FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

A repository for saving film threads.
The Modernist

FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby The Modernist » 08 Jun 2008, 01:13

A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes 1974)

A gruelling, unremitting film, but also one underscored with a real humanity. Perhaps the most intriguing thing is that Rowlands madness is never explained. I don't think this should be simply seen as the absence of a back story, but more there is a whole history here you feel the characters themselves don't understand. What causes Rowlands madness? The pressure of being a mother perhaps, she has three children in quick succession perhaps at quite an advanced age. Again we don't know how long they've been married, instead we are asked to focus on the here and now as the characters try to get through this the best they can. The film is full of rituals, attempts at happy families that inevitably end badly. For all the constant attention of family and friends they are as helpless as Falk in trying to help Mabel.
In fact it is only when the two are alone that we see some knd of strength and bond that may pull them through. Interestingly in Mabel's absence Nick is as crazy as she is, disintergrating totally as he tries to play the role of "father". It is as if he actually needs her madness to resume some patriachal self-sacrificing role as the "man of the house".
Anway I'm fascinated to hear people's comments, this discussion could go in all sorts of directions..

The Modernist

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby The Modernist » 08 Jun 2008, 19:08

Am I the only one who bothered with this? The thread has barely been opened.

User avatar
the masked man
Schadenfreude
Posts: 26602
Joined: 21 Jul 2003, 12:29
Location: Peterborough

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby the masked man » 08 Jun 2008, 19:11

I'm watching it tonight, once the football's over - honest! There'll be a full review then.

User avatar
Davey the Fat Boy
Posts: 22494
Joined: 05 Jan 2006, 02:55
Location: Applebees

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 08 Jun 2008, 23:23

As I said before, I'm unable to find a copy - so I'll have to go by memory.

What lingers in my memory of the film is that it was such a vivid portrait of co-dependency, long before that concept was widely understood. This family functions the way a lot of families do. Their strange rituals bind them. People assume roles and stick to them. Everybody muddles along.

Of course this family is extreme. Their house is extreme (I recall it being overstuffed with people and knick-knacks). Their dysfunction is extreme. You wonder what the adult lives of these kids will be.

But at the center of the film is Gene Rowlands in what I consider one of the greatest perfromances ever caught on screen (when we made our top 10 actor/actress lists, you might recall I picked Rowlands - largely on the strength of this film). She is mentioned in the title, but what is the "influence" she is under in Cassavette's view? It would be easier to count the influences she is not "under". Certainly she is suffering from mental illness, and certainly she self-medicates and indulges in destructive behavior. But she is also under the influence of a husband and a family ill-prepared to help her - or even give her the room to help herself. She occupies the roles of "wife" and "mother". It is her job to take care of them.

In short, the tragedy of this film is that it is the same drama playing out in houses everywhere. Usually less extreme, but sometimes not. And sadly, we as a society are as inequipped to deal with it as anybody in that house.

Anyhow - I'm looking forward to reading more about this film. It's been a long time since I've seen it, so forgive me if my memory of it is inaccurate.
Last edited by Davey the Fat Boy on 09 Jun 2008, 03:31, edited 1 time in total.
Marginal BCB contributor since 2006

Image

User avatar
the masked man
Schadenfreude
Posts: 26602
Joined: 21 Jul 2003, 12:29
Location: Peterborough

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby the masked man » 09 Jun 2008, 01:21

I've watched this tonight, and I was taken aback at just how powerful it is - it's maybe twenty years since I saw it, and I'm really glad I revisited it. A full set of comments will follow tomorrow, but for now I'll just say this. Further to Davey's comments, it seems to me that the problem with this family (and,by extension, every family, though maybe not to this degree) is that everybody's trying to do the right thing, yet no-one is really aware of what the right thing is. So often, I felt that situations could have been coped with if the right words or actions could have arisen, but this almost never happened. A terrible mess ensued. This time I was actually focusing more on Peter Falk's character (the husband), who means well but just can't control his temper - there's even uneasy humour around the fact that he keeps ordering people to 'have fun', and then wonders why this has the opposite effect.

