Cassavetes Meets Chekhov: Improvisational Performance Technique for Digital Cinema

By Ian Dixon.

Published by The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published Online: January 28, 2016 $US5.00

In the 1960s, independent filmmaker, John Cassavetes, challenged cinematic art by incorporating contemporaneous lightweight 16 mm film and sound technology. The iconoclastic Cassavetes ignored classical form, focus and line-crossing rules drawing upon Cinéma Vérité conventions to show the flawed beauty of the human face. Using such innovations, he created performance authenticity of such raw honesty it remains disturbingly real even by today’s standards. Indeed, Cassavetes’ unique films incorporated many elements akin to Russian theatre practitioner Michael Chekhov’s ideas on improvisational body movement and spontaneity to a degree rarely matched. In this way, Cassavetes used the camera, not just as a box for recording images, but as a kinaesthetic device. This included his own physical gyrations whilst operating camera–effectively imitating the actor’s point of view, thus creating a spatial metaphor for the emotional distance between characters. This paper revisits some of Cassavetes’ innovations, illuminating them by reference to: the dramatic principles of Chekhov; a practical workshop in kinaesthesia; and improvisation conducted at Sapienza University in 2014. The Sapienza workshop utilised principles of spontaneity and kinaesthetic interaction through simple participatory exercises. In an era when digital film form still mostly emulates classical cinematic form, the workshop demonstrates how the use of modern digital media may plunder such rich history from inter-disciplinary sources to enhance new and alternative filmmaking practices.

Keywords: Cinema, Drama, John Cassavetes, Digital

The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts, Volume 11, Issue 1, March, 2016, pp.15-28. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published Online: January 28, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 733.884KB)).

Dr. Ian Dixon

Senior lecturer and unit co-ordinator, Screenwriting, semiotics, television production, SAE Institute and Qantm College, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia