USA (87 mi) 1959 d: John Casssavetes
Shadows was an experiment. It predominantly came out of a workshop. We were improvising on a story, one that was in my mind. It was my secret. Every scene in Shadows was very simple; they were predicated on people having problems that were overcome with other problems…There was a struggle because firstly I had never done a film before, and secondly the actors had to find the confidence to have quiet at times, and not just constantly talk. This took about the first three weeks of the schedule. Eventually all this material was thrown away, and then everyone became cool and easy and relaxed and they had their own things to say, which was the point.
As you go along in life sometimes your innermost thoughts become less and less a part of you, and once you lose them you don’t have anything else. I don’t think anyone does it purposefully. It’s just that a lot of people are not aware of losing those things. I found myself losing them too, and then suddenly I woke up by accident, by sheer accident of not getting along with something, with something inside.
—John Cassavetes, 1968
While Cassavetes often receives credit with this film for being the father of American independent filmmaking, he was heavily influenced by Italian Realism films, especially screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who Cassavetes claims “is surely the greatest screenwriter that ever lived,” along with American studio directors Frank Capra and Robert Rossen, also independent directors Shirley Clarke, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), where cinéma vérité was an American artform long before the French adopted it. This is a landmark Black and White film, originally shot by Erich Kollmar on 16 mm, later transferred to 35 mm, a contemporary of French New Wave works like Godard’s BREATHLESS (1960) and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), or perhaps more significantly, Rivette’s PARIS BELONGS TO US (1961), as this has a New York Belongs To Us feel about it, as the streets of Manhattan and the music of Charles Mingus mix with a free-form jazz improvisational style expressed in quick, jerky, handheld camera movements attuned to Beat movement music and rhythms, producing a grittier realism along with the feel of unscripted dialogue and humor, a wonderful glimpse at a spirit and energy of American youth yearning for freedom. From Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Rarely has so much warmth, delicacy, subtlety, and raw feeling emerged so naturally and beautifully from performances in an American film.” Written, directed, and co-edited by Cassavetes, this is an exuberant film about love, race, changing identity, and searching for meaning in relationships, where each character has a hard time just being themselves, as they’re continually caught off guard, where you catch a glimpse of “I love you truly, truly dear...,” a song that reappears later in all its glory in MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ (1971). The opening sequence of three young guys with three girls, without a clue in the world what to do, yet covering it up with forced laughter and comic showboating, is exactly what the grown men do a decade later in HUSBANDS (1970).
Made for $40,000 using a nonprofessional cast and crew, using borrowed and rented equipment, the texture of the film comes from the grainy film stock, the constantly roving camera, and restless characters that refuse to sit still, as even when standing or sitting their minds are constantly on high alert, sending out streams of energy that are the signpost of this breakout film, where perhaps the underlying theme is coming out of the late 50’s, an era of suffocating conformity, where learning to eschew the conventional pathways and follow your own path was essential, as it was especially important to believe in yourself and trust your own instincts. With astonishing raw intensity, the film rushes ahead at breakneck speed while also probing into the psychological interiors of the characters who each lay bare their souls. All using their own first names, two brothers and a sister live together, but only the oldest is dark skinned black, while the two youngest are light skinned enough to pass for white, a matter of consequence as the film progresses. Lelia Goldoni is stunning as the sensual, yet often opinionated young 20-year old sister who is delightfully confused with the attention of two white guys and one black guy, where we follow her friendships, arguments, sexual encounters, parties and dances, as she tries to blend in and pretend that race doesn’t matter and that “casual” sex has no consequences. Abandoned by Tony (Anthony Ray), one of the white lovers when he discovers her race, her world turns upside down, Shadows by John Cassavetes YouTube (4:46). The other younger brother (Ben Carruthers) is an unemployed trumpet player caught up in the bohemian Greenwich Village scene where he’s always trying to find the elusive mood of hipster cool and spends most of his time unsuccessfully chasing girls while out with his friends. The older brother (Hugh Heard) is the only one working, responsible enough to continue chasing after third-rate singing jobs to pay the bills, but he’s tired of being passed over for lesser talents and for the way he’s continually mistreated in the business, yet he tries to be the strong, protecting older brother. Each seems to be fooling themselves in a film that captures the immediacy of the moment, the importance of now, leaving one to wonder what to do in the next moment.
SHADOWS, like Cassavetes’ later work GLORIA (1980), are two of the best films ever made showcasing the streets of New York, where even a freewheeling discussion about art (“You don’t have to understand it! If you feel it, you feel it, that’s it man.”), which may as well provide an underlying context of the film, makes beautiful use of the Museum of Modern Art, Shadows (Dir: John Cassavetes) - YouTube (2:07). Two years after the original shoot, however, in February 1959, Cassavetes spent two weeks reshooting several scenes, such as Lelia’s unflinchingly honest love scene where the director shows an inordinate amount of concern for the confusion in her character about what happens next, Shadows (John Cassavetes) YouTube (3:42), or her prolonged walk down 42nd Street alone where she gets accosted by a guy and none other than Cassavetes himself as a complete stranger comes to her aid, Shadows [Dir: John Cassavetes] - Leia y el jazz YouTube (1:21), or her quarrelsome dance scene at a club with her black partner, all of which round out her character, adding greater depth without altering her initial identity — interesting that with this version, Goldoni provides one of the more memorable and underrated performances in film. Seen today, one might marvel at the particularly effective use of close ups, but one of the most startling aspects is the use of sound, how there are so many street scenes with no natural sound, something very prevalent in filmmaking today, instead there are eloquent jazz passages to fill the silence or sufficient quiet to “hear” what they are saying to each other, while at other times conversations struggle to be heard over the noise of the room, which is one of the key elements of the film, as these characters are continually striving for a level of understanding they haven’t reached yet. Amusingly, by the time Cassavetes made HUSBANDS, his characters would fly to the other end of the earth in search of finding something to say. The film won the Critics Award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival and drew the attention of major studios, offering Cassavetes opportunities to make Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child Is Waiting (1963), both of which failed both critically and financially, where in the latter, Cassavetes was fired before completing the film, eventually placed in the hands of Stanley Kramer to reshoot and recut the film. But like Hugh, those films brought in paychecks, as did his continuing acting work in mainstream films, all so he could make the kind of films he wanted to make in his own characteristic style.
What can you say about Cassavetes? He’s a director that evolved out of a love of actors and what they could bring to the screen. To Cassavetes the actor’s performances were more important even than the director himself, as a film is a composite of multiple forces and ideas, all moving in different directions, each with different responsibilities. But onscreen, the director has an opportunity to create something meaningful by having actors come to life in front of the camera, where their lives can connect with the audience if they are believable and feel like real life. This means no phony performances, no method acting in front of the camera, simply characters naturally being themselves onscreen, where the job of the actors is to find and honestly identify with the character they’re playing. What this likely means is that actors have to live with their roles for awhile in real life, where they don’t break character, where they explore what possibilities unfold in differing situations, usually rehearsing for months with other actors in workshops until certain characters and scenes develop. In this manner Cassavetes scripted his films, as they evolved out of rehearsals. The jazz soundtrack by Charles Mingus and his saxophonist Shafi Hadi is immensely significant, as this film grew out of the postwar 40’s and 50’s, a golden age in hard driving Bebop jazz, characterized by uptempo virtuoso performances of recognizable melodies followed by improvisations on the original theme. It was an energetic style of music that brought together people of all races, including Beats, where many of the most celebrated jazz artists of the era were black, though certainly not exclusively, and the audiences that adored them were an eclectic group that came from all walks of life, all drawn to that special feeling discovered in a more liberating and spacious style of music. Much has been made of the film’s closing title sequence, “The film you have just seen is an improvisation,” where many get the idea that the film was unscripted and simply improvised on the spot. Cassavetes, however, was a stickler for writing meticulously composed scripts, where like the jazz performances the film emulates, there are stated ideas and themes, followed by spontaneous emotional eruptions which may as well be the improvisations.
