John Cassavetes: At the Limits of Performance
Thesis DisciplineFilm Studies
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
This thesis examines the central role of performance in three of the films of John Cassavetes. I identify Cassavetes’ unique approach to performance and analyze its development in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968). In order to contextualize and define Cassavetes’ methodology, I compare and contrast each of these films in relation to two other relevant film movements. Cassavetes’ approach was dedicated to creating alternative forms of performative expression in film, yet his films are not solely independent from filmic history and can be read as being a reaction against established filmic structures. His films revolve around autonomous performances that often defy and deconstruct traditional concepts of genre, narrative structure and character. Cassavetes’ films are deeply concerned with their characters’ isolation and inability to communicate with one another, yet refrain from traditional or even abstract constructions of meaning in favour of a focus on spontaneous, unstructured performance of character. Cassavetes was devoted to exploring the details of personal relationships, identity and social interaction. In his films, acting and the creation of character depicts the blurred divide between artifice and reality that exists within much social performance in lived experience. The filmmaking process itself was crucial in the generation of improvisatory performances in Cassavetes’ films. His work displays an intertwinement of creative process and the final filmic form.