It's a towering film, one of the best US films of the 1970s.

User avatar
Still Baron
Diamond Geezer
Posts: 41980
Joined: 18 Jul 2003, 05:38
Location: Impregnable Citadel of Technicality

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby Still Baron » 09 Jun 2008, 01:28

Davey is Fat wrote:AsI sad before, I'm unable to find a copy.


Yep - not available on Netflix = not available to me.
take5_d_shorterer wrote:If John Bonham simply didn't listen to enough Tommy Johnson or Blind Willie Mctell, that's his doing.

User avatar
Quaco
F R double E
Posts: 45829
Joined: 16 Jul 2003, 19:41

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby Quaco » 10 Jun 2008, 07:20

I'm sorry, guys, I haven't watched it either. :oops: My copy is being borrowed by a friend at the moment. But the feeling I got last time I saw it was that she really wasn't that crazy. And even if she was, it didn't make much difference. She wasn't hurting anything. What she really needed was for her husband to not be so embarrassed by her, to accept her the way she is -- certainly she did some weird or wrong things, but so much of what she did was great and motivated by fun and love -- but alas, he was stuck between his private love (more or less) for her, and sort of not really being very smart guy and having too many worries about what people might think. I felt sorry for her more than anything. I really felt she needed some hugs and understanding more than treatment or "help".
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

User avatar
mentalist (slight return)
under mi sensi
Posts: 14248
Joined: 17 Jul 2003, 10:54
Location: Sydney
Contact:

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby mentalist (slight return) » 10 Jun 2008, 07:30

I don't think I've ever watched a Cassavetes film :oops:

I couldnae get this one in time but am interested in reading what everyone says. I remember reading that his style was very fluid and improvisational, and he believed that anyone working in one of his films should be able to do anyone else's role.
king of the divan

User avatar
the masked man
Schadenfreude
Posts: 26602
Joined: 21 Jul 2003, 12:29
Location: Peterborough

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby the masked man » 11 Jun 2008, 00:24

OK, some thoughts. And before we start I'll warn that there will be spoilers - it's hard to discuss the film thoroughly without mentioning what happens.

Because Cassavetes' films have a strong naturalistic pull, it's easy to underestimate how skilled he is as a director. This initially feels almost artlessly lifelike, but is actually more sophisticated than that. It's perhaps his most deliberately structured film, broken up into a small series of lengthy but discrete scenes, taking place before and after Mabel is committed to an asylum. What struck me this time is how expertly choreographed the film is; in particular, the 'spaghetti breakfast' scene is bustles with controlled movement, and this is later echoed in the chaotic 'homecoming party' scene. In the more intimate sequences, Cassavetes employs a more intimate shooting style, using uncomfortably extreme close-ups.

The second point to make is, as G says, that the nature of Mabel's madness is left obscure. The backstory is left to our imaginations, and I'm guessing that she is possibly less insane than she might appear. I'm not denying that her approach to childcare could charitably be described as eccentric, but this does suggest that she needs help, rather than hospitalisation - and this is help that no-one is willing to supply. Is she merely being punished for her social gaucheness, which seems to be a result of her eagerness to please, and her over-done attempts to counteract her shyness? The half-humorous scene where Mabel harangues passers-by for the time is intriguingly double-edged. Initially our response is perhaps an ungenerous 'look at the crazy lady'. Yet this scene could also be seen as an attack on the selfishness and coldness of straight society; would it really have hurt the passers-by to tell her what the time was?

Ultimately, Nick, played by Peter Falk, is a similarly obscure figure, who is barely more stable as a person. His comically misguided approach to human relationships is to order everyone to have a good time. And he produces the most shocking example of mistreatment of the children; giving these pre-teens beer essentially to quieten them down. Yet he is perceived as a more acceptable figure to society despite his shocking lack of responsibility; this is partly because he exists in a social arena - his ultra-masculine workplace - which gives him a clear role, and space to work off his frustrations. Stuck at home, Mabel has no such outlet. So she drinks, and acts kooky. At the same time, Nick is not a total monster; just occasionally, when alone with Mabel, he is capable of tenderness and understanding.

