February 14, 2013

"Tipping the Core: the Ambiguous Celluloid of Gena Rowlands in the films of John Cassavetes" by Amanda Deutch

You are being pushed forth through a doorway, cigarette dangling from your mouth. Are you a queen with ladies in waiting or a mental patient held together by those who prop you up…? It is always the way the cigarette hangs from your lips in each movie that makes you look a little bit tough and compels me to keep watching you move. You hold it just so, smoking with no hands. You search your pockets and purse for something, always searching, walking as you smoke. How do you smoke with no hands?  You never ash your cigarette. Finally, your assistant takes the lit cigarette from your mouth, pulls a drag himself, hands you a pint of whiskey. You down a swig, gracefully somehow, and enter stage left. Later in the film, you ask, “Am I beginning to look like Humphrey Bogart?” It is just that feeling I get as you enter with cigarette, barely speaking, taking that swig, emoting pathos, sensitivity and utter coolness as you walk. swagger or stumble? You are the first real tough lady I have seen in a long time, if ever, on a movie screen. So yeah, maybe you do look a little like Humphrey Bogart in that sense.

It’s a Set-Up

Gena Rowlands,

don’t let the men in these
push you around
Scream at you
because you wear sunglasses
Wake up because its night
She thinks it’s funny to eat ice cream
in an ice cream parlor at 2:30 in the morning. That’s all.

Its 1971,
Gena Rowlands is drunk in a taxicab.
Nervous men scream
on every lamp lit corner
and the movies set us up
Set us up real good. . . .
for a lifetime of movies.
                      That’s all.
Gena Rowlands in a taxi cab
It’s 1971
                        It’s night time
                                  Wake up.

—3/14/2004 (After watching Minnie and Moskowitz)

The first taste on my tongue of the cinematic madcappery of Cassavetes may have come sinfully early. I vaguely remember watching Love Streams on my scratchy Sony TV alone in my room at 10. It was terrifying and wonderful. Everyone was fucked-up and lost and drank and there were lots of cute animals. (a chicken? a puppy?) Years later, I wondered as I sometimes do,  if I made the whole thing up. Was there even a Cassavetes film called, Love Streams? Indeed there was. I finally located it in France 20 years later. Watching it as an adult, I thought, “My god how the hell did I watch this as a small child? The psychological toll on a young mind…” So it was no wonder that Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzarra, Seymour Cassel and the whole crew they ran with seemed like old friends to me from ten years old on. I returned to them periodically during my life as if going to a secret celluloid family reunion. But it was always Gena who I wanted to hang out with. As I got older, I just watched the movies with her in them. Gena was the essence, the hot molten core of the films.

Gena Rowlands, I get you. (At least I think I do.)

In 2004, after watching Minnie and Moskowitz, I became obsessed with rescuing Gena Rowlands from the confines of her celluloid identity. Since space and time left me powerless to do this, I began writing her poems. 

Pull Yourself Together       
in your heavy blue pea coat,
            massacred eyes
touch your palm to its palm reflection

It’s raining outside

“It has nothing to do with being a woman.”

“I somehow I seem to have lost the reality of the reality. 

I dream funny dreams too.”

Nobody’s yelling at you. 

Well, they are yelling at you to pull yourself together. 

You say “It’s raining out there.
 My feet are chunks of ice.” as you pour yourself a tumbler full of J&B

Drunk smashing against walls of your selves, seeing ghosts,

you wanna be loved.

You’re a nervous                      hysterical                wreck

taking lots of taxi cabs at strange hours 

looking for truth (a deeper reality)

And no one’s listening

             but the door man,
                       the chamber maid
                                 and the
                    taxi cab driver.

         —3/29/05 2:19 am
 (After watching Opening Night)

Myrtle, Mabel, Minnie, Gloria, Sarah, Jeannie…Gena? Who are they? I can’t decide whether the multi-faceted women Gena Rowland’s portrayed are fierce and self-possessed, free and wild or ruled by men’s directives. In A Woman Under the Influence, when her husband said she was crazy, Mabel Longhetti was crazy. In Opening Night, Myrtle Gordon is falling to pieces over an accident she’s just witnessed in the road. Everyone— her director, playwright, lover, friends— wants her to just go on, get over it and eat dinner for chrissakes. I mean the restaurants are going to close! Her director says, “Myrtle, pull yerself together!”  In Minnie and Moskowitz, Minnie is nutso for wanting to eat ice cream at 2:30 in the morning. “What is the big deal?” I thought in all these films. Leave the poor woman alone! (I actually, yelled at the TV many times when I first watched Minnie and Moskowitz.) One of my favorite films is Gloria. While, it is the most narrative and in that sense, the most  “Hollywood” of them all,  I like it, because I get to exhale and know that Gena is alright in this one, sort of. In Gloria, She is Gloria Swenson, a tough tawking, sensitive woman with a sense of who she is that isn’t swayed by the gaze or opinions of the males around her (leaving organized crime aside.) Yet the power in the other films: Opening NightA Woman Under the InfluenceMinnie and Moskowitz  lies precisely in that very swerving, palpable discomfort, a visceral  drive that makes you scream at the TV screen and want to save her while watching the films. It is this unnerving emotion that is unique to John Cassavetes’s films and Gena Rowland’s simultaneous vulnerable and powerful embodiment of the women she plays.

