This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing about John Cassavetes. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces about Cassavetes that are not included on the web site, click here.

To read about Ray Carney's discovery of the long-lost first version of Shadows, click here. To read about the response of the world's press to the Shadows discovery, click here. To read about Gena Rowlands's response to Prof. Carney's discovery, click here.

[As you go along in life sometimes your] innermost thoughts become less and less a part of you, and once you lose them you don't have anything else. I don't think anyone does it purposely. It's just that a lot of people are not aware of losing those things. I found myself losing them too, and then suddenly I woke up by accident, by sheer accident of not getting along with something, with something inside.

—John Cassavetes

Excerpts from a discussion of
SHADOWS
Click here for best printing of Shadows text

....There is never anyone to blame in Cassavetes' work. There are no villains in his films; no good guys or bad guys. Everyone is in-between. If Lelia, Tony, Bennie, Hughie, and the other characters in Shadows have problems, they themselves have created them, and they themselves must solve them.

In his work the problems characters have are never outside, but within the characters themselves. In their different ways, each of Shadows' characters is playing a role that is false to his or her true self–trying to be something he or she is not. Tony wants to be a "stud;" Bennie wants to be "cool;" Hughie wants to be the strong, protecting, older brother; Lelia wants to pretend that race doesn't matter and that sex has no emotional consequences.

The lies that are important in Cassavetes' films are never the ones we tell others, but those we tell ourselves. Of course, when we fool ourselves, when we are false to our true needs and desires, we are always the last ones to realize it.

As in classic Greek drama, each of Cassavetes' films ends with a moment of insight or self-recognition. Characters discover something about themselves–not by thinking but by listening to their feelings. One day they finally hear a little voice of discontent that may have been nagging away for years, and, if they are lucky, wake up. Shadows ends with four recognition scenes. Lelia, Ben, Hugh, and Rupert each realize something about how they have been false to themselves. Cassavetes is a very spiritual artist. All of his work is about learning to hear that still, small voice. What is wonderful is that he never gives up on even his most doomed characters. He is an artist of hope–a poet of the miraculous, transforming power of love and grace....

* * *

The central metaphor in Shadows involves a comparison of the "masks" we wear in public with the "faces" we hide beneath them. Characteristic of Cassavetes' rhetorical understatement, the image surfaces explicitly at only two points: when Ben studies a "mask" in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden, and in the tilt shot framing an African mask that precedes Lelia and Tony's post-coital conversation. In both cases, Cassavetes' camerawork implicitly asks us to compare the mercuriality of living expressions with the stasis of sculpted ones. (As a sidelight, I might add that neither of these scenes was present in the "improvised" version of the film. Both were added during the scripted reshooting done two years later–suggesting that it probably took Cassavetes himself a couple years to fully understand the meaning of his own work.)

However, the most resonant occurrences of masks in Shadows are not in visual images, but in the characters' behavior. Long before Ben calls attention to the MoMA mask, a viewer is made aware of how he wears an even subtler and more insidious mask–one that he is not aware of and that he can't remove–the mask of hipness, archness, and irony (a force within American culture that is still clearly being felt today). He hides behind his sunglasses, leather jacket, and beat-generation poses. Though Ben scoffs at the pretentiousness of a literary party he attends, Cassavetes makes a viewer realize that he plays a role at least as hollow as that of the poseurs who babble about "existential psychoanalysis." His "cool-man-cool" role-playing is an attempt to insulate himself from emotional vulnerability or involvement. That is why he spends his time cruising for pickups and spoiling for fights. As long as he keeps moving from girl to girl, he knows no deep emotional claims will be made on him or enduring commitments required. As long as he keeps fighting, he won't have to really interact. He won't have to take off the mask and reveal the insecurities underneath it.

