Ray Carney curated the film and video program for the Whitney Museum of American Art's Beat Culture and the New America1950-1965 show. He has written extensively about Beat film and more recent American independent work. The following material represents only an brief excerpt from his work. To obtain the complete text of the following piece or learn more about his writing about independent film, click here.
John Cassavetes' Shadows and
Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy"
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[After the initial screenings] I went to Nikos Papadakis who had helped make the film. . . . I said, "How much money do you have, Niko?" And he said, "I have $2000. I can get it from friends." And I raised $13,000. [I wrote a script, and] we started shooting again. We shot for ten days and the result . . . was the final version of Shadows. . . . Now rumor spread that I had made [the second version of] the film for distribution. That we had gone back to make it more commercial. But . . . the second version was much deeper. I think the greatest things in the film, I mean the best things in the film, were shot in the reshooting, in a ten day period. Which has to tell you something, because it took us four months to shoot the [improvised] version.
Honor the impulse. Trust your instincts. The first draft is the true draft. Never revise, never retract. Blueprints are the death certificates of genius. Just blow, man, blow. . . . By now, the litany is familiar. Many of the greatest Beat works were created spontaneously, from the subconscious, without revision or correction. Or were they? About some works, we'll probably never know the real truth. When it comes to others, though, the answers are not always the expected ones. It comes as a surprise for many viewers to learn that neither of the two best known and most celebrated works of cinematic improvisation in the Beat era was actually improvised.
Pull My Daisy was praised for years as a masterwork of free-form "blowing" before Alfred Leslie revealed in a November 28, 1968 Village Voice article that its scenes were as completely scripted, blocked, and rehearsed as those in a Hitchcock movie. The film was shot on a professionally lit and dressed set. The cast worked from a script, and shooting proceeded at the typical studio snail's pace of two minutes of text per day. All camera positions were locked and all movements planned in advance. As many takes and angles were shot, and as much footage exposed (30 hours) as for a Hollywood feature of the period. Probably more. Even Kerouac's wonderfully shaggy-baggy narration was actually written out in advance, performed four times, and mixed from three separate takes. (Though, in defense of the man who made "first thought, best thought" a Beat mantra, it must be added that he is said to have objected when his narration was edited.)
John Cassavetes' Shadows comes a little closer to being a true improvisation, but only briefly–in an early, discarded version. The first version of Shadows (filmed in 1957) was indeed based on a dramatic improvisation the director and his actors had worked out in an acting class. But Cassavetes was so embarrassed by the filmed result that after screening it just three times late in 1958 he decided the only way to salvage it was to write a series of scenes to cut into it. The revised 90-minute film retained less than 30 minutes of the original footage. Tipping the balance even further, the little that was retained from the first version was mainly transitional, establishing, or action footage (street and sidewalk shots of characters walking, shots of Central Park and a couple running up a hill, shots of characters racing for trains in Grand Central Station, a fight scene). Most of the important dramatic interactions between the characters were the new scripted parts.
It should be added that Cassavetes himself was responsible for much of the confusion about whether Shadows was or was not improvised, since at the end of the scripted version he retained the same title card that had ended the unscripted version: "The film you have just seen was an improvisation." Although his intention was to express gratitude to his actors for having originated the story, the title card only served to mislead critics and audiences.
Shadows' scenes feel so fresh and spontaneous that viewers can hardly be blamed for the misperception. Consider the following scene. It involves two young people, Tony and Lelia, (played by Lelia Goldoni and Tony Ray, son of director Nicholas Ray), who have just met the previous day. They are talking fairly aimlessly as they walk along together. (David is a mutual friend who introduced them.)
Lelia: I feel I'll never know things. Like . . . like . . .
Tony: What do you feel like, tell me what you feel like.
Lelia: I feel like I'm in a . . . a . . .
Tony: . . . In a cocoon, and you can't get out?
Lelia: That's right. . . . I didn't think boys were supposed to understand things like that. . . . You see I am far behind.
Tony: Behind who?
Lelia: Now you sound like David.
Tony: I hope not.
Lelia: Why not? David is one of the most intelligent people I've ever met in my life.
Tony: . . . But not very romantic.
Lelia: No, he's not very romantic.
Tony: You know, I'm not a very nice person. I mean I have romantic inclinations. I'm not one of those story book characters who's supposed to be all noble and righteous. If I see someone I like and she likes me, we accept my romantic inclinations.
