All Naked, All The Time: Gertrude Stein and John Cassavetes


What is emotionally naked art and why do I think I have to describe the films of John Cassavetes, particularly A Woman Under the Influence, and Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, particularly “Melanctha,” that way? Maybe emotionally naked art is art purified of trying to be meaningful while also harboring a certain political and moral agenda. Does one have to be emotionally naked to enjoy it? No, that’s too drip dry a proposition. So why go running to these two renegades, mavericks of their mediums? The artistic achievements of Cassavetes and Stein are important because they used their respective mediums in ways which breathed new life into staid narrative forms. Theirs is a compelling and painful art. It examines, both cinematically and syntactically, many things other artists gloss over when seeking to fashion tight, balanced stories. In looking at themselves they found new to ways to enliven the mess of emotions at the hub of consciousness in much more profound ways than many artists in the 20th Century.

About ten years ago a dear friend told me to read Three Lives. I wobbled through a few pages and went back to something I could more easily handle. Stein’s writing seemed hokey–with the repetitions and seemingly unadorned language (going against the grain of many “rules of the road” for writing which say to vary words and not to repeat oneself), I couldn’t appreciate the world in her words. Yet this time around, her words subducted me as if I were the Juan de Fuca to her mighty Pacific tectonic plate.

“Melanctha” follows a young black woman from her beginnings to her end, as she struggles to relate to her family, friends, and men. On the fourth page, Stein describes her main character in plain, unsymbolic language:

Melanctha was always losing what she had in wanting all the things she saw. Melanctha was always being left when she was not leaving others…Melanctha Herbert always loved too hard and much too often.

These are the quandaries of existence as viewed by Zen Buddhists. Set forth in each sentence like a fire blanket is an “always.” This extreme word attaches itself to the novella’s undesirable but always desiring character, who grows up with ping-pong emotions–feelings that carry on into her dealings with men.

In looking at “Melanctha,” one also has to look at Jeff Campbell—though the titular character carries the whole, but not by much. Of the roughly 100 page novella, the middle 70 are taken up with the dance between Melanctha and Jeff Campbell, the “serious, earnest, good young joyous doctor.” It was Stein’s forays into Jeff that struck me as so painfully true—because a man understands a man? Because his own cutting games limned my own? Here, as soon as the doctor enters the story a whirlpool of emotion from both parties begins, which Stein describes from Jeff’s point of view:

Jeff always loved now to be with Melanctha and yet he always hated to go to her. Somehow he was always afraid when he was to go to her, and yet he had made himself very certain that here he would not be a coward. He never felt any of this being afraid, when he was with her. Then they always were very true, and near to one another. But always when he was going to her, Jeff would like anything that could happen that would keep him a little longer from her.

Has the dance, has the uncertainty of feeling for another ever been broadcast in such plain terms at such an early date? There is a sing-song quality to Stein’s prose. Things are proposed, their pinnacles and pluses outlined, but soon they are viciously and rigorously negated, so that pain is more painful. When Melanctha goes and “wanders” after other men toward the end of their relationship, Jeff is hurt:

And Jeff Campbell now felt less than he had ever, any right to claim to know what Melanctha thought it right that she should do in any of her ways of living…Jeff learned every day now, more and more, how much it was that he could really suffer. Sometimes it hurt so in him, when he was alone, it would force some slow tears from him. But every day, now that Jeff Campbell, knew more how it could hurt him, he lost his feeling of deep awe that he once always had had for Melanctha’s feeling. Suffering was not so much after all, thought Jeff Campbell, if even he could feel it so it hurt him. It hurt him bad, just the way he knew he once had hurt Melanctha, and yet he too could have it and not make any kind of a loud holler with it.

“Hurt,” “feeling,” “suffering,” “alone,” “lost,” “bad”: the language of despair, full of suppositions that lend corrosiveness and instability to feelings once blooming with promise. When Stein says the hurt is “in him” she takes us closer to the epicenter of sorrow. Because it is already “in,” it is much more immediate and all consuming. Also the “hurt” forces tears from him, he doesn’t cry them. The a mighty phalanx of despair has taken hold and when she characterizes the “hurt” (a different hurt–the kind he passed on to Melanctha) as something he can have too, it is transfigured into another, grosser djinn that assaults and confounds. And when she says he “could not make any kind of a loud holler with it,” Jeff Campbell has finally forked himself with his knife, the “loud holler” being a term of Americana that grounds any loftiness in the plagued passage.

