|Minnie and Moskowitz|
|DVD Romantic Comedy|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 25 January 2000|
There seemed, at times, to be two John Cassavetes: the darkly handsome actor who specialized in playing bad good guys (as in ROSEMARY'S BABY) or good bad guys (as in THE DIRTY DOZEN). He appeared in major films, rarely as a lead, but always as a strong presence, even if he performances tended to resemble each other.
Then there was John Cassavetes the passionate director of independent films, usually very serious, but which covered a wide range of subjects, beginning with SHADOWS in 1961. It surprised critics, and won a major award at the Venice Film Festival. After two failed studio productions, Cassavetes returned to independent filmmaking. But, as he said himself, he was "more interested in the people who work with me than in the film itself, or in cinema." His movies were unpolished and rough, often shot hand-held, sometimes with crude recording. He favored extremely tight closeups, and liked actors who could improvise upon the scripts, almost always written by Cassavetes himself. Scenes could ramble on and on after any possible point was exhausted, as long as Cassavetes felt the actors (only sometimes including himself) were delivering what he wanted. Or scenes could end very abruptly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence; Cassavetes wanted to get on to something else -- and that was always the truth of the scene, of the moment, of the performance. It's not so much that he wanted to put real life on screen, but that he wanted the life on his screen to seem real.
His raw style could be simultaneously self-indulgent and austere, riveting and uninvolving -- but the performances were always excellent. He numbered a lot of actors among his many friends, and he had a repertory group who would do almost anything for him, from his wife Gena Rowlands, on through Seymour Cassel, Peter Falk, Timothy Carey, Ben Gazzara and many others. His movies were sometimes hard to sit through -- HUSBANDS seems to last forever -- but at their best, they were among the finest movies of their time.
And MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ is among Cassavetes' best films. Unusually for him, it's a major studio production (Universal) and a romantic comedy, though still in his ultra-realistic mode. Seymour Moskowitz (Cassel) is a long-haired free spirit with an enormous mustache; he makes his living parking cars, and seems to have no ambitions at all. But even in the opening scenes, we can tell -- though Moskowitz himself can't, yet -- that there's something missing in his life, and that's a partner. He's constantly getting thrown out of bars for aggressively, but warmly, approaching strange women. He borrows some money from his mother, incredibly named Sheba (Katharine Cassavetes, John's own mother), and flies out to Los Angeles, where he gets a new job -- parking cars.
Meanwhile, we meet Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands, somewhat older than Moskowitz. She has a stable job at the L.A. County Art Museum, a very nice apartment, and is in the middle (she thinks) of a long-time affair with a married man, Jim (Cassavetes himself, working unbilled). But when she gets back from a happily drunken and wistful night out with Florence (Elsie Ames), an older friend from work, Jim slaps her around, sure she's been cheating on him. And she knows the relationship is at an end.
Florence sets her up on a blind date with the socially maladroit Zelmo Swift (Val Avery), who takes her to the restaurant where Moskowitz is working. This, of course, leads to Minnie and Moskowitz meeting -- and over the next few days, this highly unlikely couple falls very convincingly in love.
Reviews at the time almost invariably described Moskowitz as a "hippie," but he's nothing of the sort; he's not anti-establishment, and he's certainly not into peace and love (he's belligerent, and is repeatedly beat up throughout the movie). He's un-establishment; he's in the society but not of the society, and he likes it that way. But he's also a very lonely man.
Minnie is also lonely, but she's definitely part of the establishment. She's shocked and fascinated by Moskowitz, who seems so radically unlike the kind of man she always assumed she'd fall in love with and marry. But his honesty, his generosity of spirit, his willingness to make U-turns in whatever traffic, and the way he feels everything, but EVERYTHING, so intensely attracts her to him. (It's not for nothing that we meet them both watching different Humphrey Bogart movies; he's watching THE MALTESE FALCON, bitterly romantic, and she CASABLANCA, extravagantly romantic. They're coming to the same point from different directions.)
Both Rowlands and Cassel are so good they seem to go right beyond acting, into being, and surely that's what Cassavetes wanted. You can't see any of the usual actor choices at all; instead, they inhabit each scene the way people do in real life -- intuitively, openly, honestly, and with a little trepidation. While this is the same style that Cassavetes (and his actors) employ in other movies, since MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ is a comedy, it's even more surprising. There's a freshness to the movie that time cannot ever rub off; it seems to be inventing itself before our eyes.
This extends to the supporting performances as well. Early on, Cassel runs into the unique and irreplaceable Timothy Carey in a burger joint in Manhattan. Cassavetes hands Carey a wonderful scene, and the flavorful, almost aromatic, actor makes the most of it.
Later, Val Avery has an increasingly hilarious scene with Rowlands. He's utterly inept about talking to women (and, we assume, men), but he's lonely, and angry about being lonely. The more he talks, the less she talks, until he's rambling on in a wild monologue that becomes more aggressive, more frantic, and in which he winds up talking about the hair on his back. Avery is very funny in the misplaced energy of his garrulousness, but he eventually becomes just a little scary -- which is what the scene requires. It's one of the best scenes in a movie filled with them. The very best scene is the last one, which has no dialog, but which is absolutely perfect, the best ending to any Cassavetes movie.
This is the kind of movie that gets under your skin; it's nothing like a standard Hollywood romantic comedy, but it's warm-hearted, realistic and at times, deeply touching and deeply funny. You could find yourself returning to MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ time and again over the years, showing it to new acquaintances as a test -- if they get into it, they're friends.
It's odd, then, that the transfer on this otherwise excellent DVD is a little muddy. For once, the trailer is sharper, the color more vibrant. The sound recording is the usual for Cassavetes: sometimes hit and miss, but always naturalistic (you can hear cars roaring by somewhere in almost every scene). The commentary track by Rowlands and Cassel, the two people closest to John Cassavetes, who died at 59, far too young, in 1989, also tends to be a disappointment. There's just not enough commentary; in fact, it's obvious that Cassel came back alone to add to the track. The most telling, and warmest, comment about Cassavetes is from Cassel: "John could talk anybody into anything." He talked his wife and friend into superb performances, and Universal into financing a wonderful movie.