Wednesday, September 02, 2009

John Cassavetes’ Shadows

Every American filmmaker who ever told the Hollywood studios to stick it in their ear is a spiritual descendent of John Cassavetes. He truly defined how we like to think of independent filmmakers. Touching on taboo topics and displaying a pronounced jazz influence, Shadows (trailer here), Cassavetes’ first film as a director, remains a singularly personal cinematic vision, making it a perfect selection for the Lincoln Center Film Society’s upcoming Watershed retrospective of signature films from some of world cinema’s most influential auteurs.

Strictly speaking, the canonical Shadows is Cassavetes’ second film, the first being his previous more experimentally free-form take on the same characters and general situations. Long thought lost, Shadows 1.0 has since been found, but has not been widely screened. For most, the theatrically released Shadows is still daring enough for most viewers.

Lelia and her brother Ben are light-skinned African Americans. Though not deliberately trying to pass, her prospective new boyfriend Tony assumes they are white. However, when their dark-skinned brother Hugh, a struggling jazz vocalist, comes home from an out-of-town engagement, Tony causes quite an unfortunate scene. Of course, Shadows is really more about being in-the-moment with its characters than any conventional dramatic narrative, no matter how controversial such interracial relationships might have been for some in 1959.

Though Shadows reportedly was not as improvised as commonly thought (“The film you have just seen was an improvisation” reads the concluding titles), it retains a certain jazz ethos. Charles Mingus was to score the film, but ultimately he and his alto saxophonist only contributed some brief solo and duo sketches. Still they perfectly fit the scenes they underscore, including an ill-advised rumble between Ben’s ne’er-do-well friends and a group of physically larger lowlifes. (Ironically, Cassavetes’ next film as a director would be a jazz drama, Too Late Blues, his first of only two Hollywood helming assignments, featuring the miscast pairing of Bobby Darrin and Stella Stevens.)

While Shadows is not specifically about jazz, the realities of a jazz musician’s life intrude into the messy personal dramas of Cassavetes’ characters. Hugh, as played by Hugh Hurd, actually seems to have a reasonably pleasant voice from what little the audience hears. Unfortunately, he is scuffling, reduced to sharing bills with shake-dancers for unappreciative audiences.

Appropriately though, Hugh and his manager Ruppert, played by Rupert Crosse (yes, the actors and their characters all share the same first name), provide the film’s likable rooting interests. They might be imperfect and frequently bicker with each other, but they are never hurtful or petty. As for Ben, Tony, and even Lelia, they are all too human, often acting in churlish, spiteful, and immature ways. Indeed, Cassavetes’ lens can be unforgiving, capturing damning gestures in ruthless close-ups. Still, Cassavetes also shows a sense humor in Shadows, as when he scathingly satirizes hipster intellectuals during a pretentious literary soiree.

Almost fifty years to the date of its original theatrical release, Shadows still has the power to both engross and frustrate audiences. It is a gritty, unflinching drama everyone ought to see at least once. It screens at the Walter Reade Theater this coming Monday (9/7).