Minnie and Moskowitz

(USA - 1971)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, Val Avery, Timothy Carey, John Cassavetes
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Cinematography: Alric Edens, Michael Margulies, & Arthur J. Ornitz
Composer: -

“I think about you so much, I forget to go to the bathroom!” – Seymour Moskowitz

Pioneering independent maverick John Cassavetes is one of the last directors you’d expect to make a screwball romantic comedy of mismatched lovers for a Hollywood studio. The very idea seems a contradiction to the master of depicting pain and posturing, who never allows a character to be sympathetic for long, always counteracting with patheticness to balance his examination off and draw closer to the truth. Cassavetes films provide an experience similar to no other because he pushes his raw, unflinchingly honest portraits of human fear, frailty, insecurity, and selfishness beyond the brink of explosion. They feel dangerous because they put you in the moment. Everything seems so real and cuts so close to the bone there’s an emotional and sometimes physical brutality where mere mortal films seem pat and contrived. The success of Easy Rider opened the door to smaller, less conventional films, and Cassavetes was one of the directors given less than $1 million by Universal in hopes of another cult hit. Cassavetes might have played by the rules more than usual in Minnie & Moskowitz, but despite some laughs the film is always true to his own investigative drama interests.

Minnie & Moskowitz is a movie about Seymour Moskowitz’s (Seymour Cassel) battle to win Minnie Moore’s (Gena Rowlands) love by any means necessary. Minnie is a classy, cultured, and (theoretically) attractive museum curator who men always throw themselves at. Unfortunately for her, they never sparkle like the classic Hollywood leading men she dreams of. She’s a characters that should be successful in relationships, but is such a sucker for Hollywood’s fantasy world she winds up never being satisfied with real tangible man; their face is wrong or they aren’t strong, interesting, romantic, whatever, enough. She’s become so disillusioned with the men, love, the whole process, that it’s rendered her world weary. Finally giving up on Jim (John Cassavetes), an uncaring man who gives her hope through the promises she tries to believe, but ultimately will never leave his wife, hasn’t prevented her from suffering the loss.

Minnie’s blind date Zelmo (Val Avery) has many attributes, including money, intellect, and the romance language of the poetry he’s well versed in, but lacks the will to succeed. He functions based on knowledge, so the mystery of the other quickly trips him up if his inability to read their signs doesn’t get him first. He’s so petrified he’ll lose once again he rambles on endlessly and obliviously, laying the praise for her on way too thick and in the wrong places and revealing more about his own failings than she needs to know at this point. He knows he can’t interact successfully with others, dreading his impending failure to the point he blows his chance then surrenders.

Though rescuing Minnie from Zelmo is a plus, parking lot attendant Moskowitz has nothing going for him in conventional Hollywood terms. Not only isn’t he rich, important, young, or gay looking, he’s uncouth, uninteresting, and something of a low-life bum. Moskowitz may only have two things going for him, he knows exactly what he wants and he’s the definition of persistent. Seymour may be an obsessive, stalking, brawler, but Cassavetes admires him for having the daring to risk it all by revealing his feelings and the willingness to fall flat on his face.

Minnie & Moskowitz both view different Humphrey Bogart pictures that are directly related to their own characters. Moskowitz sees Bogart as the hard-boiled tough guy in The Maltese Falcon who operates under his own code, indifferent to the feelings of others. Meanwhile, Minnie sees Bogie as the self-sacrificing romantic in Casablanca who hoists up a mask of indifference to protect his heart before eventually surrendering to love.

Moskowitz pushes himself to the limit because by satisfying himself he’s capable of moving on, win or lose. Feeling is the be all and end all of his existence. He needs to feel something, so he pushes hard with blunt force. It might result in him getting pounded, but Moskowitz starts fights willing to withstand the beating, sometimes seemingly just to make sure he still can. In the end, pain still satisfies his need to feel. Minnie has fought her feelings to the point she’s forgotten how to feel, her ice queen status intimidating if not scaring some (though not enough for her taste) would be suitors off. Moskowitz may be her match if only because he’s the only one determined enough to break down the wall Minnie has put up to shield herself.

John Cassavetes films normally consist of endless questioning with no answers provided. Here Cassavetes inverts his quest to get at the truth, providing unending possibilities in the shape of answers only to have the characters they are proposed to reject their validity. Minnie doesn’t find because she doesn’t know what she’s seeking. At one point she says to a friend, "You know, the world is full of silly asses who crave your body. I mean, not just your body, but your heart, your soul, your mind, everything! They can't live until they get it. And you know, once they get it, they don't really want it." One wonders if she wouldn’t feel the same way if her movie star actually showed up, but we realize she’ll never be satisfied until she realizes it’s irrelevant.

Cassavetes, who was known for his distaste for definitive endings, gives one to Minnie & Moskowitz, reducing the masterpiece in the eyes of some of his hardcore fans. In a sense, he had to because as much as Moskowitz believes he knows what he wants, Minnie remains uncertain. She finally has to make a decision so live can being, or end, or whatever it does when the crowds are gone.

The lead performances are among the best ever with Seymour Cassel and Gena Rowlands lighting up and exploding from the screen. Cassel is a sometimes laid back hippie who aggressively pursues whatever he thinks he wants with a great deal of fire and energy. He not only wears his feelings on his shoulder, but verbalizes them in a very straightforward manner with a dangerous intensity that’s sometimes so passionate it spurs violence. Meanwhile, Rowlands buries her emotions so deeply we sometimes wonder if there isn’t a robot hiding behind those sunglasses, only to have her pull out an incisive dagger.

The improvization in John Cassavetes movies is always wildly misunderstood. Everything is very deliberately scripted, though Cassavetes works with his wife Rowlands and closest friends and confidants, so he trusts them to experiment with adding to or subtracting from the material where they see fit. The film puts you in the moment, having the feeling of being off the cuff because the performances seem so fresh and alive. There’s not a second that seems rehearsed, and it never looks like they are going through the motions as usual. Unlike the bogus boxing promos we believe they have enough welled up emotion and frustration to lose it and beat the hell out of if not kill one another. There’s an aura is that of the uncontrollable. In a way, we are the opposite of Minnie. She believes anything too good must be an illusion, we believe it somehow must not have been an illusion because it’s so good.


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