Film Review: A Woman Under The Influence (1974)

Nick Longhetti and Mabel Longhetti, A Woman Under The Influence (1974)

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands created a hard-hitting independent film in 1974 with A Woman Under the Influence. On top of that, the Cassavetes have crafted a spell-binding legacy.

I recognized Gena Rowlands from The Notebook, but I hadn’t known that was her name. The face struck me. Even the emotions and the behaviour. I googled her and found she was who I thought she was and that impressed me. I was immediately more curious about the movie, more willing to see it through. The thing about this movie is that you have to be willing to see it through. A Woman Under The Influence is a hard film to watch.

The acting is so raw. Gena Rowlands is Mabel Longhetti, a wife and mother who is mentally ill. Her behaviour is erratic and unusual, and throughout the film we’re exposed to the blunt truth of how other people see her. At home, she is sometimes wild but is constantly absorbed by the energy of her family. In that sense, her family and her home come to represent a very safe space for her. A place where she is grounded and guarded.

This film, from all the perspectives that I can see, seems to be centered around a radical idea of love. Mabel’s husband is Nick Longhetti played by Peter Falk. He loves her unconditionally. He defends her vehemently in a conversation with one of his colleagues who makes the mistake of saying: “Your wife is a delicate creature…”

With volume and emphasis, Nick responds:

“My wife is not crazy. She cooks, she cleans, what’s crazy about that?”

The conversation in this scene really struck me. It was sending a distinct message. Stating it clearly, but without direct words. John Cassavetes, the director of this film, pioneered a French film movement in America called cinema verite i.e. an indirect, realist style of filmmaking most often associated with documentaries.

Later on in that scene with his friend, Nick Longhetti says:

“Who knows what she’ll do? She might get run over by a car or something.”

His response was unusual and erratic. I think this illustrates how Gena’s mental illness affects the behavior of the people who care about her. It triggers me to think:

A person suffering from mental illness is not the only victim of their situation. Everyone – family, friends, co-workers, even strangers they meet once and never see again – can potentially suffer or be transformed in some way from the pain and experiences of a mentally ill person.

A lot of arguments can be made for or against socially awkward/mentally ill people. I am a socially awkward person, so it was interesting to encounter all of the different angles that this film presents in one woman’s issue of mental illness.

Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands

A Woman Under the Influence was written and directed by John Cassavetes. Gena Rowlands was his wife and co-creator from 1954 (he was 25, she was 24) until he died in 1989. They were husband and wife, creating together, for 35 years. A real love story. A real romance.

In a 2016 interview, Gena said;

“It started out as an independence with us, so that [we could make] things we were interested in. John would write them, I would act in them and all of the actor friends we enjoyed working with would be in them. It was really, quite easy. We just wanted to write and act what people actually say and do; people who are living. John and I were really on the same wavelength.”

Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes had a son, Nick Cassavetes. 30 years after they had made and released A Woman Under The Influence (1974), Nick released his own romantic masterpiece; The Notebook (2004), a film that also featured the idea of ‘love in spite of mental illness’ as a defining detail of its storyline. I watched The Notebook for the first time when I was about 18 years old. I fell in love with it. For a long time, it defined my perspective on what love was like (forever, never forgotten). I fit every moment of my life into parts of The Notebook. It inspired the foundation of my greatest love.

I felt like these two films, A Woman Under The Influence and The Notebook, are worth paying attention to. And the little legacy this family has carried in film, is worth thinking about.

Gena Rowlands has won two Emmy’s, two Golden Globes, and an Honorary Academy Award (there are a few other awards.)

John’s first film, Shadows, has been referred to as the catalyst of the independent film movement in America. His income from acting (The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby) helped him finance his own films. He was nominated for three different Academy Awards in 1967 (Best Supporting Actor, The Dirty Dozen), 1968 (Best Original Screenplay, Faces), and 1974 (Best Director, A Woman Under The Influence).

