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Cassavetes' first
jpschapira27 June 2007
In the end credits of "Shadows", after we read 'directed by John Cassavetes', some white letters on the screen can be seen: "The film you have just seen is improvised", they say. I am always pursuing the fact that words are so important in movies since filmmakers started using them because, basically, there's no film without a screenplay and many other reasons.

Cassavetes pursued the same goal, and he believed in the freedom of words; "Shadows" is the perfect example. It's a film with no real main characters, with no real main plot lines; it's mostly people in different situations, talking. Yes, some of the situations are connected but Cassavetes, apparently always in a rush to get to the talking, uses a fast forward technique when the characters are going somewhere or escaping from someone and are not speaking.

Appearances are everything in this movie. For example, there's a brilliant score, full of jazz influences and a lot of fantastic solos, and there's one character that says he's a jazz musician and plays the trumpet (Ben, all the characters' names are the same names the actors'). However, we never see him play the trumpet or jam with a band; he doesn't even talk about music and just wanders with his friends around the city. They do talk, a lot, and about anything that's in their minds; going from how intelligent each of them are to the hilarious analysis of a sculpture.

"Shadows" is funny in its intellectual references in parts like the one above, because these friends are not cultured. The only important female character in the film (Lelia), though, wants to be an intellectual. But again, she has one very interesting conversation with an older man at a party, about a book she's trying to write, and about how to confront reality; but nothing to do with being intellectual. At that same party, a woman is actually making an intellectual statement, full of complexity, and asks a guy beside her: "Do you agree?". "Yes", he says, but you can tell he doesn't know what she's talking about.

Another character, a singer (Hugh), talks about his glory days in occasions, and we see him perform only once; but no references to the musical industry there. The focus of Cassavetes is the singer's relationship with his manager (Rupert), which most of the time involves chats about trivial stuff and not real 'musical' talks. So the trumpet player's important deal in "Shadows" is the time he spends with his friends; the intellectual wannabe girl's is her way of handling romantic relationships (one of the movie's strong points) and the singer's is the bond with his manager…Appearances.

The reason why performances are not important in this movie is simple. Cassavetes needed people who could master improvisation, without mattering if they were actually good. I believe some of them aren't, but they surely know how to improvise in a scene, and you can notice how well they do it. "Shadows" is not about performers; it's about a way of making cinema, based on the magic of conversation; and there you could say that performances mean something.

That's why in every conversation the camera is like a stalker, constantly on the eyes of every character, constantly looking for the expressions that come with natural speech. There's a scene where the trumpet player and his friends are trying to pick up some girls. They are three, so each of them sits beside one girl (the girls are three two) in three different tables. They all talk at the same time and the camera shoots through the table, and sometimes the friends look at each other, while they say whatever they are saying…It's natural.
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Enchanting time capsule of late '50s New York
Camera Obscura28 October 2006
Shot on a minimal budget of $40,000 with a skeleton six person crew, SHADOWS offers an observation of the tensions and lives of three siblings in an African-American family in which two of the three siblings, Ben (Ben Carruthers) and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), are light-skinned and able to pass for white. Cassavetes demanded that the actors retain their real names to reflect the actual conflicts within the group but saw the film as being concerned with human problems as opposed imply to racial ones. Cassavetes shot the film in ten minute takes and jagged editing, a reaction against 'seamless' Hollywood production values. Cassavetes main inspiration - at least in the cinematic style the film was shot - were the Italian neo-realists whilst also professing admiration for Welles' pioneering spirit. The use of amateurs and improvisation might resemble some of the Italian neo-realist directors, but with his bebop score by Charles Mingus ans Shafi Hadi, the film feels very different, very American, unlike anything made before really.

The song with the feathered girls, "I feel like a lolly-pop" (or something) feels like light years back to me, ancient history. But no matter how dated it might look, it still makes a delightful time capsule of late Fifties New York today. I think it's this is one of the first films made aspiring filmmakers realize they could shoot an independent film, without Hollywood, improvised and without a real budget. Seymour Cassel, who acted and was involved in SHADOWS, claims it was Jules Dassin's THE NAKED CITY (1948) that was the first and inspired them all, but I think this was the one that really opened the eyes of aspiring independent American filmmakers.

Camera Obscura --- 8/10
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A Pioneering Approach
dougdoepke10 October 2010
No need to repeat what little plot there is.

