Sometimes innovations are so thoroughly absorbed into an art that the innovator fades into the background, but 15 years after John Cassavetes died, he’s achieved near-mythic status. Few people forget their first Cassavetes film; his work confuses and confounds, but even those who don’t like it can find it difficult to shake off. Recently the Criterion Collection released a lavish box of eight DVDs collecting five of the director’s features: Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977). Self-financed, produced without studio backing or distribution, they represent something of a Rosetta stone for American independents.

Lately the term independent has been neutered, turned into a marketing concept by boutique distributors like Warner Independent Pictures who trade on the term as a signifier of integrity. True independence means doing it yourself, which for Cassavetes meant not only writing and shooting the film himself but also financing and distributing it with significant sums of his own money. Nowadays self-produced feature films may be commonplace, but when Cassavetes began directing they were rare—and virtually unheard-of for an established Hollywood figure like him.

Cassavetes got his start as an actor. He made his name in 1959 playing the title character of Johnny Staccato, a TV drama about a jazz musician moonlighting as a detective (or was it the other way around?), and during the 60s he won high-profile roles in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. His father once told him that acting was a serious responsibility: “You are going to be representing the lives of human beings. You will speak for all the people who have no voice.” Cassavetes took the admonition to heart, and despite his mainstream success in Hollywood he was never interested in flattering the audience’s preconceptions. He once declared that most Americans become emotionally dead by age 21, and he wanted his dramas to provoke a genuine reaction.

In 1956 he and Fred Lane formed the Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop to provide an outlet for edgy work by actors unable to find expression elsewhere. Shadows began as a series of improvisations based on the members’ experiences, and over a period of months these evolved into a story about an interracial romance, set against a Lower East Side milieu of artists, musicians, and slackers. Cassavetes was anxious to capture the work’s energy and directness on film, and during a February 1957 spot on Jean Shepherd’s radio program Night People, he talked up the workshop’s nascent film. “If people really want to see a movie about people,” he proclaimed, “they should just contribute money.” Over the next few days over $2,500 flooded in, some of it delivered by hand.

After an arduous production, Shadows premiered in November 1958, and according to Cassavetes it was an artistic, technical, and popular disaster. Avant-garde filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas gave it the first Independent Film Award on behalf of Film Culture magazine, but Cassavetes disowned the cut, which he described as “a totally intellectual film—and therefore less than human.” Feeling he’d overemphasized technique and “experimentation for its own sake,” he reshot much of the film to stress the raw emotion that would become a defining element of his work.

In its final version Shadows is a perfect example of form following content, the callow characters and their clumsy stabs at adult relationships mirrored by the filmmakers’ inexperience. With its story of miscegenation, the movie could easily have become strident or preachy, but Cassavetes imbues even the least sympathetic characters with dignity and humanity, and his awkward emotional truths still seem contemporary. A stereotypical love scene of the day would be all kisses and cuddling, but after young Lelia makes love for the first time in Shadows, her first words to her partner are “I didn’t know it could be so awful.”

Though hardly a commercial smash, Shadows garnered enough positive critical attention to win Cassavetes a directing deal with Paramount, but he found the restrictions too confining. Too Late Blues (1962), with Bobby Darin as an aspiring jazz musician, dramatizes the perils of selling out, but Cassavetes still understood too little about both art and commerce to make a coherent statement. By the time he directed A Child Is Waiting (1962) for producer Stanley Kramer, he’d decided to stand by his creative convictions, and after an escalating conflict with Kramer ended in fisticuffs, Cassavetes found himself blackballed as a director in Hollywood. Both he and the system had found they didn’t particularly want each other.

Cassavetes returned to acting, and he spent a couple years writing Faces, which covers 24 hours in the life of a disintegrating marriage. In the published screenplay he calls the film an indictment of the middle-class values he encountered working with movie executives, though its aching story of a husband and wife’s mutual infidelity also lays bare his and his peers’ immaturity. Social encounters have a vicious edge: even friendships are laced with merciless one-upmanship, and kindness can turn to savagery in an instant. Oases of almost supernatural calm emerge as people find ways to reach one another, if only for a moment. Underneath it all rests the bedrock of Cassavetes’s compassion: no matter how ugly the characters become, they’re never treated with scorn or condescension.

For Faces, Cassavetes demanded complete autonomy. He financed the project with money saved from his acting jobs and created it using whatever equipment he could beg, borrow, or scam. In the process he gathered around him a sort of repertory company that included actors Seymour Cassel and Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’s wife) and producer-cinematographer Al Ruban. The arrangement suited him well, and over the years he and Rowlands used their own home as a production studio, shooting scenes in one room, editing them in another, and repeatedly mortgaging the place when funds got low. He cast family members in supporting roles and stepped in front of the camera himself when necessary.

