Review Of Shadows

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/10/06


  In many ways, the filmic career of independent filmmaking 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 handheld 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.

  The second arc follows light-skinned Beatnik wannabe Benny and his two dimwitted pals, as they argue about art while visiting a museum, then fail several times at picking women up. The last failed attempt leads to them getting their asses kicked by the boyfriends of the girls they were hitting on. Benny then decides he has to change his life, but given what we’ve seen of him we know that he’s as likely to be as unsuccessful in that quest as his brother Hugh is.

  The third arc forms the emotional core of the film, and is the storyline most discussed about this film, although in terms of screen time it is Benny who would seem to be the most important character of the three siblings. Light-skinned Lelia is the typical artsy babe that anyone who has spent time going to galleries, exhibits, or readings, knows all too well. If a male, you know her kind is poison. She is pretty, smart (but not nearly as smart as she thinks), an aspiring artist (painter or novelist- she cannot decide), and thus the perfect cocktease. After hooking up with the self-assured Tony, she dumps the nebbish her brothers set her up with, and embarks on a one night stand at Tony’s place, thinking she’s in love. It turns out she was a virgin, and Tony her first lover.

  Much critical comment on the film’s supposed ‘brilliance’ centers around Lelia’s admission to Tony that his penetration of her was ‘awful’. She states, ‘I never imagined it could be so awful,’ and some see this as a credo. Far from it. Yes, this was a daring thing to even approach back then, much less state, but it is not about sexual politics, and has not held up that well through the years. What most critics miss in this admission of Lelia is something far more cogent, which does hold up even to this day, and that is that Lelia’s declaration is not born out of some grand political need to transform society, but merely a part of the overall psychotic reaction the cockteasing and self-centered Lelia has when Tony wants to continue their lovemaking, declaring his love for her after one date. She turns cold, demanding, almost manically depressive and suicidal. Men in the arts world have all been here before, and what Cassavetes captures on film brilliantly distills the masochistic and immature nature that most artistic women tend to revel in, to the point of questioning whether she now ‘belongs’ to Tony.

  That some myopic critics have taken this rather obvious portrayal of an artsy babe’s instability as Cassavetes making a ‘statement’ only shows their limitations in life and art. In looking over old reviews of the film I came across this: ‘Cassavetes had the audacity not only to show us an unmarried couple post-coital but to suggest a young woman’s sexual initiation could be something other than a romantic ideal, is and continues to be a stunning commitment to the truth in a cinema whose established categories are designed to avoid the messy, uncomfortable parts of life.Bullshit! This is just the sort of nonsense that bad critics fob off as deep analysis to impress others. Were this true, Lelia would be far more self-aware than we see in the whole film, and that scene specifically. Far more truthful, cinematically or not, than any supposed political statement made in that scene is the schizoid reactions the two lovers have to their intercourse.

  Tony, who we see is not really artistic, merely a nice, sensitive guy, refuses to let her leave in her shaken state, and takes her home. There, he discovers that he has bedded a black girl, when he meets her brothers. Here is where the film falters, and shows its small budget most. No man, black or white, could have sex with a black woman- no matter how light-skinned and able to ‘pass’- and not notice the different texture of her pubic hair. Now, in most films, this point would not be a serious flaw, but since so many Cassavetes scholars absolutely go nuts over the supposed authenticity and realism he brings to his films- especially in emotions and dialogue- this glares at the informed viewer.

  It also proves that Cassavetes, if one is to lump him as a certain sort of director, is not a naturalist nor a realist. I would term him a natural fabulist, in that there are many scenes in many of his films that simply are not emotionally real nor grounded, but work well within the contrivance of his films’ tales and emotional milieux. In this regard, he is no more a realist, in this artifice of his art form, than Hitchcock was in his use of green screens, or Stanley Kubrick in his use of intricately choreographed scenes or of human grotesques. That so many critics have bought into his claimed status as a realist, though, does not so much speak ill of their critical flaws, but so highly of Cassavetes’ art in deceiving the easily gulled.

  Lelia’s tale ends with Hugh banning Tony from seeing his sister, Tony accepting the ban, for he is conflicted over his feelings, although not a bad guy. In a terrific scene, Tony weakly tries to offer his excuses to Ben, for why he can’t see her, after she takes off with Davey. Ben repeats them back to him, and we see how feeble they are, yet, given this was 1950s New York, Tony is actually very enlightened; merely a bit of a coward. Lelia is a worse person, though. She’s a manipulator of men- Davey, Tony, her brothers-who ultimately meets her match, eventually submitting to the possibly abusive nature of the domineering Davey, after playing emotional games with him before they go to a dance. Hugh ends up taking a train to Chicago, and continuing to dream, while Ben and his pals wander off into the night. Nothing much has changed in these characters’ lives, as, despite Lelia’s loss of virginity, nothing of any depth really happens in the film. It ends rather banally, with Ben trundling off alone in the neon of the Asphalt Jungle, so to speak, with a title card  stating ‘The film you have just seen was an improvisation.’ Of course, this is manifestly false, as there are many scenes that are far too complex for any actor to think of spontaneously.

  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.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]

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