In 1959, movie-making was a closed shop. Between the studios, the craft unions, and the distributors, the only films outside Hollywood were home movies. Add a restrictive Production Code to that shop, and you get a commercial product that's typically slick, entertaining, but all too predictable.

I remember being on a mid-western campus at the time and hearing about Shadows. An independent production gave me ideas that fortunately or unfortunately never materialized. But for many others, the idea took root and, most importantly, helped shake loose the Hollywood monopoly.

No, Shadows is far from a masterpiece by any standard. It is, however, a gutsy, pioneering effort that achieves its own brand of sensibility—it's certainly not slick; then too, it's more interesting than entertaining, and not at all predictable. In short, what's on Cassavetes's screen is largely in contrast to what we expected from feature films of the time.

Instead of conventional story or plot, there are several very loose narrative threads. Instead of prepared script, set, and cast, there are non-professionals and improvisation, though how much, I gather, is debatable. And in place of expected resolutions at movie's end, life simply continues much as it did before.

As a result, there's no expected moral or lesson to events. They simply happen as they happen, but within that framework, new possibilities open up, while the screen comes to look more like everyday experience than an entertainment medium. I gather the aim is to reveal truths at a new level left undisclosed by traditional narrative structure. Something like the 'truth of the moment as it's lived'.

This is certainly no place to attempt a concept like that. However, I can see how movie tradition with its emphasis on structure and artifice would override the momentary and the non-preconceived in favor of the integrity of the whole. So, it looks like Cassavetes not only helped establish the indie, but also aimed at a new way of looking at movies in general.

Anyway, I don't know how well he succeeds with Shadows. However, I do have a lasting image of New York City, that is, of the shabbily gaunt Ben Carruthers hunched down in his leather jacket, perhaps as protection against an uncaring world as he drifts aimlessly down the city street. I'm just sorry that Shadows didn't make it to my long ago campus.
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Experimental Excellence
MisterWhiplash22 February 2003
John Cassavettes decided as his first film, obviously as one that could be shot on a shoestring in New York and experiment with form and time, to not ave a script with dialog (merely an outline). And he delivered a 1959 feature equivalent of (present day) Curb Your Enthusiasm- all the actors know what to do and say and even have the right look in their eyes when they talk. In other words, it's one of the most naturalistic looks at a time and place, the "beat" generation, jazzed sweetly in it's score and telling a tale of racial tensions. A group of black siblings are the center-point, with one trying to get better gigs than the average strip-club, and has a sister, much more light-skinned than him, who gets entwined with a white man in a relationship, which shatters both sides. The film, however, isn't exclusively about that; Cassavettes likes to have his characters wander around New York City (which not many films did in 1959/1960), taking in mood, attitude and something akin to visual poetry, and his style of storytelling is like that of the improvisational jazz artists of the day. Dated, to be sure, but worth a serious look for film buffs. Martin Scorsese named this as one of his heaviest influences, if nothing else.
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Primitive Cassavetes. Interesting, but no masterpeice
philfromno17 September 2002
1959 was a landmark in the world of film. Several great directors of the classic era were releasing career capping classics that ranked among their best. Just a look at the titles is instructive, Hitchcock's North By Northwest, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life. Add a couple from the previous year, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, Hitch's Vertigo, and Nick Ray's Wind Across the Everglades, and you've got a pretty good summing up of what was possible within the classic Hollywood style.

At the same time, two films appeared that hinted at a whole new way of making films. One was Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, the other was John Cassavetes Shadows. The two films had certain things in common, largely improvised acting by non stars, handheld cameras, low budgets, and a certain youthful, jazzy swagger. In certain ways, though, they couldn't be farther apart. Godard was still a believer in the director as arbiter of style. He knew more about film than most Hollywood producers, and Breathless was filled with the iconography of the classic crime film. Cassavetes, on the other hand, was an actor, and a refugee from New York's underground theater scene. His first film shows him little impressed with the cinema, and a big believer in actors. Godard's film constantly references it's own artifice, whereas Shadows aims for a certain kind of naturalism.

