a Giant Shadow"
A Review of Shadows, By Ray Carney, BFI Film Classics, 2001
Legend has it that American
independent cinema was born in the dead of night, February, 1957,
when a young New York actor by the name of John Cassavetes guested
on Jean Shepherd's WOR talk show and enthused about his latest
workshop project: an improvisation about the race problem. Shepherd
wondered aloud why Hollywood wasn't tackling this kind of material,
and the next thing he knew Cassavetes had invited the show's
listeners to invest in "a real movie about real people." It
must have been quite a pitch, because hundreds and thousands
of dollar bills arrived at the station over the next couple of
weeks. It wasn't nearly enough to make a feature film, but it
was too much not to. So it was that Cassavetes invested the best
part of the next three years to Shadows, his first movie
as director, and a landmark in the history of American film.
It's a true story, more
or less – even if it glosses over all those alternative,
off-Hollywood film cultures well in place prior to these events,
experimentalists in avant-garde, animation and documentary, and
dramatic forebears as famous as Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.
Nor does it touch on the arrival of lightweight 16mm cameras
and sound recording equipment which facilitate low-budget filmmakers.
Cassavetes chose to represent Shadows as a happy creative
accident, but it was an accident waiting to happen – and
it's clear he always had his eye on the most opportune chance.
Indeed, he'd been trying to get this movie made for some time
prior to his famous radio appeal – and may even have set
up the workshops in the Variety Arts building with this in mind.
Still, he could hardly
have imagined this modest collaborative enterprise would come
to stand for so much. Shadows was conceived as a learning
exercise – only the cameraman, Eric Kollmar, and Cassavetes
himself had been on a movie set before. The actors doubled as
crew, built the sets and supposedly came up with their own dialogue.
("The film you have just seen was an improvisation," an
end-card declares.) This was "spontaneous cinema," rough,
raw and ragged; that audiences would still be watching and responding
40 years later must have been unthinkable.
Even 15 years ago, when
Ray Carney wrote American Dreaming, the first English-language
book on Cassavetes, the director was languishing in critical
and commercial neglect; his refusal to compromise deemed self-indulgent,
or, at the very least, self-defeating. The Killing of a Chinese
Bookie had been reviled by American critics. Opening Night was
simply ignored. If Gloria fared slightly better, it was
often used as a stick to beat its director with: at last he had
got with the program and made an entertainment. Roger Ebert,
for one, calls Gloria "fun and engaging, but slight.
What saves this movie is Cassavetes' reliance on a tried-and-true
plot construction. For once, his characters aren't all over the
map in nonstop dialogue."
Times have changed.
Now Cassavetes' name is on the lips of every actor stepping behind
the camera, from Gary Oldman to Sean Penn, Steve Buscemi to Ethan
Hawke; he's the uncredited godfather to the Dogme brethren and
patron saint to the digital generation. It's quite a turn-up
for someone who fingered himself as a kind of "anti-director." As
a young actor in live television and B movies he had already
earned a reputation as a potential troublemaker. "On a film
set the only person less important than a director is a talent
agent," he told on showbiz reporter in the mid-50s. Cassavetes
found film acting frustrating. He hated the inhibiting discipline
of hitting marks for focus and lighting, hated the whole stop-go
rhythm of shot-making. When he was able to forge his own aesthetic,
it was the by-product of his shooting process: that is to say,
Cassavetes' films look and feel like cinema vérité,
with long takes and make-do lighting. Later he would draw a distinction
between improvised dialogue and improvised motion: the actors
in a Cassavetes' picture would be expected to know their lines,
but they were free to act as the spirit moved them.
is part of its charm, but it was ahead of its time, too. If it
looked rough to audiences in 1960, that's what's most alive about
it now. Shooting on a shoestring, Cassavetes instinctively stripped
away the artifice surrounding mainstream cinema; he was left
with little more than the actors in front of the lens. Undismayed,
he determined that this provided a subject fit for any true artist.
Shadows is very
simply about young New Yorkers trying to be real – and
it never pretends otherwise. Where other Beat films – like
Alfred Leslie's Pull My Daisy – earnestly preen
and posture, Shadows has the wit to see through the affectations
of its characters. Where liberal conscience dramas of the 50s
weighed in with heavy statements about racism, Cassavetes already
appreciated that the personal is political. As he put it much
later, at the height of the Vietnam era, "Emotions are the
greatest political force there is
We have terrible problems,
but our problems are human problems."
