Appetites for destruction

Blondes have more fun in John Cassavetes' 'Minnie and Moscowitz.'

Coffee, burgers, beer, carrots, hot fudge sundaes, eggs, cigarettes, tea, and screw-top red plonk. These are the substances the people in Minnie and Moscowitz consume, or don’t consume, or talk about consuming. Everybody’s hungry. John Cassavetes’ 1971 film talks about the way people yearn for, well, something. It’s about the way we try to feed ourselves with fantasies and dreams, and it doesn’t work. Nobody gets fed. The food they eat is more than a metaphor; it’s a synecdoche (look it up) running throughout the film. Sure the movie is about emotional famine, but it’s also about finding a decent chili dog. All hungers are equal.

Minnie and Moscowitz

directed by John Cassavetes

starring Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel

plays 3/10-16 at the Grand Illusion with Cassavetes’ ‘Husbands’

Cassavetes’ films—including A Woman Under the Influence, Faces, and Love Streams—are remembered largely for romantic, excessive performances from a troupe of regulars including Cassavetes himself, his wife Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, and Ben Gazzara. The work of the American director, who died in 1989, has experienced renewed interest since last year’s release of She’s So Lovely, directed by Nick Cassavetes from his father’s script. John Cassavetes is now being recognized as an American master. The tempestuous relationships at the heart of so many movies now (True Romance, Leaving Las Vegas, even the Drew Barrymore teenybopper drama Mad Love) are based on the French idea of amour fou—crazy love—a form that Cassavetes practically invented and certainly perfected.

Love in Cassavetes’ world is always crazy love; insanity is legitimacy here. This is a filmmaker who is slightly out of control. (This is a filmmaker about whom a documentary was made that was titled I’m Almost Not Crazy.) But a close viewing of his lone comedy Minnie and Moscowitz reveals that he’s master of thematic structure. The film deals with appetite—quietly, subtly, and in every scene. The characters’ emotions are out of control, but the film itself is gratifyingly in control.

Moscowitz (Cassel), a career parking lot attendant, makes his way from New York to California. When we first meet him, he sits rapt at a screening of The Maltese Falcon. He couldn’t be less Bogart: He’s a wild, unkempt, hairy blonde thing, shirttails out and handlebar mustache dragging into his hotdog. He wanders through bars, kissing the women and fighting the men. L.A. County Museum employee Minnie (Rowlands) is also blonde—Cassavetes isn’t above using visuals to create a rightness between characters—but she’s cool where Moscowitz is hot, detached where Moscowitz is violently engaged. Minnie, the perfect blonde, remains silent behind her gigantic ’70s octagonal sunglasses. With those big shades, she’s literally a screen for the projection of men’s desires.

Minnie is well aware of her effect on men. In fact she courts it, working hard at being mysterious and beautiful, then complaining to her 50ish, cat-eye-glasses-wearing friend Florence about how men all want something from her. She’s trapped by her compulsion to be the perfect blonde. The two women swill jug wine at Florence’s kitchen table. They’ve been at a screening of Casablanca, and Minnie is frustrated by how men in real life never match up to the men of the movies. “I think that movies are a conspiracy,” she tells Florence. “I’ve never met a Clark Gable.” Minnie’s pissed because she’s done her bit—she’s turned herself into a paragon of movie-inspired desirability. Now where are the hordes of suave adorers? All she has is a grimly abusive, married lover (Cassavetes). Behind her big frames, she’s wilting into a depression.

Florence sets Minnie up with a friend of a friend, and Minnie goes to lunch with this silly fellow, who falls for her before she even speaks. In a richly comic scene, he tries to impress her. “My interests are in Keats, Shelley, Swinburne,” he informs her at the swell lunch spot. “Look at your eyes. They’re so moist. You’re very sensitive. That’s a terrific quality to have.” Finally, he ends in desperation, “I CAN’T GET YOU TO FEEL WHAT I’M FEELING.” As he tries to slap her around in the parking lot, enraged at her very blondeness, the broke and homely car parker Moscowitz intervenes. And an unlikely romance is born.

It’s to Cassavetes’ credit that Moscowitz’s wooing of Minnie doesn’t have a revenge of the nerds, lip-smacking one-upsmanship. The little guy doesn’t triumph here. We think we know the recipe for satisfaction—just cook up a little Clark Gable—but it turns out to be a hairy uncouth hippie whose best line is “I think about you so much I forget to go to the bathroom.” Not that the lovers have everything easy. Moscowitz scoops Minnie in his arms, and she frantically warns, “I’m not too comfortable.” Then she asks, “Would you like a cup of tea? Some eggs? A drink?” For once, he’s not hungry.