It doesn't reach it, mainly because naturalism is a myth, particularly in cinema. But it feels powerful, kinetic but lilting like the cool jazz on the score, certainly the main inspiration for the filmmaking style on display here. It ultimately doesn't hold together, mainly because Cassavetes' actors here are amateurish beatniks, where Cassavetes style requires strong, imaginative actors. His later work with Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazarra, and Peter Falk blows this out of the water. Due to the director's technical inexperience, some bits of dialogue had to be redubbed later, which defeats the freshness of the improvisation. Still it's fascinating to watch, both for the great moments (like the scene where Leila Goldoni talks about her dissapointment with losing her virginity) and to watch a groundbreaking artist finding his way.
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A breakthrough in American cinema…
Nazi_Fighter_David30 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
The remarkable, sometimes infuriating, often brilliant films of John Cassavetes occupy a unique position in American cinema… Low-budget, partly improvised, inspired by cinéma verité documentary, and related to underground film, they have nevertheless frequently managed to reach a wide and profoundly appreciative audience…

After drama studies, the young Cassavetes quickly made his name as an unusually unrefined, intense actor, often appearing in films about disaffected, rebellious youth such as "Crime in the Streets" and "Edge of the City."

Setting up an actors' workshop, he worked to transform an improvisational experiment into his feature debut… The result, "Shadows," taking three years to complete and partly financed by his performances in TV's Johnny Staccato, was a breakthrough in American cinema… About the effect of racism on an already fraught relationship between two black men and their sister, two of whom pass for white, the film is impressive for its irregular, seemingly formless style and naturalistic performances… Plot was minimal, mood and emotional apparent truth were everything…
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True Colors?
mr lady8 December 2001
Like all Cassavetes, Shadows makes every movie in recent memory seem irrelevant to your life and how to live it. The theme of 1959's Shadows centers around race and its effects on relations between men and women. As in life, this falls a distant second to the theme of the pervasive and exhausting need for love. Shadows is often billed as the story of a 'black woman who passes as white.' Cassavetes' film illustrates how these stark delineations between races harms those who exist in the shadows in-between. Lelia is a light-skinned part-African woman in New York who falls for an infantile racist white man. When Lelia's boyfriend meets her darker brother Hugh, her lover's true colors are revealed. Hugh is a dignified and caring protector who refuses to let racism erode his positive nature, though he faces blatant economic persecution in his work. Lelia's second brother, a charismatic jazz musician played by the beautiful Benito Carruthers, is also light-skinned. We painfully watch as his displacement in both 'white' and 'black' social groups gives rise to self-loathing and isolation. Ben wandering New York alone, hiding behind a series of dark sunglasses, is an enduring image from the film. One crushing scene shows Ben promising Lelia's lover that he will convey the sickly reasoning behind the rejection to his sister. Ben's palpable pain is relevant to people of every 'shade.' The dismissal of the possibility of love, based solely on race or other peripheral facts, is tragic across the whole spectrum of social relationships.
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Like it was made yesterday...and reading recommendations
artistandreader15 April 2002
This is a great movie. Like it was made yesterday. Punk, beat in sensibility. About young people struggling on the fringes.

But I am mainly writing to mention that a guy named Ray Carney just wrote an astonishing book about the movie that has incredible behind the scenes details that no one ever knew before. I HIGHLY recommend it.

