha they might want to skip the Stella Stevens interview, which falls a bit short of flattering in portraying the man.

  • Mark Gross

    I’ve always thought one of Stella Stevens’ best performances was in SYNANON, oddly enough another drama which involved jazz musicians, very distinctively directed by Richard Quine.

    My memories of TOO LATE BLUES, especially of the narrative ellipses, the focusing on gestural and interpersonal material not related to the plot, and the raw, touching performances of Bobby Darrin and Stella Stevens, mostly concurs with Dave’s remarks.
    I look forward to seeing the film again.

  • Dave, the New York Times link was dead when I tried to open your review!

  • Mark Gross

    One more thought, in reference to the title similarity of PARIS BLUES to TOO LATE BLUES, which was commented on earlier.

    John Cassavetes first film, SHADOWS, was about jazz musicians, and (I believe)used the on camera improvisations of a jazz musician, Charles Mingus, as another text for his performers to improvise on and react to, long before PARIS BLUES.

    Of course, at the same time SHADOWS was in production, THE CONNECTION, a play about jazz musicians (including Jackie McLean)who were part of the cast and also left the stage to play music (much of it improvised)in the pit at various intervals, was being performed nightly at the Living Theatre on 14th Street.

    Let’s just say it was in the air.

  • david hare

    Antti perhaps like me you are falling foul of the NYT subscription paywall that hits after ten free explorations a month.

  • Mark Gross

    Antti: I was unable to link from this site to the article as well. But if you Google “Dave Kehr, NY Times, Too late Blues,” you should get a link to the review.

  • In the Carney book on Cassavetes he describes the utopian collectivism around “Shadows”: most people working for free, an extended process, an interchangeable and rotating filming crew, a desire to film “real” people (sort of Beat-like characters) and so on. Jonas Mekas, one of the leading figures of New York’s experimental film community, really liked “Shadows” and fostered it and it’s reputation (Anthology Film Archive still has the original “Shadows” poster outside one of its cinemas). Cassavetes seemed to have entirely dropped the production style of “Shadows” when he went on to “Too Late Blues”, which upset Mekas and others detractors. When “Too Late Blues” recently played at the Lightbox the beat-up 16mm print probably didn’t do the film any favors – it didn’t look good, it has a very bland mise en scene, though one can see themes Cassavetes would later develop, like that of artistic comprise.
    I think that the Cassavetes film that really needs to be (re-)discovered is his real last film, “Big Trouble”. I saw this one at a Cassavetes retro in Montreal, and it was a lot of fun. I think the only place I’ve seen this one defended is by Raymond Durgnat in “Films and Feelings”.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Jonas Mekas, one of the leading figures of New York’s experimental film community, really liked “Shadows” and fostered it and it’s reputation (Anthology Film Archive still has the original “Shadows” poster outside one of its cinemas). Cassavetes seemed to have entirely dropped the production style of “Shadows” when he went on to “Too Late Blues”, which upset Mekas and others detractors”

    Mekas seems to have turned against Cassavetes at a much earlier point, when Cassavetes decided to reshoot the version of SHADOWS that Mekas had admired.

    “I think that the Cassavetes film that really needs to be (re-)discovered is his real last film, “Big Trouble”. I saw this one at a Cassavetes retro in Montreal, and it was a lot of fun. I think the only place I’ve seen this one defended is by Raymond Durgnat in “Films and Feelings”.”

    I’m a fan of BIG TROUBLE as well. It makes use of a typical Cassavetes structure, matching a conventional role-player with an anarchic improviser – thus allowing Peter Falk to play the Gena Rowlands role from A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Apparently, several scenes were shot by Andrew Bergman, the film’s original director, though I’ve never been able to find out exactly which ones. Anyone have information about this?

    Another possible entry in Cassavetes’ shadow filmography is John Avildsen’s HAPPY NEW YEAR, which I suspect is one of the films Cassavetes wrote under a pseudonym.

  • Apologies for the dead link! I had some coding problems on my end which I hope have now been corrected.

