TIFF Lightbox hosts indie cinema's founding faces

If John Cassavetes, subject of TIFF's latest retrospective series, Masks and Faces, is "the father of American independent cinema," then Gena Rowlands is necessarily the movement's mother. As Cassavetes' wife and closest collaborator, the two-time Oscar nominee was instrumental, both on-screen and off, in realizing her husband's pioneering, anti-studio ambitions. In addition to helping him finance and distribute his fiercely independent productions, Rowlands appeared in 10 of Cassavetes' films, though never more memorably than in 1974's powerful domestic drama, A Woman Under the Influence. Fittingly, the film tonight marks the opening of Masks and Faces' two-week Lightbox run (July 14 - 31), and Rowlands herself will be on hand for an introduction, and to discuss the influence on cinema at large in which she and her husband share. She will return tomorrow night to introduce Faces (1968), a magnetic exposĂŠ of middle class malaise, featuring Rowlands, and shot, with typical indie resourcefulness, in the Cassavetes family home.

As two of Cassavetes' essential offerings, A Woman Under the Influence (July 14, 8:45pm), and Faces (July 15, 6:45pm) are must-see screenings, made all the more so by Rowland's attendance. Both films exemplify Cassavetes' highly character-driven, actor-focused cinema, and garnered Academy Award nominations for Rowlands and then-newcomer Lynn Carlin, respectively. Woman is also notable for its celebrated performance by the late Peter Falk, and for winning Cassavetes an Academy Award nomination for direction.

A further highlight of Masks and Faces' opening selections is Rosemary's Baby (July 15, 9:30pm), famously directed not by Cassavetes, but Roman Polanski. The 1968 horror classic represents one of Cassavetes' most prominent acting performances, three of which have been chosen by TIFF's programmers in a nod to the fact that the actor/director's on-screen roles were the chief source of funding for his self-financed passion projects. The other selections are Robert Aldrich's bombastic World War II action epic The Dirty Dozen (July 22, 9pm), featuring Cassavetes in an Oscar-nominated turn, and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (July 20, 6:30pm), which casts him opposite close friend Falk as a hapless low level mob man.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (July 22, 6:30pm) represents Cassavetes' own foray into the gangster genre, transplanting his unsparing emotional realism to the seedy Los Angeles underworld of strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli. Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara gives a bravura, career-defining performance in the lead role, while Seymour Cassel, another frequent collaborator, is the glibly menacing Mort, a casino manager to whom Vitelli becomes fatefully indebted. Gripping, psychologically dense, and superbly acted, it's a remarkable counterpoint to Cassavetes' kitchen sink dramas, in setting if not substance.

A complete retrospective, Masks and Faces invites audiences to survey Cassavetes' entire directorial filmography, save for 1984's disavowed (and aptly named) Big Trouble. Other highlights include his groundbreakingly rough-hewn and race-conscious 1959 debut, Shadows (July 16, 8pm), 1970's Husbands (July 18, 6:30), co-starring Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara, and his various projects with the ever-excellent Rowlands, of which 1980's Gloria, a return to the mob milieu, would prove his most commercially accessible, and for which she would earn a second Best Actress Oscar nomination.

For a complete list of films and show times, visit All screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are available online, by phone: 416-599-TIFF, or in person: TIFF Bell Lightbox, Reitman Square, 350 King Street West.

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