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Thursday, September 26, 2019

Beyond the Canon: Girlfriends + Husbands

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978) with John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970).

By Chloe Lizotte

At the beginning of Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978), Susan (Melanie Mayron) bursts into a laundromat to tell her best friend Anne (Anita Skinner) that her photographs were selected for a gallery show. Riding on Susan’s high, Anne shares her own personal news: she’s engaged to her bland suburbanite boyfriend (Bob Balaban). “How can you be sure when you’re so unsure?” Susan asks Anne, as their mundane surroundings clash with the fragility of imminent change.

Girlfriends (1978)
Uncertainty is the norm in Weill’s New York: rites of passage don’t necessarily offer clarity, and momentary vulnerability might collapse into a dead end. Set before the days of Working Girl corner offices, Girlfriends animates second-wave feminist trade-offs between artistic careers and personal lives. Coping with Anne’s irreplaceability in their lonely two-bedroom, Susan pursues her photography while quietly seeking connection; elsewhere, the supposed safety net of Anne’s marriage encroaches on the personal space she needs to write—and be herself. Independence, despite its unnerving lack of reassurance, proved a virtue for Weill who made Girlfriends outside of Hollywood studio infrastructures. Weill felt studios might have relegated Susan—Jewish and unfocused on romantic resolution—to a sardonic sidekick. Overcoming three years of budgetary setbacks and piecemeal shooting, Weill and screenwriter Vicki Polon hew vividly and faithfully to the textures of Susan’s unmoored twenties, so rooted in unspoken shorthands and awkward disconnects.

Husbands (1970)

Not that Columbia Pictures blindly put up the money for the existentialist testosterone of John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970)—they acquired it long after Cassavetes charmed funding from an Italian count in the afterglow of his Academy Award-nominated drama Faces (1968). Husbands also charts self-reckoning precipitated by loss. Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes play Long Island dads who launch into a desperate bender after their close friend (Gena’s brother David Rowlands, in hammy pool party photos) suddenly dies of a heart attack. Cassavetes’ affection for middle-class fortysomething men is out of sync with the 1970 zeitgeist, more likely to identify with dropout youth or oppressed housewives, but this enhances a sense of outsider drift within archetypes of conformity. Like Girlfriends, the film stems as uniquely from its social moment—here, the suburban wake of women’s liberation—as it does from its independent production. Cassavetes, initially moved by the death of his older brother, wrote the film through extensive rehearsals with Falk and Gazzara, who impart their own temperaments to the characters' swings of affectionate boorishness and searching inarticulacy.

Both films find rhythm in listlessness: Susan’s post-Anne life becomes a collage of possibility, both freeing and suffocating, especially in bursts of desire. Weill finds a capricious incoherence in grasping for an anchor in someone else, and toggles between moments of impulse and retreat. Susan’s tipsy flirtation with a middle-aged rabbi (Eli Wallach) gives her an ephemeral thrill, but his family life soon reframes his pangs of want as pangs of escapism. While Susan modulates the outside noise to find, and hold, her own center, the men of Husbands try to lose themselves by acting out. Rebuffing respectability and hygiene, they run scrappy races on 72nd Street and jet to England on a whim; in sprawling sequences, they get obscenely drunk and rag on strangers at bars and instigate hellish one-night stands. The unforgiving length of these scenes strands them in the grief they’re trying to avoid, but that expressionism lets them inflict their powerlessness upon others (occasionally without bit performers’ knowledge that film was rolling). Yet Weill flips this dynamic in lower-key, everyday scenarios. Through characters like Wallach’s, and even through Susan’s platonic friends, she sketches the power imbalances of using someone for fleeting personal liberation, then drops her characters back at square one.

Girlfriends (1978)

Husbands traces a pervasive alienation in peripheral characters—an anxiously laughing dental patient or Gazzara’s fatigued wife can linger as forcefully as the main trio. Yet minor characters imply deeper personal stakes in Girlfriends, seeming so crucial for an instant before unexpectedly losing touch. Though Weill would only go on to direct one more theatrically released feature (1980's sparky, underrated It's My Turn), and her name is invoked far less frequently these days than Cassavetes, Girlfriends inspired a crucial cinematic lineage of New York women thanks to its focus on the unpredictable: Melanie Mayron’s infectious grin lights up Susan’s upswings, but she often has to adjust her expectations, as when a gallery owner cuts a favorite photo from her show. While shedding control and weathering change, Susan cultivates what’s left over.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sun, Oct 13 at 5pm.

Chloe Lizotte is a writer whose work has been featured in Film Comment, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Reverse Shot, and Screen Slate. She lives in New York, and you can follow her on Twitter @celizotte.

Images of Girlfriends courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment and Husbands courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics/Photofest.
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