Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Hero of Mine - John Cassavetes

"[People kill themselves because of] society's inability to educate, in terms of love, any further than a given point. Nobody in this world seems to be able to love beyond a certain point; they all go up to a certain point then they become emotionally tired of it, or bored or hurt. They change, and their love doesn't transcend certain obstacles. For somebody who is very sensitive and idealistic, as we all start out to be, it becomes a dramatic experience. You can either make that bridge or not, and we are going to make this picture for people who are possibly lost, and try to point out the reasons for it.

My films are expressive of a culture that has had the possibility of attaining material fulfillment while at the same time finding itself unable to accomplish the simple business of conducting human lives. We have been sold a bill of goods as a substitute for life. What is needed is reassurance in human emotions; a re-evaluation of our emotional capacities."-John Cassavetes
How can we live well? Isn't that the essence of the most fundamental driving force behind all of our choices? Of the philosophy which we adopt each day? And yet looking at the world, at the people around us, at ourselves-we seem to be abject failures at living well. So many nights we climb into our wrinkled sheets thinking how much we have left undone, how far we have ended our day from our greatest aspirations we had when we awoke that morning. How many of us reach middle age and look back and wonder what happened to all that we had planned to do with our lives? What is it which keeps us from living deeply?

The essence of love is vulnerability; having the guts to be vulnerable and not punishing others for their vulnerability. Those we love, we love because we feel that they know us better than another, we feel safe to take risks. Those who hurt us are those who have exploited our vulnerability, those who have made us pay in some way for our weaknesses. In the wake of being hurt, we most usually decide to learn our lesson, and alter-sometimes radically, sometimes subtly-our mode of living. What we want most is to not have to suffer, and so we learn our lessons from those who have exploited us, vowing to be stronger and smarter and wiser the next time. We will be on guard against giving our power away.

However, the fundamental difficulty with this fortress building is that it separates us from one another. We become calculated and look at others suspiciously as potential inflictors of hurt. We stop being vulnerable, and learn to despise vulnerability. We begin looking for ways to manipulate relationships so that we don't have to put our entire selves out there on the line. We kill off the mystery of others with paltitudes and generalisations, so that we don't have to be challenged by them. We keep tucked away inside ourselves as much as we can. And that is where love dies.

Let us then make a vow for today, to give up any care for feelings of powerlessness, and risk the depths of who we are with every person we meet today. Let us not view them in relation to how we can keep them at a safe distance-but rather how can we lay a part of ourselves bare before them. Let us look at evey person with whom we interact today as a mystery, who has come to this moment in time with his or her own story and experiences. Let us give up any care for suffering as something to be avoided at all costs, and embrace pain and hurt as part of the human condition. Let us see that these are changes which can make the world better, for us having lived better while we are here. Let us not be afraid to risk it all.

"Most people don't know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, It's very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to... As an artist, I feel that we must try many things - but above all, we must dare to fail. You must have the courage to be bad - to be willing to risk everything to really express it all."-John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes was an American actor and film maker. His films as director include Shadows, Faces, Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, and Killing of a Chinese Bookie.


  1. Not so straightforward, Shannon. There IS much to be said for not sharing oneself completely. We live in a world where the devil is powerful, and others will punish us is we expose our vulenrability.

    Also, let's be honest - we don't have the infinite time or mental energy needed to explore our reciprocal depths with everyone we meet in one day. Surely this is something to be reserved for a select few.

    it's not that I disagree with you - perhaps I would just advise to be selective. It is OK to have a lot of walls around you - beautiful gardens are made that way - perhaps it's just a matter of having friendly gates, and opening them more often. What do you think?

  2. I think the problems lies in that we adopt a guarded mode of living with everyone--even with those we are closest to. Faces is a movie which rails against the sleepwalking people do as they go through their lives.

    Certainly the sensible part of me agrees with you completely--but there is another part of me who thinks that we are called to be Dostoyevskian holy fools. At it's heart the Gospel calls us to love with absolute folly. What is the Cross, but living in absolute vulnerability--and it is that vulnerability which redeems the world. We aren't just called to be Christ-like--but to be one with Christ--and that means becoming one with laying ourselves bare before the whole world so that it might be transformed.