A Woman Under the Influence concerns a husband and wife and their three children. Nick (Peter Falk) is a construction worker, his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) a stay at home mother. She is acting more and more on the verge of a breakdown. My mother first showed this film to me in the early 90’s. She loved Gena Rowlands and knew of Cassavetes from Rosemary’s Baby. I knew of Cassavetes from a wonderful documentary called Hollywood Mavericks. We watched, stunned at the entire production, especially the everlasting, excruciating last hour of the film and the many trips up the stairs with the kids. I can remember watching it in college in 1996 after a woman destabilized my senses. I was so raw, I wept wildly, overcome by the twenty-two year-old mirror Cassavetes had provided. Last year I was lucky enough to see it projected. I’ve seen it close to ten times and just a few weeks ago, it still yielded–sending me to examine and rigorously discuss what it means to be human.

Both artists examine the process of destruction between people who profess love. Cassavetes understood human nature much better than his critics, who constantly maligned him, with Pauline Kael being his greatest detractor, saying of A Woman: “The scenes are often unshaped, and so rudderless that meanings don’t emerge…[Rowland’s] prodigious performance is worth half a dozen tours de force–it’s exhausting.” This is taunting and unworthy of any critic. How many times do people tell each other they love each other in A Woman Under the Influence? How many times do they kiss each other? How many times do they hug?

How many times do they stroke each other? It’s unrivaled in American film and why? Because it is hard to look at love. At least it is hard to look straight on. Artists often miss the mark and make their scenes too cloying and sentimental (Oscar bait like Dances with Wolves), or are too cruel without consciousness and incredibly affectionless (Tarantino and his ilk). One can’t hide who one is in one’s art. It comes out no matter if one knows it or not: Kubrick’s control gleams in his mise-en-scene, Gass’s anger clogs his sinuous sentences, and Rilke’s compulsion to look is always on display in his prose and verse.

But Cassavetes projects the many muscled emotion in all its hardy splendor. Love is to the human as branches are to birds. Cassavetes said many times that he is only interested in love.

In the last minutes of A Woman, the kids are put to bed, comforted and kissed like in no other Hollywood film. Often they glaze over such details with quick cuts, smiles, and music. In Cassavetes, there is no sound except of people’s gaze and touch. Similarly, early in the film, Cassavetes spends four minutes showing Mabel picking up her children. Four minutes of film time! Unimaginable.

What is emotionally naked here? At the end of the clip is what is hardly ever seen in film–a mother and her young children having a significant conversation that isn’t clichéd. The talk is very alive and Mabel shows her weakness and insecurity, but also awareness. She puts her children first and wants to make sure they are comfortable. Somehow, throughout the film, the children act like children (if they are “acting” at all). The smiles are genuine. Much has been written about Cassavetes films having a documentary feel. Hand-held camera moves with no effort to cover the blurring and people acting like real people are some of the traits, but much of this has been bandied about to insult his artifice. The fact is the films were carefully scripted and choreographed. Cassavetes, because he bowed to no studio and practically financed his films himself, was able to create an environment that embraced open emotion. Like his characters, his context would openly bleed so the actors wouldn’t shy away, or couldn’t as they arrived at emotional discharges so unique people thought they were watching home movies. As Cassavetes dissected the heart, he found people to be both emotionally ugly and beautiful. He looked at his characters compassionately and celebrated them for being human and not conforming their pasts to a plot.

Cassavetes made films about himself, his wife (Rowlands), his family (his mother and Rowlands’s mother play the mothers of Nick and Mabel in the film), and his friends. He abused alcohol and most all his films show characters similarly imbibing. Everything he was culminated in A Woman, with the five films following it being aftershocks of this triumph. As Bergman said, “It’s the same film every time, the only difference is we’re older.” Cassavetes’s characters aged throughout his oeuvre, so that by the time of his final masterpiece Love Streams (the main characters are a brother and sister who live with each other after their own marriages have failed) romantic love becomes something else, as it does when we get older. He then looks at how the main characters love themselves when they are alone, nearing the end.

