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from Ray Carney's Shadows
A Democratic Narrative
One of the hallmarks of Cassavetes' work is the multiple-stranded narrative. While Hollywood is premised on an identification strategy in which the viewer processes information in terms of a single, dominant understanding of what things mean (generally figured by the star's viewpoint, though the understanding may be shared with or parceled out among several main characters), none of Cassavetes' films is organised in this way. Life contains many different stories and alternative points of view. The narrative circulates the viewer through alternative perspectives and relations to experience –no one of which is necessarily more important, virtuous or correct than any other.
It is crucial to the effect of the film that Shadows tells three stories at once, and grants Hugh, Lelia and Ben independent identities, sets of friends, and problems to deal with. In a narrative paradigm that will be repeated in all of Cassavetes' subsequent films, the initial scenes present the characters separately so that the viewer can get to know and care about each as an individual; the middle section brings the figures together in extended interactions with each other so that differences in temperament and behaviour can be registered, and the closing scenes separate the characters one final time and provide separate conclusions to their individual stories. The narrative even-handedness prevents any one figure from "starring" or relegating the others to merely "supporting" status. Though Lelia has more on-screen time than either of her brothers, in no sense can Hugh or Ben be said to be merely supporting figures in "her" movie. No matter how gripping or painful her personal drama is, she is not allowed to take over the film and make it hers. The effect is simultaneously invigorating and chastening. The switches from one figure's story to another's keep each "in his place." Even as one character demands our attention and sympathy, the others make equally important and conflicting claims on our feelings.
Shadows, Published by the British Film Institute (London, England)
Distributed in America by the University of California Press at Berkeley
88 pages; thirty illustrations
© Text Copyright 1999-2001 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.