It's not hard to see why viewers thought this conversation was being made up by the actors. It has the tentativeness, sprawl, competitiveness, and even occasional flatness of a real conversation between two people who don't know each other very well. We're about as far from Woody Allen or a TV sitcom as we can get. The interaction isn't pointed and witty. It isn't pumped up to make points. It doesn't develop logically or proceed in a straight line. It zigs and zags from one seeming tangent to another. In fact, at least up until Tony's peroration, it doesn't seem to be going anywhere at all. The characters compare opinions, warily jockey for position, make conversational miss-steps, and even limply repeat each other's phrases ("not very romantic . . . not very romantic . . . I have romantic inclinations").
What further adds to the feeling of open-endedness is that, although Tony is consistently smug and cocky in his tones and Lelia is consistently more hesitant and uncertain, their mutual positions keep shifting slightly. While Tony controls the beats in the first four lines, Lelia intermittently seizes control first with the remark about "boys," then when she chides Tony that he sounds like David, and then again when she defends David's intellect. Tony regains control when he denigrates David as unromantic. Lelia then reestablishes her solidarity with Tony by agreeing with him. Tony then apparently takes Lelia's concession as an opportunity to up the ante with his final speech.
The reason this scene and so many of the others added to the scripted version of Shadows feel improvised (and so different from scenes in most other movies) should be obvious. It is the striking process-orientation of the presentation. While most movie scenes are totalizing and summarizing in their effect, Cassavetes presents an incremental, step-by-step universe of continuous, minute adjustments and discoveries (which are dramatically appropriate insofar as they capture the shifts of position and understanding in an awkward, off-balance, slightly asymmetrical relationship).
I'd note parenthetically that Cassavetes played a kind of trick on his actors to ensure that Lelia's tentativeness and Tony's opportunism would be as convincing as possible. Without telling each actor what he was doing, he gave Tony his lines well in advance of the scene while he withheld Lelia's from her until just a few minutes before shooting began. (Cassavetes frequently played similar tricks on his actors when he felt it would contribute to their performances.) The result was that Tony naturally dominates the interaction, takes the lead tonally, and forces Lelia to follow. That is to say, at least a little bit of the uncertainty in her tone and the slight air of patronization in his was real. As an actor as well as a character, he was feeding her some of her lines.
The slippery, accretionary quality of the experience is even more obvious in the scene that follows upstairs in Tony's apartment (which is another of the scripted additions to the film). He and Lelia make love, but Cassavetes elides the event itself and dissolves to the post-coital conversation:
Tony: [patronizing, yet concerned] Lelia–really, if I'd known this was the first time for you, I wouldn't have touched you.
Lelia: [wounded] I didn't know it could be so awful.
Tony: [trying to comfort her] Don't be so upset, sweetheart. . . . Baby, it will be much easier next time.
Lelia: [firm] There isn't going to be a next time.
Tony: [anything to change the subject and gain control over the beat] Want a cigarette, huh? Come on, have a cigarette.
Lelia: [self-pitying] No.
Tony: [attempting to seize the initiative by playing hurt himself] I'm sorry if I disappointed you. I guess I did.
Lelia: [sympathetic and relenting] I was so frightened. I kept saying to myself you mustn't cry. If you love a man you shouldn't be so frightened.
Tony: [regaining his poise–on familiar ground] It's only natural. [a beat] There isn't a girl in the world that wouldn't feel the same way. She's [a beat, uncertain how to end the sentence] . . . got to.
Lelia: [vulnerable] And what happens now?
Tony: [at sea, taking a beat] What happens? [worried, another beat] Um, well, [yet another beat, then blurting out] what do you mean what happens now?
Lelia: [open] I mean do I stay with you?
Tony: [frantic] Lelia, uh. Stay with me? [a worried beat, then suddenly deciding it's flattering] You, you mean live with me?
Tony: [tentative] You . . . want . . . to?
Lelia: [weary and hurt] No, I want to go home.
Tony: [vastly relieved, condescending] Okay, baby.
Cassavetes once again drew on his actors' real feelings and personalities to lend authority to their line deliveries: Tony and Lelia had actually had a difficult romantic relationship that had not worked out well. There was a still a residue of mixed feelings about their relationship when the scene was shot that undoubtedly added to its authenticity.
The justification for indicating the tones, pauses, and shifts of mood in such detail is that the effect of the scene is attributable at least as much to the continuous permutations of feeling that take place within it as to the mere denotative meaning of the words spoken by the characters. Cassavetes creates the impression that Tony and Lelia truly are making up their lines (and their lives) as they go along. As two virtual strangers who suddenly find themselves in an uncomfortably intimate situation, their interaction is gingerly, awkward, evolutionary, and unpredictable. As in the conversation on the sidewalk, what makes the moment work dramatically is that the fictional characters are in a situation which requires them to function in exactly the same way as actors improvising a scene together.
