John Cassavetes’ Shadows: Deconstruction or Evolution

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By John Shaw
York University, Toronto Canada.

In attempting to critique John Cassavetes’s film Shadows, one must look to several factors which promoted this new cinematic realism to take shape in America during the late 1950s. Hollywood at this time was in fact producing films that were formulated to say the least. Homogenized generic scripting and plots often revolved around the hierarchy of a Star’s potency on and off the screen. Cassavetes films radically challenged the well composed scene and the self resolving plots in favor of a much needed realistic approach. The use of his native New York as a sound stage might have also influenced the austere outcome of these social dramas; they were definitely unlike the adventure hero worship that was being produced in California.
The pioneering efforts of Cassavetes and others brought on an evolution in the New York cinematic avant-garde, thanks to of all things, the success of television. The new era of television revived the cinema as the primary erotic medium for a new generation, and freed the film maker from his constant focus on education and entertainment for profit so prevalent in Hollywood big business. The cinema virte of Europe was of strong influence, but the social grit of the NY narrative was fast evolving its own iconoclasm which Cassavetes would only now be recognized for.
John Cassavetes Shadows is an improvisational film made in 1959, winner of the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival, and then distributed under the auspices of a British distributor (recently re-released to video). It offers a compelling snapshot of Beat culture in NYC as it intersected with racial tensions and subservient position of women present even in “hip” society during the early 60’s. An African-American jazz singer lives in a small NY flat with his deadbeat brother and lovely 20 year old sister who both are light-skinned and are clumsily introduced for half-siblings to the singer (their relationship is never clarified). The trio throw desegregated cocktail parties which sometimes lead to explosive social situations. While they do their part for social justice, the ladies are somewhat stereotyped as they dress nice and shop for husbands. The film was certainly made on a shoestring budget, complete with jumpy editing and limited self-conscious directing. Ultimately, however, it is the painfully candid and personal quality of the characters’ stories which come through. One must remember that this was Cassavetes’s first commercial venture, a fact often overlooked by his critics.
With Cassavetes films the greatest fear is the screenwriters, directors, or editors formal arrangements might move to take away from the improvisational quality of the performance- or even the actor’s ability to convey the actual characters improvisation in his/her roles in their lives. Both the actors and the parts they are playing fall under this guise of documentary art form: where the actor is the act, and vice versa. Trying to access this new underground of emotion through technique , Cassavetes often saw the limitations of his equipment as an impediment:

It’s not really interesting to me, at least, to set up a camera angle. At some points in the filming you really want to take the camera and break it for no reason except that it’s just an interference and you don’t know what to do with it.

Life for Cassavetes was an unforgiving reality without compromise. He saw his camera sometimes as unable to capture this reality in a way which he saw it unfolding. Many have concerned themselves with attaching many adjectives to describe his technique such as deconstructing narrative, new age documentary, improvisational acting, the long take, the mind’s eye, etc. But Cassavetes himself seems very sure of what his motivation was in creating these new and innovative forms,

Films today show only a dream world and have lost touch with the way people really are... In this country, people die at 21. They die
emotionally at 21, maybe younger... My responsibility as an artist is to help people get past 21... The films are a road map through emotional
and intellectual terrain that provides a solution on how to save pain”