    Brad and David, your defense of “Big Trouble” is certainly unexpected, and I would love to hear your argument in its defense. Cassavetes supposedly took over the production at the behest of Peter Falk, after Andrew Bergman, the original producer-writer-director, bowed out because of “exhaustion.” He continued shooting for another seven months (!), and took to referring to the film as “the aptly-named ‘Big Trouble.'” He knew he was dying (of cirrosis of the liver) when he was making it, and some sources suggest that Falk arranged for him to take over just to give him a much-needed paycheck. In any case, Columbia took over the editing and the version we have represents two years of post-production work done without his participation; Cassavetes preferred to think of “Love Streams” as his last film and I find it hard to disagree with him.

    Ray Carney has chronicled his discovery of the first, genuinely improvised version of “Shadows,” and his subsequent conflict with Gena Rowlands (who has refused to allow Carney’s print to be screened) both in his BFI book on “Shadows” and in somewhat more vivid detail on his website. Carney also found an alternate, 147-minute version of “Faces” in the Library of Congress which the Cassavetes estate has not authorized for public screening.

  • Barry Putterman

    To follow up on Dave’s comment, BIG TROUBLE was very much Andrew Bergman’s project. It was intended as a kind of belated re-teaming from THE IN-LAWS, with Arkin and Falk playing very similar roles and Bergman now directing as well as writing. I’m not sure what Cassavetes might have done to re-shape the material after he arrived. However, I do think it advisable to take a look at THE IN-LAWS before making any assumptions in that area.

  • I can’t say that I knew anything about this Andrew Bergman-THE IN-LAWS connection, good to know.

    LOVE STREAMS is Cassavetes more personal last project, and better film, as he stars in the film with his wife and part’s of it was shot in his Los Angeles home, and through his brand of psychological-realistic acting the dysfunctional characters don’t follow a deterministic narrative but instead follow their own irrationalities and contradictions.
    I saw BIG TROUBLE a few years ago so I can’t be as precise about it, but I remember the opening shot has three boys in a house singing a tune, which showed the sense of individual improvisation most readily associated with Cassavetes as well as his musicality. It seems like an ode to the films noir genre, so movies like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (obviously) and THE BIG SLEEP, while balancing sincerity and parody.
    My problem is with the constant dismissals of BIG TROUBLE, which excludes it from any conversation about, and programming of, Cassavetes work. Just because a filmmaker distances himself from a work, that does not that he did not make, nor does it have something interesting to say about it’s maker – if you were to believe the auteurist. Similar to Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE and Lynch’s DUNE, even if BIG TROUBLE is an interesting failures, I think, it should be seen as a Cassavetes film.

  • Brad Stevens

    I haven’t seen THE IN-LAWS (at least as far as I can remember), but I have seen several films directed by Andrew Bergman, and on the whole, BIG TROUBLE feels a lot more like a Cassavetes film than it does an Andrew Bergman film. Look, for example, at the way the close-ups are framed and edited in this scene:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3djsQb1iMg4

    I would guess that Bergman was responsible for the scene in which Peter Falk pretends to have a heart attack.

  • This 5-minute editing period is not long enough, I meant in the final paragraph,
    “Just because a filmmaker distances himself from a work, that does not mean that he did not make it, nor does it mean that it does not have something interesting to say about it’s maker – if you were to believe the auteurist. Similar to Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE and Lynch’s DUNE, even if BIG TROUBLE is an interesting failures, I think, it should be seen as a Cassavetes film.”

  • D. K. Holm

    Brad, do you mean Durgnat’s book Films and Feelings or the magazine Films and Filming?

  • Dave, thank you, now the link is alive, and your review makes me look forward to TOO LATE BLUES which I have never seen. Best regards from Midnight Sun Film Festival, north of the Polar Circle. On the plane bound to Lapland there were familiar faces. Harriet Andersson sat on the first row next to Taina Elg (LES GIRLS). Also Joe Dante was on board, and there will be a chance to see his THE MOVIE ORGY. In half an hour SUMMER WITH MONIKA is playing as the opening movie!

  • D.K.Holm, I meant “Films and Feelings” but now browsing through my copy I notice it’s original publication date is August 1971, while “Big Trouble” came out in “1986”! So I must have misremembered.

  • Dan Callahan

    Count me as another fan of the unusual “Big Trouble”—the pacing in some scenes felt very Cassavetes to me. I can’t wait to see “Too Late Blues” again. The one thing I remember is a very odd shot where Stevens is screaming into a sink and we see her face seemingly from the sink’s point of view?

