PETER WATKINS made a film a few years ago called The War Game, about what happens when a nuclear bomb is dropped on England. Watkins wanted to create something real for his audience that they had never experienced before. It was a blatantly anti-war film: if only people could realize how horrible even "tactical" nuclear weapons can be, then even talking about them would be obscene, building them unthinkable. To make the film as shocking as possible, Watkins decided to make it look like a television documentary. An off-camera interviewer is asking radiation victims, "Well, how do you feel now, with your country destroyed and everyone sick or dead? How do you feel?" This is all very sad. To make something as real as he could, Watkins structured nuclear war as an event, as a lousy event you watch on CBS Reports on Thursday night.
The technique that Watkins used can be called phony cinema verite. Cinema verite is the filming of something normal, spontaneous, not interfered with by a director. Watkins wanted his film to look like that, even though, of course, it was not that. Orson Welles used this same technique in the opening newsreel sequence of Citizen Kane.
And now we have Faces, which is a film by John Cassavetes about upper-middle class America. Again, the idea is to make something that we would never see--or, in this case, never notice too well--real for us. Again, Cassavetes uses this phony cinema verite. But it is cinema verite without the verite, only the trappings of a spontaneous film: the pictures are grainy, the sound is very poor, the actors talk over each other's lines, the camera is made to seem like a spy or an intruder.
But the effect of all this, even more clearly than in the Watkins film, is distance. We do not get close to the characters at all this way for two reasons. First, Cassavetes is unwilling to admit that he is making a film, unwilling to admit the limitations of two hours of two dimensions on canvas. The reality that has to be created within those limitations is its own reality, the reality of the film, not the reality of people who just happen to walk in front of a camera. For what Cassavetes was trying to do, the most effective thing would be to prop a camera up and film an evening at Ken's Delicatessen.
Second, Cassavetes affronts us with something that is cleverly planned to look spontaneous, but is not spontaneous at all. Throughout the movie, we feel like voyeurs, guilty, but we are are not voyeurs. In Faces, this kind of phoniness becomes obvious after a while, and we are ambivalent about what we are watching. All we can say at first is, "Why, isn't that Cassavetes clever! It looks so real!" But the reasons it looks so real are its technical sloppiness, its planned spontaneity (which might work if we could not see through it eventually), and its mundane subject.
THE MORAL of this film is "Tut, tut, middle class." Yes, here we have marvelous adulterers right before our very eyes. Middle class boozers who cheat on their wives. Fat old men who tell dirty jokes, bad dirty jokes. Cassavetes is working with a theme that has been sucked dry by better men than he. But Cassavetes is desperate. This is about Faces after all, so he keeps flashing close-ups of faces on the screen, quickly, back and forth. Sure, it is shocking. The same as seeing an oversize knee jerking out at you. Cassavetes has discovered something about film: you can make it look bigger than real life.
Whether this film is real to you or not depends on who you are. This review is only to show why this film was not real to me, why I was offended by it, cheated by it.
People were giggling during certain scenes in Casablanca that seemed to be a bit too real for them to take. I did not hear them giggling at Faces, and, perversely, I conclude that it is because the film was not real enough to move them to embarrassment.