[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.
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
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
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
Lelia: No, he's not very
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
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
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
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
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
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
To read more about the relation of Shadows and Pull
My Daisy, click here.
curated the film and video program for the Whitney Museum of American
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
To read more about the Beat movement in film, Ray Carney recommends
the Berkeley web site. Click here and here.