    Dave, very glad that you place the great Cukor on the same plane as Welles in your piece, where he belongs, as a point of comparison with another giant.

  • Matt D.

    In Marshall Fine’s excellent Cassavetes bio, the only scene Fine explicitly stated was shot by Bergman was the one in which Falk has Arkin drink the terrible wine. This isn’t to say Bergman didn’t shoot anything else—I just don’t recall Fine pointing out any other scene and I presently do not have my copy of the book on hand to check.

    I don’t know how much of Big Trouble was shot chronologically (I know most films aren’t), but when I saw it a few years back, the film seemed to become much looser, freer in tone about 30 or so minutes in. Falk, from that point forward, *does* seem to be improvising; a lot of the humor in the film comes from him essentially being Peter Falk. His early scenes—including the dreadfully overplayed heart attack sequence—seem much more glued to whatever was in the script.

  • I tried to like “Big Trouble,” too, though I could only see it in negative terms, as undermining what Bergman (presumably) had in mind. I no longer find that a compelling reason to like a movie, though. Here’s my Chicago Reader blurb from the first release:

    The odd chemistry of Alan Arkin’s nervous desperation and Peter Falk’s unflappable self-confidence works again in this sort-of sequel to The In-Laws, which finds Arkin as an insurance salesman with financial problems (all three of his triplets want to go to Yale) and Falk as an eccentric confidence artist who draws Arkin into a complicated scheme that turns out to be the plot of Double Indemnity. Screenwriter Andrew Bergman was set to direct, but was replaced shortly into the shooting by John Cassavetes; though the film doesn’t represent as stimulating a confrontation between commercial styles and Cassavetes’s personal aesthetic as his great 1980 Gloria, it still has several moments—most notably a completely offhanded kidnapping—when Cassavetes’s inimitable off rhythms do strange and wonderful things to the conventionally written comedy. Big Trouble is just a footnote in the career of one of America’s most innovative, unclassifiable filmmakers, but it’s something to see. With Beverly D’Angelo, Charles Durning, and Robert Stack; Bergman’s scenario is credited to the W.C. Fields pseudonym “Warren Bogle.”

    Dan, that sink POV shot is definitely there, and remains one of the more startling moments in “Too Late Blues” — did someone tell Cassavetes to “be cinematic”?

    By the way, Bergman’s excellent script for “The In-Laws” was not directed by him, but by Arthur Hiller. Credit where credit is due.

    Antti, have a great time at the Midnight Sun and go easy on the akvavit!

  • Alex

    Barry Putterman,

    Sorry I reread your post on Stevens and some Peckingpah films, CABLE HOGUE in particular. Glad to surmise that you don’t feel dismissive toward HOGUE, which I much enjoyed when I saw it back around ’70.

  • Brad Stevens

    “the only scene Fine explicitly stated was shot by Bergman was the one in which Falk has Arkin drink the terrible wine”

    Which is actually the scene I linked to. I suspect that Bergman directed a version of this scene, and Cassavetes subsequently reshot the close-ups (that overhead shot near the beginning is very un-Cassavetesian). Perhaps the film could be seen as being about the clash between its two creators, with Alan Arkin standing in for the conventional metteur en scene Bergman and Peter Falk representing the improvisational auteur Cassavetes.

    By the way, whatever happened to Andrew Bergman? He hasn’t made a film since ISN’T SHE GREAT in 1999.

  • Barry Putterman

    No Alex, I don’t feel dismissive towards CABLE HOGUE. Neither does Stella Stevens. However, I only had to watch the film. Her participation was more active and less pleasent.

    I don’t feel dismissive towards Arthur Hiller either. I just didn’t want to muddy the waters with another name. At some point THE IN-LAWS and BIG TROUBLE might make an interesting compare/contrast. Hiller’s style could be characterized as consciously trying to work in the service of strong-willed screenwriters such as Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon. Whereas Cassavetes…. So, trying to figure what might belong to Bergman and what might belong to either director could turn into an interesting exercise.

    Antti, did Harriett Andersson mention anything about a certain web master of Glenn Kenny’s acquaintance?