The idea for SHADOWS grew out of Cassavetes’ acting workshops in New York, where in the mid 50’s he and theater director Burt Lane (actress Diane Lane’s father) founded the Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop. From the Short Stack: Ray Carney on John ... - Slant Magazine Matt Zoller Seitz on Ray Carney’s book Cassavetes on Cassavetes, from Slant magazine, March 5, 2006:
To an interviewer who visited the workshop, Cassavetes somewhat vaguely tried to describe the classes as being designed to teach students to 'act naturally,' so that their work didn't look 'staged' or 'artificial.' He said his goal was to bring 'realism' back to acting, and that the highest compliment that could possibly be paid to one of his actors was to say that he or she didn't appear to be 'acting,' but simply 'living' his character. The journalist regarded the explanation as fairly trite until Cassavetes added that the 'artificiality' of the expression of emotion was more than a dramatic problem. It was a problem in life. The young actor argued that most lived experiences were as 'staged' and 'artificial' as most dramatic experiences, and that the real problem 'for modern man' (as Cassavetes inflatedly put it) was 'breaking free from conventions and learning how to really feel again.' It was a daring leap: lived experience could be as much a product of convention as dramatic experience, and in fact one sort of convention could be the subject of the other. it was the first and most succinct statement of the subject of Shadows and of all Cassavetes' later work.
In particular, Cassavetes was displeased with Method actors, especially Actor’s Studio founder Lee Strasberg, whose students included Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, and Jack Nicholson, where actors were encouraged to draw upon their own personal experiences. Cassavetes believed Strasberg’s protégée’s accumulated too much power with the studio casting directors, and while they were initially seen as something of a revolutionary breakthrough, they also became factory generated products. From the Short Stack: Ray Carney on John ... - Slant Magazine Matt Zoller Seitz on Ray Carney’s book Cassavetes on Cassavetes, from Slant magazine, March 5, 2006:
By the mid-'50’s the Method had hardened into a received style that was as rigid, unimaginative and boring as the styles it had replaced ten years earlier. The slouch, shuffle, furrow and stammer had been turned into recipes for profundity. The actor filled the character up with his own self-indulgent emotions and narcissistic fantasies…Normal, healthy, extroverted social and sexual expression between men and women dropped out of drama. Inward-turning neuroticism became equated with truth. The result was lazy, sentimental acting.
Using money he had earned from the Johnny Staccato (1959-60) television series, Cassavetes enlisted the actors from his workshop along with more lightweight and mobile 16 mm cameras and took to the streets of New York, where the initial shoot, “entirely spontaneous and improvised,” took ten weeks, from February to May in 1957. Cassavetes also decided to plug his movie idea on the radio, which produced surprising results, from Cassavetes on Cassavetes: The Making of Shadows by Ray Carney:
I was going on Jean Shepherd's Night People radio show, because he had plugged Edge of the City, and I wanted to thank him for it. I told Jean about the piece we had done, and how it could be a good film. I said, "Wouldn't it be terrific if [ordinary] people could make movies, instead of all these Hollywood big-wigs who are only interested in business and how much the picture was going to gross and everything?" And he asked if I thought I'd be able to raise the money for it." If people really want to see a movie about people," I answered, "they should just contribute money." For a week afterwards, money came in. At the end it totaled $2,500. And we were committed to start a film. One soldier showed up with five dollars after hitchhiking 300 miles to give it to us. And some really weird girl came in off the street; she had a mustache and hair on her legs and the hair on her head was matted with dirt and she wore a filthy polka-dot dress; she was really bad. After walking into the workshop, this girl got down on her knees, grabbed my pants and said, "I listened to your program last night. You are the Messiah." Anyway, she became our sound editor and straightened out her life. In fact, a lot of people who worked on the film were people who were screwed up – and got straightened out working with the rest of us. We wouldn't take anything bigger than a five dollar bill – though once, when things looked real rough, we did cash a $100 check from Josh Logan.
But we recorded most of Shadows in a dance studio with Bob Fosse and his group dancing above our heads, and we were shooting this movie. So I never considered the sound. We didn't even have enough money to print it, to hear how bad it was. So when we came out, we had Sinatra singing upstairs, and all kinds of boom, dancing feet above us. And that was the sound of the picture. So we spent hours, days, weeks, months, years trying to straighten out this sound. Finally, it was impossible and we just went with it. Well, when the picture opened in London they said, "This is an innovation!" You know? Innovation! We killed ourselves to try to ruin that innovation!
