The 5-disc Blu-ray box set carries over most of everything from Criterionís 8-disc DVD set, though arranges them a little differently. The big difference is that the setís biggest feature, A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes doesnít receive its own disc and spine number (the DVD had a spine number of 256) and is instead a feature on the first disc, which holds the film Shadows. Iíve always had my issues with this documentary and revisiting it is a bit of a chore. Though obviously a passion project by director Charles Kiselyak (clocking in at an astounding 200-minutes) itís incredibly sentimental and very one-sided, with obnoxious narration by someone doing a brutal Cassavetes impersonation (I guess itís supposed to be him narrating his life.) Amazingly, even at its length, itís a pretty standard documentary covering his life and work, showing the hurdles he had to get through to get his films made and so on, but never really feels Ēin-depthĒ. There are plenty of interviews for sure, which are all wonderful as everyone fondly recalls the director and man. I enjoy listening to the former cast and his close friends talk about him and offer their praise, but this is probably part of the filmís overall problem: since everyone has nothing but good things to say (even scholars) itís so one-sided and ultimately plays similar to most generic 20-minute featurettes you would find as an extra on most DVD/Blu-ray releases, where everyone talks about how wonderful everyone else is. In the end itís a fluff piece, simple PR. And despite the fact there is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage (which is great!) there is actually very little technical information, which one would think could be covered in 200-minutes. It barely even mentions missteps or issues that arose, the most notable omission being the fact there is no sign of the much maligned (even by the Cassavetes himself) final film, Big Trouble. How could a 200-minute documentary just forget to mention this film? How? There is some decent material in here, which may make it worth skimming through, but itís such an overlong disappointment I donít think I can even give it a mild recommendation.
(For those concerned, the presentation looks to be an upscale of the original standard-definition transfer and at best looks to be top-line DVD quality. To help in conserving space for the main feature the documentary has been heavily compressed and takes up less room than the main feature on the disc.)
Continuing on with features on the first disc, two interviews are next found here, one with actress Lelia Goldoni and another with actor Seymour Cassel. Both are presented in widescreen and have been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Goldoniís is the longer one, running about 12-minutes. She talks about moving to New York (for a gig that never happened) and how she came across Cassavetes acting workshop through an old high school friend. She would participate in the workshop and then suddenly found herself thrown into the film Shadows, which seems to have been realized during one class. She remembers the shooting fondly, and reminisces about the classes with Cassavetes. Casselís is unfortunately the shorter interview, lasting only 4 and-a-half minutes. Cassel simply talks about first meeting Cassavetes and getting sucked into helping with the making of the film, even doing various tasks as a member of the crew. Both are rather wonderful and worth viewing.
Workshop Footage presents over 4-minutes worth of silent footage from Cassavetesí acting workshop and work on Shadows. Itís a shame its silent but after hearing about the work shop through various supplements on here and other DVDs in the Cassavetes box set it was nice to get some actual footage, even if it is short.
We then get a restoration demonstration, possibly my favourite supplement on here, which runs about 11-minutes. This is the same one that appeared on the DVD. Itís incredibly informative as we go through the process of restoring this film and everything that has to be considered, such as what debris should be left and what should be cleaned up. As well, we get a great flow chart on the process of restoring. Criterionís restoration demonstrations are usually a collection of ?before? and ?after? shots, but this one turns into a real educational experience about all that has to be considered when restoring a film.
The disc then closes with a couple of standards, including a stills gallery with photos from the workshop, the filming and premiere of Shadows, as well as photos from the score recording session and then posters from around the world for Cassavetesí films (these posters were originally included on the Constant Forge DVD as a supplement.) A 3-minute theatrical trailer closes off the disc.
Unfortunately the alternate version of the film, an original cut that Cassavetes felt was too ?arty? and was more concerned with camera technique, is nowhere to be found on here. Long considered lost the alternate version of the film was found and fell into the hands of Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney. To my understanding he wanted to include this version on the original DVD release but Cassavetesí widow, actress Gena Rowlands, objected to this and the whole thing exploded into a mess where Carney was removed from the project after helping Criterion with it for months (find more info here and here.) It would have been an interesting feature and itís a bit of a shame that it was decided not to include it. The fact it isnít even mentioned, except for in the booklet included with the whole box set, is also disappointing. Also Iím surprised that an audio commentary recorded by Seymour Cassel and film critic Tom Charity didnít make it on here, which appears on BFIís edition. As to why Criterion didnít include it here seems a bit odd since it was actually a good track. But for those interested in it they should be happy to know the BFI Blu-ray is actually region free.
