Cassavetes’s Husbands: Death, Funerals, and New York

“[Cassavetes] replaces the exhausted artifices of conventional movies with a new set of pseudo-realistic ones, which are mostly instantaneous clichés. As a writer-director, he’s so dedicated to revealing the pain under the laughter he’s a regular Pagliacci.” – Pauline Kael, Husbands

Image of John Cassavetes

I have to give a huge thanks to a YouTuber from Canada, AlexeiPachinko, who made John Cassavetes’s 1970 film Husbands available in its entirety on YouTube over 19 installments. Now it is pretty obvious that this is not the best way to watch any film, no less one by Cassavetes. But for me -a perpetually homesick New Yorker who constantly wants to revisit parts of this film which I first saw in the warm arms of UCLA’s Melnitz theater during the early 90s -this was like the discovery of oxygen. More than any other film, Husbands reflects my own traumatically romantic relationship to New York. Now this was one of the few Cassavetes’s films generally trashed by critics (Kael in particular hated pretty much all of his films) for being too self-indulgent, misogynistic, overly long, and without any real compelling focus. That being the case, however, I can’t help returning to so many scenes and images from this film again and again -especially more recently.


Opening Funeral scene: “Archie, I’m telling you, don’t believe truth!”

The opening of this film, from the credits through the end of the funeral scene (along with the scene on the subway and streets scenes in section two on YouTube), may very well be the most powerfully emulsified visions of New York burnt upon my psyche. Let me start by saying New York is not America, it is New York -the two should never be confounded or conflated. New York (and Long Island in particular) is, at least for me, a space of memories fueled by unmanageable chaos framed by a childlike freedom that is everywhere imbued with death. At my Mother’s house the kitchen table served as the focus for life and death. The table’s lazy susan always had a fresh pot of coffee, a carton or two of Marlboro 100s (with the Gold colored foil mind you), and an assortment of ashtrays -all of which constantly revolved around unending conversations about everything- but most of which constantly turned back to death. I wouldn’t have characterized my mother as an overly morbid person, in fact she was full of life and energy having raised seven children almost single-handedly, but as with most people from Queens, Brooklyn, and Nassau County, tracking, discussing, and living within the specter of death is a communal art of preparing one another for the inevitable.


The Final scene just makes me want to cry, especially when Cassevetes sees his children after an extended weekend debauch in London.

I miss my Mom a lot these days, and the poetic vision of Husbands that draws the beautifully coarse textures of New York during the 1970s frames a landscape in which I was being prepared for death, and in many ways being a husband, a father, and, more importantly, a mortal. This film is not only a curative for my own struggles with endings and saying goodbye, but a constant reminder of Cassavetes own untimely death as a father of two and a husband of one of my first boyhood, mother-loving crushes on Gena Rowlands (solely based on her performance in Gloria). The last five minutes of Husbands embodies how film is simultaneously a sepulcher of the past as much as it is a way of coming to terms with and transcending the confined imaginings of what is now gone. How? I don’t know exactly. I do know, however, that I miss John Cassavetes. How can I miss someone I never knew? Well, I imagine that is caught up with how someone who I never knew and is almost dead twenty years can continue to give me a meaningful memory from my childhood I never had in order to help me deal with loss in the present so that I can prepare myself for the future. I also know that I miss my mother very, very much these days.

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7 Responses to Cassavetes’s Husbands: Death, Funerals, and New York

  1. Tony D'Ambra says:

    A brave post Jim. Not many of us would be so open about such deeply personal feelings.

    As I have never seen a Cassavetes film nor set foot in the US let alone NY, my conception of NY life is a phantasmagoria of impressions from movies, television and books, and the only reality I can share with you is family.

    My mother passed away last month at 91 years, and I know I will always miss her as painfully as I do know. When you lose your mother you lose a part of your soul.

    And life at home was also lived around the kitchen table of a working class house. But death was rarely spoken of by her, and strangely perhaps she never prepared us for her death, even in the last dark days sinking in and out of delirium.

    At 54, I am closer to mortality than I feel comfortable with, and in the final analysis, each of us must face the end alone, and can we ever be prepared?

    A couple of nights ago, I watched the 2006 movie, The Fountain, with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. It was painful but equally cathartic. I don’t know where this line from the film originated, but it strangely resonates: “Death is the path to awe.”

