Husbands (1970)

*. Well, this wasn’t a very pleasant experience.
*. In part, and perhaps a large part, that’s by design. Andrew Bujalski: “Husbands is not now, and was not then, an easy movie to watch. Cassavetes was temperamentally incapable of and generally uninterested in making ‘easy’ movies.” The rough cut was four hours long and apparently audiences said they liked it (I find this hard to believe, but it’s what Marshall Fine says on his DVD commentary and I have to take him at his word). Ben Gazzara also said he “selfishly” liked the four-hour version best as well. All of this was a red flag to John Cassavetes, who had no intention of making a movie that people enjoyed so much.
*. And so, in Fine’s account, the more Cassavetes cut “the less audience-friendly it [Husbands] became.” Again I have to express my doubts. Surely less of Husbands could only be a good thing. Which gives you some idea of where I come down on it.
*. I’m not against Cassavetes in general, but Husbands doesn’t work for me at all. The problems I have with it aren’t the fault so much of Cassavetes’ brand of filmmaking, which aims for an unpolished, improvised quality, as they have to do with the movie’s whole concept.

*. Three forty-something friends — Harry (Gazzara), Gus (Cassavetes), and Archie (Peter Falk) — mourn the death of a fourth musketeer named Stuart by getting drunk, acting out, and finally hopping on a jet to London (England) where they pick up some women they don’t have any idea what to do with before Gus and Archie decide to go home and get on with their lives.
*. So what the movie is about, in the first place, is how we deal with loss. It is also a “portrait of masculinity of crisis” (this from the Criterion people), and represents “perhaps the most fearless, harrowingly honest deconstruction of American manhood ever committed to film.”
*. If you combine these two things I think you’d have to think that part of the project here is to have us sympathize, or at least empathize to some degree with Harry, Gus, and Archie. We should feel sorry for their loss, and for their mid-life crisis of masculinity.
*. This appeal to sympathy, however, runs smack up against the rebarbative three pals. Now I want to rush to say that there’s nothing wrong with having unlikeable characters, even as heroes (or anti-heroes). But I had a lot of problems with these guys.

*. Let’s start with a couple of critical observations. Pauline Kael: “Cassavetes is the sort of man who is dedicated to stripping people of their pretenses and laying bare their souls. Inevitably, the results are agonizingly banal.” David Thomson (writing about Cassavetes more generally): “He chooses basic, unenlightened, and unhappily successful people. They are a rarity in American film, rigorously shunned by most directors: they are bores.”
*. So that’s not good. The husbands are banal and bores. But it’s worse because they are also obnoxious jerks. And even worse than that, they’re not believable. The dig that both Kael and Thomson make would be sharper if we felt Harry, Gus, and Archie reflected real boring, middle-class professionals. But for all the grottiness of Husbands — one infamous scene has the boys retching in a public restroom — I don’t find it realistic on a human level at all. To be sure a lot of men are pigs, and they were probably worse in 1969 than they are now, but I can’t imagine many adults behaving in such a reckless and childish manner even then.
*. In short, they’re not good company for five minutes, let alone two-and-a-half hours. But they have an excuse, of sorts. They are in mourning. We need to cut them some slack. A whole lot of slack. They are, as Fine puts it, ” in touch with their mortality for the first time.” In the vomiting scene they aren’t (just) drunk, but rather “vomiting out the pain they’re feeling.” Stuart meant that much to them. At least that’s what we’re meant to assume, since they really don’t spend any time at all taking about Stu and he remains not so much an absent presence as just absent.
*. All three men are examples of a dramatic type that I bristle at: the wounded (physically or emotionally) male who is complicated in some way and needs the love of a good, understanding woman to heal him. But what have these young, professionally successful guys with beautiful families suffered? The death of their friend? This excuses their behaviour?
*. I don’t want to put them on trial, but I don’t get the sense that they’re acting any worse in the wake of Stuart’s funeral than they ever have. Harry seems to have a history of abuse toward his wife, who is afraid of him. Kael thought them bullies and this seems more than justified by the way they serially threaten and physically assault various women throughout the film (they don’t act so pushy with other men).

*. This sense that they aren’t just acting out now is reinforced by the fact that we don’t see them travelling much of a dramatic arc. Nor do I understand any of them any better at the end than I did at the beginning. Let’s face it, by the time you’re forty you are what you are. These guys aren’t going to grow but only be revealed. And that undressing doesn’t take very long.
*. The full title, or subtitle calls it “a comedy about life, death, and freedom.” Apparently one of the reasons Cassavetes wanted to cut it so much is that original audiences found it so funny. I don’t know what they could have been laughing at. There’s no wit in the dialogue, which may or may not have been improvised. Thomson: “The Cassavetes films are far more thoroughly written than was once believed; and they are badly written.” It’s basically the Norman Mailer Hour here. Or Two Hours-plus. Though not having Mailer on screen is at least some positive.
*. Then again, I’m not sure why the characters kept breaking into laughter either. Did they think something was funny, or did they just not know what else to do? Their disastrous promotional appearance on the Dick Cavett show, which is so awful it really has to be seen to be believed, is of a piece. Were they having a good time? Nobody else was.
*. I do like the homecoming at the end, maybe just as a relief, but at the same time it feels more than a little trite. When Cassavetes is on I think he’s great, but there’s almost nothing I enjoyed here at all, aside from maybe Archie getting handled by the Countess at the casino. Roger Ebert: “It has good intentions, I suppose, but it is an artistic disaster and only fitfully interesting on less ambitious levels.” I’m glad Cassavetes made it. I’m glad I watched it even if I didn’t like it. But this isn’t just a movie I couldn’t relate to but one that I found ham-handed and phoney. You can call Last Orders or The Hangover lesser fare dealing with similar subject matter, but I think they’re both better movies, and more honest too.

21 thoughts on “Husbands (1970)

    1. Alex Good

      Tudormania week is over.
      You had your bog quiz already. I’m afraid there won’t be another for a while.
      I’ve perfected masculinity. I trust you’ve been taking notes.

    1. Alex Good

      I’m pretty sure you’d hate it. All the men are husbands, and the title is probably just meant to suggest that this role is one part of their identity and one that really isn’t working very well. We only meet one wife, and that briefly. We don’t see them being husbands but more running away from that.

  1. Bookstooge

    yeah, no thanks.
    Give me a movie showcasing real men grieving and shouldering their responsibilities. Don’t see much of THAT in real life 😦

      1. Bookstooge

        See, that’s what I just don’t understand. We see that kind of thing in real life ALL THE TIME. So why do people want to make that kind of movie or watch that kind of behavior?

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Yeah, John Cassavetes. He made a movie called The Killing of a Chinese Bookie that was good. Also A Woman Under the Influence. I’m not sure I’d really recommend either though unless you’re pretty open to his style of filmmaking. The thing is, I think I am pretty open to it and I still thought Husbands was mostly awful.

      3. Bookstooge

        I don’t know enough about movies, or watch enough, for me to definitely state if some random director is for me or not. I usually just assume “no” and play it safe 😀

      4. Alex Good Post author

        Ah, but every now and then you have to take a chance. With Cassavetes you’d probably know after watching about fifteen or twenty minutes. His style is pretty distinctive.
        Still, that’s not a recommendation I’m giving. I don’t think you or Fraggle would groove to him. As for the crazy Scottish kid, I don’t know. He can be pretty erratic.

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