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Back to the Beginning: John Cassavetes’ ‘Shadows’ (1959)

Lelia Goldoni and Ben Carruthers in John Cassavetes' 'Shadows' (1959)

Editor’s Note: This article is the fifth and final installment of Phuong Le’s series “Tightrope Cinema: John Cassavetes’ Highwire World.”

Saving John Cassavetes’ directorial debut, Shadows (1959), for the last article in this series allows for a fascinating retrospective viewing experience. Sprung up on the last frames of the film is a defiant closing title card, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation,” the equivalence of Cassavetes knocking down Hollywood conventions with his 16mm handheld camera. This attitude certainly did not bode well with 1950s audiences; Cassavetes’ first feature went through several changes and a subsequent reshoot until it reached the final version seen today. Not quite as cinematically chaotic as Husbands (1970) or surrealistically interior like Love Streams (1984), Shadows is a tender, delicate and spontaneous tale of racial relations and personal crisis embellished with a gritty cinematography.

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Characters in John Cassavetes’ films constantly stumble upon a confusion between sex and love. The director does not necessarily separate one concept from another; he consistently points out how this type of external gratification does not always result in inner growth or human connection, which are what the citizens of his cinematic world desperately seek. Shadows opens on a frenzy of a party where young people frenetically shake their bodies to the rhythm of rock ’n’ roll. Lurking in the corner, however, is Ben (Ben Carruthers), an African-American man in his 20s, who tries to join in the fun but gives up and leaves. His appearance already sets him up as a loner, cloaked in a black leather jacket, a pair of black pants and black sunglasses even though he’s indoors. Ben meets up with his guy friends, and the boys go to a local bar to pick up women. Their short conversations with the ladies are pathetic and certainly shocking for the standards of 1950s movies. Leaning side by side with their faces so close that they almost touch, these men and women reveal nothing about themselves, except for the common denominator of their hollow lives, plagued with dead-end jobs, broken dreams and a general distrust in humanity. Shadows carefully intercuts these moments together, not to build a sense of suspense or tension, but to let them slowly resolve into a depressing but foreseeable outcome: smirking one-night-stand invitations and soft answers of “yes.” These brief encounters have the same effects as the alcohol these young men keep feeding themselves with; they are intoxicating, but fleeting.

Ben is not the only loner in the film. The trumpet player comes from a family of outsiders. His brother, Hugh (Hugh Hurd), is a jazz singer who reluctantly accepts gigs where he merely introduces scantily clad chorus girls instead of performing songs. Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), Ben’s light-skinned sister, is an even jauntier character. When she first meets Tony (Anthony Ray), a white musician who later becomes her lover, Lelia barks when he asks her to whom she belongs. “Why, I belong to myself,” answers Lelia in a matter-of-fact manner, as if she has lived that way all her 20-year-old life. Yet, to borrow a title from Cassavetes’ oeuvre, Lelia is a woman under the influence of her family, of gender roles, and most significantly, of racism. The minute Tony finds out that Lelia comes from an African-American family, he is shocked and immediately walks out of her apartment, leaving behind half promises of later dates and her heart completely shattered.

Lelia Goldoni and Anthony Ray in John Cassavetes' 'Shadows' (1959)

Lelia is between worlds, and not only in a racial sense. She could pass for being white, but she doesn’t. She could pretend to be a traditional girl yearning for a house and a few kids, but she strays away from that path. Lelia is a painter, an artist and an intellectual, traits that turn her into a difficult target for men. Earlier in the film, she has an older boyfriend named David (David Pokitillow) who tries to groom her into a writer. His constant criticism of her writings, however, only turns her further away from the craft. When she loses her virginity to Tony, Lelia once again reacts differently from the audience’s expectations. The camera first frames her face in a loving close-up but her words completely contradict the filmic form. She rises up, breaks away from the close-up and crawls into a corner. In contrast to the emerging philosophy of free love at that time, Lelia feels nothing, and sex turns the couple into strangers. Later, after breaking up with Tony, Lelia goes out dancing with Davey (David Jones), who calls her “too much” and begs her to be “just as lovely as you look.” In other words, he prefers Lelia’s pretty face over her challenging, feminist mind. This echoes another scene where Lelia stops in front of a movie theater where posters of Brigitte Bardot are plastered on the wall. Standing under the lights of the marquee, Lelia’s face is so brightly illuminated that she looks like a movie star. Nevertheless, her eyes see nothing in the blond-haired, blue-eyed French sex kitten that remotely resembles her. Despite being an artist, Lelia is the Other in the art world populated with faces different from her own. In both her professional and personal life, Lelia is displaced. As she shares with Tony her fear of never being smart enough to grow as a person, the character emerges as one of the shadows in this modern world, struggles to form her identity but ultimately fails.

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Watching Cassavetes’ films is a soul-draining process, and not just because the personas onscreen are often filled to the brim with desperation, but also due to the peculiar fact that these characters know how stuck they really are. They are fully aware of being in a blind alley, and yet they are unable to turn their lives over, no matter how hard they try. It is precisely this self-realization that brings about a kind of dull, knowing pain. These characters ache because they recognize the futility of human growth. The arrested development of Shadows, however, is particularly harrowing, for unlike the rest of Cassavetes’ films which deal with middle-aged, middle class characters, the people of his first feature are still young and restless, yet unable to accomplish any meaningful goals. Towards the end of Shadows, Ben and his friends are beat up for flirting with other guys’ girlfriends. After the incident, while mulling over his drink in a bar, Ben utters, “I don’t know why we do this, man,” referring to his womanizing ways. His friends have no answers, and possibly, Ben’s whole generation has no answers either. Their bodies might brush close to one another in a nightclub, but except for casual sex, they do not have any other means of genuine human communication. Shadows ends with Ben walking out of the bar and wandering on the streets of New York as the jazz score sweeps over his lonely frame. “The film you have just seen was an improvisation,” says the final title card, but the lives of these people are not that improvisational. After the jazzy breaks, these characters are likely to see themselves fall into the same beat, the same rhythms and the same circles decided by society. They live as shadows in anticipation of a morning that will never come.

Phuong Le (@smallnartless) studies film at Manhattanville College and interns at Film Comment. Her writings can be found at Movie Mezzanine as well as her own blog, Cinematic Gloom. When not writing, she enjoys caring too much about David Bowie.

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