A Woman Under The Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977), and arguing for a cinema of collective care

There is something so tender about John Cassavetes’s filmmaking. I had the chance to watch A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night this weekend, and both films left me silent, as his characters and the events they go through in both films made me reflect on my own life and relationships.

I immediately thought of an often-used Marxist concept explaining how the insanity experienced by characters in both films could brew in the first place: social reproduction, a delineation of roles each person must hold in society, based on their demographic precondition. This concept is extremely important when talking about feminist theory, since women and marginalized genders are often trapped so much under social reproduction especially under reproductive labor. Social reproduction is also, in the end, what gives birth to class inequality.

In both films, we see a clear application of social reproduction. In A Woman Under the Influence, this happens in the structure of an American working class nuclear family. Nick Longhetti, as the family breadwinner, works as a laborer in the suburbs of Los Angeles; meanwhile, Mabel Longhetti takes care of the kids, does the dishes, cooks food for the family, and so on. The daily lives of the subjects’ roles in the family is dictated as so, and together with this obligation comes the emotional involvement of each of the work. The film starts its conflict when Mabel doesn’t behave the way she is expected to be in her society; as a result, she is sent to a psychiatric institution while Nick struggles to balance his duties as a family breadwinner and taking care of his children.

In Opening Night, we see social reproduction in the workplace, between an actor and her producers —the worker and the boss, in other words. Actress Myrtle Gordon, during her run in a play, witnesses the death of her fan, an autograph hound, right in front of her eyes from a motor accident. As she arrives to her penthouse, the first thing her producers tell her is to get ready to get dinner, as restaurants are about to close. Myrtle sees this as a shock — it is obvious that these producers do not see the fan as human and treats death as a passing nuisance, instead of a small apocalypse. No, the upper class does not care about deaths of the underclass. Myrtle sees the inhumanity of this act, however the death consumed her into something deeper yet more egoistical. Haunted by images of the dead fan, reminiscent of her youth, Myrtle rethinks her role of playing an aging lady in her play by sabotaging the play in its every run, while she spirals into insanity and not a single producer sees this as a cry for help.

There definitely is a big gap between the social reproduction in A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. The most obvious one is that the family in A Woman Under the Influence is defined by their precarity; Nick’s blue collar job does not guarantee a stability of spending time with his family, and Mabel’s instability puts her in a precarious condition where she could be put in an abusive, repressive institution at any time without her consent. The characters in Opening Night does not face this discomfort — sure, Myrtle’s turning point is when she was trying to tell her producers how a harrowing incident isn’t just dismissible, but in turn Myrtle, who is a wealthy celebrity, fetishizes the young fan, making her a representation of her youth. It’s a more existential context, instead of a situation of precarity. However, the element of the characters’ relationship to their social roles are put in question in both films. Mabel’s role as a good mother & good wife is constantly doubted when she couldn’t please the people around her based on her social expectations. Myrtle’s role as a good actor & Broadway star becomes questionable as she falls into dysfunction and a rejection of her roles.

Feminist theorist Nancy Fraser explains the term “crisis of care” under capitalism, by way of social reproduction — and its gap that remains bigger and bigger throughout history — and how it has been applied while taking the value of the work away from it. Take the example of Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence. Her role as a mother has been taken for granted by the people around her. In a harrowing scene, Mabel hosts a party for her kids and kids of a family friend. In Mabel’s mind, she is putting all her love and care to the children in her responsibility as her mother, but her love and care is interpreted as insanity by the family friend, who, at the end, refuses to keep her kids with Mabel. As reflected in the scene, in Mabel’s social reproduction of women in the nuclear family, a genuine expression of love and care is sidelined by the responsibilities of a good mother and a good wife. The little cracks in the conscience of the film where Cassavetes illustrates this care is through how he frames his subjects on screen. There are a lot of tight close-ups, especially with scenes involving Nick and Mabel, where bodies are framed in unrecognizable angles, feeling like contortions happening on screen. Through these close-ups we can also see every twitch of the face, every little tear out of the eyes. These close-ups show that these expectations reflect themselves through the body — it is a sympathetic eye for our characters.

