Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Shadows, 1959
Dir: John Cassavetes

This is really good except for the production value. I mean, some thesis films are made better than this. But, I guess that is sort of the DIY tone Cassavetes was going for, and considering this is the birth of American independent cinema, you have it give it that. That most of the film works is because of the "restless 50s" New York atmosphere. I guess you could call it "Beat" or whatever, but at least there's no poetry readings. One of the characters even scoffs at the Beat scene, and even Jazz, though he pretty much is a Beat, not to mention a proto-hipster, and the entire soundtrack is a jazz sax solo.

The film follows three siblings. Hugh (Hugh Hurd), the oldest, is having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that his singing career might be dying, and he is embarrassed to be a show host, such as introducing "girly lines." Ben (Ben Carruthers) is the misfit, wanders around the city with his buddies hitting on girls and what-not, basically being directionless. Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the youngest, is only 20 and is keen to be seen as seen sharp and educated, but also passionate and spontaneous. Hugh is full black, while his two younger siblings are mulatto, with Lelia being especially light-skinned, and can pretty much get away with "passing."

The film never really harps on about the race thing, though of course the main dilemma involves Lelia's ability to naively pass and then be found out, and then the two brothers reactions (or lack there of) to help her cope. Cassavetes isn't just interested in one thing though; we see this in three different parties in the film: a crazy "beat" party where Ben is looking bored, a "literary" party where Lelia "comes of age," and then the party at their apartment where there are mostly black people talkin' about black people problems, Hugh at the forefront. The way it bounces around and never really settles on anyone makes it way ahead of its time, and good.

If the acting has a problem, its that the improvisational style (which Cassavetes insisted on) seems a bit stunted at times; like all these kids and amateur actors know darn well that they are being filmed and that they had better throw some slang and jargon in. This experimental acting style is supposed to flow with the structure of the the film (like jazz I guess). Ben, of course, is the most interesting character to me. At the end he hasn't progressed one bit, though after having some drinks and getting into a fight with his buddies, he vows never to do it again. One of them (the buddies) sort sums up one Ben's arc (or "straight line" maybe) as they nurse their wounds, "We went out on the town and had a ball. If you get beat up, you get beat up. We still had a ball." That's sort of what the film is: mostly a mess but still effective. Defintely a sign of things to come for Cassavetes.

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