  2. jimgroom says:

    Tony,

    Thanks for an equally brave comment. It is really amazing to see how much your own dealing with loss is also framed by the films you love. So many of your thoughts above reflect the very topics you are so obviously passionate about. Your notion of the “last dark days” and “each of us must face the end alone” seem to reflect the uncertainties of existence that makes Film Noir, in particular, such a powerfully existential genre (and I really do think it’s more of a genre than a style most of the time). The idea that we are all somehow alone is at the center of most great Noirs. Just think of your recent blog post on The Killers: during the Swedes final moments -for which he is both unprepared and horrified- in the face of imminent and certain death he refuses to run away. Additionally, we can see the convulsive loneliness of his death through the brilliant shot that lingers on only his hand gripping the bed post.

    Thanks for the amazing comment, Tony, and I am ever grateful for your ability to constantly fuel my filmically wired memory machine of a brain on a regular basis.

  3. Martha says:

    Jim,

    This is a beautiful, haunting post. Your love for your mother and the loss you feel resonates throughout. As Tony says, it is a brave thing to put out there, and that fact makes it all the more powerful.

    As someone who has always shard a very special bond with her own mother and who now finds herself in the often bewildering condition of *being* a mother, I am particularly moved.

    I thought I understood this kind of bond, until Madigan was born. To hear your words, spoken from the other side, reminds me why I still often feel like my daughter is this living, breathing, bodily extension of myself. The love I have for her is simply raw. For me, that kind of raw love is the truest, barest kind there is. And your words here bring that all back to me.

    Martha

  4. Tony D'Ambra says:

    Thanks Jim. You have said I what I wanted to say about The Killers, and didn’t, because I couldn’t put the words together. And thanks also for the psychoanalysis – your thoughts have made me see connections I wasn’t consciously aware of.

    You are likely right that it is more fruitful to consider noir as a genre rather than a style, but I have this feeling that a film is not only what is inside the frame on the screen, but also includes what each engaged viewer brings to it. In the case of film noir, I would call this a “noir sensibility”.

    Cool Hand Luke (1967) comes to mind. This movie is not considered a noir , but for me it’s power can be understood with a noir sensibility. Luke is an outsider, battling at all costs for existential freedom, to the point of nihilism but with an unwavering integrity. His death at the end of the film while not passive, is to me as strongly inevitable as the Swede’s. And talking of mothers, the scene where Luke’s dying mother visits him in jail from the back of a pickup is perhaps one of the strongest evocations of the bond between a mother and son I have seen on the screen. She can see his destruction and is powerless to stop it, and the biblical allegory is reinforced when we realise that the driver of the pickup is the resentful brother who stayed at home.

  5. jimgroom says:

    @Martha- Thanks, kinda explains the funk, no? I love the way you frame these feelings as raw, because that really hits at the heart of the matter for me. Sometimes the ideas of civility, culture, and everything else respectable are stripped when these deep, and at times dark (as Toy suggests), emotions emerge to the surface. The framing them as raw doesn’t necessarily moralize them, yet captures a state and way of feeling much better than melancholic, solipsistic, or self-indulgent. Raw is that nerve you don’t want to aggravate in fear of both the pain and the fact that you ultimately have to do something about it. Raw is right.

    @Tony -forgive the psycho-analysis, I’m a terrible analyst -but your own framing of a similar loss hit more o the very personal level of making sense of these things (and even turning them into generative and artful experiences) has so much to do with reading them through the fictional narratives that speak so powerfully to us.

    “Noir as a sensibility” -brilliant! This speaks even more pointedly to the power of these narratives to transcend genre and style. I forgot about the scene where is mother visits him in the pickup -all I can say is exactly! I didn’t remember that scene ’til you framed it for me here, and now I have to re-visit Cool Hand Luke as Noir -I love that kind of creative film reading! And I love the fact that I can have these deeply personal experiences with you in what seems like a impersonal environment. Awesome stuff. Thanks again, Tony.

  6. malover says:

    One of the best films I’ve ever seen. Astonishing, hilarious moments in casino and hotel.

  7. Shannon says:

    Jim
    What a lovely and inspiring post. A beautiful intertwining of film, life, death, love and New York.
    I can only agree with the many things you have said. The ability of films to evoke those raw feelings, to connect us back to those we have lost but, have not stopped loving.
    That is one things I love about art, and I use that term in a very broad sense. The way it evokes something in us to the point we could even mourn the loss of the creator (who we might not even know). Their work has drawn a line for us, cut another path, back in time to people and places. Truly a remarkable gift.
    Thank you for this post.
    Shannon

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