This freedom came with a hefty price tag. Nowadays we’re accustomed to breakthrough films that were financed on credit cards, and even a movie shot on cameras from Best Buy, like The Blair Witch Project, can be picked up by a major studio and rake in millions of dollars. But in the 1960s and ’70s, Cassavetes was dismissed as sloppy and self-indulgent by uncomprehending critics. Almost as many people are credited with the production of this box set as reportedly paid to see Opening Night when it first screened in New York City. Teamsters picketed and even sabotaged his sets because he had the audacity to hire nonunion talent. And more conventional actors, cast alongside Cassavetes’s regulars, were often frustrated by the lack of traditional blocking and direction.

“Five Films” is packed with the standard assortment of DVD bonus features: background information, behind-the-scenes featurettes, interviews with principals and collaborators, etc. For a filmmaker whose work never really connected in the marketplace, it’s a pretty impressive coffee-table fetish object. The most revelatory feature is a 48-minute French TV program on the making of Faces, half of which was shot during the film’s three-year-long production. A walking tour of the Cassavetes household ends at a back-porch editing suite where the movie is being cut as Cassavetes speaks. During his lifetime, his films were dismissively referred to as “home movies,” but in the age of iMovie his kitchen-sink production studio looks positively prescient.

Ask a filmmaker about Cassavetes, and the first thing you’re liable to hear is that his movies were improvised. After all, what writer would begin a scene one way and let it drift in an entirely unknown direction, or bless supporting characters with their own digressive subplots and seemingly pointless soliloquies? The fiction that Cassavetes let his players make up the story on the spot was fostered by a title at the end of Shadows—”The film you have just seen was an improvisation”—and Cassavetes perpetuated it for years before coming to regret it. His films were in fact tightly scripted, though he took advantage of improvisations in rehearsal and stressed the raw, eccentric, and often contradictory qualities of speech and behavior that most screenwriters take pains to smooth out or eliminate. “The emotions are improvised,” Cassavetes once explained. “The words are written.”

That approach reaches its pinnacle in A Woman Under the Influence, another examination of a couple at the breaking point. It’s based on three separate plays that Cassavetes had written for Rowlands to perform onstage. She refused, arguing that the material was so demanding it would send her around the bend if she had to act it night after night. Indeed, in the film, the camerawork and performances are so intense that one might easily assume the story was captured by accident. Most of it takes place in one location, which creates both an extraordinary intimacy and a suffocating claustrophobia. Rowlands plays a housewife slipping into madness, her situation complicated by the actions of her loving but uncomprehending husband (Peter Falk). The emotional maelstrom is so enveloping that the viewer’s only options are to walk out or surrender to the storm. Cassavetes never tells us what to think about his characters; the pedantic cause and effect of Hollywood films has been replaced by an approach that might be described as abstraction if not for its focus and ferocity.

A Woman Under the Influence was followed by The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and the two different versions of that film included in the box set provide a rare illustration of how a director’s choices can alter the shape, tone, and meaning of a work. The movie was released in 1976 at 135 minutes, then rereleased two years later at 108 minutes, but the second version isn’t merely a trim: Cassavetes made significant changes in structure and characterization, altering the sound mix and even the shot selection within scenes. Pertinent plot elements are obscured to make the story more elusive and emphasize the protagonist’s confusion—Cassavetes may have been the first director to recut a film in order to frustrate the audience’s passive enjoyment. The main character, a shady nightclub owner played by Ben Gazzara, was a stand-in for Cassavetes; his sacrifices for his business allude to the filmmaker’s commitment to his work.

For Cassavetes fans the real holy grail has been the original version of Shadows, but they won’t find it here. Ray Carney, a Boston University professor and Cassavetes scholar, recently turned up the only known copy after decades of detective work. But a long-simmering conflict between him and Rowlands boiled over when, according to Carney, Rowlands asked him to hand over the print to be destroyed, allegedly in honor of her late husband’s wishes. She and Ruban closed ranks, and Carney was ousted from the DVD project; as “scholarly adviser” he’d originally been slated to provide audio commentary, liner notes, and other materials, but the only reference to him now is a small thank-you in the credits.

Carney claims that outtakes from Opening Night were also vetoed, and except for 17 minutes from an alternative print of Faces that he discovered at the Library of Congress, the set offers no previously unseen footage from the features. Confronted with massive storage fees during his career, Cassavetes trashed most of the leftovers from his projects in the bitter belief that no one would ever care to see them. Yet he spent years editing these films, rejecting countless other iterations until he achieved final cuts that suited his theses on love. This perfectionism proves that his films were anything but random; they were sharply focused, and their ruminations on love, like love itself, defy explanation. Now that filmmaking has begun to catch up with Cassavetes, his single-minded devotion to what he called “the human problem” makes him seem more relevant than ever.