Hugh, Lelia, and Tony are also mask-wearers, though less obviously. As a professional jazz musician whose career has failed to take off, Hugh has been reduced to playing clubs full of drunks and to introducing a chorus line to get on stage at all. But as deeply hurt as he is by the compromises he has made, he puts on a brave front for his brother, sister, and Rupert, who depend on him for both emotional and financial support. His stoical stance is one that many of the male characters in Cassavetes' other films will adopt–a pretense of male poise and confidence that covers up feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. Lelia has found another way of masking her pain and covering up her vulnerabilities. After making the mistake of thinking that sex can be free from emotional complications and being profoundly hurt by the consequences, she goes to the other extreme, withdrawing into a camouflaging flirtatiousness, flamboyance, and self-dramatizing theatricality calculated to let no one get near her emotionally. Tony is also a mask-wearer. He retreats from intimacy behind the role of wise male protector. He is too busy proving to women how experienced he is, how much he knows and feels, ever actually to allow himself to learn or feel anything.

Cassavetes' understanding of expression was an actor's. That is to say, for him, there was no essential difference between the expressive situations of acting and of life: What happened in one had its equivalent in the other. The artistic impoverishments of timid or derivative forms of acting were inextricably linked in his imagination with the disappointments of timid or derivative ways of living; and, conversely, the aesthetic excitements and challenges of original and brave acting were indistinguishable from the stimulations of original and brave living.

He understood that people wear masks in life and hide behind dependable roles in their relationships with others for the same reasons actors do in their performances. It is safer and more comfortable to play a fixed role than to make oneself genuinely responsive to the shocks and jars of an open-ended relationship–on-stage or off-. A related parallel between bad acting and bad living, in Cassavetes' view of it, is the desire to "star" rather than interact. Like Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Harvey Keitel (three of America's most over-rated actors), we want others to respond to our emotional pacings and emphases, rather than making ourselves responsive to them.

Ben's beat generation costume (black leather jacket and sunglasses even indoors and at night), affectless tones (disillusioned, self-pitying, and already burnt-out at age 21–"Maybe I'll join a little group in Vegas"), and Tom-catting (forever on the prowl for a different girl every night) allow him to be the long-running star of his own one-man road show, but by the same virtue, they deny him possibilities of emotional openness to or involvement with anyone other than himself and his own problems. Lelia's self-centered self-dramatizations are more inventive and interesting than Ben's monotone posturing, but ultimately no different from it. Her Garboism (or Meryl Streepism) cuts her off from experience in the same way his Brandoism does: it gives her star billing in a repertory company in which she plays the most important part, lets no one upstage her, steal her scenes, or get within a mile of her emotionally.

Like bad actors, in their different ways, Ben, Lelia, Hugh, Rupert, and Tony attempt to get their acts together and work up routines so good they won't ever have to depart from them. Everything Cassavetes stood for was opposed to this sense of "canning" the self or its performances. He saw life and acting not as about getting your part down so pat that you'd never have to think on your feet, but as a process of opening yourself up so completely you could never say in advance where you were going to come out or what you might discover along the way. To invoke Cassavetes' momentary alter ego–you must "break your pattern."

The issue goes beyond being open or closed to others; what matters is whether one has an open or closed identity. What's really wrong with designs for living is that they represent dead-ends for development. Cassavetes subscribes to a state of radical ontological open-endedness, played out in acts of continuous self-revision. The deepest problem with Ben's, Tony's, Lelia's, and Hugh's mask-wearing and role-playing (both as actors and as characters) is that they represent efforts to formulate fixed, finished identities. For Cassavetes, to be finished in this way is to be finished in every other as well. At its best and most exciting, the self is not only unformulated, but unformulatable. You can never close up shop on who you are. Living begins at the very moment you dare to leave the scripts of life behind and begin to improvise on the margins....

To read another essay on the relation of Shadows to Beat Generation filmmaking and Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy, look in the Beat Movement section or click here or here.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing about John Cassavetes. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces about Cassavetes that are not included on the web site, click here.

Top of Page

Photographs by Sam Shaw and Larry Shaw are used by special arrangement. They may not be used on other sites or otherwise reproduced. All ownership and copyrights are retained by Shaw Family Archives, LTD. More information is available at: www.samshaw.com and www.spc-promotions.com.

Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.