SHADOWS, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1959
As I watched John Cassavetes’ first film, I was struck immediately by how different it was from the films of the era, and how much in common it had with the French New Wave films that were just about to burst onto the scene. I have no idea whether Cassavetes had any inkling of Cahiers du Cinema or any of the young filmmakers who were concurrently putting on their first projects, but I think it is reasonable to say that they arrived at a similar place by taking the same route – the influences of the post-WWII films, particularly from the Americans.
Many have argued that because of the code and the routine during the last vestiges of the studio system, that innovation was falling by the wayside. The film world was ready to be shaken up and it most certainly was in the years to come, mostly by the French, but also by the advent of the American indie that Cassavetes could arguably have begun. The young American filmmakers to follow would be influenced by the New Wave in a huge part, but also by Cassavetes films, if to a lesser degree.
That’s not to say that Shadows is exactly like all the New Wave films, but neither were they like each other. Few people would lump Elevator to the Gallows, The 400 Blows and Breathless together as part of the same style. The point was they came from fresh, young perspectives, which was exactly what Cassavetes brought. Nothing like his portrayal of racial relations or the Beat Generation would be found in a studio film, and that was why it was revolutionary for American film. On top of that, it gave Cassavetes a filmmaking foothold to put together the type of independent dramas over the next two decades that he would become known for, even if they were different stylistically from his debut.
Shadows is not a great film. It is barely a good film. The post-script proudly proclaims that it was improvised (which wasn’t entirely true), and the actors were mostly novices, and the rust shows. The lack of polish is part of its charm. Some of the scenes were stilted, wooden and disjointed, like the African-American musicians talking about their business and the embarrassment of introducing a girl group. Other scenes seemed more natural and fluid, like the courtship and consummation between Ben and Lelia.
Even though it is hit or miss, it is valuable for capturing a scene that wasn’t always represented. There aren’t a lot of movies about the Beat Generation. It is in many ways a document of the culture, even if not a realistic representation of what it was really like.
Movie Rating: 6/10
This Blu-Ray disc features A Constant Forge, a whopping 3 hour and 20 minute documentary about Cassavetes and his process. Wow! From what I have read, the documentary is watchable, if not spectacular. I’m passing on it for now and may revisit after I’ve explored more of Cassavetes’ filmography.
The remaining features are minor. There is a brief interview with Lelia Goldoni, where she describes how she became involved with Cassavetes’ workshop and the atmosphere of his teachings. She talks about her experiences with the films and the improvisation or lack thereof. There is also some silent footage from the workshop and some stills, which gives a distant taste of what it might have been life.
Criterion Rating: TBD (once I watch the long documentary)