Cassavetes revealed things to Carney before he died in a Rosebud conversation that he had never told anyone about the film--like the fact that most of it was scripted and not improvised as the final title indicates. The book is titled Shadows and is available in any well stocked store. Carney is also the author of another WONDERFUL book titled Cassavetes on Cassavetes. Carney also has a web site that you should check out with lots of other Cassavetes material. The site is accessible from any search engine--if you type in Cassavetes' name--if you want to read even more behind the scenes stories about how Shadows and the other films were made.
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"improvisation" at its best
It ends with the declaration that "the film you have just seen was an improvisation"-at once making you feel like an idiot for thinking an improvisation was an good movie, and astounded at Cassavetes' genius...once again. Of course, Cassavetes told some guy it wasn't really an improvisation per se, on his deathbed,'s the story about a light-skinned black woman, Lelia, who passes for white, and her family: another passing-for-white brother named Ben, and a black-black brother named Hughie. When she falls in love with a white jerk named Tony, he is unpleasantly surprised when he finds out she's black, and from there it goes on about the three main characters' individual aspirations and shortcomings. Hughie is a jazz singer in the process of becoming a failure, Lelia's still hopelessly depressed over Tony, and Ben is angsty and violent in general, in desperate need of something to shock him out of his stale patterns of existence. Overall, I suppose it's really about stasis vs. change in human life. I suspect that Cassavetes had the plot organized enough, and it was just the dialogue that was improvised. The dialogue itself is very uneven - sometimes somebody will say something very memorable, other times it's memorably awkward. What's amazing is the extent of the amateur actors' embodiment of their characters. Cassavetes went through the acting class he was teaching at the time he decided to do Shadows, whispered in the ears of the ten best students, and this was the result...the guys playing Ben and Hughie are very good. At first I didn't like Lelia, but as the film progressed you see more and more she's one of those actors who gets better as the tension and drama builds - not necessarily the best with small talk. Shadows is hailed by many as the forerunner of the indie film movement (made in 1959) and it's definitely recommended.
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Well-done early independent film by Cassavetes...
dwpollar26 August 2001
1st watched 8/26/2001 - 8 out of 10 (Dir-John Cassavetes): Well-done early independent film by Cassavetes introduced a style that was much different than what Hollywood shows it's audience. This movie also introduced some very taboo subjects, especially the actual racism that probably was prevalent all over the country but was not displayed by the mostly white controlled filmmakers of the time. About the only black actors that had much respect at this time were the ones that acted and displayed personality like whites(aka. Sidney Poitier). Besides this, the idea of ending a film without truly concluding the relationships that began leaves many moviegoers dumbfounded but actually makes the viewers realize that life is like this(it goes on...). I prefer this kind of an ending because it makes you think more about the characters and what may happen next and the conclusions are not just laid out for you. The movie follows the lives of people(particulary a couple of people who have a brief relationship and happen to be opposite skin colors) then we watch what happens when the white man realizes what he's done. This is done very well and makes the movie very special. The acting is supposedly done improvisationally which makes the movie even more amazing. I guess you can say I liked this movie, if you can't tell. If you can find it check out this classic early independent film.
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Good start
Cosmoeticadotcom17 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
In many ways, the filmic career of independent film-making legend John Cassavetes is the polar opposite of someone like Alfred Hitchcock, the consummate studio director. Where Hitchcock infamously treated his actors as cattle, Cassavetes sought to work with them improvisationally. Where every element in a Hitchcock shot is composed immaculately, Cassavetes cared less for the way a scene was figuratively composed than in how it felt, or what it conveyed, emotionally. Hitchcock's tales were always plot-first narratives, with the human element put in the background. Cassavetes put the human experience forefront in every one of his films. If some things did not make much sense logically, so be it.

One can see this even from his very first film, 1959's Shadows, filmed with a 16mm hand-held camera, on a shoe string budget of about $40,000, in Manhattan, with Cassavetes' acting workshop repertory company, and touted as an improvisatory film. The story is rather simple, as it follows the lives of three black sibling Manhattanites- Benny (Ben Carruthers)- a trumpeter and no account, Hugh (Hugh Hurd)- a washed up singer, and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni)- the younger sister of both. The film's three main arcs deal with Hugh's failures as a nightclub crooner, and his friendship with his manager Rupert (Rupert Crosse); Benny's perambulations in an about Manhattan with his two no account pals; and Lelia's lovelife- first with a white boy Tony (Anthony Ray), who does not realize light-skinned Lelia's race, even after bedding her; then with stiff and proper Davey (Davey Jones), who may be a misogynist.

In the first arc, nothing much happens, except dark-skinned Hugh gets to pontificate on how degraded he feels to be singing in low class nightclubs, and opening shows for girly acts. He dreams of making it big in New York, or even Paris, but one can tell he is the type of man who will continue deluding himself of his meager skill, for the one time we actually get to hear him sing, he shows he's a marginal talent, at best. That Rupert keeps encouraging him gives us glimpses into how destructive friendships work. But, this is the least important of the three arcs…. While this film is better overall than, say, Martin Scorsese's first film, a decade later, Who's That Knocking At My Door?- another tale of failed romance and frustrated New Yorkers, it has none of the brilliant moments- acting-wise nor cinematographically- that that film has. It also is not naturalistic, for naturalism in art is a very difficult thing to achieve, especially in film, although the 1950s era Manhattan exteriors, at ground level, is a gem to relive. While Shadows may, indeed, be an important film in regards to the history of the independent film circuit, it certainly is nowhere near a great film. Parts of it are preachy, poorly acted, scenes end willy-nilly, almost like blackout sketches, and sometimes are cut off seemingly in the middle. All in all it's a very sloppy job- especially the atrocious jazz score that is often out of synch with the rest of the film, as Cassavetes proved that as a director, at least in his first film, he was a good actor. The only reason for anyone to see Shadows is because Cassavetes ultimately got better with later films, and this gives a clue as to his later working style.

