Thursday, September 18, 2014

Swing First, Ask Questions Later: MINNIE & MOSKOWITZ

There are a couple of things to bear in mind while watching the spiky romance that is John Cassavetes' Minnie & Moskowitz (1971). First of all, if you view it through eyes that are even remotely politically correct, you're sure to be horrifiedthe characters (usually the men) resort to violence and unnerving, stalkery behavior on a regular basis. Which is where the second consideration comes in: this lovestruck free-for-all is intended as a scrappy homage to 1930s screwball comedy, so it's as much cartoon as it is romancethe violence, despite the gritty 1970s textures and vérité-like camerawork, shouldn't be taken too seriously.

In fact, as far as Cassavetes films go, Minnie & Moskowitz is considered a frothy romp. But like the director's other, more serious work (such as Faces and A Woman Under the Influence), it offers its share of darkness and disillusionment amid the romancewhich makes it all the more affecting. In some ways it's a shaggier, less clenched forebear to Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, one of the few films it's comparable to. I like its scatterbrained quality, its unpredictability, the tossed-off nature of its handheld camera and its unusual editing rhythms (scenes often end a beat or two before you expect). I also like the growling, dissatisfied incidental characters who unexpectedly emerge from the background to claim flesh-and-blood lives before ceding the spotlight back to the film's stars.

And of course I love the stars, Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel, both looking impossibly young, trading barbs and blows and enough psychological handwringing to fill a year of therapy sessions. Rowlands, resembling a curious hybrid of Lauren Bacall and Community's Gillian Jacobs, plays Minnie, a lonely Los Angeles thirtysomething who feels tricked by the impossible promises of the movies. When she's not seeing the abusive married man she's in love with (played, darkly of course, by husband Cassavetes), she consoles herself by getting blotto with an older female coworker who admits that, no, the urge to connect with the opposite sex doesn't lessen with age. Resigned to never attaining her one, true Gableor even BogartMinnie finds herself at loose ends with nothing better to do than meet a blind date just so she can tell him she doesn't want to meet him.

The resulting lunch date is sad and pathetic and hilarious in all the right ways, due almost entirely to Val Avery's brilliant, turn-on-a-dime, creep-to-sympathetic loser-to-unregenerate asshole performance. When the dust settles, Minnie has had her first run-in with Cassel's Moskowitz (literally). A walrusy, live-wire parking attendant whom we've already seen exhibit some mighty questionable behavior back in New York, Seymour Moskowitz is the kind of raging, inarticulate romantic who today would be blissfully dosed out on Zanaxa condition for which we as viewers would be all the poorer. Sure, you wouldn't want to run into this guy in real life (or have him, more likely, run into you), but his violent lapses and earnest possessiveness make him an intensely watchable movie character. And because Cassel is ultimately so sympathetic, he can't help exerting a strangely disconcerting charm.

At least he does on Minnie, who becomes alternately terrified of and resigned to Seymour's odd method of contact-courting. (Just keep telling yourself: "It's a cartoon. It's a cartoon.") Not that Minnie doesn't give as good as she getsshe's feisty when provokedbut she's perhaps too shellshocked by her own desperate loneliness to really grasp how potentially dangerous someone like Seymour could be. Instead she calculates that being with a man who so passionately cares for her is preferable to contemplating the room tone and odd frequencies reverberating inside her big, empty home. And who knows, maybe Seymour's tender bullying is just what she needs to escape her spiral of self-reflection and despair. If he doesn't break her jaw, he just might save her.

There's something clearly preposterous about the pairing of Minnie's highbrow museum curator and Seymour's working-class schlub (as Seymour's mother is only too happy to point out). But then how many classic movie couples actually exhibit some semblance of real-life compatibility? As Minnie knows only too well, fantasy is Hollywood's stock-in-trade. Which is why it's the guy riding the heroine's last nerves, and not the perfectly matched, entirely respectable Ralph Bellamy figure, who ends up escorting the bride to the altar. Sure, we get swept up enough to believe it, at least until the end credits. But afterwards, the nagging doubts and questions begin, and in our heart of hearts we expect those two mismatched kids to end up either in divorce court or, like Seymour and Minnie, trading blows till death do them part.

And that seems to be Cassavetes' point: even in a movie filled with intense, naturalistic performances, edgy camerawork, and messy emotion, it's still only just a movie, right? And in movies, despite the odds, love is determined to conquer all. Especially when accompanied by a solid right to the kisser.

NOTE: This title expired on 11/30/14. If you're considering purchasing the DVD, unfortunately the U.S. release is long out of print. But international buyers, or anyone with a multi-region player, may want to consider the PAL release at the link below.

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