Both “Melanctha” and A Woman contain characters from the lower classes. In “Melanctha,” the black characters live in very early 20th Century Baltimore where many have such jobs as servants, coachmen, and deck hands. In A Woman, the couple sleeps on a couch that opens into a bed in what doubles as their dining room. They have no room themselves. Nick works on a construction crew for the city. Mabel is a housewife.

Family is also at the heart of the character’s problems. In “Melanctha,” Stein details the childhood of her sorrowful character, describing her relationship with her parents in few pages with resounding repetitions (these are the first mentions of the father and mother in the novella):

Melanctha Herbert had been raised to be religious, by her mother. Melanctha had not liked her mother very well.

Melanctha Herbert almost always hated her black father…

Melanctha Herbert had not loved herself in childhood. All of her youth was bitter to remember.

Melanctha had not loved her father and her mother and they had found it very troublesome to have her.

The young Melanctha did not love her father and her mother, and she had a break neck courage, and a tongue that could be very nasty. Then, too, Melanctha went to school and was very quick in all the learning, and she knew very well how to use this knowledge to annoy her parents who knew nothing.

Obviously this is no recipe for happiness, let alone health. Melanctha is a character to be pitied, but because Stein is so direct in her descriptions, a terror arises as the reader asks, “People live like this?” Melanctha is smart but not only uses her knowledge to “annoy her parents,” she also uses it to trade jibes with Jeff Campbell, cutting him with words when she should be holding him with her hands. Mabel and Melanctha are similar in that they “always loved too hard and much too often,” as Stein describes it (witness Mabel’s gritting her teeth at the end of the spaghetti scene, saying “I love your friends. I love everybody you bring in the house!”). It is no surprise she gets cut off from the world: her father, Jeff Campbell, her last love Jem Richards, and, most wretchedly, her friend Rose Johnson all leave her life. That she will die alone is almost a foregone conclusion.

In A Woman, Mabel is at odds with her father and mother-in-law in addition to her husband. There is a pivotal sequence the night of her return from the mental hospital–this last hour of the film takes place in close to real time. The conflict with her father and all of her family on both sides is amplified. Earlier, soon after she had come into the house for the first time, her father has a fit about them having spaghetti for dinner, a fit similar to Nick’s fits throughout the film, when he loses his patience with Mabel and starts yelling–he hits her twice. After the commotion is broken up, she sits by her father and says: Do I look pretty dad?

DAD: You look beautiful hon.

MABEL: You think I’m going to be alright?

DAD: You’re going to be fine.

Mabel then starts hugging and kissing him, but after a few seconds he tells her to go over to her mother. He can’t take the intimacy. While she is dining with her family for the first time, Mabel is pressured by her husband to snap out of her initial catatonia and with all of the parents, children, uncles, and cousins looking on, even looking at her like she is an animal in a cage (they say very little but stare and wait for her to make the first move), she asks for them to leave so that she and Nick can make love. Immediately she is rebuked for saying such a thing in front of the children. But is not the desire to make love a natural one? She repeats this request and is rebuked again. All through the scene, Cassavetes oscillates between a long shot of the whole table (Mabel is at the head, with her father at the opposite end and everyone except Nick, seated next to her, is assembled like inquisitors) and close-ups of the characters. After she is ganged up on and after Nick has another fit (screaming, “Normal conversation!”), she asks her father to stand up for her. Her father ascends but she again, tearfully, asks that he stand up for her. He is dumbfounded. Mabel is asking her father for help and does not receive it. She can see by this point that she is under the influence…of a man (Nick)–as Cassavetes told Michael Ciment in the wonderfully revealing audio interview on the Criterion DVD. Who else can stand up to Nick? She can’t. She is trapped with an at times tender, at times violent man. He loves Mabel, but he can’t understand her and finally, he yells in frustration at her going crazy, after the family does leave, that he will kill his “son-of-a-bitching” kids. Did the right person go to the mental hospital? Though Rowlands (deservedly) received many accolades for her work, the film also contains Falk’s greatest performance and his acting stands up as one of the best American male lead performances ever, along with Brando in Last Tango in Paris, Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, and De Niro in Taxi Driver.

