Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Shadows

Shadows (1959, dir. John Cassavetes)

So the new director I will be focusing on till the end of September will be John Cassavetes. I suspect his face will be more familiar to audiences than the films he made. Cassavetes is most well known for the role of Guy in Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby. Amongst film nerds, like myself, we know him as the father of American independent cinema. He was the type of rebel filmmaker that you hear about, but whom many independent filmmakers fail to live up to. In this first film. Shadows he used jazz as an influence; the picture was scored with jazz music and instead of a tightly written script, he allowed scenes and dialogue to be improvised. In particular, he shrugged off all public filming laws and would run out on the sidewalk, shoot until they saw cops, then run and hide. The result was a film that caused many walkouts when it was screened for the public, but is on par with the French New Wave films being simultaneously made across the world.

The film focuses on three figures: Ben, Hugh, and Leila. Ben is a leather clad beat-type. Hugh is an African-American crooner. Leila is a burgeoning artist. And they are all siblings, and they are all black. Leila is incredibly fair skinned and the only sign of Ben’s ethnic heritage is his tightly curled haired. Shadows examines racial politics in a very honest way, by looking at how its too complicated to compartmentalize people based on skin color. While most films in contemporary cinema deal with racial issues in a trite and clichĂ©d manner, Cassavetes tells the story of these people in an energetic, mold-breaking way. It’s no wonder people walked out during public screenings, the movie defies narrative conventions in a big way.

The stand out for me was Leila Goldoni as Leila. A reason the film caused a stir when it originally came out was due to Leila actually desiring sex and sharing a scene in bed with a man. Even now having a female character actually want sex is taboo in some circles, we expect the man to take her. The scene is done very cleverly: he offers her upstairs for a drink, grabs a bottle of scotch as they kiss, and she says “I don’t really want a drink”. Without being explicit, Leila admits she simply wanted to come to his apartment for sex. The aftermath of the scene is also done with a remarkable sensitivity. It is Leila’s first time, and while the male character says all the annoyingly dull things, Leila replies with a true maturity. She talks about how it hurt more than she thought, wondering if now she comes to live with him, then admitting she doesn’t want to be with him again. I can’t say I have seen a moment in any other film that captured such a mature view of sex.

The star of the film is Cassavetes and his camera though. Being aware of these cinematic techniques and how the French laid claim to them in the 1960s, we can forget how revolutionary this must have been to see. It can come off as clunky, but there’s some real artistry at work, with the camera being used from hidden locations to film the actors on the street below. Or the way different takes of the same scene are spliced together to create an energetic tone in conjunction with the jazz soundtrack. The film was produced by Jean Shepherd, the author and narrator of A Christmas Story, who was a radio show host at the time. Shepherd played to the art and beat crowds of New York and would have Cassavetes on as a guest promoting his ABC crime series Johnny Staccato at the time. During one broadcast, Cassavetes asked Shepherd listeners that they could help him make his film by sending a dollar or two. By the end of the week the radio station had received a couple thousand dollars, and these donors are thanked in the opening credits. Shadows was truly an independent film made by regular people.


One thought on “Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Shadows”

  1. My friend ends a film he made with a cardboard sign that says "The film you have just seen was an improvisation." Of course, neither films were, but I just watched my friend's film again and it reminded me how much I loved Shadows!

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