In a 2005 article, film critic David Sterritt recalled a 1980 encounter with filmmaker John Cassavetes: With the director’s film Opening Night having failed to find distribution, Sterritt suggested that the film had been too ahead of its time, and perhaps Cassavetes could try to put it on the market again. “Those fucking distributors,” Cassavetes scoffed. “They had their chance.... It’s too goddamn late.”
As a filmmaker working largely outside of studio system, Cassavetes frequently expressed frustration with the American film industry—its funding methods, its stylized and sanitized presentation of human relationships, and especially its distribution practices. Films now considered cornerstones of the independent film movement had difficulty finding audiences. At a time when under-seen films couldn’t be rediscovered months later on streaming platforms, many of them were destined to exist for years or decades only in the memories of the few who saw them on screen.
That’s where MoMA’s senior film curator, Laurence Kardish, came in. Shortly before Cassavetes’s encounter with Sterritt, Kardish organized a comprehensive retrospective at MoMA chronicling the actor/director’s career. The retrospective gave a second life to films like Opening Night, and offered a holistic overview of an artist that, as Kardish puts it, describes “the whole glorious arc of American cinema.” In this podcast episode, I spoke to Kardish and Rajendra Roy, MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film, about Cassavetes and his relationship with MoMA.