This page contains excerpts from Ray Carney's writing about Shadows and Beat film. The passage that follows is from Carney's book on Shadows. Carney also curated the Whitney Museum's Beat film show and contributed two chapters to Lisa Phillips, ed. Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Flammarion), 1995. The Shadows book and the Beat Culture book have much more about Beat aesthetics. For more information about the Phillips book see the Beat section of the site. For more information about the Shadows book click here.

A succès d'estime

Click here for best printing of text

Cassavetes had the new version of Shadows blown up to 35mm and gave it to Amos Vogel for its world premiere on November 11, 1959 in a program titled "The Cinema of Improvisation" in Vogel's Cinema 16 series on 24th Street. Shadows was preceded on the program by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's recently completed Pull My Daisy (which had been partially inspired by the Paris Theater screening of Shadows the year before). Vogel believed in Cassavetes' film so much that he paid him a $250 rental, four or five times more than his usual amount. Having spent approximately $40,000 of his own money and three years of his life on the film at this point, it was the first penny of return Cassavetes had seen on his investment. The screenings were triumphs. The audience of artists, critics, and intellectuals, which included Parker Tyler, Paddy Chayefsky, Kenneth Tynan, Meyer Shapiro, and Arthur Knight responded with sustained ovations. (Louis Malle had seen the film at a private screening a few days earlier and had had an equally positive response.)

Hip and Square

The contrast between the two films on Vogel's Cinema 16 program is illuminating. Shadows and Pull My Daisy define alternative paths for the first generation of American independent filmmaking – a path of frivolousness and a path of responsibility. While Shadows uses figures like Lelia and Ben to complexly interrogate the adequacy of Beat stances and claims of freedom, Pull My Daisy smugly, self-satisfyingly wallows in them. Frank's film simply buys into Beat postures, while Cassavetes' attempts to understand them and explore their emotional causes and consequences. Shadows is the rarest of works from that period – a film that analyzes the fraudulence of Beat posturing, even as it appreciates why figures would want to protect themselves in this way. Imaginatively positioning itself half-inside, half-outside the Beat milieu, it reveals what is wrong with attempting to be hip and detached, while continuing to love the characters despite their flaws.
As is the case in so many Beat works (the films of Ron Rice and Ken Jacobs serving as additional relevant reference points), the actors in Pull My Daisy are in love with their own cuteness. They are ironic post-modernists before the fact-posing, preening, and style-surfing-turning all of life into a jokesy "goof" or "lark." Cassavetes, on the other hand, is a deadly serious filmmaker (which doesn't prevent him from being hilarious as well). Pull My Daisy may be charming and fun, but it is ultimately a frivolous work, because it imagines creativity as off to the side of the "real world," something that you do on your days off-spouting doggerel and clowning around at home. For Cassavetes, the world is the place where you express your imagination. Lelia's theatricality, like Mabel's or Myrtle's later, represents an enrichment, and a complication, of ordinary, everyday life, not an alternative to it or a vacation from it. Shadows may be funny but is never a joke. Lelia, Tony, and Ben show us that our words and actions have serious consequences.

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 contains excerpts from Ray Carney's writing about Shadows and Beat film. The passage above is from Carney's book on Shadows. Carney also curated the Whitney Museum's Beat film show and contributed two chapters to Lisa Phillips, ed. Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Flammarion), 1995. The Shadows book and the Beat Culture book have much more about Beat aesthetics. For more information about the Phillips book see the Beat section of the site. For more information about the Shadows book click here.

Top of Page

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