Psst! The Notebook won the MTV Movie Award in 2005 for Best Kiss. It’s an interesting detail.

 

Read more:

Where to Begin With John Cassavetes

 

Sources:

https://www.criterion.com/boxsets/558-john-cassavetes-five-films

https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/where-begin-john-cassavetes

“What you don’t know won’t kill you.”

I’m wrong.

What you don’t know may kill you. Ignorance is dangerous. But in a different sense: what you don’t know, what you’re not familiar with, the things that are new to you; they are not (always) a threat to you.

I’ve realized that I and most people have a natural urge to reject or be hostile to things that are not familiar. I don’t know if it’s me and the people around me growing old and closing ranks because we’re growing old, but there’s an automatic kick in me when when I meet someone new or when I’m in an unfamiliar place that makes me guarded and wary. …Of what?

I’ve wondered absentmindedly about it for a few weeks now. What is it about new places and people that makes me guarded? The fear of getting hurt? Of embarrassing myself? Of revealing too much? What is it really that feeds the fear of the unknown? I wish I was still that 13 year old that used to do tightrope walks on spiked fences for fun and look for the highest sand hills to run down from just to see if the speed would make me fall. I miss the time before all of the calculating. When risk was a reason to do something instead of a reason to not.

The Simple Things

I know this might be a blasphemous thought to people who like to live life big and fill every single moment with experiences and luxurious things that satisfy their pleasures and indulge their senses – and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that at all if you can afford it and have the sensibility to manage it – but a simple life (Simple in the sense of a tolerant, considerate, moderate and confident but undemanding lifestyle. Please think carefully about each word.) makes simple pleasures so much more apparent and so special. 


Let me give you a few examples. 

The miracle of provision

I know that having food to eat every day is necessary and a blessing, but I love the joy of coming home and finding something to eat already prepared because usually, I have to worry and work at preparing it for myself and my family. And because there have been days when there was nothing to eat at all. In fact I appreciate more now the simple act of anyone cooking for me because I understand the effort that goes into it and the simple kindness of sharing what you have with someone else. 

The beauty of consideration

I get such a warm feeling of gratitude when a person goes out of their way to do something kind for me because I know how hard it is sometimes to look beyond caring for yourself and your immediate family. I appreciate it even more when that person is a stranger,  because to go out of your way to help a stranger is a small but significant sacrifice. It shows a kind of consideration that speaks well of human nature. It makes me think of the many days when I’m too preoccupied with my own problems to think of anyone else, and it makes me want to be more conscious of the people around me on those days and every other day.

The dignity of hard work

I feel such an uplifting and inspiring sense of awe when I write good words, or read a good book, or see a beautifully and carefully made thing, because I know that thoughtful, beautiful things are hard to find and even harder to make. I think of all the mental strain that goes into the things I write and design, and it make me want to put even more effort into the things that I write and design. It makes me want to fill the world with immaculately made things, because I want to give other people the joy of seeing and appreciating beautiful things.

The honesty of convictions

I got such an incredible shock of an irresistible thrill when I sat and thought about how intentional it was for my friend to share his baptism publicly: because I’ve experienced the painful truth that in this age making such a bold statement of loyalty to a creed like Christianity is not popular at all. It made think of the disappointment and loneliness I feel once in a while, and it makes me want to speak my thoughts and my love for God louder,  because I realize now that there are people out there like me that need to be reminded that they’re not alone. 


I don’t mean that we have to live a hard life to appreciate things, but I think that we should live a conscious and responsible one with no illusions or pretensions. I don’t ever want to be so entitled to life pleasing me or indulging my whims that I forget how to be pleasantly surprised, or deeply grateful, or immensely proud. And I think that the extra plus of feeling all those things (along with all the other beautiful things of a conscious and considerate life) is that they help me be a better ‘keeper’ of my family and my neighbours. Feeling those things helps me remember that other people deserve to feel them too. 