    The path is narrow--few people choose to love all people with such wild abandon. (Myself included). I think though that we can make great strides if we become more attenuated to the mystery of the people around us- to wonder at marvel at their stories- to listen for the unspoken depths which they hold. Even if we simply acknowledge to ourselves- that Mr. X who hand me this document before this meeting has a whole lifetime of love and joy and hurt. Seeing him not as a detail of our life, but rather as fully human.

  3. A very close friend - and the most intelligent person I have ever met - once said to me: "There are some things I cannot discuss with you, because I am too close to you in that area - while other things I can discuss with you, but not with others, because I am more intimate with them in that other area." Is this a twisted way of thinking in your opinion?

  4. Not knowing the context, yes, to me it seems like a sort of cowardice in order to keep from having to be vulnerable. But I guess I'd rather argue to the death with someone I know who loved me and who I loved--than have a false peace based on holding parts of me back.

    Now- I know that it is not useful to talk about all things with all people, I do...but I still don't think that precludes viewing others individual mysteries--no matter how disconnected they are from a deep and full life from our perspective--no matter how shallow or unthought through their opinions and viewpoints are--we can still look for the "who" behind their inanity--because the "who" is always there.

  5. I like what you have said. I think your point is the manifestation of what Christ was teaching us as well as Buddha and many other great teachers. To me, it isn't so much about vulnerability with each person you meet as much as it is a willingness to be open with each person you meet and recognizing that each person is having a human experience too and whatever they are bringing to the table in that moment is all a part of their experience merging for just that moment with your experience. Whatever you are being met with, at no point do you have to be vulnerable in the sense of being a weak person, vulnerability is strength and an ability to hear what someone else has to say or do and knowing that you can choose to take it personally or not. No one controls how you take their words or actions. Obviously the ego comes into play and past stories that you bring forward can get in the way of your choice, but if you are aware that your ego controls your reaction to things, it can make it much easier to walk away unscathed. The highest form of love is being able to take critism from someone whose opinion REALLY matters to you and still love them for it tomorrow even if it is hurtful. You have to examine in yourself why it hurts. Is it because you need them to see you a certain way - that is all ego - is it because you see yourself a certain way and this is contrary to what your thoughts about yourself are? Still ego... It's letting the ego slip away and simply be in the moment sharing an experience. What you do with the experience is your responisbility and choice. Living in a world where everyone you meet is afraid of honesty and weakness is a scary place to live in my opinion. I like knowing I have the freedom to welcome hurt as a lesson if I choose it and knowing that with each lesson I get a closer grasp to keeping my ego in check.

    Thank you for your post Shannon. I've had a rough night and this has seriously helped bring me back to center.

    Hope to see you soon!

  6. "To me, it isn't so much about vulnerability with each person you meet as much as it is a willingness to be open with each person you meet and recognizing that each person is having a human experience too and whatever they are bringing to the table in that moment is all a part of their experience merging for just that moment with your experience."

    Oh, Sarah- I have been so blessed by what you have written! Thank you for taking the time to write it. Yes, I think you really get to the heart of the matter. It's that "conscious" living, I think, which allows us to truly connect with others and to come to know ourselves so that we can identitfy our ego.

    I think for me- identifying ego, has been and continues to be a great, great challenge. And living with that consciousness in an ever-present way is very demanding, as I so easily default to relating and operating out of my defects and hurts and fears. This is particularly true for me in regards to my children-even though it seems like that is the area where it ought to be easiest. However-perhaps it is because they, by nature, live in the now. From a Christian perspective--I am here wondering if that's the heart of the matter of "childlike faith".

    Don't you think that in many ways that it's the truth of Zen--the truly present living in the now, with a detachment from self-but paradoxically also a complete awarness of self?

    And we should all definitely get together soon! I cannot wait for December where it's a little pause for breath in the craziness of all of the kids' commitments before beginning again in the new year.