So what are the different forms of pain that Shadows submits for examination. Is it one’s self respect and dignity as cast in Hue the black singer and father/brother figure- the insecurity of not knowing who you are or what social role to play in society as with Ben the trumpet playing Beat Boy- or the much deeper pain striking to the very erotic center of your sexuality as in Lelia’s fight with self esteem. Whatever form this pain might take, Cassavetes was determined to capture it unfettered and without the softening haze of the Hollywood Star machine. He wanted the realism of image to interlace with the conflict of emotion while conveying its message in a way which drew the viewer in, and the participants as actors out of each scene.
The one thing that must be recognized is the documentation of different emotions which would be normally trimmed down, cut out, or neatly packaged and arranged by Hollywood Star narratives. Each player retains a relatively equal position avoiding the hierarchy of roles so closely associated with the big allegorical production of the day. The reality of this pseudo-documentary technique is achieved through the spatial and linear motion of performance, or the metaphysics of duration and direction of the scene. The long take encompasses action and reaction together, without limiting or directionalizing as the fast paced well made Hollywood narratives tend to do. The improvisation of the actor acting out the role in this type of scene relies on a anastigmatic approach to surrealism. This illusion of the actor’s anarchistic reality based on improvisation stems from the perplexity of audience reaction (they do not quite interpolating which cues they need to make sense of the message offered). Hence the different readings of each scene and the ability of the audience to become existential within their own understandings of the character- they begin to see themselves.
This however raises several problems that any narrative must confront, something which might not have been intentional on Cassavetes part. Whenever you deconstruct something you take out vital parts of its member which serve as the embodiment of the whole. Sort of like if you could picture a narrative cut up into pieces and hung up like a mobile; parts that used to be joined together, now work independently and out of sync, flapping in the wind as might be. In this case we are referring the narrative of a story which depends on many cues to make its symbolic and metaphoric messages interpretative by an audience. If too many sign posts are removed, too many cues stripped of their identity and left for dead, the interpretive nature is lost and the suspension of disbelief ceases to function. Whether in the French “camera stylo of the Nouvelle Vague, or the German Kammerspiel (chamber play), or the neorealism of Italian cinema, or the Manichean Hollywood melodrama- the suspension of disbelief in my opinion is essential for the transgression of emotion from artist to audience. Without suspension of disbelief there is no eroticism, and thus, no imagination. If surrealism was Cassavetes goal, identification through suspension of disbelief is essential to the improvisational technique of the pseudo-documentary (it makes the improvisation look real, hence the rumors about Cassavetes’s semi-scripting).
As example, I refer to the love scene in which Lelia and Tony are in bed and ready to make love. As R. Carney in American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience suggests,

The film fades out prior to their making love, to fade back in on their post-coital conversation. (Here, as in all of his future work, Cassavetes is as indifferent to mere physical actions- in this case, the action of making love- as he is fascinated by imaginative transactions- of making something of one’s having made love.) The conversation that follows is a tour de force of awkwardness, inarticulateness, and insensitivity.

With this one cut the entire believability of the anti-star Lelia was destroyed. Her cataclysmic confrontation with her own sensuality and her inability to deal with her sexuality and cross race identity was the whole point of her character. Her dealing with these intimate issues on film was the whole point of the love scene and it was cut out, like some trade mark snip, or inadequacy on the part of Cassavetes to film such intimacy. The age of censorship was ripe in the 1950s, but this is no excuse for not using a close up to capture facial expressions i.e. her crying, or Tony’s indignation- something to convey believability of the act and how it shaped their identities. This is not an isolated incident, but rather a general complaint I have with his style of disconjuncture of dialogue and action- where the two never seemed to quite meet at the appropriate times. This is not to say this exclusion of intimacy was for technique either, but rather I would say is due to the lack of so called semi-scripting and direction.
The progression of Lelia’s insecurity about her ethnicity, as it reflects on her sexuality, and how both of these factors convolut her femininity to the point of rebellion, is the foundation of her character and her position in the narrative. To rob her of this discovery within this scene is anti-climatic to say the least, and does little to suspend our disbelief. She comes across not as a virgin, but as a tramp, something which destroys her next lines, “ I was so frightened. I kept saying to myself, I mustn’t cry. If you love a man, you shouldn’t be frightened.” Why are we being told this and not shown this? Why are we being subjected to a verbal explanation of her feelings and motivation in a supposed documentation of the raw emotion through improvisation. Is this indifference to physical action as Carney suggests? Is Cassavetes’s use of “imaginative transactions” after the fact a substitute for his inexperience as a director/screenwriter? Or is this a Greek religious orthodoxy for privacy showing through in his films? He isn’t in fact indifferent in the very physical fight scene with the boys outside the soda shop. So why the naivete when it comes to expressing Eros on film? Is this true to his art form, directing, or style of photography?
Putting personal complexities aside, which are often shallow and without substance, the pseudo-documentary style that Cassavetes explored, is a legacy which he will be remembered and chastised for. But I do not think it is out of order to mention the narcissistic nature of the style itself, and how the avant-garde film community manipulated an otherwise self contained brilliance of the technique. The long take might not have been so long- the pauses between lines not so vague- and the endlessness of the narrative might not have been so indifferent- had the competition among the film community for uniqueness been a little less pervasive.
However, the realism achieved by the situation social crisis film did create its responsibility towards the issues it addressed. The bravery of Cassavetes in his uncompromising and unwavering dedication to strip himself of the mainstream might have inadvertently gave him his most valuable inspiration. To go against the ebb and flow is not always easy, but sometimes it pays off in the hands of a true guineas. Whether his temperament as a person, or film maker succeeds him, the legacy of his work will always be proof of his integrity.
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© Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.