The film's lengthy conclusion is truly hard to watch. Initially arranging a huge party for Mabel, Nick soon realises this is a poor idea, and chases away all non-relatives. Yet what remains is just as bad - faced with the alternately disapproving and patronising attitudes of the remaining family members, Mabel goes to pieces. There are a number of point-of-view shots used judiciously here, showing how Mabel sees these sour, pinched faces, sitting in judgement over her; no wonder she reacts so badly. Yet the final scene, showing quiet domestic arrangements once the crowd has dispersed, almost display hope; the suggestion is that Nick and Mabel still love each other, and may still be able to scrape an existence together.

There's actually a lot of substance is this film, and I may add to this later - there's plenty more to comment on. Tonight, though, I'll conclude by registering shock that it can't be found easily on DVD in North America. It's a key film in one of the richest eras for American cinema - truly dismaying that Netflix can't produce the goods here. British viewers can be assured that there is a DVD out here, available from Amazon and other leading leading outlets.

User avatar
Still Baron
Diamond Geezer
Posts: 41980
Joined: 18 Jul 2003, 05:38
Location: Impregnable Citadel of Technicality

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby Still Baron » 11 Jun 2008, 03:45

the masked man wrote:Tonight, though, I'll conclude by registering shock that it can't be found easily on DVD in North America. It's a key film in one of the richest eras for American cinema - truly dismaying that Netflix can't produce the goods here. British viewers can be assured that there is a DVD out here, available from Amazon and other leading leading outlets.


Someone in a good city with a good video store could probably run it down, but I don't have ready access to either.
Netflix is generally pretty good.

Currently sharing space in my "Unavailable Queue" with A Woman Under the Influence are:

Last Year at Marienbad
Fritz Lang's Indian Epic
Rumpole Seasons 1 & 2
Leon Morin, Pretre
Sons of the Desert
Sunrise
take5_d_shorterer wrote:If John Bonham simply didn't listen to enough Tommy Johnson or Blind Willie Mctell, that's his doing.

User avatar
Quaco
F R double E
Posts: 45829
Joined: 16 Jul 2003, 19:41

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby Quaco » 11 Jun 2008, 04:32

I think this box is still available in North America.

Image

It's just that it's a bit expensive. But you get Shadows, Faces, Woman Under the Influence, Killing of a Chinese Bookie (two versions), and Opening Night, plus a documentary and tons of extras. So totally worth it.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The Modernist

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby The Modernist » 11 Jun 2008, 16:39

Thanks for that Andrew, I really enjoyed reading that and I agree with your reading of the film.
One of the interesting things about the film is the way it switches narrative attitudes about half way through. For the first half of the film I found myself in sympathy with Nick. I think this sympathy is gained partly because Cassavetes trades in on our typical film stereotypical views of blue collar workers: we think of Nick as a down to earth blue collar type of guy who is just doing his best, in very difficult circumstances, to balance his work demands and difficult homelife. He seems to demonstrate a kind of beleagured patience finding time for his wife and kids even when he is beat (the scene when he comes home from work desperately needing o sleep but finding himself having to entertain his family for instance). This sympathetic representation is of course very familiar to us from wider American popular culture (think of the representation of blue collar workers in Bruce Springsteen songs for instance).
The key scene where this characterisation begins to be overturned is the one where the doctor sections Mabel. Nick calls the doctor but when he arrives absolves all responsibility. Indeed the dominant person in this scene is his mother. Nick literally shrinks within the frame, hovering at the back of the composition. From this point we begin to see things from Mabel's perspective, aided as Andrew observes by the increasing number of POV shots from her viewpoint. This also allows us to view Nick's earlier behaviour far more critically- bringing twelve workmates home for your wife to cook breakfast for them is a very odd thing to do when you think about it. The last half an hour is crucial for putting Mabel's "madness" within a wider context: the lack of support she receives throughout the film, and pertinently from her own father in the last few scenes, is palpable.
Andrew what did you think of the editing? Most of it is cut in the expected manner of a naturalistic movie with long takes etc. But there were two peculiar examples of discontinuity editing: One where his workmate has the accident which shown in rapid jump cuts (it's actually difficult to see what actually happens here) and another where the scene with the doctor is cut abruptly mid scene to a shot of Nick sitting in the car. This kind of sudden ellipsis didn't seem to fit with the neo-realist style employed elsewhere in the film. I'm not saying it was a bad thing, but it did feel a little odd.
On a totally different point, it is a scandal that Cassavetes most critically acclaimed work is unavailable in North America on DVD.

