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Reviews Seventies Screwball

Minnie and Moskowitz

Minnie and Moskowitz

John Cassavetes

USA, 1971

Credits

Review by Cullen Gallagher

Posted on 17 May 2010

Source Anchor Bay VHS

Categories Seventies Screwball

When we first meet Minnie Moore, she is at a repertory screening of Casablanca with one of her museum co-workers, Florence. As the movie ends and the lights come up, the two women are seemingly elated: Minnie likes Humphrey Bogart, and Florence has a yen for Claude Rains. Back at Florence’s apartment, the two indulge in wine (the only thing to eat or drink in the entire place) and open up about their disappointment with both their personal lives and the movie, and the way the two are interconnected. “Movies are a conspiracy,” Minnie says. “I never even met a Charles Boyer. I never met Clark Gable. I never met Humphrey Bogart. I’ve never met any of them. You know who I meet. I mean, they don’t exist. That’s the truth.”

Minnie’s speech becomes the foundational principle for Minnie and Moskowitz, a revising of the classical Hollywood “screwball comedy” that goes decidedly against the grain of the genre’s archetypes. Writer and director John Cassavetes has constructed a narrative that contains many of the elements that characterized the genre—a quirky love story, zany characters, a whimsical plot, slapstick gags, and a romantic bond that trumps any rational explanation—but he has infused them with a sobering, painful realism. I’ve heard the film explained as a “screwball comedy where people actually get hurt.” It’s a spot-on assessment, one that is perfectly in line with the world of Cassavetes where laughter, more often than not, signals pain. Between all the slapping, punching, pushing, and hollering, it is sometimes hard to remember how this movie even qualifies as a comedy. Humor, however, is never fully absent from Minnie and Moskowitz: it is present in Cassavetes’ tender concern for his characters, his affection for their many foibles, and his humanistic embracing of their actions (even when they are less than ideal).

Two of Cassavetes’ regular actors make up the titular duo. Seymour Cassel is the bushy-moustached Seymour Moskowitz, a New York transplant new to Los Angeles who makes his living as a parking lot attendant for restaurants. Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife) is Minnie Moore, an introverted employee for the county museum who hides behind her oversized dark sunglasses. The two of them meet after one of Minnie’s blind dates goes violently wrong. Seymour comes to her rescue and not only gets beaten up but also loses his job. Seymour and Minnie’s first impromptu date (at LA’s famous Pink’s Hot Dog Stand) doesn’t go over much better: Minnie refuses to eat the hot dog, and Seymour winds up chasing her down the sidewalk in his truck.

“I gotta’ be a dummy to get myself wrapped up for a Minnie Moore!” exclaims Seymour, while Minnie protests, “That’s not the face I dreamed of!” Though they fight it (and each other), the pair can’t deny their attraction for one another—or explain it, for that matter. One of the underlying themes in the movie is the difficulty of expressing love either verbally or physically. When Minnie is around, Seymour can talk about anything, except what he really wants to. Minnie, on the other hand, closes right up and can hardly speak. The two of them try to do the “conventional” things people do on dates – go dancing, look at the stars, eat ice cream – but none of them provide the opportunity for that magical harmony between two lovers, the sort of perfect moment one finds in so many movies.

Minnie and Seymour’s inability to find a way to mutually express their love without causing a black eye or a busted nose leads to one of the film’s philosophical quandaries: how can love exist if it doesn’t show itself somehow? After an accident-less swimming interlude, Seymour is so desperate to prolong their newly found joy that he compels Minnie to “sing a song, take off your clothes, do something!” But when they sing it is out of tune, and neither of them can remember the proper lyrics. In this moment, the two of them realize that the truest sign of their love isn’t in the right notes or the right words, but in the actual process of trying and failing but never giving up. Society may find it more proper to say, “I love you,” but who is to say that Seymour is any less romantic when he tells Minnie, “I think about you so much I forget to go to the bathroom”? Loving relationships outside of the bounds of social propriety have been integral to the screwball doctrine from It Happened One Night to The Lady Eve, and in it John Cassavetes (ever the independent spirit) has found at least one thing he can agree with Hollywood on.

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