Magnificent. Maddening. John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) is a small story about big love. Seymour Moskowitz, played by Seymour Cassel, is a hapless parking attendant living in Los Angeles. He goes on dates, spends time with strangers at late-night diners, but mostly keeps to himself. His outlook is simple. His long hair and elaborate moustache are goofy. He runs hot but seems generally unbothered. That is until he meets Minnie Moore, played by Gena Rowlands. Minnie, who works at the Los Angeles County Museum, is a weary woman, impossibly beautiful, guarded, and love-tired—desperate for an idea of romance she’s built in her mind. She goes to the movies with her friend Florence and drinks too much wine, and endures bad dates because what else? Together, Seymour and Minnie are a tornado of indecision and somewhat histrionic infatuation. Theirs is a love story that looks like a mistake. She’s unconvinced. He’s fiercely certain.
Five decades later, the film holds up. Cassavetes’ agitated portrayal of romance feels fresh, true, and incredibly charming. Writer and filmmaker Jesse Noah Klein, and writer and editor Durga Chew-Bose reflect on the film that brought them together many years ago and that they’ve since returned to. On love—first love—relationships, romantic comedies. On hope and letting people in.
Durga: Minnie and Moskowitz is nearly 50 years old. Do you think there’s space right now for romantic comedies (dramadies?) of this nature? Or do you think the world that Cassavetes was trafficking in then, could be interpreted now as potentially too problematic? Romance of that frenetic, even violent nature would get lost in our cultural rhetoric?
Jesse: The romantic comedy often offers up a neutered, sanitized version of love. It adheres to a specific brand of wish fulfilment, an abstraction of desires. Early in M&M, Minnie (Gena Rowlands) says that “the movies set you up”—and as obvious as that may be, it seems as true now as ever. One of the revelations of seeing M&M, as I first did when I was 17 and now 15 years later (and all the times in between), was seeing a true representation of just how chaotic romantic interactions can be. The way M&M, and all the other characters, communicate with each other seemed the most honest depiction I had ever seen, maybe if and possibly because it was more real than my own interactions had been up until that point in my life.
Watching the film in 2018 was an altogether different experience. Since his death in 1989, Cassavetes has acquired a canonical significance that has made him at once ubiquitous and consequently less potent—he is in no way a well-kept secret as he was at various points throughout his working life. When I discovered the film right out of high school, I had no context of any kind, and was simply bowled over by something I’d never seen before.
A film like M&M is seen through a different lens now than it was even a few short years ago. The interactions across gender lines are fraught, in several moments frightening. As we look back at any artifact, be it 2 years or 200, there is no way to divorce it wholly from its context. The film was released in 1971 so likely written in the late 60s. Things were changing so rapidly then, each year scarcely looked like the one before it—an inherent flaw in how long it can often take a film to get made and be released. Moskowitz is a relic of the 60s, Minnie an amalgam of 50s politesse and 70s independence.
The very notion of the movie being too problematic for a 2018 audience underlines the issue. The film can be viewed as a permission slip for the mistreatment and degradation of women at the hands of the men who supposedly love them. But this is to conflate the character and the filmmaker and is all too easily done, as the most despicable man in the movie is played by Cassavetes himself. I’ve spoken to some who feel this way about the movie and I don’t think it is for me to prove anyone otherwise.
I see the film somewhat differently. The men in the film are so inherently and evidently despicable that it seems unlikely that Cassavetes was unaware of it. It does not seem to me that he is letting any of them off the hook or condoning their behaviour. He is simply saying it exists—showing it plain as day is as strong an indictment as an overt authorial condemnation.
Minnie has been far more let down by life than by the movies. Leading up to her meeting Moskowitz, she is subjected to the very worst the men in her life have to offer. In Moskowitz, she’s found an unsuitable partner; later in the movie she grabs him by the face and says “That’s not the face, you’re not the man I’m in love with.” He is not the person, not the type of person, she thinks she is destined to be with. But after Jim and Zelmo, and even Dick Henderson in the parking lot, she is coming to realize that perhaps there is no formula, and that she needs to let go of life’s reins and see where it leads.
This film would be skewered should it be released today (in North America), because of Minnie’s treatment, the way she is tossed around and tossed aside. But to me, that is to miss the point of what Cassavetes is driving at. She fights back. She hits Jim, and Moskowitz, and walks out on Zelmo when he turns abusive.
