Husbands April 15, 2021
he highest compliment I can give Husbands (1970), John Cassavetes’ follow-up to his directorial breakthrough Faces (1968), is that I didn’t notice any false notes in it. The movie is about three white, middle-class, 40-something best friends — Gus (Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara), and Archie (Peter Falk) — and we follow them for 48 hours. These two days are significant for the trio: they come in the wake of their other best
bud Stuart’s (David Rowlands) funeral. (The foursome had been tight-knit since they were kids; Stuart’s death by heart attack a few weeks ago came totally out of the blue.) The mostly improvised film tags along with the grieving, newly very-aware-of-their-mortality friends as they oscillate to and from various activities meant to distract them from encroaching feelings of anxiety and general emptiness: a game of basketball at the gym capped off with a coughing fit; an impromptu sing-off with a handful of other patrons of a local bar; a stop-by Harry’s house so he can have a heated fight with his wife and her mother; a spontaneous trip to London to find temporary liberation from domestic and professional duties.
I think the dearth of false notes has most to do with how Cassavetes, Gazzara, and Falk were in real life good friends who often collaborated with each other. They don’t have to strain much to make us believe these characters have been in each other's lives for a long time. And in his directing, Cassavetes lets each one of the scenes constituting the movie’s dawdling structure run long enough so that their accompanying banalities feel tediously real. Cassavetes’ formal looseness — namely his avoidance of music; his refusal to keep the camera steady, consistently in focus, or far away from an actor’s face for very long — creates a convincing faux reality. (The movie, which runs a little over two hours, pares down a total of 280 hours’ worth of footage; Cassavetes and his actors revised the crescendos and rhythms of scenes in real time.) I never doubted, watching Husbands, that this is how these self-conscious, depressed, bored-with-their-jobs, bored-with-their-marriages, casually misogynistic, casually racist, men would act. The movie isn’t particularly insightful; I couldn’t find anything that behaviorally illuminative in it. (Husbands is most interested in in-the-moment authenticity.)
But what sound like shortcomings are not, to my eye, examples of Cassavetes missing marks. Instead they fortify the unnaturalness of making grand, intuitive statements about aging — the scariness inherent to midlife crises — in the context of this vérité format. To a fascinatingly wearisome degree, Husbands
watches these men confront frightening existential inevitabilities and their struggles making sense of them. While persuasively dramatized, the process as depicted is more admirable to watch than reliably emotionally involving. Naturally for Cassavetes, long stretches of quotidian dullness sandwich more emotionally powerful moments.
One mid-movie ramble from Archie, who is simultaneously battling liquor-assisted nausea in a bar bathroom with Gus at his side, is especially revealing in its inconclusiveness. He searches and searches for a satisfying answer to his woes but can't find one. He’s feeling “a tremendous need; an anxiety…what is it? It’s got to be important, right?…What are we supposed to be feeling? Cause what I’m feeling — I don’t know what I’m feeling. Do you see what I mean? I got to find out because I know what it is — no, no, there’s a need there, and there’s anxiety, and there’s —” Gus guesses succinctly that Archie is simply feeling guilt brought on by Stuart’s death. Could he have been a better friend? What if there was a facet of their friendship they didn’t have time to explore that might have enriched both their lives? Guilt, though, seems like just one ingredient of his blankness. Like his friends, Archie is struggling to tread water in this sea of malaise. He isn’t sure how to — let alone isn’t sure if he can — get out. The movie doesn’t have any answers for him. Husbands was advertised upon release as “a comedy about life, death, and freedom.” Its big joke is that it subversively doesn’t find humor or levity in any of those things. Instead it accentuates cavernous but nonetheless commonplace horrors. If we’re laughing, it’s because we’re trying, like these characters, to keep the pain at bay. B+