The scene suggests a deep and intriguing link between the Beat sense of life and the occurrence of continuously shifting dramatic beats in a work of art. To hold oneself as tonally and psychologically open as Tony and Lelia do (both as characters and as actors) is to live the existential ideal of sensory awareness and present-mindedness that so many of the Beats embraced. Tony and Lelia act out an improvisatory vision of experience in which we bravely unmoor our identities from fixed definitions and cut our relationships loose from predictable destinations in order to abandon ourselves to the ever-changing possibilities of the moment. The slipperiness of their relationship, the tonal mercuriality of their interaction, the fugitiveness of each of their momentary emotional rest stops captures a stunningly open-ended vision of experience. Experience will not stand still to have its picture taken. Life will not be turned into a still life. In far more than a punning sense of the words, the shifts of beats reflect a quintessential Beat appreciation of life in process–of life as process. They are the strict equivalent of the jazz performer's incessant, obsessive "changes." Meanings are written in water–continuously recomposed out of ongoing decompositions. The scene communicates the social equivalent of the propulsiveness of some of the driving scenes in Kerouac's On the Rod: an experiential onwardness that is both exhilarating and more than a little scary to watch. In a sense, Cassavetes outdoes Kerouac. He puts his characters' lives on wheels–without needing to put them in a car.
The further effect of Lelia's and Tony's stammerings and miscues is the more general lesson that great Method acting always communicates: a sense of a fundamental gap between our social and verbal expressions of ourselves and a realm of buried feeling that can only be haltingly and imperfectly expressed by our words and actions. The Method actor sinks a mine shaft into subterranean emotional depths, and goes down to report how much more there down there than can ever be brought up to the surface. In On the Waterfront, when Brando fumbles with Eva Marie Saint's glove in the playground scene or almost starts crying when he talks with Rod Steiger in the cab scene, one of the most important expressive effects of his acting is to convince us that his words and gestures are only the superficial signs of incredibly profound depths of unspoken thought and feeling. In short, Method acting opens a gap between imagination and social forms of expression. It is a form of linguistic skepticism.
This skepticism is one of the central tenets of Beat art and life. The cultivated inwardness of the hipster and the jazz performer points toward a realm of "pure being" (Kerouac's term) somewhere underneath and beyond verbal and social expression. It is the "beyond" and the "IT" that so many of Kerouac's characters pursue and want to get in touch with. In the Beat aesthetic, this nonverbal, nonsocial interior is a place of purity and spirituality–perhaps the last remaining place exempt from society's predatory systematizations and mechanizations.
Method acting kept the lines of communication open between the interior and exterior realms, so that moving between them, although difficult, was still possible. The unfortunate tendency of much Beat art, however, was to erect a wall between the realms. Many Beat works, especially of film, introduced a reductive schism in which experience was parceled into two mutually exclusive categories: on the one side, private states of imagination and feeling (which were regarded as being pure and valuable); on the other, public forms of social interaction and expression (which were regarded as being flawed and limiting). The private realm was energetic, fluid, playful, and stimulating; the public realm was rigid, mechanical, serious, and frustrating. As different as they are from one another, On the Road, Pull My Daisy, The Flower Thief, and Howl consistently dichotomize experience in this way. They imagine the individual either trapped inside established social forms and structures of interaction, or grandly (and nobly) alienated, existing beyond them in some state of pure awareness and being. The Beat vision almost always conceptualizes experience in terms of such dichotomous alternatives–whether the dichotomies are tragic in effect (Howl's angel-headed hipsters versus Moloch) or comic (Pull My Daisy's Peter versus the Bishop).
It's a tempting vision. It flatters the individual by making his struggle against society Byronic in its grandeur. But it's just a little too simple. This state of majestic alienation confers easy heroism on everyone. It reminds us that Beat culture was, after all, youth culture, and that it is in the nature of youth to see things in terms of contrasted absolutes, antitheses, and extremes. The either-or opposition of imagination and social expression leaves out the inevitable inbetweenness of adult experience, the middleground where most of adult life is lived–which is really the most interesting place to be.