Moving on to the second disc, which features Faces, the first feature is the 17-minute alternate opening, presenting a slightly different timeline. It actually opens with Richard and Maria joking around in bed together, then cuts to the film screening, and then cuts to an additional scene that takes place in a bar where Richard and his buddy actually pick up the Gena Rowlands character, which was not in the finished film, as a whole anyways (the sequence in the film actually just starts with them leaving.) Apparently there are more differences throughout the film, but Criterion states this is the most significant one (according to notes Iíve seen online, specifically from Ray Carney, the original cut ran somewhere around 3 and a half hours.) In all honesty, based at least on this opening, I prefer how the film turned out, excising the sequence. It would have been interesting to see the complete extended version, which Carney apparently tried to get included only to have Rowlands stop it, but this is a decent alternative.
Criterion includes an episode of Cineastes de Notre Temps, presenting interviews with director John Cassavetes. Itís technically divided into two sections, the first interviewing him in 1965 before the completion of Faces, and then again in 1968, after the film was completed and shown in a few areas. It offers a lot of insight into Cassavetes and how he works outside of the Hollywood system (while still, in a way, being part of it) and how he gets the money for his films (charge it!) Thereís a certain excitement in his voice, obviously because he loves what he does, and that makes the interview engaging. The first part features him in Hollywood (where we see his workshop) and the second part in Paris. Surprisingly they talk more about his first film, Shadows, than Faces. Since we actually get to see his work shop and get a peek at his actual process this probably makes for the best supplement on the disc. The DVD presented the two interviews separately but theyíve been combined into one 48-minute segment.
A 41-minute documentary on the making of the film called Making Faces is next. This gathers together actors Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, and Lynn Carlin, along with director of photography Al Ruban for a collection of interviews. This is a wonderful documentary that doesn't just offer a look into the film, but also offers information about working with Cassavetes and the techniques he used. I enjoyed listening to the anecdotes about their group, and about the shooting and editing, and you do feel that everyone involved definitely misses it. You may even catch yourself getting teary eyed when Cassel does. Thereís a lot of good stuff in here on the technical aspects of the film and how Cassavetes put his films together, and still manages to stay interesting even though itís primarily made up of ?talking heads.?
Al Ruban on Lighting and Shooting Faces is an upgrade over the DVDís similar feature, which was a multimedia essay on the filmís look and the equipment used to capture it. The 12-minute feature here has Ruban talk about a number of scenes in the film and the equipment and film stock used to catch the look. It seems to cover all of the material on the previous feature. Itís a very technical piece but no less fascinating.
This Blu-rayís supplements are easily the best of the films in the set. While each release offers a wonderful look at their respective films I felt this one offered a more fulfilling look at how Cassavetes worked and delivers it in a joyful manner as if there was nothing better than making movies and making them the way Cassavetes did. None of it was a chore to sit through.
The third disc, featuring A Woman Under the Influence, probably has the weakest slate of material starting with a slightly disappointing audio commentary by camera man Mike Ferris and sound man Bo Harwood, longtime collaborators with Cassavetes. It's very technical, as one would expect, and offers some interesting comments on the technique to making these films, but I found they were comments already covered rather well in the supplements on the previous discs. Still, they offer thoughts on Cassavetes, the cast and their overall experience over the years, which I liked hearing. It's a decent commentary but disappointing since it's the only one over the entire 5-disc box set.
A 17-minute conversation between Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk is also included. This has the two talking about the film and Cassavetes himself, with the camera just sitting on them. They're more or less interviewing each other and cover some interesting ground, especially Falk's comments on his likes and frustrations with Cassavetes, specifically his reaction to his technique while working on Husbands.
A fairly lengthy audio interview with Cassavetes by Michael Ciment, recorded in 1975, is next. The two talk about his work, A Woman Under the Influence particularly, development of his characters, how he works with his actors and whether itís different when he directs Rowlands, and more. Cassavetes is passionate, making it a fascinating interview. It runs 74-minutes and has been divided into 7 chapters.
The disc then closes with a series of production galleries, offering on set photos from the shoot, followed by a theatrical trailer.
The fourth disc features The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the big feature is that the disc features both the 1976 and 1978 cuts of the film. The inclusion of the two cuts is somewhat surprising since Gena Rowlands apparently refused to allow the alternate version of Shadows to be included in the set and my understanding is Cassavetes preferred the Ď78 cut. As to why there are two cuts to the film: Cassavetes was apparently disappointed in the reception of it when he originally released it in 1976. He shortened it down and re-edited, I think in an attempt to make it more of a conventional gangster film.
Unfortunately I donít think thatís Cassavetesí strong point, which was more in character, so for me the Ď78 cut doesnít really work. The Ď76 version is longer by about a half-hour and Cosmo (played by Ben Gazzara) is developed a little better, presented more as the suffering artist who just wants his club to take off. What is so bizarre is that because of this further development the Ď76 version, despite being longer, actually moves by at a better pace. In trying to make it appeal more to, I assume, general audiences and critics with his recut he loses what held it apart from other gangster films of the time and it really becomes forgettable since its basic story (a man severely in debt with the mob is forced to kill someone to pay it off) is pretty thin and the film comes to rely on that premise more. Honestly, though I hate to simplify it, the Ď78 version is pretty dull. This is of course my feeling on the different versions of the film, so it will come down to personal preference. At least both versions are here. What would have been better, though, is if the Ď76 version at least received the same amount of care in its high-def transfer. In comparison to the Ď78 version the transfer is pretty lousy.
