A Woman under the Influence – John Cassavetes (USA 1974) Gina Rolands; Peter Falk
Viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne; 12 Feb 2009;
Ticket price: £4-00
retrocrit, Adrin Neatrour writes: accept me as I am or leave the cinema.
The wondrous nature of Woman Under the Influence (WUI) is that in its form, as film, WUI replicates in itself the actual state of its subjects’ (Mabel/Nick) responses to the stimuli to which they are exposed.
Created out of intensive workshops involving players director/writer and technical crew, WUI in the nature of its conception, comprises a parallel filmic track of Mabel/Nick’s symptoms of disturbance so fashioned as to mimic its subjects behaviour. WUI does not proceed by orthodox sensory motor linkages but rather by a series of scenes which alternate in presenting to the audience what are predominately pure optical or sound situations. Both WUI, as a film entity and Mabel/Nick, as characters in the film, present what initially seems a disbalanced juxtapositioning of responses. The structural shifts between the world of work and the citadel of home, between her silence and his vociferation seem initially disjointed. However the structure of WUI finally overcomes audience resistance and reveals itself as an intensely vital reaction to the cultural nightmare of individual entrapment and the usual clichéd melodramatic media representation of individual disturbance. The consequence is the audience leaves the cinema with a deepened sense of foreboding about what it has witnessed.
A key scene takes place in the first part of the film in which Nick (Mabel’s husband), in the morning brings home the 8 men of his work gang to eat after a hard nights emergency work. (He tells them she’s a good wife but sometimes acts a bit strange) The men turn up at the door, like Medieval warriors, and enter the house where Mabel cooks spaghetti for them. The long scene takes place in the dining room where Mabel presides at the head of the long table. These are all people who know each other to some extent but are not necessarily comfortable with each other. In the typical Hollywood sensory motor schema the scene would be characterised by the banter of naturalistic dialogue. But Cassavetes solution is to treat it initially as a pure optical situation. It is what we see that is important: the body language, the clothes. the shapes and ethnicity of the faces, these are what stamp their impression on the first part of this scene. Something is happening. The scene then suddenly switches in form. WUI changes from being a pure optical into a pure sound situation as one by one the men take turns to sing starting with one man’s rendering of a Verdi aria. Drawn by the power of the voice, Mabel gets up and approaches each of the singers, mutely, getting so close to them that it is as if she wants to get inside them to discover where this beautiful music is coming from. Her behaviour engenders what Nick sees as inappropriate physical contact and triggers a terse verbally violent control move on his part. WUI presents a pure optical situation transmuting into a pure sound situation that leads to a dramatic resolution.
WUI uses this splitting of optical and sound situations to realise dramatic form throughout the film. The children’s party sequence, the committal sequence, the family parties are all constituted as separations of sound and picture. The creation of composition out of sound and optical elements changes the experience of time. The long takes comprising only compositional elements become time images, sequences in which we are as conscious of time as a dynamic in the process rather than action. It seems to me critical that both of understanding both WUI and the mental disturbances which it answers, can only be understood in the context of time – the dimension missing from most action/image films.
Mabel and Nick’s behaviour like WUI’s form is also composed through explorations of discrete optical and sound representation. Roland’s presents a predominantly optical presentation of Mabel, a characterisation she has created to be visually experienced by the audience. Her dresses, her faces, her positioning in the room (standing on the couch for instance) and her gestural responses constitute a filmically pure visual series of statements. When she switches to a vocal mode, as when playing with the children, the sounds she makes are emitted as a series of nonsensical utterances: an abstracted sound. The strength in the film lies in the playing of Mabel as a pure optical situation, a series of responses that render her mute as her dilemma is a classic double bind of the expectations laid upon her (also in the same way as there is no defence against the accusation of witchcraft, so there is no defence against the accusation of insanity). In contrast Falk plays Nick as a sound events. Nick is constituted out of utterances composed from bewilderment, aggression and violence. There are a couple of occasions in which his uncomprehending rage bursts out into a physical assault on Mabel. But for the most part he is a pure sound system in as much as what he says matters less than the tone, the pitch rhythm pace of his utterances. His meaning (though not always unimportant) is less significant than his expressive vocal mode.
In a radical filmic manner, John Cassavetes actors and crew are saying that to understand what is going on you have to be there looking listening, observing the forces in play.
When I wrote about the workmen as being like warriors and Mabel’s silence reminding me of the witch’s dilemma in defending herself I was alluding to something within the film that suggested to me a phantom Medieval dislocation that is inherent to the film’s dynamic. I think there is a powerful medieval logic working through the film. WUI points up one archetypal situation that can arise when power relations between men and women go out of joint: Demonisation. The spaghetti banquet, the children’s party (‘the child is naked’) and in particular the committal sequence are all pertinent sequences in the film portrayed as in the evidence and process of a witchcraft trial. In the committal sequence, Nick’s mother in allure and expression takes on the mask of an embittered old female accuser, a turncoat informer witch, accusing and giving evidence against her enemy as revenge for Mabel’s threatening sexuality (wearing short skirts); the doctor figure looks like a fanatical Dominican monk exorcising demons. The actors, in particular Rolands may have consciously modelled their Medieval witch trial interpretations of these scenes as part of their workshopping of the material. For instance at the height of the committal scene Mabel uses the index fingers of her right and left hands to form a cross which she holds up to protect herself against the encroachment of the Doctor.
The use of a Medieval paradigm to drive the drama not only corresponds to the contemporary sensibility of understanding witchcraft as a question of gender politics but also makes of WUI answer to a moral rather than a medical question. WUI as created by Cassavetes Roland and Falk is a moral concern with the catastrophic social developments of contemporary USA and the terrible personal price paid for a culture and society that has gone terrible wrong. A society that has taken from people the core of their collective and communal life and given them in return the empty shibboleths of American individuality.