The National Film Registry has rightly declared this film worthy of preservation as 'culturally significant'. This is all in keeping with the credo of art Cassavetes long championed, as typified by this quote: 'I've never seen an exploding helicopter. I've never seen anybody go and blow somebody's head off. So why should I make films about them? But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest way. I've seen people withdraw. I've seen people hide behind political ideas, behind dope, behind the sexual revolution, behind fascism, behind hypocrisy, and I've myself done all these things. So I can understand them. What we are saying is so gentle. It's gentleness. We have problems, terrible problems, but our problems are human problems.' That this film is 'culturally significant' is true, but that truth is not synonymous with its being 'artistically significant'. It is in the difference between these two definitions where great art truly thrives.
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When Improversation Works
marquis de cinema8 November 2000
In 1959, came two films named Breathless and Shadows that would have an impact on World Cinema. The former would begin a new era in French Cinema called the French New Wave. The latter would change the face of Independant movie making. Breathless was made by a man who was in love with the cinema and possessed quite a bit of knowledge about films. Shadows was done by a man whose origins lies in the theatre. Shadows(1959) came about because of John Cassavettes inability to find work as an actor during the 1950's. His anger and frustration due to not finding work led to his first film as a director. Shadows is about a couple of light black skin people who try to pass themselves as white in order to find acceptence. The main actors play themselves in this groundbreaking feature. The best scene of the film is when Lelia brings her boyfriend who is white to her brother's apartment and reveals to him that's she and her family are black. It would have a tremendous effect on future directors like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers. The film's urban grittiness and the theme of guilt seems to be a predecessor to Martin Scorsese's breakthough classic Mean Streets(1973). Shadows(1959) is the grandfather of Dogma95 as well as The Blair Witch Project(1999) and Timecode(2000).
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Without a doubt among the most influential of American films
shinolah15 May 1999
What is there to say about an anti-establishment film that was produced in a time of such colourless void, social indifference and authoritarian contentment. Cassevettes first major independent film was not an instant box office success and still has not received the critical attention it deserves. I draw comparisons to this wave of American independent projects consisting of such 'Beat' filmmakers as Robert Frank and Harry Smith with the burgeoning scene emerging in Paris in the late 1950's known as the French new wave.

They discussed poetry and philosophy and vulnerability at a time when the rest of the culture was obsessed with rediscovering American cultural supremacy; even at this stage this peculiar, highly spontaneous brand of filmmaking fought against the establishment of such political lexicons and bigots that held the development of the arts in check in the mid twentieth century.

Cassevettes film examines race relations and portrays man as weak in the face of love because we, as a culture, are blinded by our own race bias and prejudice. The great element to most of Cassevettes work is that his films have almost a reversal minimalist effect; a mental reaction is evoked through subtle character relations, not so much imagery. This is why his work seems to linger because he takes a more intimate approach to defining charcters that rely less heavily on explicit actions and more upon interpretation.

Although my favourite Cassevettes film is 'Husbands', this one is his most important.
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No-holds barred film from this portrait of late 50's New York
mark.waltz20 October 2010
Warning: Spoilers
If you wish for the days when New York City was not overcrowded, filled with sleaze and more like the movies, then 1959's "Shadows" is not the vision of Gotham for you. This independently made feature from ground-breaking artist John Cassavettes uses real people to act out the drama of a city that in 1959 was no less complicated than it is today, only free of cell phones.

With marquees of the Broadway musical "The Most Happy Fella" and the movie "The Ten Commandments" in the background, the lights of Times Square take on a role as a character in the film as much as the actors speaking the often improvised lines. The plot is similar to things you've seen in movies before (Boy wants girl & vice versa, but various obstacles stand in their way), but these people aren't speaking out of the minds of some Hollywood scriptwriter. They are speaking out of the minds of real people. They talk over each other at times, don't often make sense or have a direction in their communication, but it's dialog you can imagine actually hearing on the streets.

The original 16mm photography (now re-mastered to 35mm) is rough and at first jarring to get used to. But once you're inside these character's lives, you feel you are on the streets with them, pushing through the crowds as they do. You also know you're not going to be snapping your fingers like the Sharks or the Jets. The editing is jerky, the background music is that of street sounds, and the camera moves like a turning head going back and forth from character to character. It's all a bit claustrophobic at times, but it's all too real. If there was an Off Broadway state of mind for cinema, this would be the quintessential example. Cassavettes' inventiveness paved the way for such future ground breakers as Francis Ford Coppolo, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

As a recommended viewing co-features, take in the more family oriented "The Little Fugitive", "Lovers and Lollipops" and "Weddings and Babies" for a view of New York City that you won't get in the Bowery Boys movies or in "On the Town".
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Important. With a capital 'I'.
Alice Liddel31 October 2000
'Shadows' is an important film. I know this because at the screening I attended, a Serious Young Woman stood up and said so. 'This is an Important event'. Compelled like that, I could only watch the film with due earnestness. The first few moments reminded me of another Important film made around the same time, Godard's 'A Bout De Souffle'. There is the same casual monochrome, the insistent jazz soundtrack, the location shooting, the hero rather too convinced of his own cool, the alienating technique.

Okay, I said. If 'Shadows' is so Important, surely it will bear comparison with a certified masterpiece. Both were made by first-time directors on low-budgets (although Cassavetes had the advantage of being a famous Hollywood actor), both with the desire to shake up a stagnant film industry. There is one crucial difference, which explains why 'Shadows' may be Important, but 'A Bout de Souffle' is breathless. Godard, as a polemical critic, knew cinema inside out, loved it, breathed it, would watch and talk film day and night. He knew the rules. As Schoenberg in music, Joyce in literature and Picasso in art knew, you cannot break the rules EFFECTIVELY unless you know them. The effect of rule-breaking is shocking, because those rules uphold certain values or ideologies we hold dear, about the way we think, act or see the world.

Cassavetes does not know the rules. Indeed, he seems to have a contempt for the cinema. Where Godard throws innumerable homages to his cinematic heroes, Cassavetes films the glitz of New York cinemas, their siren glitter a mark of their superficiality. Because Cassavetes does not like cinema, he doesn't know what the rules are. The difference between Godard and Cassavetes as regards cinema is the difference between a terrorist who pulls out all the telephone wires before abdicating the President, and a child who flails and bawls in a sweetshop. That kid isn't going to bring anything down.

there are absolutely no excuses to be made for 'Souffle', it is one of the medium's masterpieces and every stylistic choice is there for a reason. There is no point in saying Cassavetes had no money because neither did Godard. But compare everything - Godard's characters are iconic yet immediate and real; Cassavetes' are dithering and fake, because he tries to use players who can't act, and there's nothing more unnatural on screen; Godard's technique, his revolutionary editing, his camera movements, his use of light and shade, his feel for the city, his irrepressible sense of comedy, are as masterful as any great Hollywood master. Cassavetes' is just a mess. He's obviously trying to mimic the 'freedom' of his soundtrack's jazz, but there is no sense of momentum - he starts something but can't finish or develop it. This is supposedly the first American independent film, but stylistically at any rate, I can't see much difference between this and the glut of amateurish exploitation skinflicks of the same period.

'But look at the film in context, the Hollywood of the late 50s' fans protest. OK, I will. Vertigo. North by Northwest. Rio Bravo. Some Like it Hot. Some Came Running. Imitation of Life. All a hundred times more daring and dangerous than this. The phrase 'American Independent Cinema' should always be used pejoratively anyway.

this isn't to say there aren't good things in the film, but if you keep hurling mr. hankey at the wall, some of the little fellow's bound to stick. The last third, with its themes of family and race, is particularly good, surprisingly funny, but nowhere near what Sirk achieves in the aforementioned 'Imitation of Life'. Read instead Thomas Pynchon's 'V', set in the same milieu, but on a completely different creative impulse. And as for 'improvisation', for me that will always begin and end with Mike Leigh.
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Goes beyond acting, beyond character, beyond plot
bob_meg24 December 2009
Watching John Cassavetes debut film is a strange experience, even if you've seen improvisational films before.

The first thing you notice is it's roughness. Right off, it's obvious some of the characters are screwing up their lines. But then you step back from the situation, as you sink deeper into these people's intimate exchanges and you ask yourself: "Do I ever stumble over MY words?" The answer of course, is sure, we all do. It's unfortunate that most of the gaffes in this respect come early in the picture, because, by about twenty minutes, you've sunk so deep in you wouldn't know it if a bomb went off behind you.

The next thing you notice...or maybe you notice it hours or days after the film ends, is that you never saw any substantial plot, yet the themes and the poetry of the dialog and characters never leave you. In fact, the treatment of the role race plays in the everyday lives of these characters is always there, but it's so ephemeral that even they aren't aware of how it's informing their opinions of themselves, their self-consciousness, their perceived status, or the fate of their relationships.

The title is appropriate because you get a full spectrum of blacks, whites, and grays...and not just in the skin pigmentation of the characters. Leila Goldoni (truly remarkable here) is an afro-American/Caucasian, her two brothers are white and dark afro-American. The irony is that they exist in what is undoubtedly the "hippest" most tolerant atmosphere of the time...beat-driven upper east-west Manhatten...and there are still conflicts within and around themselves.

I don't think I've ever seen a movie with such a subtle delivery or technique. It's a lot like absorbing a really great piece of gallery art and then just nodding off in bliss as you think back to the images it evoked days later.

Great mastering and extras on the Criterion disc. Arguably the first truly experimental independent film ever made.
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The Vibrators
zolaaar7 August 2008
Shadows breathes the smell of New York's streets like no film before it. This kick off of Cassavetes' directorial work is as atmospheric as political and the initial spark for a renewal in American cinema.

Maybe it solicits for watching Cassavetes' first work in a double feature with another debut, Godard's À bout de soufflé. Both films shaped the cinematic production of their countries beyond decades and both breathe a peculiar lightness and jauntiness which was later rarely achieved by those filmmakers in their career.

Shadows tells from three Afro-American siblings, Ben (Ben Carruthers), Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) and Hugh (Hugh Hurd). The story is set in the New York jazz milieu and the driving rhythms on the soundtrack play a main part for the feverish, sometimes almost dreamlike atmosphere which draws through the entire film. There's not much happening in the plot. The everyday life of the three siblings is defined by problems in love relationship or in their jobs, but on both levels normality deceives. Without moralizing gestus, Cassavetes simply describes the mechanism of racial exclusion, in public and in private life. It was, regarding to the cinematic depiction of racism, a breakthrough film in the US.

This film owes also a lot to the performances of the three leading actors which were all almost completely unknown before. Especially Ben Carruthers established with his energetic portrayal the image of a new self-conception of young, urban blacks in America, an image which characterizes Spike Lee's films of the 80s and 90s. Revealingly, none of those three doubtlessly extremely talented actors was able to start a big career afterwards. Hollywood wasn't and isn't ready to ethnically expand its star system, and that is why Goldoni, Hurd and Carruthers only found small artistic niches in TV and independent films later on.

Perhaps Shadows is one of the less "beautiful" films ever shot, and one of the most beautiful ones at the same time; a film of shades and spaces, with a camera that merely watches the stream of life in the crowded street corners, bars, hotel lobbies, apartments, inducing an intriguing ramble through New York's vibrant streets.
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Joseph (joenikolaou)20 September 2010
I would like to comment on how this movie exposes the lie that only the South had institutional racism, and also from my experience segregation was nationwide, it was not just in the South, this is historical revisionism. One of my first memories is as a child, I'm three years old, my grandmother who was a nurse, I was born in LA. She is holding my hand, and we are going to a Department store in Downtown LA, it has to be was the first time I had seen a black person..I was entering the store with my grandmother, and in the corner of my left eye I saw this black figure,(apparently they had a separate entrance) it shocked me I had never seen a black person, or even knew that they grand mother rushed me into the store, and didn't tell me anything, she tried to act like I didn't see what I Los Angeles there was segregation of public restaurants, department stores etc..this is the truth..the Watts riots in LA county in 1965..erupted because black people were tired of being refused service in diners,..I didn't learn about this until years later..(they lied to us in school as a child) stores, etc...
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Improvisation as novelty
Ben Parker26 July 2004
Improvisation was used to a groundbreaking degree in this film, but it only functions as a novelty. No greater truth about the situation is got by asking the actors to improvise. The performances are not improved by improvisation, because the actors now have twice as much to worry about: not only whether they're delivering the line well, but whether the line itself is any good. So that's why the performances in many Robert Altman films are often really hestitant - because the actors aren't really confident saying lines which they've made up, and therefore aren't sure are any good.

And, quite honestly, often its not very good. Often the dialogue doesn't really follow from one line to another, or fit the surroundings.

It crackles with an unpredictable, youthful energy - but honestly, i found it hard to follow and concentrate on it meanders so badly.

Nevertheless, a fascinating raw piece of film, and commendable 100% for taking the power over the green light into the street.

There are some generally great things in it. This joke, for example:

I'm a dancer. What sort of a dancer, like a ballet dancer? Oh no... exotic.

And the whole party scene its in, the following trip to the park, and the scene where the boys go looking at statues.

2/5. I wouldn't say they're worth 2 hours of your time, though.
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Daniel Karlsson2 May 2002
Hey; Belmondo! Look there's Anna Karina! Great American improvised New Wave (or Independent you want to call it that), not as good as Godard or Truffaut, and not flawless, but hey such realism, style, warmth and humor. I love that NY accent; "you don't know nothing!"; "forget about it". Just like the French New Wave, it's about young people; partying, falling in love or just hanging around. Lelia Goldoni is so cute; she's adorable; wonderful. Ben Carruthers' also good, reminds me of Belmondo. A film you won't forget.

A steady 26.5 out of 31 ;-)
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Jazz in the movies
Micu29 April 2000
This movie was praised by Krim Gabbard in his JAMMIN'AT THE MARGINS, (1996, University of Chicago Press) as a movie trying to have improvisation help a more elaborate form of art. I had taped it on a K7 with a tired VCR, long ago, and forgot about it until Gilles Mouëllic, a teacher of jazz and cinema at the University of Rennes (France), selected it as one of the best achieved examples of interface between the two arts. So I gave it a chance this morning, and was disappointed. The racial aspect, revolutionary 40 years ago, was irrelevant today. The references to the French "new wave", although visible, were not convincing either. This was due especially to the impression of seeing a 16mm feature blown up to 35. The main disappointment was the music: Charlie Mingus didn't have the time to finish his "non-original" score before the film was edited, so Cassavetes brought in Mingus' former tenor sax Shafi Hadi, for a few minutes. In his controversial essay, Mouëllic concludes that the two forms of art cannot coexist, because one of them is improvisation and the other is the result of an equally collective, but more complicated effort.

For Jazz and Cinema, better try SUN VALLEY SERENADE, with the immortal Glenn Miller band, Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers. For John Cassavetes, try HUSBANDS, FACES or one of those he made with Gena Rowlands. That was a perfect marriage. henry caraso, paris.
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Imitation of life nohow.
dbdumonteil9 July 2003
As the final credits tell :"this was filmed live,this was improvisation".It's easy to understand how "avant-garde" Cassavetes was in the late fifties.He was close to the French nouvelle vague:on the boulevard,you can see a movie theater showing Roger Vadim's "les bijoutiers du clair de lune" (aka "the night heaven fell"(sic)).Why he chose Vadim ,the lousiest director of this French school, remains a mystery to me.

Cinema verite best describes the movie.The form was loose,free.Improvisation was the keyword.Cassavetes was faithful to his method till his last work,with the exceptions of "a child is waiting" which he does not like but which highly deserves to be seen and "Gloria".He reached his peak,IMHO,when he balanced his "avant-garde" ideas with what you've got to call a narrative line:thus for me his best works remains "husbands and wives "and the highly superior " a woman under the influence" .

"Shadows" does not impress me that much:the title is well chosen:the characters are shadows ,nothing to do with Gena Rowlands' "Mabel' in " a woman ..."who was so endearing.What's amazing is the way Cassavetes uses his two characters David and Lelia:the situation is almost the same as in Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of life" released the same year.But Cassavetes ' treatment is diametrically opposite :he refuses any dramatization,any show.Anti-Hollywood indeed .

But I think "Shadow" is some kind of draft,historically important ,but it's really an acquired taste and definitely not the one to choose is you want to make acquaintance with Cassavete's work,particularly if you know him as the "Rosemary's baby" or " dirty dozen" actor.
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very impressive...
dreed44416 August 2003
This is the 3rd Cassavetes film I've watched and by far the most riveting -- and I can't tell you why. I realize there's a "debate" about it being improv. or not - but it doesn't matter. There is more honesty in this film (racial and otherwise) than in many others with far higher budgets. I was mesmerized thru the whole thing. New York in the early 60's is a sight to behold, but it's only the perfect backdrop to this film. It's the kind of art that you realize can only be done once. And this was it. The scenes at the MET with the Henry Moore sculptures and others underscored this for me. The movie was made once. The "score" was perfection. There can be no sequel, thank God. This is why film is considered an art form.
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