User avatar
Davey the Fat Boy
Posts: 22494
Joined: 05 Jan 2006, 02:55
Location: Applebees

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 11 Jun 2008, 17:10

I like to think of the Nick in terms of abdication of responsibility. Whatever his madness, it's likely not brain chemistry. He starts off as the more sympathetic character because his demands seem so well intentioned. He's Disneyland dad - wanting the kids to have fun and his friends to feel welcome in his home. How can that be judged negatively. The early part of the film judges him as a lovable eccentric dealing with a cheating spouse with likely clinical depression. Of course we favor him.

But Cassavettes doesn't leave it there. He makes us watch as Nick fails to step up to the plate over and over again. It is Nick insisting that everybody in the house continue to play roles in a play that isn't working. In effect, he's chosen the "play" over reality. His family needs him to stop pretending that everything is okay and take charge. He does not have it in him. He can't be the strong one. Even when he calls the doctor, his goal is to get her strong enough to take care of the family again. Something she may realistically never be able to do.

Most Cassavettes films are about role playing - Opening Night most obviously. He was seemingly fascinated with the comfort that human beings take in assuming a role - even when it contradicts with the circumstances they are actually experiencing.
Marginal BCB contributor since 2006

Image

User avatar
the masked man
Schadenfreude
Posts: 26602
Joined: 21 Jul 2003, 12:29
Location: Peterborough

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby the masked man » 11 Jun 2008, 22:57

je suis le moderniste wrote: But there were two peculiar examples of discontinuity editing: One where his workmate has the accident which shown in rapid jump cuts (it's actually difficult to see what actually happens here) and another where the scene with the doctor is cut abruptly mid scene to a shot of Nick sitting in the car. This kind of sudden ellipsis didn't seem to fit with the neo-realist style employed elsewhere in the film. I'm not saying it was a bad thing, but it did feel a little odd.


Funny you should say that - I actually thought there was something wrong with the DVD when the doctor scene ended so abruptly. Only after checking the settings did I realise that it was supposed to be like that. I can only guess that it was a conscious decision by Cassavetes not to show any of Mabel's incarceration, which you could claim starts with her being injected with the sedative. Hence, he cuts at the moment before this happens. It does leave a curious impression, as you say - it draws attention to itself, which is somewhat counter to the principles of cinematic naturalism. It's an odd choice however you look at it.

User avatar
Quaco
F R double E
Posts: 45829
Joined: 16 Jul 2003, 19:41

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby Quaco » 12 Jun 2008, 17:03

je suis le moderniste wrote:On a totally different point, it is a scandal that Cassavetes most critically acclaimed work is unavailable in North America on DVD.

You have me on ignore, mate? :) So much can be had for a mere $80-90.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

User avatar
Velvis
Mellowed down easy
Posts: 15790
Joined: 16 Jul 2003, 23:21
Location: on Grand Street, where the neon madmen climb

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby Velvis » 12 Jun 2008, 18:14

I just found easily it on Pirate Bay. I get most of what I watch there now. I get it faster than Netflix and I have a wide computer screen with good sound.
a gibbon running freely

The Modernist

Re: FILM CLUB - A Woman Under The Influence

Postby The Modernist » 13 Aug 2010, 11:56

Bump for moving.