The middleground is the place where the creative individual doesn't repudiate established social and institutional structures of expression, but remains at least partly within them, creatively challenged by and engaged with them, negotiating them. What makes Shadows so different from (and its characters' dramatic predicaments so much more complex than) most other Beat works is precisely that Cassavetes rejects the Beat schism. He denies his characters the luxury of a grand alienation from social forms of expression; he forces them to shape their destinies within forms of social interaction (however haltingly and imperfectly, as Lelia and Tony demonstrate). Just in case we don't get the point, Cassavetes does include one grandly alienated figure in Shadows. Bennie (played by Ben Carruthers) could have stepped right out of the pages of Howl or The Dharma Bums. Like many another Beatster, he has given up on social interaction and verbal expression in order to tend his private imaginative garden. But rather than want us to admire him, Cassavetes clearly wants us to see how doomed and self-destructive Bennie's obsessively cultivated alienation is.
To put it another way, Cassavetes doesn't allow his characters the comfort of blaming their problems on external relationships and systems of knowledge. The expressive systems that threaten the characters in Shadows are within themselves. The danger does not come from economic, technological, political, or social systems, but from internal systems of understanding and feeling. We do not have the luxury of rebelling against or escaping these systems. In Pogo's words, in a cartoon contemporaneous with the Beat movement, we have met the enemy and it is us.
Bennie illustrates this as well. Throughout Shadows he blames his problems on society, while Cassavetes' view is that his real problem is himself. David clearly speaks for the filmmaker when he tells Bennie in the coffee shop scene that he is trapped in an emotional and behavioral "pattern." In Cassavetes' opinion, the real threats to our identities are within ourselves–especially the tendency of our emotions and intellects to congeal into a static position. We emotionally mechanize and regiment ourselves; it doesn't take capitalism or middle-class values to do it to us. (Tony and Lelia also demonstrate that sort of self-destructive patterning.)
Ironically enough, Bennie's "pattern" is his Beatness–his characteristically Beat attempt to avoid patterns. Cassavetes uses Bennie to demonstrate that strategies of freedom can themselves turn into forms of entrapment. To the extent that Beatness is reduced to a set of prefabricated mannerisms, poses, and styles, Beatness itself becomes only a new form of emotional and psychological imprisonment. That is to say, even our attempts to escape from patterns are themselves continuously congealing into new and confining patterns. In this respect, Shadows offers a lesson that many Beat artists and works could have profited from.
For Cassavetes, there is no possibility of breaking free absolutely or permanently. A transcendental stance is simply unavailable. Even at our very best, we walk a perilous razor edge where, on the one hand, we decompose the ever-encroaching patterns that beset us, even as, on the other, our decompositions are continuously recomposing into new patterns. Freedom must constantly be reasserted and reachieved to be maintained.
That is to say, freedom is a complexly achieved state that involves staying within the social systems that threaten us. Unlike Howl or On the Road, in Shadows there is no outside to society. There is no place to escape to, no possibility of withdrawing inward, and no state of "pure being" to liberate. There is no "IT" and no "beyond." That is why all of the major scenes in the film involve intricate social interactions between two or more characters. There is no realm outside the social. All of life is mediated and compromised.
I hope it is clear by this point why Cassavetes decided to script, reshoot, and reedit Shadows. Because the film takes the expressive middle ground as its territory, it was critical that he be able to delicately modulate his characters' expressions. A genuinely improvised performance could never attain the degree of expressive nuance that this kind of film requires. Subtlety is of the essence for any art that renounces black and white alternatives in order to offer discriminations among grays.
It undoubtedly became obvious to Cassavetes after viewing the improvised version of Shadows that he would, paradoxically enough, have to discard most of the scenes of actors improvising their lines in order to be able to suggest the complexity of characters improvising their lives. He would have to use every available device–from subtleties of scripting, to playing mind-games with his actors, to drawing on aspects of their personalities that they themselves might not even be aware of–to achieve the subtleties demanded by the characters' states of expressive inbetweenness.
Shadows shows us how much exertion a life of expressive improvisation requires. It demonstrates how hard it is to remain free from ever-encroaching patterns–and that the effort is not something you can wing. It required more work than Cassavetes had ever imagined. Shadows proves that the Beat stance was less a way out, than a prescription for unending work.
To read excerpts from another essay about Shadows, click here.
To read more about the relation of Shadows and Pull My Daisy, click here.
Ray Carney curated the film and video program for the Whitney Museum of American Art's Beat Culture and the New America1950-1965 show. He has written extensively about Beat film and more recent American independent work. The preceding material represents only an brief excerpt from his work. To obtain the complete text of the preceding piece or learn more about his writing about independent film, click here.
To read more about the Beat movement in film, Ray Carney recommends the Berkeley web site. Click here and here.