  • Johan Andreasson

    An interesting thing about TOO LATE BLUES is that we’re never really told by Cassavetes what to think about the music. Is Bobby Darin’s character really a talented musician or isn’t he? To me the music throughout sounds good: what the band plays for “the birds” in the park in no way sounds inaccessible, and the recording session sounds good both before and after the seemingly important brake with the loud argument with the agent. I don’t clearly recall what the lounge piano played by Darin’ s character after he’s under the wings of the rich woman sounds like, but I’d say it probably sounded quite pleasant as well.

    Around the same time Anthony Burgess wrote the novel “Inside Mr Enderby” about an idealistic but commercially failed poet, who’s poems are quoted at length but we’re left in the dark if Burgess intends them as parody or the works of a genuinely misunderstood genius. Perhaps this approach was something that was in the air in the experimental early 60s.

    One last point of confusion from a Swedish jazz fan: Bassist Red Mitchell, who lived in Stockholm for a long time staring in the late 60s, and whom I’ve seen play a number of times, is one of the musicians we hear in Bobby Darin’s band. The band member named Red we see on the screen however is played by Seymour Cassel.

  • Griff

    For the record, Andrew Bergman has lately resurfaced with a new project, an ensemble comedy titled A FILM BY ALAN STUART EISNER. Bergman’s original script is described by Deadline’s Mike Fleming as the story of “a young documentary filmmaker with a burning desire to bring his family’s amazing and bizarre World War II history to the screen.” Shirley MacLaine and Robin Williams have signed on so far, with more casting to come.

  • Alex

    “An interesting thing about TOO LATE BLUES is that we’re never really told by Cassavetes what to think about the music. Is Bobby Darin’s character really a talented musician…?”

    This interesting observation about and interesting question gives rise to a further interesting question. Should we be told what to think of the art in films about artists, or should we have to make our own sense of that art?

    In terms of a point of view, not a thriving critical term Re film, but (I’d say) a key one nontheless, should’nt aesthetic appreciation be the viewrs burden. After all we encounter the films wold via its characters and, if they are viewing music that’s original, the characters’ viewing should be ahead of any compelling critical consensus or even information. This is especially true in music where the best comes out of vibrant local cultures and for jazz, which went locally through major innovations like Bebop and Cool before they were even respectable. For my own part I can speak, if mainly second hand, via early 60’s LA types who discovered the like of The Byrd’s on the Strip and late ’60s Bay Area sojourners who discovered the like of the Luv and Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane and Hendrix PRE-print hype. Viewers of a film like TOO LATE BLUES should perhaps be in my sojourner friends kinds of shoes. (Me, I was perhaps hip to a thing or two –Butterfield Bules Band,Dylan– ahead of the geist) True, film’s are short and the auteur probabky needs to provides some cues. It may not, of course, always matter: one didn’t need a solid take on the quality of PALE FIRE’s Cantos to engage the novel. (Gotta read my copy of ENDERBY TRILOGY.)

  • jbryant

    Alex: In the sometimes rarefied world of jazz, any help the average viewer can get is probably appreciated. It’s at least good to know what other characters think about the protagonist’s music–whether it’s innovative, uninspired, status quo, etc. That way, even if we don’t “get” the music, we can still understand the narrative intent.

  • Alex

    jbryant
    Sure. I’d say he’s serious, gets gigs, sounds pretty good, has a shot, we go with his apirations and struggle. It’s all unsettled though, if the works not about an historical figuere or a fictional one with a clearly established status.

    Protagonist assessment in most films is a matter identification with the protagonist and his or her usually optimistic view of self.

  • Johan, I’d have to disagree that Cassavetes never tells us what to think about Ghost’s music. The character is pretty obviously a stand-in for Cassavetes himself, and the story, about a young genius led astray by money and fame, seems to represent a kind of flattering/paranoid fantasy about his own career, which at that point was pushing him to Hollywood. All of the group members fall into a reverential trance when they perform Ghost’s signature piece, and poor Stella Stevens has to mime cosmic bliss while she (or her voice double) warbles through the “no-singing singing” (as the Val Avery character puts it) that represents Ghost’s highest achievement. The piece was written by the venerable David Raksin (whose theme for “Laura” inspired more than one jazz musician), though it sounds more like the kind of “exotica” that Les Baxter and Martin Denny were putting out at the time. At the climax of the film, it’s enough for Stella to pipe a few measures of the tune for the former band members to abandon their anger at Ghost and fall, once again, into perfect harmony, united by Ghost’s transcendent genius.