There is a shot in A Woman Under the Influence where Nick and Mabel are in the center of the frame, while the backs of their children border the left and right side; they are all sitting on the same bed, talking. It places the audience together with the children, like kids sitting down in a school assembly — you can almost feel the warmth of the people around you, together by the intimate moment representing the family’s love, separated from each of its members’ social reproductive duties. This shot is almost replicated in Opening Night albeit with a different feel to it; we see Myrtle’s face obscured, framed by a shadow of the dead fan’s head. and shoulders The dead fan, representing Myrtle’s insecurities and expectations, is succumbing her, swallowing her image almost wholly. The suffocation of the frame is no longer warm. It’s a reminder of Myrtle’s own ego.

To some extent, Myrtle and Mabel has a desire to escape their own situations. Both of them lie in the site of marginality — Myrtle being trapped in her expectations as an actress, while Mabel trapped in her life as a housewife. In bell hooks’s essay, “Choosing Marginality as a Space for Radical Openness,” she explains how people in the margins will find others who are also in this site of margin, and making it a place to present an open heart and as an escape from the alienation caused by social reproduction. Mabel’s escape is through her love; the best moments in A Woman Under the Influence are her intimate moments with Nick, and conversations with her children, who faces alienation from the adults who just couldn’t understand them. She particularly finds that escape playing with her children, reenacting scenes from Swan Lake and running from the bus stop to school. She craves moments of escape like this so desperately, that in one scene she would impatiently ask passerbys what time is it, eager for her children to come home. Nick couldn’t quite replicate this relationship with his children; he lets his frustration get ahead of him as he gives up trying to understand both Mabel and their children. Mabel’s love towards Nick, on the other hand, isn’t the perfect escape. Nick is constantly changing his position on Mabel and how to properly “take care” of her. His love radiates for her but he just can’t seem to understand how to deliver that love through the most understanding way. He sends her to a psychiatric institution just to realize that Mabel’s downward spiral is completely natural; however, at the end, he forces that sense of naturalism onto her without giving her the only thing she wants: to let her be.

Unlike A Woman Under the Influence, there is a sense of catharsis and conclusion behind the ennui of social reproduction in Opening Night. There is a sequence near the end Opening Night where Myrtle Gordon and actor Maurice Aarons (played by John Cassavetes) are doing the final scene of the play onstage. When Myrtle misses a cue, everything between the actors erupt, as they continue and finish the scene with their own improvisations. Especially knowing Cassavetes’s own acting background, it is very much obvious how this is a symbol of the actors’ rebellion. It is also a symbol of Myrtle breaking free from the hauntings, her fears, and the firm hold of the producers. In his essay, writer-director Andrew Bujalski mentions how this form of entertainment that Myrtle and Maurice define to themselves “becomes briefly heroic.” Before the run, Myrtle had a conversation with Maurice, where she mentions to “take this play, let’s dump it upside down… and see if we can’t find something human in it,” as she tries to find the value of the work that she’s alienated from. The confines of the play reminded Myrtle of aging, the untimely death of her own fan, and her expectations as a creative worker in the spotlight, and in the performance scene, she broke free of it through the language she created with a fellow actor — fulfilling a quote from bell hooks’s essay: “Dare I speak to you in a language that will move beyond the boundaries of domination — a language that will not bind you, fence you in, or hold you?”

Therefore, these two films by John Cassavetes pose a similar question: how do we create a cinema that doesn’t perpetuate a crisis of care, but instead aims for a future of collective care? Cassavetes’ empathetic camera points out the crisis of care both in the family and in the workplace, and urges its audience to reflect on exploitative relationships built through social reproduction. While A Woman Under the Influence brings up the hidden labor of mothers and wives in the nuclear family, Opening Night brings up the cruelty of the upper class and the expectations of fame in the entertainment industry. These two films are living arguments of the importance of collective care in an increasingly capitalist society, and how the films’ subjects strive to get in touch with their inner sense of humanness, of care, instead of upholding capitalistic responsibilities that they grow more alienated from. As Cassavetes himself said: “I’m a man who believes in the validity of a person’s inner desires. And I think those inner desires, whether they’re ugly or beautiful, are pertinent to each of us and are probably the only things worth a damn. I want to put those inner dreams on the screen so we can all look and think and feel and marvel at them.”

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