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Critical Responses to Shadows

Maurice McEndree, producer and editor of Shadows

"Ray Carney is a tireless researcher who probably knows more about the shooting of Shadows than any other living being, including Cassavetes when he was alive, since Carney, after all, has the added input of ten or more of the film’s participants who remember their own unique versions of the reality we all shared."

Tom Charity, Film Editor, Time Out magazine, in a letter to Ray Carney
"Bravo! Cassavetes is fortunate to have such a diligent champion. I am absolutely dumbfounded by the depth of your research into this film.... Your a definitive piece of scholarly detective work.... The Robert Aurthur revelation is another bombshell and only leaves me wanting to know more.... The book movingly captures the excitement and dynamic Cassavetes discovered in filmmaking; and the perseverance and struggle of getting it up there on the screen."

Jonathan Rossney in the Times Literary Supplement
Ray Carney

John Cassavetes was a filmmaker who tried to bring the messiness and instability of human relations to film in as honest and direct a way as possible; in doing so, he challenged the typical Hollywood emphasis on narrative clarity, clear-cut morality and simplistic relationships. His films feature intense and wrenching emotional situations which are never quite resolved, and which demand a fully involved response from the viewer. They were often misunderstood and attacked for the very things which Cassavetes was trying to achieve in them; even so, there is still a startling lack of critical writing on him in comparison to, say, Welles or Hitchcock.

Ray Carney, who seems to be single-handedly intent on filling the void (he also runs a Cassavetes website), has produced this excellent little book which focuses on Shadows, Cassavetes first and most accessible film. Carney has done an extraordinary amount of detective work to untangle the knotty history of Shadows, which grew out of an improvised sequence in the acting workshop Cassavetes set up to challenge (unsuccessfully) the dominance of the Method school. It was chaotically filmed over three years in two radically different versions, the earlier one being absorbed into the later.

Carney shows how Cassavetes developed in confidence and audacity, overcame logistical problems – such as the destruction of much of the original footage and consistent lack of funds – and was not above lying to his collaborators in order to get the film to screen. Through these experiences, Cassavetes learned not just what he wanted to direct, but also how to do it best, moving away from arty stylistic flourishes to a profound exploration of character. Carney's analysis is valuable not only for its insights into Shadows itself, but also into the themes which Cassavetes would explore throughout his career.

On the whole concisely and clearly written, with staggeringly detailed appendices, the book should be fascinating to both neophytes and hardcore Cassavetians. Carney is obviously partisan towards his subject, but this detracts not one whit from the book.

—Jonathan Rossney
Times Literary Supplement (November 30, 2001)

Tom Charity, Film Editor, Time Out magazine, in a review
"Cast 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.

Shadows' modesty 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 leverage?)

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 … Our supreme 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.

Focus Magazine, September 2001
Keep Those Calls and Letters Coming....!

Prof. Carney was awakened by the telephone a few months ago. "It was past midnight and I couldn't imagine who could be calling at that hour," he said. "It was Harmony Korine [the writer of Kids and writer-director of Gummo and Julian Donkey Boy]. He's a complete nutcase. He said he had just read my newly published Cassavetes on Cassavetes book and couldn't go to sleep until he had told me how much he liked it. He said it was the best film book ever written, and the first that told the real truth about being an indie. It was every author's dream phone call – even at one in the morning!"

It's been like that for Prof. Carney ever since his two new books on Cassavetes appeared. One is the book Korine was expressing enthusiasm for; the other is a study of Cassavetes' first movie, Shadows. Both have garnered glowing reviews in more than 100 newspapers and magazines – including Variety, Film Comment, Filmmaker, MovieMaker, and The Times Literary Supplement – as well as praise from figures like Roger Ebert, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Gena Rowlands. But Prof. Carney says that the response that matters most to him is the letters, emails, and occasional late night phone calls he has received from young independent filmmakers and actors around the world. "There are too many to list all the names, but Steve Buscemi, Ethan Hawke, Caveh Zahedi, and Richard Linklater have been particularly enthusiastic – in a few cases writing or calling me over and over again as they read each chapter in one of the books. I presented the Independent Filmmaker award to Linklater at the Denver Film Festival and he bowled me over by reading a section from the book as his acceptance speech, telling the audience that if they really wanted to know what it was like to be an independent filmmaker they should read the book."

Prof. Carney calls Cassavetes on Cassavetes "the autobiography the filmmaker never lived to write." It is based on hundreds of hours of conversations Carney conducted with Cassavetes in the final decade of his life and tells the behind-the-scenes story of how he managed to make his films outside the system. Carney says that during Cassavetes' lifetime, his work was ignored or even jeered at by reviewers, but – in a repeat of what happened with Orson Welles – he and his films are undergoing an unprecedented rediscovery by a new generation. "Cassavetes and his work are more popular now than at any point in his career. I'm glad to have my books benefit from the media attention, but what is much more important is that Cassavetes can serve as a role-model for young filmmakers, showing them that they can pursue a vision of personal expression outside Hollywood and the studio system," Prof. Carney says. "If Cassavetes' life story can provide encouragement or inspiration to a single young artist, the years I spent transcribing taped conversations and compiling the book will have been worth it."

His web site ( has much more information as well as excerpts from reviews and letters young filmmakers have written him.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.