Freedom is Mental

If you have to hide anything from others, or even worse,  evade certain parts of yourself – escaping through sleep, work,  relationships, hobbies – if you have to avoid thinking about certain things about yourself or the people around you: check your premises (your foundation,  your starting point).  You’re either doing the wrong thing,  in the wrong place,  or you haven’t fully understood yourself. 

One of society’s biggest problems today is that many of us live the way we think we’re expected to (even when we think we’re being contrarian or rebellious). I can’t fully analyse the complicated problem of people who want to be different and think they’re being different but aren’t really… I don’t want to do that today. What I’m thinking and writing about now is the problem of people who live lives that don’t feel like their own, because they think they’re expected to, or even if they are expected to, they think: ‘Because I’m expected to, I must.’


You don’t always have to be who other people expect you to be; but if you choose to be that person, don’t force yourself into thinking that the role you are playing is who you really are – it’s a cruel and unnecessary punishment. You can submit yourself to the necessary rules and motions of a certain kind of profession, or lifestyle, or class in society, and still be yourself on the inside or wherever else. Being yourself and performing as someone else when you have to isn’t always hypocritical, sometimes it’s being considerate. If that sounds strange, it’s because it is. But if you think carefully of all the different roles some people have to play as human beings you’ll realize that it’s true to a certain extent.


Some people are fortunate to find that they fit into the roles that other people have set for them. If you’re one of those people, kudos. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you’re not one of those people, if the life you’re currently living sits uneasily on you like clothes that don’t exactly fit, you have the power to accept that you’re just playing a part.  It’s a burden, but it’s one you can bear with honor.  If you choose to do so,  acknowledge your choice and carry your decision with the knowledge that it was your decision. You could have chosen to be bitter and angry, one of those people who live life as though they were forced to wake up in the morning and move their limbs. It might not feel like the right kind of life, but it can be a life you live with dignity and a rare kind of mental freedom,  if you choose to accept it.  


Whatever you do, don’t waste time and energy holding or taking out a grudge against anyone for the role you have to play. Bear the responsibility of the life you have chosen to live because even when it appears that you don’t have any option,  you can choose to be at peace with the fact that you had no option.


And if, because you had options and after carefully weighing those options,  you choose to reject those ill-fitting clothes – then step out of them and into whoever you would like to be with confidence, consideration (because even when you are disappointing others it is possible to be considerate of them), and goodwill. The process of being set free is a thing to celebrate, to smile about,  to be thankful for. Resist the temptation to be arrogant, vengeful or scornful. 


Take the time to observe your own tendencies,  your own dissatisfaction,  your own happiness,  your own pains.  It becomes easier to identify discomfort, and to map your way towards peace,  when you know where it is that you are comfortable.  You become less angry with injustice and more motivated, more intentional,  more focused, and more confident about getting to the place where your mind is at rest… Even if the road that leads that way isn’t smooth. 


You cannot understand the full extent of how lost you are if you do not have map, and a map will be of very little help to you if you do not know where it is that you are supposed to be. Many of the remedies that we prescribe for ourselves in our struggles do more harm to us than good because we do not take the time to plan our recovery, or to think about what a healthy version of us even ought to look like in the first place.     


If a thing (a situation, a habit, a mental pattern, a relationship) strikes you as bad, then you have accepted that it once was, or that it can be, good. So before you attempt to fix or remove the bad, what does the good look like?  


If we ask for something in the abstract,  we might get something concrete.

G.K Chesterton

Can’t Take or Won’t Take?

I was on the phone with an almost flame.  

We had tried dating but I realized before he did that we could barely be friends, much less a couple. So I had told him I needed space. He didn’t agree with my decision, and even though he was trying his best to give me space, he couldn’t help telling me things that he really had no business telling me as a friend.

As we spoke, I realized this would be another one of those conversations where I would have to set him straight. I’m not the type to lead a man on. I waited patiently for him to finish telling me the intricate details of his latest business plan.

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