Moving on with the remaining supplements you first get notes about the two versions of the film followed by an 18-minute discussion featuring Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban. Both talk about working with Cassavetes and how they see his films, but concentrate primarily on Killing? of course. They talk about making it, their reactions to it and the eventual public reception of it. It's an excellent interview, which I felt might have been too short.
You next get a collection of audio interviews taken with Cassavetes by Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson. They talk about the film and how it fits into Cassavetesí filmography, and also talk about Hollywood and his working in it, amongst a few other details. This stuff is sort of covered in the other discs in the Cassavetes box set, so it's not really new, but again I enjoy listening to Cassavetes talk about his work and hearing the obvious passion he has for it.
Then closing off the disc is a stills gallery presenting a decent sized collection of shots from the film, publicity photos and behind-the-scenes bits, including what looks like a photo of the crew at the end. The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer that I donít actually think is on the previous DVD edition.
The fifth disc, which contains Opening Night, comes with a smattering of supplemental material, all carried over from the original DVD. First is a discussion between stars Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara. These types of discussions appear on other discs throughout the set and this one, running 23-minutes, is similar to them. The two basically just chat about ďthe good Ďol days,Ē seeming to forget that there is a crew there filming them. They share memories from the shoot, particularly the people that would walk in off the street to fill the audience seats of the filmís central play, and how they all worked to keep them entertained while things were set up. They talk about the filmís themes and characters, and then talk about Cassavetes. Gazzara takes the time to ask Rowlands about whether the two came up with scenarios for scenes the night before a shoot, because he admired how they played off of each other. She explains that they never did, playing into how the director liked to have things just unfold during the actual filming. The two also talk about the marketing of his films and the directorís work in general.
Al Ruban next provides a short 8-minute interview. Ruban talks a little about getting funding for and distributing Cassavetesí films. He also worked as director of photography for Cassavetes and he spends most of his interview talking about how it was being the DP on one of his films when, in reality, the image was probably one of the things Cassavetes was least concerned with. He expresses some frustrations since Cassavetes pretty much refused to explain how a scene should feel or go down, so Ruban would usually go in completely blind and just film. Somehow it all worked, though. He also talks about the reception of his films, which usually didnít do well in the States, but they did very well in Europe and apparently they got most of their funding by pre-selling the film in European territories. Itís short but itís a fascinating behind-the-scenes look.
Next is another portion of an audio interview with John Cassavetes, conducted by Michael Ciment. Similar interviews also appear on the discs for A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. This 29-minute segment unsurprisingly concentrates on Opening Night, and he talks about his personal experiences working in theater and talks about recruiting the filmís audiences. Most interestingly, though, is when he talks about the filmís central play. It was incredibly hard to write since it was supposed to be an awful play the actors didnít want anything to do with, and he had little interest in it. I found it probably the more engaging of all of the audio interviews found in the set.
The disc then closes with two theatrical trailers showcasing how they attempted to market his films.
The set then comes with an 80-page booklet that features writings by Cassavetes, as well as interviews with him, and a number of other essays. The booklet first includes a piece title What is Wrong with Hollywood written by Cassavetes in 1959, where he tackles the lack of individually minded films. The booklet then includes writings for each film. Shadows features an essay written by Cassavetes and an essay on the film by Gary Giddens; Faces has an introduction written up by Cassavetes in 1970 for a published version of the screenplay followed by an essay by Stuart Klawans; A Woman Under the Influence features the reprint of an interview with Cassavetes conducted for a 1975 issue of Filmmaker Newsletter in 1975, and then an essay by Kent Jones; The Killing of a Chinese Bookie presents the reprint of interview excerpts from a 1978 issues of Positif and Cahiers du cinema, and a nice essay on the film by Phillip Lopate; and Opening Night comes with another interview excerpt with Cassavetes, this one from a 1978 issue from Monthly Film Bulletin and Dennis Lim provides an essay for the film. Charles Kiselyak, director of A Constant Forge, writes about Cassavetes and his interest in the filmmaker and then there are a number of tributes written about the director: a reprint of one written by director Martin Scorsese in 1989, one by Cassavetesí former secretary Elaine Kagan, and then a rather lengthy one by Jonathan Lethem. Itís an incredibly dense and informative booklet, well worth the read.
Despite a few disappointments (like the lengthy documentary, A Constant Forge) the supplements generally do offer an excellent amount of insight into Cassavetesí filmmaking career and style, and offer a great overview for those coming to the directorís films for the first time.
Detailed reviews for each title: 8/10
Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night