  • Barry Putterman

    Interesting that TOO LATE BLUES would be framed as “pushing” the Cassavetes character to Hollywood when, in fact, he had been working there for years by the time of this film. Indeed, he had already starred in his own TV series, Universal’s “Peter Gunn” knockoff “Johnny Staccato.”

    You could actually look at Cassavetes’ overall career as a higher profile version of Orson Welles’ in that he was both more in demend for the acting jobs he used to finance his films and those films get better distribution in his native land.

    As I said, it has been a long, long time since I’ve seen TOO LATE BLUES, but I’m thinking that it might make an interesting compare/contrast with another paranoid fantasy about a performer/artist from a few years later, MICKEY ONE. Which is also another film which I haven’t seen since Hector was a pup.

  • Steve Elworth

    Barry, thanks for the double bill idea of Penn and JC . I have to agree with Dave though about TOO LATE BLUES pushing Cassavetes to Hollywood. His career as an actor is for the most part separate from his career as an actor. I do not think many people followed JC from THE DIRTY DOZEN to FACES. He usually did not act in his films but used his surrogates, Darin, Gazzara, Falk, Cassell and Rowlands. The weird thing about Raksin’s music is it’s Baxternees which is strange for the sound of an early 60s genius musician particularly from a director who just worked with an early 60s jazz genius , Charles Mingus. I assume that the substitution was Hollywood and Johnny Mandel was too expensive.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Dave, those are good arguments, and seen in this light I’m sure that you are right about Cassavetes intentions, especially in the final scene.

    What confused me is very well expressed by Steve Elworth: “The weird thing about Raksin’s music is it’s Baxternees which is strange for the sound of an early 60s genius musician particularly from a director who just worked with an early 60s jazz genius, Charles Mingus.”

    The music I expected from a misunderstood genius in a jazz movie from 1961 was probably something like Mingus, or even Ornette Coleman, who’s album “Free Jazz” was released the year before and couldn’t possibly be mistaken for Baxter and Denny.

    Maybe I should add that these days I listen to Baxter and Denny much more frequently than Ornette Colman. With Mingus it would be more like a draw.

  • Barry Putterman

    Steve, I take your point about Cassavetes using surrogates for himself in the films he directed, unlike Welles. However, I don’t see how you can seperate the acting career from the directing career so neatly. It is not as though he was two different people and one personality didn’t feel the experiences of the other.

    Cassavetes thoroughly knew the Hollywood ropes by the time of TOO LATE BLUES. He was attracted to and worked with people who were considered by Hollywood to be “rebels,” and knew what their experiences had been. In fact, I just recently looked at an episode of “Breaking Point” (late 1962) in which he appeared that was directed by Don Siegel (whom he worked with both before and after 1962).

    So, I wouldn’t question that TOO LATE BLUES reflects how Cassavetes saw himself. I’m just saying that it is not an accurate reflection of his history.

  • Cassavetes tried to “be cinematic” (referencing Dave K’s comment) in JOHNNY STACCATO, which has some pretty flashy compositions both in and out of the episodes signed by Cassavetes. J. Hoberman wrote an excellent piece about the show that describes the “Wellesian expressionism” of one of JC’s episodes:

    http://www.filmlinc.com/index.php/film-comment-2012/article/beat-street-johnny-staccato

  • Alex

    It’s hard tpo think that Cassavettes was using the music by David Raksin wth play and imrovization by Milt Bernhart (on trombone), Benny Carter (on saxophone), Shelly Manne (on drums), Red Mitchell (bass), Uan Rasey (trumpet), Jimmy Rowles (piano) and Tommy Tedesco (guitar) to have us think less than that Ghost struggle were far more than mere vanity.

  • Alex

    But for Jazz Film excellence (with Jazz film musical excellence) the film to beat is Tavanier’s ROUND MIDDNIGHT (with Dexter Gordon).

