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