(1959) dir. John Cassavetes
All these years, all these films, I’d never seen a John Cassavetes film. Not one he directed. So, when I thought to traverse this road, I thought I should start with the first, his 1959 film Shadows, which is considered to be the birth of American Independent cinema.
It’s an interesting statement. The film is brilliant in many ways, an interesting story set among the Beat Generation scene in New York, amid jazz musicians and dealing with aspects of racism and filled with loose ends.
But the interesting thing to me was that America had long an Independent scene. The major difference was that it wasn’t so interested in “realism” or being an “art” film of sorts. Independent films had been produced for decades, it’s just they tended to be genre films: exploitation, horror, science fiction.
Oddly, the first film to jump to mind was Doris Wishman’s film Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), which might be an interesting counterpart to Shadows, set as it is in New York, with scenes of Central Park, black-and-white, low-budget style. I also thought of Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959), though Corman’s film is slicker in production and aesthetics, though it stabs jokes at the Beat Scene.
When the film starts, it immediately has the feel of something outside of the norm. Jazz wails along as we see people at parties, living life in the scene. The acting and direction were said to have been improvisational. I don’t know that it entirely has that feel, but there is a fresh naturalness to most of the performances, even amidst the sometimes rough-edged editing. But the camera also has moments of movement, living among the crowds, on the streets.
The thing that struck me as odd, and I don’t really know enough to know what to do with it is that while the story is very much about race in the Beat scene, the family of Carruthers are played by three people of very different complexion. Leila, the sister, looks not only white, but Jewish perhaps? Not that that is important, but she’s meant to be African-American. Her one brother, the singer, is more obviously African-American, while her other brother, Ben, looks more Italian or something.
The twist happens when one guy who falls for Leila finds out that she is from an African-American family. This shocks him and repels him. My guess is that having these three actors play siblings was to discuss something of “passing complexion” or something. I don’t know. I am sure that there has been a lot written on this over the years. I mean, just trying to describe the situation, I am forced to project my estimation of each person’s ethnic background to try and even make my point. It’s all stabs in the dark anyways, but perhaps that is partially what is the point. I don’t know. It just struck me as odd or something.
I quite liked the film, actually. It has character, a vibrance, and is interesting and compelling. I actually thought Leila (Leila Goldoni) quite striking, not just her looks, but her character and persona. Definitely worth the while. I’ll be trekking further down this road, Cassavetes’ road.