Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes)

This is one of those movies that’s frequently purported to be capable of changing your entire perception of cinema, and maybe of art in a larger sense. Deliberately ugly, aimless, meandering, and almost entirely improvised, it’s reputed to capture something so real and to-the-bone that it renders the supposed fakery of nearly all other narrative movies laughable and intolerable. And look, I wasn’t alive in 1959. I don’t know. But when I think of the Way Life Really Was at any point in history, a bunch of sunglassed hepcats lounging around in a nightclub clapping their hands while Beatnik-friendly oblique rock music plays isn’t what I picture. Maybe at one of Warhol’s Happenings, but that was later, and that’s not Real Life. As the kid in Almost Famous says, when and where does this “real world” begin? Could it be that even the infallible John Cassavetes was capable of diluting his craft with, oh dear, just a bit of stylization? We’d better whisper about this, Ray Carney might hear us and steal all of our intellectual property.

Not that it’s stylization I end up longing for in sitting through this brief but interminable and quite mediocre film; I’m not opposed to an improvised film or an aimless, not at all story-driven portrait of a specific mood, or a time in someone’s life. You might recall that Somewhere is one of my favorite movies of the last few years, and I loved the calm wedding scenes in Rachel Getting Married and wished Demme had dropped the awkwardly presented narrative that interrupted them. There’s a matter of perception that needs to be approached here, though; Cassavetes partisans defy the entrance of anything “beautiful” into a film — but don’t we all have different definitions of that anyway? Todd Solondz called Freaks “a beautiful film,” and I agree with him. If I am submitting myself to watching a film that bears no pretense to a story, one that likens itself to “jazz” for its free-associative maneuvering from one scene to the next, I’d favor something poetic and lyrical. This is neither, and I get the impression it (its cult, at least) casts a downward glance on those very ideas.

One exception to this would be the performance of Lelia Goldoni as the free-spirited woman whose fierce independence gives the film a more than welcome feminist angle, whose loss of virginity to a man who turns out to be a racist dickhead is the crux of what little story Shadows offers. It’s interesting because when she first appears, her performance is stilted and theatrical, then gradually she approaches a heartbreaking rawness and intensity. In either case, she’s the only human being in the picture, the only element that seems “real.” Because of course, the philosophical backdrop to the Cassavetes (or maybe the Carney) approach to cinema is much ado about what’s real and what’s phony, but the great secret is that, like beauty, these too are matters of perception. Indeed, I can detect that nearly all of the dialogue in the film is improvised. And guess what? That takes me out of the film. I’ve been in acting classes several times, mostly as an observer, and this movie feels like them: its individual scenes feel like group exercises meant to test students’ quick-thinking acting and improv chops. You can almost sense the director shouting out the bare concept for each sequence off-camera as the others run with it. But that doesn’t make Shadows feel real; it makes it feel like some earnest kids improvising over a few threadbare ideas. The only thing that separates all this from conventional film acting is that we’re all aware of the techniques being put into place, because there’s so much more concern for all those trumped-up principles than there is for the audience — and I can’t really abide by that.

That isn’t even the most egregious sense in which the supposed all-encompassing “reality” of Shadows is vastly overstated by its fans. It’s also disingenuous to fail to note that the movie is about the fringes of the entertainment world. Yes, nightclub singers and dancers are real people too, I realize, but going back to an earlier point, this is so close to the usual heightened reality of filmmaking, of even the lower-tier of the Beautiful People, that any sense of separation from Hollywood popcraft seems exaggerated. This is a bunch of actors, coming up with half-baked characters and stories based on exactly the experiences you’d expect them to have as a group of young actors. There’s more “reality” — and emotion and truth, to boot — in the farm sequence of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps featuring forlorn Peggy Ashcroft and sinister John Laurie, which lasts less than ten minutes and in that time encompasses questions of lust, longing, marital imprisonment, casual sexism and a universal yearning for a larger world with exponentially greater elegance than Shadows in its entirety. And it’s not a bad movie, and comparing even a decent movie to Hitchcock does no one any favors, but I bring it up because The 39 Steps is exactly the sort of movie the self-righteous stalwarts of Cassavetes’ cinema au naturel would never acknowledge.

As self-righteous as those folks can be, you simply have to decide yourself and determine if the cinematic ideal to which Shadows strives is yours at all. You have every right to agree with it or not to; there simply isn’t a “right or wrong” cinema. But in my household, this is little more than an interesting failure, slightly funny and occasionally a bit touching, but never affecting in any deep way. It reminds me of the sort of cheap semi-erotic pulp paperback that was peddled a lot around this period, books about island getaways with orgies and fucked-up people trying to set things right. Again, that’s a far cry from hardened, base reality. To boot, the Cassavetes principles rely on a tolerance of poor cutting and constant, clumsily framed closeups that seem no better than the efforts of Coleman Francis and Ed Wood, either of whom probably have a bit more humility and charm. (Red Zone Cuba has some fascinating setpieces, actually; I’m sorry!) If aesthetics mean nothing to you, cool, dig. They do mean something to me, and that’s just another reason why Shadows hardly ruins cinema for me. Quite the opposite — it reinforces the reasons why I care about it, virtually none of which it embodies.

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