  7. I'm not sure exactly what you are asking me in your question, but I think the reason it is so hard to stay present with our children is that our children often times mirror us so perfectly that it gets aggravating. I went a saw a woman named Sheri Huber speak (she is a zen nun) and she said that when someone has a quality we don't like it is often a quality about ourselves we don't like and it is a mirror for us. I think because children are very much little pictures of ourselves they can be our biggest teachers. I love when I have to rise to the occassion and get my lesson in order to help one of my kids get theirs. I also think there is much to be learned from children in their ability to be in the now. You can be having a deep conversation with them about their behaivor and in the blink of an eye be laughing and playing games together again and them be unscathed, yet we worry if we said the right thing or did we damage them, but most of the time it just washes over them. If we could all learn to let more wash over us and really know that most people mean us no harm, they are just doing the best with what they have, the world would be much more peaceful.

    As far as dealing with ones ego and staying present with it, that is certainly a hard task to accomplish. If it weren't we would all be enlightened and be as bright and beautiful as Christ or the Buddha (I practice buddhism, so that is how I relate to it). Unfortunately that isn't an easy thing to accomplish. I like giving myself permission to be gentle with myself when my ego takes over and then when I realize it has working on figuring out what is causing that to happen and how can I be MORE aware of it. I find when I really examine where it comes from it feels like I'm busting through a wall and the next time it occurs I'm quicker on the response and better equipped to keep it under control. It is all hard work and work I am thankful everyday for and I am thankful that I am able to learn it alongside of wonder-filled people trying to do their best as well. Life is truly what we make of it.

  8. Holy cow, Sarah...we do,indeed, need to spend more time together. There is so much in what you have written that I have said, though, or written before! What especially resonated with me it what you wrote about children as mirrors--you know there is that horror when they speak to one another exactly as you have spoken to them in anger... Talk about humility! In a church in Rome, a sttue of the Virtue Humility is holding a mirror to her face- the thinking being that it takes true humility to continue to hold oneself up for introsepection and to be ready see ourselves as we truly are. To me- that is exactly the gift my children give to me--they are these ever present little mirrors. I, however, am a poor pupil and it often takes me a long time to correct my flaws. LOL! I think that's why the Universe decided I needed so many children :)

    What you wrote in the second paragraph is precisely what an online friend of mine has said to me many times, when I have shrugged of someone saying that I am a good mom (99% of the time I don't feel like a good mom)--but they have said that just being aware of your flaws and acknnowledging them is a HUGE step.

    I am so grateful for your ideas of self forgiveness. I think that is something which I need to cultivate more. I feel like the past couple years I've done better--but I tend to take it really hard when I really fail--rather than focusing on the awesomeness that that failure means I've had a chance again to recognise a defect and now have another chance.

  9. Hey you!
    JFTR, inspired by you, I managed to coax my bud at the University Film Institute to find me a trio of Cassavetes movies.

    Watched "Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (Full-length version) and I got "Women under the Influence" and "Faces" waiting.

    (Stephen. I keep posting as "Anonymous" 'cos I can't get my "Google-account working" when posting somehow. Maybe I'm just technically inept).

  10. Awesome!! I think Faces and Woman Under are my favorites. (Though the scene in Shadows just after they have sex--is the most gut wrenching portrayal of those complicated, huge emotions that I have ever seen or read) There is this line in Woman that just death grips my heart--she says something like "whatever you want me to be, I can be that."

    Was your friend awed and impressed by your film geek taste?

  11. Very impressed by my new-found exquisite film geek taste. :-) Is Cassavetes a bit like British filmmaker Mike Leigh, or am I just fumbling in the drawer sock?

    I have a little more watching to do...but I sort of get the central theme...a sort of lack of real communication..even though it's not easy to define.

    I think part of the point is to make movies that show the way people really interact with each other. To take an example; the way a guy wants to tell a roomfull of people about something he heard on the radio he found funny, but he's not being listened too, and it falls flat. This is funny and painful stuff.

  12. If you can get your hands on it, the documentary A Constant Forge is really worth watching. In it Cassavetes talks about how normally everyone eventually finds their way home-no matter how messed up they are, no matter what the circumstances. When people can't find their way home, that's what his films are about.

    If I am not mistaken, Leigh, like Cassavetes relies heavily on improvisation, and focuses on what people do in very extenuating circumstances. However, I don't think that Leigh has the same obsession with love as a theme as does Cassavetes (which incidentally, is what makes view him as a sort of heroic figure in Shannonland)

    Perhaps a post about Jim Jarmusch is in order this week, to further along your film studies :D