It is surely not coincidental
that this filmmaker's stock has risen so dramatically over the
past ten years or so, a period which has exposed the inertia
and impotence of the political establishment to affect reform
of the global market system – the same market which has
produced an ever more synthetic, artificial, computer-generated
Hollywood movie. We turn to Cassavetes for counterpoint, for
the recognition that people onscreen can be human too.
This very counterpoint
is one of Ray Carney's favorite rhetorical devices, waging his
long, valiant campaign against the unthinking pieties of mainstream
opinion – opinion which marginalizes Cassavetes in favor
of what Carney denounces as virtuoso kitsch: the "idealist
conception of meaning" evinced by Citizen Kane et
al. "Where Hollywood is centripetal, focusing ever more
tightly in on a central figure or situation, Cassavetes is centrifugal.
Focus gives way to circulation," Carney tells us in his
new study of Shadows. "While most American films
define experiences externally (we are what we do or what happens
to us), the experiences that matter in a Cassavetes film are
internal (not what we do but what we are). Characterization replaces
eventfulness." Crucially, because they are performative,
not metaphoric, "[Cassavetes' films] deny the viewer an
Archimedean stylistic point outside of the perceptual flow by
which he can get theoretical leverage on it. Cassavetes is doing
nothing less than offering a new understanding of experience." (If
we can understand "understanding" without theoretical
The thesis hasn't changed
much over four books and countless articles, but you get the
distilled version here. In a nutshell: a work of art shouldn't mean but be. "Cassavetes'
films are not merely descriptive, but functional," Carney
concludes. "Their ultimate goal is not only to shake up
their characters, but to shake up their viewers
achievements are not imaginative and intellectual acts of understanding
but sensitive, caring acts of expression." Cassavetes put
it better himself, 40-odd years ago, when Benito Carruthers wanders
through the statue garden at MoMA: "It's not a question
of understanding," he lectures his pals. "If you feel
it, you feel it
To engage with flux
and emotional mutability over fixed meaning and conceptual thinking is an
onerous position for anyone who makes it their job to interpret
these films in print. Carney goes much further down this somewhat
paradoxical road than I would care to follow him. He can seem
to be carrying the weightlessness of the world on his shoulders.
But there's no doubt that he has opened up ways of seeing these
films for what they really are, rescuing them from the reductive
banalities of the daily reviewers. He backs up his theoretical
discourse with diligent observation and dedicated research, too.
Carney calls himself "the leading authority on Cassavetes" and
no one can seriously challenge that. The portrait of John Cassavetes
which emerges here and in Carney's concurrent publication Cassavetes
on Cassavetes, is of a more complex, flawed individual than
we have seen in print before: a man who would lie to just about
anyone to get what he wanted, and without a shred of guilt.
Mostly what he wanted
was to make films his way, which is some mitigation. A lot of
the lies were for public consumption, and can be put down to
good old-fashioned hucksterism. ("Always remember," Cassavetes
advised one of his friends when he was having trouble with the
media, "you don't owe them the truth.") For example,
he exaggerated the neorealist credentials of Shadows,
and even suggested a policeman had fired his gun over the heads
of cast and crew. Most famously, he claimed the film was improvised,
when in fact at least two-thirds of it had been revised, scripted
and reshot in a bid to earn commercial distribution.
Carney's research puts
this contention beyond doubt. The Shadows book ends with
a mindbogglingly detailed appendix breaking the film down, scene
by scene, and sifting each sequence for clues to its shooting
date: be it 1957 (the first, "improvised" shoot) or
1959 (the scripted reshoot). This is a fascinating document in
itself, not only for what it tells us about Shadows, but
also for what it says about continuity lapses and how forgiving
the human eye can be to all manner of discrepancies (lessons
Cassavetes perhaps took too much to heart). Carney's clues include
the color of Benito Carruthers' skin: apparently he used a sunlamp
in 1957, but had given it up by 1959. He favors a slightly different
wardrobe in the two shoots, and his hair varies in length. Also, "in
the 1959 shoot, the left collar on his leather jacket has curled
over nearly in a complete circle, while in the 1957 shoot, the
curl has not progressed as far." And so on: four pages of
obsessive cine-detective work which merits the obsequious gratitude
of all future Cassavetes students.