Shooting without permits, running cables and wires down the street, all designed to make quick getaways from the police if needed, Cassavetes invented a kind of guerrilla shooting inside restaurants, looking out their windows onto the street, or capturing the street activity in various parts of New York City. SHADOWS was initially screened in November 1958, when the film had three free midnight screenings, catching the eye of Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas, one of the leading advocates of American avant-garde cinema, who immediately championed the film, calling it a “spontaneous cinema” masterpiece, “the most frontier-breaking American feature film in at least a decade…More than any other recent American film, (it) presents contemporary reality in a fresh and unconventional manner. The improvisation, spontaneity, and free inspiration that are almost entirely lost in most films from an excess of professionalism are fully used in this film.” From Cassavetes on Cassavetes: The Making of Shadows by Ray Carney:
I went to a theater-owner friend of mine and I said, "Look, we want to show our film and we can fill this theater." It was the Paris Theater in New York and 600 people filled that theater and we turned away another 400 people at the door. About 15 minutes into the film the people started to leave. And they left. And they left! And I began perspiring and the cast was getting angry. We all sat closer and closer together and pretty soon there wasn't anyone in the theater! I think there was one critic in the theater, one critic who was a friend of ours, who walked over to us and said, "This is the most marvelous film I've ever seen in my life!" And I said, "I don't want to hit you right now. I'm a little uptight, not feeling too hot and none of us are, so" And he said, "No. This is really a very good film." So, like all failures, you get a sense of humor about it and you go out and spend the night – when it's bad enough, and this was so bad that it couldn't be repaired.
I could see the flaws in Shadows myself: It was a totally intellectual film – and therefore less than human. I had fallen in love with the camera, with technique, with beautiful shots, with experimentation for its own sake. All I did was exploiting film technique, shooting rhythms, using large lenses – shooting through trees, and windows. It had a nice rhythm to it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with people. Whereas you have to create interest in your characters because this is what audiences go to see. The film was filled with what you might call "cinematic virtuosity" – for its own sake; with angles and fancy cutting and a lot of jazz going on in the background. But the one thing that came at all alive to me after I had laid it aside a few weeks was that just now and again the actors had survived all my tricks. But this did not often happen! They barely came to life.
Cassavetes, however, was not interested in making an overly intellectual, avant-garde film, but wanted to connect with the audience, so he made an adjustment and recalled the actors, reshooting much of the movie again in two weeks around February, 1959, this time adhering to a script while still capturing the feel of spontaneity. However, while he kept about half of the original footage in the revised film, the earlier version has remained a source of controversy. When SHADOWS opened commercially in New York in March 1961, a month after BREATHLESS, Mekas was appalled, calling this new effort “a bad commercial film with everything that I was praising completely destroyed.” Cassavetes countered, however, claiming his final cut was in “no way a concession and…a film far superior to the first.” While all prints of the original version were believed lost, in 2004 Boston University professor Ray Carney, author of Cassavetes On Cassavetes and leading Cassavetes scholar, announced the discovery of the original print, which consisted of two reels of 16mm black and white film with optical sound, apparently spending years with the daughter of a downtown Manhattan junk dealer who discovered it abandoned in the New York subway. The 78-minute film played at the 2004 Rotterdam Film Festival, some 45 years after the original midnight screenings, having developed the reputation of the ‘holy grail’ of independent cinema, but hasn’t been seen since. Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ leading lady and surviving spouse, the executor of his estate, claims the film is stolen property and threatened legal action to prevent the first version from being screened, contending that the SHADOWS film her husband released to the public is the only one that should ever be seen. SHADOWS remains today a seminal work, the most influential independently produced film of its era, a “virtual breakthrough” for American alternative cinema, giving rise to a group of independent filmmakers that still thrive today making often less technically polished, less commercial, low-budget alternatives to bigger budgeted Hollywood studio releases.