  • The whole question of improvisation in filmmaking, and especially in the context of Hollywood filmmaking is interesting. Going from Mingus to Raksin is quite a jump, and I think we can assume that Raksin was the studio’s choice, not Cassavettes’. Raksin was very talented, but also very control oriented. I interviewed him years ago, and asked him how much of the score for Too Late Blues was improvised. According to him, everything was written out except for a few brief solo passages. As good as Raksin was, he was the wrong person for the film. Or maybe Cassavettes’ was wrong in thinking he could make a film that really captured the feel of jazz within the Hollywood system.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Casey: What you say sounds right. The problem with the film to me is how the music is used. I can detect no interference from the studio with Cassavetes style as a director, but listening to the music there’s no real difference between what is supposed to be avant-garde and what is supposed to be sell out. Ghost’s band sounds good, but not very adventurous, and at least to me there is nothing off putting about his lounge piano playing.

    Alex: I agree about ROUND MIDNIGHT as the best jazz film, and I think Dexter Gordon is excellent as an actor in it. But isn’t he a bit past his peak as a player? I haven’t seen the film since it’s theatrical release (when I saw it a couple of times). But right after seeing the film for the first time I bought his album “Our Man in Paris” where the playing to me sounds much sharper than what we hear in the movie.

  • Alex

    Johan Andreasson,

    I don’t think Gordon’s playing for MIDNIGHT is a problem for the film, though it might not provide the best takes for one’s listening collection.

    How Davis’ music for ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS? (Although I love some Malle films –.eg., Le Feu follet and Murmer of the heart– I haven’t had a good enough opinoion of ELEVATOR to give it a remotely recent viewing.)

  • Johan Andreasson

    Sounds good to me:

    http://youtu.be/E-XVlrauLxc

  • Steve Elworth

    I love many of Raksin’s score and I love Benny Carter. My point is that the music as well played as it is far, far from any possible cutting edge that is supposed to make Ghost an outsider genius. Johnny Mandel’s work with Gerry Mulligan on I WANT TO LIVE brings us somewhat closer to the present. What Ghost really needs is to sound like Monk about whom similar things had been said since the 40s and he was about to get on the cover of TIME. i still listen to Ornette and company and I like my Denny and Baxter on soundtracks. But that is me.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well, it has always been something of a conundrum for a popular medium like narrative movies as to how it can present a “genius” of radical vision in a way that he and his vision will be sympathetic to the mass audience. Usually the answer was to set the story in the past and have the genius and the vision be something which is now a settled and accepted given.

    Awhile back, our topic here was THE GREAT WALTZ, and that is the perfect example of how this is done in the realm of music. The film came out at the time when swing had all but completely engulfed popular music, and a lot of older people were kind of nervous about it. So, the answer is to make a movie about a “genius” who introduces the waltz, which routs the previous minuet. The audience gets to identify themselves with “the cutting edge” and still dance out of theater in their comfortable, familiar way.

    A long time ago I saw a Republic musical called HIT PARADE OF 1947. Dave may be familiar with it since it was directed by Frank McDonald. As the title tells you, it came out at the time when bop was supplanting swing and some folks were a little nervous about it. The story here concerned a cabaret quartet which was spearheaded by a genius musical visionary played by Eddie Albert(!?). Only they couldn’t figure out what the quartet could actually perform which would stand for “radical” but still be acceptable to the viewers. So they had the lyrics to the song they performed be insulting to the audience. In fact, it was called “The Customer is Always Wrong.”

    The irony was that the movie had Woody Herman and his Orchestra doing a guest spot, and they actually DID play bebop which was acceptable to the audience. But there must have been some sort of reason why this couldn’t be acknowledged within the world of the film.

    Well, the thing is; Cassavetes didn’t care whether the audience liked the music. He didn’t care whether the audience liked the “genius.” He didn’t even care whether the audience liked the movie. And that is probably why he considered TOO LATE BLUES to be a failure and his directorial career didn’t re-ignite until the much different conditions of 1968. In retrospect, Cassavetes didn’t stand a ghost of a chance with early 60s Hollywood.

  • Steve Elworth

    Cassavetes’s failures in early 60s Hollywood are interesting in themselves and as the framework posed against his later films. Remember, he had tremendous success with some of the most radical narrative films of the 60s and 70s that were also extremely influential.

