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  • Mise-en-scène and Kinaesthetically Charged Atmosphere in John Cassavetes' FacesThe CEA Forum Summer/Fall 2013
  • Ian Dixon

Editor's note: In a presentation for the 2013 CEA Conference in Savannah, screenwriter, director, and actor Ian Dixon gave a multi-media presentation titled "The Actor's Nature in Mise-en-scène: Chekhovian Kinaesthesia and Cinematic Performance." Part of that presentation involved showing some scenes from John Cassavetes' 1968 film Faces. What follows is that part of his talk, which we present here with video links as at once a stand-alone view and in reference to Dixon's talk published in the Proceedings issue of The CEA Critic.


In my talk at the 2013 CEA Conference in Savannah, I focused on the theory and practice of Michael Chekhov by using his ideas of kinaesthesia, atmosphere, psychological gesture, spontaneous groupings, and the actor's nature in an overall interdisciplinary and lateral approach to the creation of filmic mise-en-scène. This approach places the actor as fundamental tool in understanding the principles of dramatic art and consequently generating dramatic material. In part, I exemplified American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes (1929–1989) as unwittingly utilizing Chekhov's notions within his own acting and through his parallel methodology for the creation of textual narrative. Here, I wish to explore (through video links) a concrete example of the resulting praxis by examining certain scenes from Cassavetes' film Faces (1968), especially in light of how such work affects the formation of his maverick mise-en-scène.

The audacity of a filmmaker such as Cassavetes, who ignored classical form, focus, linecrossing rules, and the limitations of technology and instead concentrated on the pain and flawed beauty of the human face in close-up, was groundbreaking in 1968. Further, despite his star status as an actor, Cassavetes made his major works with little financial help from the mainstream Hollywood film industry. Although curiously aligned to Hollywood sensibilities, Cassavetes' milieu stood largely outside this mainstream approach. In particular, he was influenced by the Cinéma Vérité movement, which grew by the close of World War II out of documentary-based filmmaking practices, relied on new technology, and was designed to achieve greater screen realism. The 1960s innovations of Cinéma Vérité also derived from the influence of television and inventions such as lightweight [End Page 349] cameras and transportable sound recording equipment. By the end of the decade, film school graduates had access to affordable, portable film equipment and could therefore finance and make films more readily (Gelmis xiv 81). Cinéma Vérité gravitated toward the use of hand-held cameras, grainy 16mm-film stock, and non-continuity editing practice in both practical and stylistic decisions. The new technology allowed greater realism in subject matter and delivery, and this is most assuredly the domain of Cassavetes films (Issari and Paul 3).

In his adaptation of various elements of narrative to Cinéma Vérité, Cassavetes rejected elaborate camera moves in favor of an exploration of character and emotional situation. The result is that, in his films, Cassavetes' aesthetic and thematic concerns disturb and unbalance the viewer and create an overall effect of what Dianne Jacobs refers to as "unwavering myopia" (39). Even on the level of narrative, there is disquieting disorientation. Faces, perhaps more than any other film by Cassavetes, has been hailed by critics for its ability to infuse narrative cinematic writing with the unsettling qualities of documentary form. By this process of formal (and emotional) upheaval, Cassavetes contributed to the evolution of Cinéma Vérité as a style primarily by drawing on his own actor's nature.

By utilizing Chekhov's principles, we may analyze Cassavetes' film-making within two conjoining scenes from Faces as exemplifying, especially, the concept of the actor's nature. As a filmmaker, Cassavetes engages a kinaesthetic process—not only as a director relating to actors as another actor might and therefore engaging his actor's nature, but in his famously kinaesthetic camera movement. If we observe the nightclub scene from Act Two of Faces, we can see this kinaesthesia as a confluence of performance and camera technique. The following clip synthesizes...


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