Minnie and Moskowitz

United States, 1971

Directed by John Cassavetes

With Seymour Cassel (Seymour Moskowitz), Gena Rowlands (Minnie Moore), John Cassavetes (Jim), Katherine Cassavetes (Sheba Moskowitz), Lady Rowlands (Georgia Moore), Elsie Ames (Florence)

The curlicues of the titles and the nice songs hint at a romantic film. The oddball and outrageous behaviors of the characters, their absurd lines, the situations they box themselves in soon reveal the film plays in the comedy category. And the final shots are the epitome of the relaxed, family-friendly happy endings, with marital love, traditional parenthood, family harmony prevailing – though clothes, props, attitudes give it a rather tacky, garish atmosphere.

But this rom-com flick is the sixth film shot by rebellious actor and director John Cassavetes. So it is rather a surprise in a filmography rife with intense and upsetting dramas, but also a deeply, unmistakably personal take on the genre (and personal does mean something as far as cast is involved: the lead female character is Cassavetes’ wife, her mother the real mother of Gena Rowlands, while the mother of the lead male character is played by Cassavetes’ own mother and children of the director are also featured in minor roles).

Struggling to see eye to eye: Gena Rowlands (left) and Seymour Cassel

The film actually takes a critical, mocking stance against the traditional romantic heroes of Hollywood. It introduces the lead female character, Minnie Moore, a Los Angeles museum curator, as she goes to the pictures with her best friend and work colleague Florence to watch “Casablanca” (1942). In the evening talk that follows, fueled by too much wine, Florence first claims that she both loves the film and does not, prompting Minnie to articulate a fairly negative view of films: “They set you up”, making you believe perfect men are waiting for you in the corner and that idealistic romance is within grasp and necessary to the pursuit of happiness. And Minnie just does not feel it is the case, that it even could be, and just even possible – false expectations and silly ideas, that is what women’s lives are driven to entertain because of the influence of the movies. Whatever charm the highly popular film of Michael Curtiz can still hold is dismissed – even as it looks like Minnie is desperate for a sexual and sentimental satisfaction that she at this point does not seem to get, and indeed her coming back home reveals that the relationship she has with a man, Jim, is awkward, confused, disappointing, the man proving to be brutal and whimsical and above all a married fellow with three children.

There is much irony in this episode involving “Casablanca”, two middle aged women who cannot resist the temptation to watch the great melodrama even if they after the screening slam the sentiments it unleashed, sentiments that cannot leave them unconcerned. It is of course a statement by their filmmaker, the pointed criticism of a cinema that purports to be a thrilling entertainment, to make people believe in what are unrealistic principles, and to ignore the real, complex, moving feelings life actually offers. And the cinema that Cassavetes has tried to build since “Shadows” (1958) is precisely to use movie techniques and artistry to get at some truth, the real thing about folks and their lives, to move beyond the Hollywood tradition – though this questionable view of the world and its influence, as noted by Minnie, remain hard to overlook and are indeed acknowledged as unavoidable: after all, Minnie dates the astonishing man she has met by chance, the other name of the film’s title, by going to the pictures with him to watch… “Casablanca”.

The introduction of the lead male character, Seymour Moskowitz, in the earlier, first part of the movie shot in the character’s native New York, included another screening: alone and with free time he does not know how to spend, he goes to a theater to watch “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). The parking attendant may dig the persona and style of Humphrey Bogart, but he is hopelessly a polar opposite, not really an incarnate and unashamed manliness but an oddball eager for acknowledgment – think of the unforgettable scenes later in the evening after the screening, when Seymour intrudes in bars and restaurants where parties are thrown or people are quietly dining, heckling ladies, trying to, as he yells he is Seymour Moskowitz, convince them they have something in common with him, and getting a few punches in response – a drifter who is not at all ambitious and determined but way too much fanciful and impulsive. He cuts a figure that is too messy, disheveled, obstreperous, inadequate to fit the kind of manly lover projected by the films of Curtiz and John Huston and many others. His ponytail, bushy long mustache, gaudy shirts, and dirty and creaking jalopy of a car may fit the picture of a 1970s hippie but indeed run relentlessly, and delightfully, counter to the image of a clean romantic hero a rom-com and a love story a studio would have crafted.

But indeed, he feels real, genuine, a lively and likable character, a burst of energy bumbling his way through New York and then Los Angeles. And his energy does capture Minnie, the frustrated, inward-looking, distant woman who at first sight could be unable to get along with the far more spirited, expansive, eccentric guy – and of course, the gap in education and the difference in the social backgrounds of their families should keep them apart. The daring, dangerous U-turns Seymour makes in the boulevard of Los Angeles are not just funny stunts: it is a leitmotif emphasizing his stubborn pursuit of what he wants, that is the love of Minnie, and embodying the energy that drives him forward, and with him the implausible love story.

In fact, it is the fraught talks Seymour and Minnie have inside his flatbed van, or next to it that slowly morph the accidental encounter into a lasting relationship, as Seymour, more obstinate and obstreperous than ever, explains he loves her – to him, it is plainly an authentic, wonderful love at first sight tale, and it is not just about heckling, provoking, and picking up another woman – while Minnie one quarrel at a time stops being on the defensive, embarrassed, or still: the moment when she reluctantly and clumsily starts to dance next to Seymour’s car, after a long-winded, frenzied quarrel about getting inside a nightclub or not, and once again, about sticking together or not, is one of the most touching of the film. The happiness felt by Seymour then does not last for long: till the very end, that is the wedding, the film is filled with blunders, incidents, tension that suggest the relationship can still break up, that the happy ending is not a given, that these two persons so deeply needing romance may be as disappointed as real people can be, and not be rewarded as films usually promise. Of course, these elements are also what make the film so funny and endearing, and they are often compelling and coherent with the wider picture of these two misfits. “Minnie and Moskowitz” is remarkably honest about the characters and in love with them, and that perfectly gets across the screen.

Cassavetes shoots his usual way: the roaming, hand-held camera, the quirky, slanted compositions, the striking closeups that can become incredible extreme closeups, the stream of images that is not so neat and clean as the average American production if only because time lacks, not so much for the shooting of the whole business but for the shooting of what is happening with the actors right now. Cassavetes seems to work because there is an urge for it, coming clearly from the struggle of the characters to enjoy life, or just to carry on. In this case, Cassavetes’ style is the obviously needed tool to record, to feel the uncanny but irresistible energy that make an implausible couple a real family, the vibes and the passion that enable a bumbling, off-handed man to get some balance and sense of purpose and a dejected, drifting woman to get a degree of confidence and faith.

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