I do think romance of that frenetic—and yes even at times violent—nature would be lost in our present cultural moment. I think Cassavetes was showing the stops and starts, the bruises and indeed the scars, that are the price of love.
I think M&M is about how hard it is to fall in love, to trust someone, to make the dangerous leap of being vulnerable with someone else. I think it’s seldom something we do anymore at all. And that I do think is a shame.
Durga: What scene in M&M strikes you as the most romantic?
Jesse: In the film Minnie is rarely given the opportunity to take the initiative because Seymour never lets up. At one point he naps in her bed and she slinks to a local ice cream parlour. There she slips into the kitchen and calls him, inviting him to come. He balks at this and Minnie retreats, warning him, “Listen, if you want to keep it romantic” and in one of the many brilliant hard cuts, we then see Seymour pulling up in his old pickup truck.
He rushes into the parlour and immediately bellows “Minnie!” as if they’d known each other their whole lives. Just then two hot fudge sundaes are placed in front of them and Minnie smiles in a way unlike anything we’ve seen so far.
When Seymour does not understand her gesture, why they’re there at all, Minnie moves to put her sunglasses back on though he stops her. She says, “I think it’s funny, eating ice cream in an ice cream parlour. I think it’s funny that’s all.” He responds, “I get it, like reading under a clock. Or like I would do anything for you, even eat ice cream.” Minnie smiles and shakes her head, with no idea what Seymour is talking about.
Part of my love for this scene derives from my connection with both of them. I too have no idea what “reading under a clock” means, though I too would do anything for my partner “even eat ice cream.”
It’s a small moment in the movie and yet one that gets at its heart, how we spend our lives getting to know each other, getting closer moment by moment, gesture by gesture, building bonds, and lives. The scene shows them right at the outset where things are still fresh, where miscommunications like that one are the rule and not the exception. And yet within it there is also that sense of wonder, that anything is possible.
Durga: Is there a particular moment in that film that cracked your world wide open when you first saw it? (When did you first see it?) And did that moment hold up during this viewing?
Jesse: There is a moment late in the movie where M&M have reached yet another and what appears to be a final insurmountable impasse. She explains to Seymour that this just isn’t working, “There’s some kind of crazy here,” and retreats to her bedroom, hoping that to be the end of it. He starts to destroy the bathroom and she rushes back in to stop him. He tries to explain that this craziness, this discord, is the price of love, that he himself cannot predict what will happen next. He takes scissors out of the medicine cabinet and before he knows it cuts off half his moustache. He’s surprised for a moment, but quickly calms down and says, “I cut my moustache.” He then turns to himself in the mirror and proceeds to cut the whole thing off.
Minnie looks on. She’s pale as a ghost, her eyes puffy from crying. As she looks on it’s as if her entire outlook on life changes in an instant. She sees how wild and yet how free Seymour is. She sees in his act of simply cutting off a moustache it took years to grow how unpredictable and in turn how beautiful life can be. How things can change in an instant.
It’s a moment that transcends acting; it does not matter whether it is Minnie Moore or Gena Rowlands experiencing those emotions. Those few seconds on Minnie/Gena showed me not only the immense power film can have, but also how we can be changed by another person, by love.
The moment did hold up for me on this viewing. Part of that might be nostalgia—
it’s a moment that proved influential in immersing me in movies. But it’s also an optimistic one. In the intervening years I’ve become a filmmaker, and one theme I’ve been preoccupied with up until now is how we find ways to bridge the gaps between us—and in that moment it seems Minnie is doing just that. It’s a moment that’s proved crucial in my professional life and in my personal one.
Jesse: Did the film influence your personal life, your view of love, of how to be in relationship?
