Introducing: Popular Music’s “Sad Songs”

Zac Pennington premieres a track, and talk the “Gena Rowlands routine.”

Zac Pennington — formerly of Parenthetical Girls and now one-half of the Melbourne-based duo Popular Music — describes their new track, “Sad Songs,” as “a song about writing songs, inspired in part by the actress Gena Rowlands.” Today on Talkhouse, we’re premiering the track with a few words from Zac on his love for, and fascination, with the legendary actress and her mythology-inspiring relationship with John Cassavetes. Check it all out below — and look out for Popular Music’s forthcoming record, Minor Works, out October 13 on Sanitarium Sound Services.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

She called it the Gena Rowlands Routine. I understood what she meant immediately. 

I never actually saw my friend’s hustle in action, but here’s how I pictured it: she walks into the Mormon-owned natural foods store in Echo Park as conspicuously as possible; a maniacally generous grin, friendly to the point of threat. This is that Big Bottle Blonde energy, the unhinged kind, equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. Because this is daylit Los Angeles, our minds move to Gena as Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under The Influence, but there’s a bit of Myrtle Gordon in there too, and maybe some Sarah from Love Streams. She’s stalking the aisles wildly, her backpack ballooning with extortionately priced produce. She extends a friendly word to everyone she encounters; her voice colored by the kind of naked candor that reminds strangers of something else they very urgently need to attend to. As she approaches the checkout with a single loose artichoke or whatever, the cashier shrewdly clocks an adversary, and resolves to keep things moving at all costs. Our Gena walks out with a week’s worth of ill-gotten organics, smiling and scot-free. 

I think about the Gena Rowlands Routine a lot. I think it’s because, in its tactically executed caricature, it weaponizes the emotional sleight of hand that’s at work in every Gena Rowlands performance. The way she forces us to train our eyes on the sort of guileless, red-flag vulnerability we reflexively guard against in our everyday lives. It’s this air of animal danger that makes Gena Rowlands my favorite person to watch at work.

This is a photo of Gena Rowands at work. There she is with John Cassavetes, in the garage of their Hollywood Hills home, bookended on either side by racks on racks of 16mm film reels. It’s 1967. John’s studying the canisters while Gena sits above an old Moviola machine, stiff and stoic. She studies what’s presumably a rough cut of Faces. The picture is charmingly domestic; the two of them toiling away at the work that would come to occupy/overtake a shared life. Like the extraordinary products of this labor, the image somehow resists and reinforces the romantic myth of the Cassavetes/Rowlands alliance. 

For the uninitiated, the myth goes something like this: a pair of B-list television actors fall in love in the mid-‘50s. He, the obstinate auteur; she, the magnanimous muse. They are both charismatic, mercurial, idealistic, agonizingly beautiful. Along with their close-knit cabal of surly character actor friends, the couple leverage a handful of big Hollywood paychecks to self-finance a series of deeply personal, impressionistic films. Something-something-jazz, yada-yada-vérité, and like a whisper, American Independent Cinema is born. They pick up a few trophies, but the industry largely ignores them, as they continue to toil in fanatical obscurity for a couple of decades. He drinks himself to death and gets most of the credit posthumously. She is forever anchored to the tragic genius of her dead husband.

This myth is perfect. We love the myth. It’s ribbon-bound, hermetically sealed, and by all accounts, exactly the way Gena Rowlands wants it to persist. But what’s happening in that garage in 1967 seems to exist outside of that gilded box. It isn’t an image of the master and his long-suffering muse; it’s two people getting their hands dirty together. 

Pop culture’s persistent romanticization of the master/muse archetype has always given me the creeps — the inherent objectification, the latent “behind every great man” misogyny. It’s partly this repulsion that makes the riches of the Cassavetes/Rowlands legacy so fascinating to me. On the surface, their relationship seems to fit neatly into the trope (case in point: there are at least a dozen books devoted to John Cassavetes; there are no substantial biographies of Gena Rowlands). But in John and Gena, we see these clichés turned in on themselves. 

Despite the real-life romance, Gena Rowlands’ role as muse in the Cassavetes multiverse functions more as a kind of symbiosis. Theirs is a creative marriage much closer to DeNiro/Scorsese than, say, Godard/Karina. Gena Rowlands is never objectified in these films because she is never made the object; she is always the subject. Like Scorsese, Cassavetes consistently calls on his muse to thread an impossible needle between extreme subtlety and camp-sized excess, to be at once so captivating and so unpleasant that it borders on the unseemly. In this way, Rowlands distinguishes herself as one of the few true anti-heroines of the New Hollywood era — her absolute commitment functions as the bleeding, beating heart of all of Cassavetes’s personal films, whether or not she actually shows up on screen. 

While much has been made of Cassavetes’s messier contradictions (Genius! Misogynist! Alcoholic! Messiah!), it’s clear from his body of work that beneath the boorish machismo was a man ultimately made of mush — soft bubble gum wrapped in leather. A man much in need of a mother. And then there is Gena, tough as fucking nails, poured concrete in pink chiffon. These films may bear John’s name alone, but the more you watch them, the clearer it becomes that this distinction is as much a project of ego preservation as it is a declaration of authorship. Exhibit A: see Gena, in the promotional posters for Gloria, pistol drawn in Warhol triplicate, standing in defiant protection of her little boy charge/Cassavetes surrogate. Gena Rowlands never stands behind.

This is the real Gena Rowlands Routine, of course — the great big magic show misdirect. With all the razzle dazzle of a loving magician’s assistant, it’s her willful heavy lifting that makes sure the romantic myth remains intact. 

(Photo Credit: Darren Sylvester)

Zac Pennington is one half of the basically un-Google-able group Popular Music, and was formerly the creative director for the band Parenthetical Girls. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Popular Music’s new album, Minor Works, is out Friday, October 13 via Sanitarium Sound Services.