Criterion Cuts: “Shadows”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Part of doing Criterion Cuts is getting a lot of my ‘cinematic vegetables’ eaten. I think that’s a clearly problematic term, and I really enjoy much of what I watch, but it’s true that when I stare down the barrel of watching a lengthy black and white art film from some former Soviet state every week, one can often long for some blood and guts, some cartoon hijinks, something that doesn’t require a lot of careful attention and historical context in order to properly appreciate or even understand. I try to make the most of it, but some weeks watching art cinema can be a giant chore. If you’re reading this, you probably know.

Which means that I’m as surprised as anyone when I really really love a movie I watch for these. It’s not only surprising, it’s a reminder of why I do this, and fuels more months of digging into the basement of art cinema for gems. Like today’s film, which is by far the best thing I’ve watched in a month or two.

Shadows (1959)

Talking about John Cassavetes’ Shadows is hard because so much of what makes it work is the experience of seeing a moment in time unfold before your eyes. Not just the film itself, which as a progression of images is always an unfolding moment of time, but the essence of an era, the first hesitant flight of this new form of independent cinema, bursting out from underneath the constraints of the overbearing studio culture of the 50s and planting flags long before New Hollywood made it cool. It was flying in the face of all the film dogma that came before it, and paved the way for the Robert Downey Sr. types that would come after.

Shadows also has the benefit of being a movie with a uniquely un-filmic history of production, coming out of the New York art scene and containing in its very nature much of the hallmarts of a more street art sensibility. Originally shot in 1957, and almost entirely improvised, Cassavetes screened the movie to mixed response only to go back and reshoot the entire thing, working off of only off of the idea of what needed to be improved, and created the film in the shape it’s in today. So when the film advertises via title card that its performances are all improvised, it’s something of a cheat: that’s true, but only inasmuch as they are working sans script. The improvisation sold is a glamour, a contradiction because film inherently denies improvisation through editing and takes.

The vibrant setting of the New York City art scene creates a time and place all its own.

But what is it? The story is rather loose, played with the free-flowing, carefully controlled apathy of the jazz music that makes up its score and its setting, but at heart it’s about three siblings: Benny (Ben Carruthers), Hugh (Hugh Hurd), and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni). The three of them are all aspiring black artists, Ben a trumpeter, Hugh a singer, and Lelia a more general art scene groupie. The different is that Benny and Lelia can pass for white, and Hugh cannot, and in this pre-civil rights version of New York City the difference between black and white in society is all the different in the world.

Benny’s plot is probably the most ramshackle and least interesting, as he stumbles between sets through parties and the anything-goes attitude of the art scene of the era with his equally apathetic friends, hitting on women and getting in fights and being too cool to care about much of any of it. There’s a deep air of Beat jealousy, a sense that they should be the sharp minds crying out against a deep corruption in the world at large, but in truth Benny’s simply not a good guy, selfish and short-sighted and incapable of bringing anything worthy of being so disaffected. It is the sobering, dead-end antidote of the Catcher in the Rye young man angst, which is all well and good, but it also feels like the most shapeless of the three stories.

The three siblings try to form a united front, but their differing social classes form too big of a gulf of experience.

Hugh’s story, then, is one that comes from a much more angry place. Hugh is stuck in low level night clubs, forced to open for acts he considers beneath his dignity. He cultivates an anger about this, as he sees his siblings drift through the social strata of life without much impediment while he’s forced by his visible race to fight just to keep a meager existence that will never be the fulfilling artistic career he wants. It’s interesting to see this pre-civil rights resentment there and openly addressed, as I feel like it’s the kind of thing that would have gotten coded out of movies that came after the movement made people more nervous about even discussing race, but ultimately it only serves as an interesting counterpoint to the third, and most important, of the three stories.

Lelia, then, is where my investment really comes in. Her story revolves mostly around a burgeoning romance with Tony (Anthony Ray), who hit on her and started the relationship under the assumption that Lelia was white. Since she didn’t disavow him of the idea, the two continue on this courtship all the way up until he talks her into his bed, leading to a scene where the two are talking after sex about how it was her first time and he feels a very poignant guilt that he didn’t know and that she didn’t enjoy it, compounded by her frustrations over being exposed in one of what turns out to be many lies as she tries to live in this high class socialite sphere that she considers herself beneath. There’s a desperation, a sense that this love affair was part self-inflicted punishment on her part, that crops up into this scene of romance consummated, tinging the whole thing with a pervasive bleakness.

This is further compounded when he insists, during this rocky moment between the two, on seeing her up to her apartment. It’s there that he meets her brothers and realizes the truth of what she was hiding from him, a moment of dumbfounded adjustment of world view that comes across as staggeringly insensitive even in 1959 terms, as he fumbles his way out of the room only to be confronted and kicked out by her overprotective brothers, who see this confused white man as (quite reasonably) a threat once he begins to feel upset about her lying to him about who she was.

The film speaks to a rising racial tension that would explode outward much more explicitly in the 1960s.

But the real reason that story works is that it isn’t the end of it, as Lelia goes on to date someone else, and Tony begins to try to wrestle with these new facts about the world he lives in. In one of the late scenes of the movie, he heads back to her apartment and talks to one of her brothers, offering up excuses and apologies to be repeated to her in an effort to at least make her understand the place he’s coming from. Her brother repeats them back flatly, not only to signify that he’d remember them, but to expose them as the flimsy justifications that they are, thin screens over a gulf of societal truth that Tony isn’t even close to ready to try to actually bridge.

But in many ways that’s the enduring reality of everyone in Shadows, as the various strata of this slice of culture struggle even to communicate among peers, much less between groups. The ‘low class’ parties are rife with drug abuse and anger and a lack of the ability to communicate any real emotions, but the ‘upper class’ parties are full of esoteric philosophy and social graces so thick that people choke on their own academic jargon, struggling to even understand the things they talk about not because they’re meaningful, but because they’re labelled as worthy of being discussed at dinner parties. Ultimately, everyone is alone, and the struggle to connect is not just specific, but general and evident in every possibly permutation of relationships. And that’s the truth of Shadows, teased out and explored from so many myriad sides with the ease of the film’s signature saxophone score flitting around only a handful of musical themes.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Criterion Cuts: “Shadows”

  1. Film Jive says:

    Excellent review, John Cassavetes is one of my favorite filmmakers and I hope that you plan to review all of his films down the line. I find all of his work to embody this remarkable energy that is so raw and natural, it seems to burst out of and tear through the celluloid. “Shadows” is easily his least polished work, but all of its slight mistakes feel completely intentional. For me, the film has a lot of staying power, and is incredibly transgressive, just as relevant today as it was in 1959.

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