Cézanne's "Portrait of Madame," owned by Stein

Stein loved sentences. Her whole project was sentences. Sentences and composition. Stein said  Cézanne and Flaubert influenced everything she did. Prior to writing Three Lives she translated Flaubert’s Trois Contes into English. As for Cézanne, she said, “[he] conceived the idea that in composition one thing was as important as another thing. Each part is as important as the whole…” She owned a portrait of Mme. Cézanne painted by her husband and she stared at it while working on Three Lives. Each sentence of “Melanctha” is required to make the whole whole. So, seemingly, but surely majestically, Stein became Stein by looking. Did looking create the emotionally naked result? I, as many others (Cézanne, Rodin, Rilke, Gass, etc.), would argue intense looking promotes more intense feeling, and more intense love and compassion. Again Stein: “Conception of this has to be based on a real feeling for every human being.” In her stalwart essay on Stein in the Language of Inquiry called “Three Lives,” Lyn Hejinian says, “Stein was interested in compassion as an artist, which is to say formally; this is at the root of Stein’s desire (and ability) to ‘include everything.’ It is a clinical, not an encyclopedic, impulse; there is nothing that can be considered unworthy of attention…Inclusiveness in this context means a willingness to look at anything that life might entail…the detachment which it requires is what permits the shift from manipulative to structural uses of compassion…” (286)

By “including everything,” Stein gets closer to what is most joyous and painful about being human. The more fully conscious a work, the more repellant it will be to a certain cadre of critics and audiences–this fits both Stein, and her long march toward acceptance in the canon, as well as Cassavetes. Though I am examining their most canonical works (and most popular), Stein’s is still a grudging acceptance as Gass notes in his own “Three Lives” essay:

…though…Stein’s reputation has grown rather steadily through recent decades, it is a reputation in constant peril. One kick takes the stool out from under the otherwise unattractive weight of the lady. Nor would her downfall spoil anyone’s afternoon.

“Anything that life might entail” is included in “Melanctha,” especially the details of how people speak to each other. Stein’s dialogue is a stunning jabberwocky of poetry, exemplified here by Rose Johnson, Melanctha’s friend, talking to her early in the book (it will be echoed later on, on the final page after their friendship dissolves):

I don’t see Melanctha why you should talk like you would kill yourself just because you’re blue. I’d never kill myself Melanctha just ‘cause I was blue. I’d maybe kill somebody else Melanctha ‘cause I was blue, but I’d never kill myself. If I ever killed myself Melanctha it’d be by accident, and if I ever killed myself by accident Melanctha, I’d be awful sorry.

Five “Melanctha”s. Six “kill”s. When someone uses your name so many times you are endeared to them (unless they are patronizing you). These four sentences have the harmonics of a Bach fugue, with the “kill yourself” motif played in the first sentence and played back in different ways and repetitions: kill myself, kill somebody else, kill myself—ending with two “killed myself”s, ending with that scorcher of a word: sorry. The sentences expertly demonstrate the line between those who might not care to survive and survivors. Rose Johnson speaks from the deep space inside herself that we often don’t let other people see unless we trust or love them in such a way that we aren’t afraid of being hurt.

The above example of Rose Johnson’s speech with dialogue as revelation, is like the mise-en-scene that accompanies the spaghetti eating scene in A Woman (close-up after close-up and close-ups of regular guys, most of whom never appear in the film again): it presents an individual, it doesn’t judge, evaluate, or manipulate the reader into a point of view, it just presents. When Mabels’s white hands are splayed around  Billy Tidrow’s round, black, beautiful, smiling face and she says, “I love this face. I love that face. Nick, this is what I call a really handsome face,” Cassavetes and Stein make us see people, see their processes. In film the actors and mise-en-scene create sensation and in literature the words and their order fillet us, making us care about who we read about—getting emotionally involved, putting us where they are as we gain compassion for them, and hopefully for ourselves and those who challenge us.

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Comment, and others. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →