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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
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.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The remarkable, sometimes infuriating, often brilliant films of John
Cassavetes occupy a unique position in American cinema
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
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.
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.
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, so...it'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.
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.
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.
*** This review may contain 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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