Minnie and Moskowitz (1971); directed by John Cassavetes

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I watch Minnie and Moskowitz, and I think, “Those two wackos have as much of a shot of ‘making it’ as anybody else.” The ending scene has always killed me. Suddenly, with no warning, it shows inclusion, it shows being on the inside of the circle of warmth, belonging, family, for the first time. Being “outside” the circle is often the situation in a Cassavetes film, and people long to get “inside”. So they drink, they dance, they laugh, they run around, hoping that perhaps the behavior will say “Hey, look at how inside the circle I am, look how much I belong!” and maybe the Behavior will change how they actually Feel; but the second they stop laughing, the second they stop drinking, the isolation comes roaring back, the abyss widens.

Minnie and Moskowitz is seen as Cassavetes-light, I guess. It may be the first Cassavetes I saw, I’m not sure. It was so long ago, and I didn’t know who any of these people were. I was 17, 18, something like that. I just knew that it was a vision of suddenly finding “belonging”, and even then, when I was a kid, I longed for it. Maybe I knew how hard it would be. I had already had some tough stuff happen to me. Stuff that made me doubt I would ever get there on the “inside”. Maybe I had a sense of how long I would be “outside” and the films of Cassavetes gave me a glimpse of what that would mean, what that could feel like. So get ready, bitch. I don’t know. There was always some primal connection for me, with the films of Cassavetes, and Rowlands, in particular. One could not characterize it in a cozy cuddly way, like, “I feel validated by the films” or “I feel SEEN by the films”. No, nothing that domestic, nothing that manageable.

For me, at their most powerful, they were like stepping into my own worst nightmare. A nightmare I didn’t even know was possible, really, when I was 17. But look, it came to pass. And it has been as awful as I imagined.

I think of Rowlands’ great line in A Woman Under the Influence, near the end of the film: Mabel (Rowlands) is home from the loony bin after six months away and tucks her three children into bed, all as her husband (Peter Falk) looks on. The two of them start down the stairs. It has been a long stressful day. As she walks down the stairs, in front of her husband, she says, in a totally conversational tone, “I am absolutely nuts!!” She sounds surprised, as though the reality is really just occurring to her now. Falk murmurs, “Tell me about it” (hahaha), and as she keeps going the stairs, she says, “I don’t even know how it all got started!” You and me both, sister.

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Minnie and Moskowitz looks at loneliness and isolation, and the coming together of two totally unlikely people – Seymour Cassel as Moskowitz, the loud-mouthed kind-hearted but completely nuts parking attendant, and Gena Rowlands as Minnie, the high-class woman who works in an art museum and has the Mask of respectability, but who lives in a howling wilderness of alone-ness. She doesn’t know how to be herself, a common theme in Rowlands’ performances. And the problem is exacerbated by her beauty. Minnie and Moskowitz deals with her beauty head-on. Men look at her and are in awe of her, and try to break her down into her parts: “You are so lovely.” “Your skin is so soft.” “You have a terrific body.” She doesn’t seem to resent this. She doesn’t seem to even know that that is what is being done to her, but she does know that something is wrong. In her first scene, she sits at the house of a colleague, and drinks cheap wine, and gets wasted. She has a long monologue about how much she loves the movies, but how the movies “are a conspiracy”, they “set you up” to think love is possible. Her drunkenness is palpable. “I’ve never met a Charles Boyer!” she says. When she leaves to go get into a cab to go home, she wipes out and falls down the stairs (and it is clearly Rowlands doing that “stunt”. Nobody – and I mean nobody – plays drunk like Gena Rowlands). So it’s a great introduction to the character, because for the rest of the film we see her (for the most part) with her Mask back on. She wears gigantic sunglasses, her hair is a perfect bouncy crown, her clothes are immaculate, she’s got it together. But because our first meeting with her was that wasted fall down the stairs after talking about the movies and how they “set you up to believe in … everything”, we are already primed to look beyond her beauty.

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We can’t see her in any other way than as that lonely drunk woman wondering where her Charles Boyer is. In Minnie and Moskowitz, Charles Boyer takes the form of the mustached-ponytailed Seymour Cassel. Because this is Cassavetes, their romance does not unfold in any way that is recognizable, in terms of cinematic or literary cliches. Time seems to stretch out. When they tell their mothers they have known each other for “four days”, they both get surprised. “Four days? Has it only been four days?”

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Someone like Minnie needs to feel safe. And people have hostile reactions to beautiful women when they “need” something. The film addresses that. But Minnie is a handful. She can’t even say what she needs. She just knows she doesn’t know how to be herself, and she is so lonely she can’t bear it, and she is afraid of going through life alone. But maybe being alone isn’t the worst thing. She asks gentle questions of her friend in that first scene, the friend she gets drunk with. The friend is older than she is, in her 50s maybe, and Minnie wonders if ever there is a point in your life when you give all that up, the sex thing, the love thing: do you ever stop hoping?

It’s fun to see what a romantic comedy would look like, Cassavetes-style. Minnie and Moskowitz is it.

I first saw it at the local university where I grew up. They had a Cassavetes series going on, and I went to a couple of them. And I remember sitting there in that little theatre, and the last scene came, when the music suddenly starts, sweet and friendly and whimsical, and the kids are running around, and people are blowing balloons, and the mothers-in-law are commiserating, and people are dancing on the picnic table, and Minnie is there, wearing gigantic pink sunglasses and laughing, really laughing … and I suddenly found it hard to breathe.

And it may be a crazy situation and unconventional and a long shot, but whatever the moment is it’s hers. She’s inside at last.

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2 Responses to Minnie and Moskowitz (1971); directed by John Cassavetes

  1. This was just great. I haven’t seen this one since I saw it at the Paris at a Cassavetes retrospective in the late 90s. Gotta take a fresh look. I remember loving Val Avery in a scene where he takes Minnie on a failed date.

    Also, this:
    “For me, at their most powerful, they were like stepping into my own worst nightmare. A nightmare I didn’t even know was possible, really, when I was 17. But look, it came to pass. And it has been as awful as I imagined.” HOLY CRAP, I love that. Nice work, Sheila.

    • sheila says:

      Val Avery is so freakin’ funny and tragic and awful – basically shouting at her: “YOU SEEM LIKE A VERY UNDERSTANDING PERSON.”

      And then the second she politely says she doesn’t think of him in that way, he turns on her. “YOU BLONDES. YOU’RE ALL ALIKE.”

      And thanks in re, your last comment.

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