Rowlands' brilliance battles cinematic shortcomings of 'Under the Influence'

September 18, 1992|By Scott Hettrick | Scott Hettrick,Los Angeles Times Syndicate


Touchstone Home Video (1974)

Forget the woman. One wonders whether director John Cassavetes and his cinematographer were under the influence when they made this film 18 years ago.

Cassavetes received much praise from movie critics and his peers for this excruciating observation of a marriage involving a woman (Gena Rowlands) teetering on the edge of sanity and her husband (Peter Falk), whose insensitivity and primitive personality all but push her over the emotional precipice.

But one can only assume that the praise was misplaced adulation for the maverick filmmaker and his non-conformist approach to the art form. What may have been misinterpreted as hip cinematic style is really nothing more than an amateurish, or worse, slap-- effort that unnecessarily overburdens the viewer.

Cassavetes shoots almost the entire film in medium and extreme close-ups, which is asking too much of the viewer: to maintain that kind of intense commitment without relief for two and a half hours. The most perplexing aspect of his unusual cinematography is the waist-level point of reference. Many times an arm or other out-of-focus body part of the actor closest to the camera obscures a portion of the frame.

But perhaps Cassavetes' most egregious failing was his obvious lack of rudimentary planning, blocking and rehearsal. The camera appears to be struggling (and often failing) to keep up with the actors' movements and frequently is unable to maintain focus, which was probably even less tolerable among audiences in the mid-1970s who hadn't adapted to the current preponderance of soft-focus home videos.

You want more? Instead of using the soundtrack to make the proceedings at least a little palatable, Cassavetes opted to use natural sound, which means that we hear the unnatural hiss of the soundtrack, which is about as enjoyable, and disruptive, as sitting under a defective fluorescent light bulb all day.

Finally, as if to make the experience as irritating as possible, Cassavetes randomly and without warning pounds a few cacophonous piano notes on the soundtrack that soon disappear as abruptly as they surfaced.

All this technical tomfoolery is unfortunate because it obscures Cassavetes' sometimes profound script and detracts from the brilliant performance by Ms. Rowlands, who was nominated for a best-actress Academy Award. Her character, Mabel, talks to herself, scrunches up her face a lot and makes a staccato spitting sound when frustrated. She is so anxious to please her husband Nick that she offers, "Tell me what you want me to be, how you want me to be. I can be that. I can be anything."

But we soon come to learn that, more than the occasional alcohol she consumes, Mabel is under the influence of Nick, who is well-intentioned and loyal but is forcing her to be a woman she can't be, someone, for instance, who will entertain and feed dozens of his blue-collar friends on the spur of the moment.

In the film's most powerful moment, near the end, Nick orders Mabel to "Be yourself," as she tries to describe her recent stint in a mental institution to a table surrounded by family and friends. When Mabel turns and pleads with her father, "Please stand up for me," we see all hope drain from her face when her father ignorantly takes her literally and simply rises from his chair in blind obedience.


VID TIP: Three new anniversary editions of classic films are being released on video this week, including a 60th-anniversary edition of "King Kong" that comes in black and white or colorized ($16.98 each), the 40th-anniversary edition of "High Noon" ($19.98) and the 45th-anniversary edition of Orson Welles' "Macbeth," featuring 21 minutes of restored footage ($19.98).

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