So all that is well and good, but what truly gets under my skin is that in almost every movie she is in, Gena has some sort of a “nervous breakdown.” She is the only character that does. The male characters have financial fallouts and meltdowns, washouts and burnouts but never “nervous breakdowns.” Is this because Cassavetes is portraying her as sensitive and aware of the world around her in ways that everyone else is too busy going about their daily routines to be or is it a judgment on women and their emotions? Women can’t feel without it becoming an incapacitating breakdown? In the audience, we watch her and she doesn’t seem insane, vividly certifiable or as if she is having a breakdown. I am left wondering what if those around her didn’t react with such resistance by saying, “You’re nuts! Pull yourself together!” What if she was permitted to dance and feel and for fuck’s sake eat ice cream when she wanted to without all the screaming men, who to be quite frank are the ones who seem a bit hysterical to me, in the films? I dunno, I am right back where I started wanting to go and hang out with her characters who just seem to need a good girlfriend to walk with and say to her, “To hell with all these men. They are nuts!” Gena Rowlands realized a full depth of humanity with each character that was unusual on screen at the time and still is today. Perhaps the very frustration it elicited in me to want everyone to just allow her to live and dance and eat as she pleased is all the films are about…that core, that essence in people that needs to breathe and not be suppressed.

It is alluring to watch her characters struggle to exist genuinely amidst a society of men that wants to augment the ways she sees and behaves. In some ways this is very
Cool Hand Luke. It is as if all these other people are trying to crush her spirit. Gena’s characters are independent, but when they seek to connect with others, they are faced with a distorted reflection that tells her to pull herself together or that she is crazy. Although, Gena Rowlands may not be a feminist per se or define herself as one, she has always been one of my female icons. To quote from the pages of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, Gena Rowlands is “Feminine, marvelous and tough.”  She possesses an unwinding glamour and is not afraid to get messy.

Again it is night. You are in a bar somewhere decades later with Ben Gazzara and Gerard Depardieu. (What a weird combination.) I don’t remember much about what happens or the conversations that ensue. But one of them knows your favorite wine. It is Margaux, a rich bodied French red. A few years later, the name on my tongue. I have to try it.  I find in on the bottom shelf in, of all places, a little grocery, on a small curvy street in the 19th or 9th arrondissement of Paris. I am sure there is a cat in a corner of the store. There always is in the grocery store in Paris. And Margaux turns out is a really good wine. I wander again between your onscreen self and real self. Is this a wine you, Gena, prefer or just the wine the script says you like? You have residue of a 1950’s housewife and movie star. In googling you, I watch you on Joan Rivers’ That Show. It is an episode about fragrance and perfume. You are up for an Oscar for your role in the film Faces, yet that only comes up one time. Instead, you say, “I prefer heavy floral notes. I don’t like citrus.” You never raise your voice. Joan Rivers is loud and brash. The perfumier in the suit is also a bit loud. You stick to your course of action: heavy floral scents. I wonder if you are stoned, what you are like at home with John and the kids. Do you push for your way or just say, “I prefer heavy floral notes” and remain quiet when people are loud and brash? You are mysterious and haunting in your power. You can encapsulate and conjure emotion on screen so transfixing that we watch you for hours: your faces, dark sunglasses, gestures, hands, lips, hair,  eyes, smoke rising.  Now I watch your own persona to search for clues as to what is behind  that power and all I get are “heavy floral scents.” Actually, I like them too: rose, rose geranium, tuberose… Your on screen persona is enough. I don’t need to figure you out and you don’t need me to rescue you. You are. . . a  badass.  Gena, my celluloid sister, I want to hang out with you, wear tuberose, dance around,  smoke cigarettes and laugh late into the night.
I’m thinking about the night
    darkness   sweet    air
           and garbage
about empty streets
       and blurry faces  
closer to dreams 
     than         day
remember those open places
where nothing is fixed or constant
   I find myself in them 
     a lot
“singing between 2 deserts”
not coming from anywhere
       not going 
and so what.
gena rowlands
gena rowlands
gena rowlands
              (sounds nice)

Amanda Deutch is a poet and the author of Box of Sky (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009), the Subway Series and Motel Drift. Her poetry has appeared in Esque6x6, Boog City, EOAGH, Barrow Street, Upstairs at Duroc, Denver Quarterly (forthcoming), and elsewhere. Deutch is the founder and Artistic Director of Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival and lives in Brooklyn. Through Parachute, she facilitates weekly poetry workshops with the YWCA young women's empowerment group. When she was 14, she worked in a video store on First Avenue. Recently while under the influence of a cold, she watched Big Bad Mama, Bing Crosby's White Christmas and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

1 comment:

You don’t live my life without growing major hide. said...

I've been held captive by Gena Rowlands since her days on the soap "Peyton Place." I was lucky enough to meet and talk with her ( and smoke) for a few minutes in the 80s. Here's the story.