Durga: Minnie and Moskowitz had its way with me, which is, I imagine, what Cassavetes intended when he made a movie about how love—the sincerest, most ensnaring and hectic kind—reveals the amateur in most of us. Those who are unready, often unwilling, and in this case unsuited to each other. Those who experience love not as a feeling but as pure impact. As arguments and short tempers, the occasional chase, too. Dancing in parking lots, etc. Banging on doors, etc. Or as a moustache—like you mentioned—impulsively chopped off. Or as a woman—like you mentioned—refusing to take off her sunglasses indoors. Or love as a series of U-turns, of which there are countless in the film, signalling again and again the sort of distracted focus essential to falling in love. Seymour’s driving, all jerky and full of U-turns, is just one way he expresses love’s urgency. How it suddenly provides him with new purpose, even if it means manoeuvring life (or the road), exactly like that: suddenly. I liked that about Seymour and Minnie. Their love unfolds like the letting go required for holding tight. Brink moments. It made me want to write more than it made me want to fall in love. It made me want to watch movies more than it made me want to write.
What it also did was awaken me to a measure of vulnerability I wasn’t familiar with, and the extent to which feeling defenseless toward someone can be a good thing. Colliding, getting messy and tense. The emotional havoc of meeting someone who won’t leave you alone but whom you miss when they aren’t around. I felt that most from Minnie. Her big hair, her beauty, her lonely. Her reluctance, her boredom, her big shades. Her laughter at the altar. And before that, her shock and elegant horror upon being set up on a terribly depressing first date. Or even before that—like you mentioned—how she talks about the movies, how they conspire to set us up. The way Minnie can’t entirely show herself or even accept that someone can see her. It’s not denial so much as wanting one’s sense of self to be reflected in the person you love.
The film exposed me to the limits of our romantic expectations, or rather, the limits of our control over them—which is altogether different than settling (though often confused with that). Because the romance of Minnie and Moskowitz lies in how the film and its characters are susceptible to, and even welcome, elements of surprise. Seymour and Minnie aren’t meant to be, but can we imagine them with anyone else? Theirs is an exposing connection. Like some sort of lovely and long-anticipated acquittal.
Jesse: What was your initial reaction to the film and has it changed with subsequent viewings?
Durga: I was in my first year of college when I saw the film. It made me nervous. It was raw and barrelling and violent in an offish kind of way. It made me feel insecure and unsophisticated for not immediately understanding its appeal and even more so, wanting so desperately to get it. I found it rude. Too loud and physical. She falls down stairs. People fight, and punch, and shove, and slap, and sing loud, and yell and argue just because. I thought Minnie was impossibly beautiful and Seymour was strange but unforgettable—a character for sure, and characters like that, I’d come to understand, were up to something long term. Characters like that change me. They’re painful to watch. They require of me extra patience. They make me want to write and watch movies, and why would I want to do anything else?
I’ve since seen the movie more than a few times, and with each new viewing it feels warmer, and more importantly, honest. Like one of the truest depictions of love I’ve ever seen. It’s relentless, too, which ages well. It reminds me of you, Jesse, so it’s also hard to experience it outside of You. Some pieces of art belong to people, you know? And because of that, they exist as tokens of that person—of your way, your inclinations, your outlook on love and vulnerability, your relationship to storytelling. Even the film’s closing song, which we’ve both never been able to identify, sounds like you. Light, easy-going, moved by meaning. Familiar.
Jesse: Do you identify with Minnie?
Durga: Not really. She’s got a better sense of humour than me. She sings, and I’ve always perceived singing as a form of feeling free (fleetingly in her case, but still). Minnie’s got something pure-movie, pure-picture-glamour about her, which is funny considering how Minnie talks about the movies. As total letdowns. As art that creates false expectations and romantic, candied hope instead of revealing what’s true—something I don’t agree with, but understand why she’s saying it.
I see her, though, and care for her, which is a version of identifying. Maybe I identify with her need to establish space before allowing someone in, for deeply hesitating and even resisting whatever actions will reflect her vulnerability. I understand why she wants control. And I appreciate why it’s so tough for her to accept Seymour and to admit his wild entirety—the way he seems like he’s always spilling over—into her life. I love her tensions and the voice in her head. I love the way she shows concern. The little creases on her face; the way her coat is often draped over her shoulders. Minnie’s version of love is protected but also, so protective. She loves loyally, intensely and devotedly. Her eyes water—not just from tears, but from the outside cold, from arguing with Seymour in the outside cold, from feeling life severely and in big ways, and mostly, from being a woman whose susceptibility means she doesn’t smile often, but when she does, she glimmers. There’s hope there. Pure-movie hope. Which to me feels very real.