  • Jonah

    Well there certainly were other models for independent-minded filmmakers in and around mainstream Hollywood of the time. Martin Ritt was reasonably successful around that time with a series of mostly downbeat literary and theatrical adaptations, some of which even came within hailing distance of being “hip” (PARIS BLUES, HUD). This is probably the route many envisioned Cassavetes (who had acted for Ritt in EDGE OF THE CITY) taking. Obviously something went wrong, whether you want to chalk that up to Kramer’s interference on CHILD IS WAITING, Cassevetes’ general intransigence, the fact that his confrontational brand of psychodrama wasn’t particularly literary, or some combination of these and other factors…

  • Blake Lucas

    Re TOO LATE BLUES, the discussion of whether the Ghost is a great musician is interesting. I’m pretty fluent in jazz of the period and if I just heard that music, I wouldn’t say he is, but I had no problem suspending disbelief about this because the movie has its own reality. I agree with those who see a lot of Cassavetes and his own attitude toward himself as an artist in the character. I saw this just once quite awhile ago and liked it very much; in truth, it was an absorbing, unusual drama to me. Not like what Cassavetes did when he went back on his own, it’s true, but maybe it goes better for those of us who are interested in those films without necessarily being entranced by every moment in them.

    The greatest white jazz pianist of the time the film was made was surely Bill Evans, and if you didn’t know better, you might at times take him for an unusually good “lounge pianist.” He wasn’t really cutting edge, however musically sophisticated, except in creating deeper interplay within a trio during the precious time of his first trio with amazing, ill-fated bassist Scott La Faro. But that hardly matters–Evans was an exquisite player, deeply creative, haunting, arguably one of the great jazz musicians ever.

    Might also mention that many jazz musicians liked David Raksin and played his movie themes as jazz pieces; I’m especially thinking of both John Lewis and Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet. For example, you can hear THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL theme and “Slowly” from FALLEN ANGEL on Jackson’s STATEMENTS album.

    (God, it’s fun to get away with talking jazz here because of its relevance to the film.)

    Now to forget the music for the rest of this and say a few other things. First, comments that Cassavetes, though an actor, only uses those other actors mentioned in his films is plainly wrong–apart from his bits, he has major roles in three of them: HUSBANDS, OPENING NIGHT and LOVE STREAMS. So plainly, he himself IS part of his company of actors.

    Second, I would never take a director’s own evaluation–and especially dismissal–of a film too much to heart. Whether they originated it or felt it was never their project, came in late, dropped out early, or whatever, it’s fair for us to use our own judgement of whether we see them in it, and for that matter whether that director accomplished something in the work or not. This definitely applies to TOO LATE BLUES–and maybe BIG TROUBLE too (I haven’t seen that but its advocates here have persuaded me it’s wrong to dismiss it as irrelevant to Cassavetes).

    A good example of what I’m talking about–in a Cahiers du Cinema interview once, the interviewer (sorry I can’t remember who now) asked Carl Dreyer about TWO PEOPLE and Dreyer answered “That doesn’t exist.” But the interviewer said he’d seen it and it did exist. Those of us who have now seen it will agree with him. When I had the opportunity to see it, it was unsubtitled (I believe that’s no longer true–and maybe we can hope for a DVD release) but it held me even so and I saw the Dreyer I know in the mise-en-scene, even if it did seem this wasn’t on a level of DAY OF WRATH, ORDET or GERTRUD. It turned out that Dreyer’s rejection of the film had to do with being stuck with a different actor and actress than the ones he wanted. This sounds just like Cassavetes getting stuck with Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens in TOO LATE BLUES–both excellent as Dave pointed out in his piece. And similarly I think Dreyer did well with the people he had. One measures a director by how they realize a film with what is at hand–blue lamp or actors they didn’t choose or whatever.

  • Alex

    I son’t know wthat it means to say that Bill Evans “wasn’t really cutting edge” when he played for Myles Davis’ sextet in 1958 and, then again, at Davis’s request, for the recording of Kind of Blue in early 1959.
    of course maybe Kind of Blue was less at the cuttimng edge of jazz than it was its apogee. (No “edge” to Evans Evans trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian?)

    Indeed, wasn’t Evans, with Davis, at the very edge with the appearance of modal jazz? Wasn’t he eventually at the ultimate frontier of playing very, very slow?