Day 358: ‘An Eccentric Woman Institutionalised’ 2018

Day 358
Saturday 23 June 2018   3.27pm
‘An Eccentric Woman Institutionalised’  2018

A Woman Under the Influence   (1974)
A John Cassavetes Film

Top 100 Films –
A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is equal #59 with 7 other films: La grande illusion (1937), Gertrud (1964), Blow Up (1966), The Conformist (1970), Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Blue Velvet (1986) in the 2012 BFI Directors Poll

John Cassavetes is more famous to most filmgoers in the 1960s and 1970s as an actor than a director. In the first decade of the 21st century he is more famous as a great director than an actor, certainly amongst other film directors.  Four films out of the ten or so films he directed – I’m guessing – are on the Top 100 Directors List. That problems stems from the fact that many directors know how important he was in the independent filmmaking world and have split their votes amongst five or six perceived masterpieces.

No film directed by John Cassavetes appears in the 2012 BFI Critics Poll.

I felt, in this year of discovery, compelled to watch at least one of his films. Last week I watched his first, Shadows, and this week I watched the one which ranks most highly, A Woman Under the Influence (1974).  It was one of only two of his films I had ever heard of a year ago, the other being Gloria, because it had a film score by Bill Conti.

As with Shadows, I came to A Woman Under the Influence cold, knowing only that it had Peter Falk in what I thought was a small role and that Cassavetes wife was playing the woman under the influence. Of what I wondered? Drugs or alcohol – presumably? After seeing Shadows, I knew it was going to be hard work, and offbeat and possibly about a type of person or class I didn’t know much about. Instead, I was surprised, and found it confrontational, where that word is used with all of its best qualities. In fact, it made me think of some of Woody Allen’s films like Interiors and Husbands and Wives, and then I realised it preceded that style of Woody-Allen-film.

As for the title, A Woman Under the Influence, it is quite a brilliant play on the many different kinds of influences that anyone can be under. Certainly, there’s alcohol and drugs, as we see in the first section, but there’s much more to it than that. She is forced to live under the influence of a great many other things other than alcohol and drugs. The things which most influence her – and affect her behaviour – are the people around her and their attitude towards her and the way they treat her.

The film is forty-three years old – in 2018 – and I can only look at it with a knowledge of understanding what I know about mental health and how people treat others with mental health issues – from my own personal experience.

This means that I have no idea what John Cassavetes and his wife knew about mental health challenges in the mid-seventies, and what they were setting out to illustrate based on their initial goal, their depiction of it, and what it looks like now.

This is my own very personal response, responding honestly as someone living in 1980 about what Gena Rowland’s character, Mabel, went through in 1974. With Gena Rowlands having to create the character of Mabel, with all her quirks, and John Cassavetes as writer-director, it makes me wonder how close to home this film was for this married couple. Writers often write about what they know from their own experience, so was this a film depicting something that Cassavetes and Rowlands knew of, firsthand?

Mabel is influenced by four people in her life, her husband, her mother, her mother-in-law and her doctor. Her three children also play a part in that. So do, at times, Nick’s colleagues. So does alcohol. So, also, drugs.

Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) is a pretty straightforward person. He works for the city, or as a contractor, in an area which has something to do with water and the environment. He works with a team of good blokes from mixed backgrounds and gets along with them all. They know that he’s got problems at home with his wife, but Nick is very touchy when questioned about Mabel. He tells them she not a crazy person when they say something that could be interpreted to indicate she may be struggling with mental issues.

Mable is a housewife, who has only one thing in life which she can point to and say, “I did that.” Her children. One day she sits down on her front porch with the kids and asks them a strange question about how they feel about her behaviour.

The film comes from a point of view where we know nothing about Mabel, and her previous experiences, other than what people say about her, and how she behaves and reacts to the things going on around her. There are no flashbacks. There aren’t even many conversations which describes her behvaiour in the past. There are comments from those who know her, when she’s not there, about her. There are judgments about her, made in front of her. There are ways she has of responding to the people around her who treat her the way they treat her. We know only what the films shows us from start to finish. There’s no backstory. There’s also precious little, in terms of remarks, which addresses whatever is going on in the Longhetti household with any kind of candour. A few outbursts describe things that have happened previously. Mostly people tread carefully, until one of them explodes, and rages against her. The two that do this most frequently are Nick, and Nick’s mother, Margaret, who have no patience for her anymore. Whatever well of understanding what’s going on inside Mabel’s mind, has long been exhausted. There’s gentleness from Nick towards Mable more than Margaret. Margaret’s patience has evaporated. Nick tries to be gentle but easily becomes so infuriated he hits her or want to unleash his fury by killing someone, which is a line he says a couple of times.

Interestingly, Mabel and her mother are played by Gena Rowlands and Lady Rowlands and Nick’s mother is played by Katherine Cassavetes. John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands were married from the mid-fifties to the late eighties. Probably more evidence that there is quite a bit of true life being performed in front of the cameras.