I recently ordered the Criterion Collection’s lovely Five Films box set of John Cassavetes works, which includes Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night. I’m pleased that it’s available through Amazon now for $65 — when it first came out it was $125, which is ridiculous, especially since these films aren’t available in any other form on DVD. It’s a weird way of holding Cassavetes’ work hostage, especially considering that he remains under-appreciated and practically unknown outside a small art film crowd more than 20 years after his death.
Still, since even $65 is pretty well prohibitive for a lot of people, I have a plan, perhaps a plan doomed to failure, but a plan nonetheless, to send these films out into the world and get them seen by as many people as possible. Half of this plan involves sending them, in series, to a friend, and asking him to give them to a friend in turn, and asking that friend to pass them on, and so on. The other half involves trying to write about each of these films in this space, so as to give them more exposure in my admittedly small corner of the world. Collectively, I’m calling this project the Cassavetes of the Month Club.
The first film in the box set — also Cassavetes’ first film — is Shadows, initially released in 1959. Cassavetes had already been working as an actor in Hollywood films and television for some time, and he was becoming moderately well-known. One night in a radio interview with Jean Shepherd, Cassavetes said that most movies were terrible, and that it didn’t have to be that way. He said if everyone listening to the program sent in a few dollars, he’d make a different kind of movie, a better kind of movie. He must have touched a certain idealism in Shepherd’s audience, because the money actually did come in. Cassavetes spent two years on the project — working with actors from a workshop, improvising situations and creating a script; filming; editing; screening an initial edit, re-filming, re-editing, and finally putting out a film that he and his collaborators were happy with.
The film is usually described as a story of three siblings — Ben, Lelia, and Hugh — who are all “black,” but two of whom are passing as white. Given this setup, I was expecting an earnest and solemn racial drama — and not looking forward to it. But in fact, the usual description is not only misleading but factually inaccurate. Lelia is clearly passing as white; Hugh is indisputably black; it’s unclear, in many circumstances, whether Ben is passing or merely spends all his time with white friends. But more to the point, this is a movie that completely transcends this potentially awful premise.
It’s not that the film turns out not to be about race. But race is only one thread in this meandering but compelling story, albeit the most electric and painful thread. It’s also about bored young men getting around town, the brutality of show business, the fascination and the superficiality of art culture in New York in the 50s, how men seduce women, violence in ordinary life, and the garish beauty of Times Square. And by branching out into all these other threads, it avoids the numbing single-mindedness of other “race” films of the period. Rather than laboring awkwardly to prove that black people are human, too!, it takes this rather bland point as the obvious fact that it is, and proceeds to examine how racism poisons our collective human nature. Yet Cassavetes is not remotely pessimistic about the effects of racism — both black and white characters in this film are capable of rich, full, hilarious, fascinating lives. The film bursts with life, with weird and unexpected moments, with sheer enthusiasm.
Because of this complexity, this collection of different textures — what Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney has called “lumpiness” — it’s easy to overlook some of the technical flaws of the film. One of the essays in the very fine booklet of liner notes included with the box set quotes a critic as calling Shadows “the American Breathless,” but then goes on to note that Breathless is almost slick by comparison, and this seems right on the money to me. Cassavetes is known as an actor’s director, and indeed he privileges performance over everything — by his own admission in another essay included in the notes, he went back and re-shot several scenes whose visual elements seemed to overwhelm the actors. By contrast, Godard is frequently content not to let us see the actors very well, especially to let an image or a montage do some of the communicating.
Cassavetes’ longtime secretary also notes that he would frequently ask whoever was standing around to shoot the scene, or record the sound, or act as script supervisor. This was doubtless thrilling for the people so involved, but there’s something to be said for letting artisans specialize. Much of the sound editing here is awkward and throws the viewer out of the story, and while both Shadows and Breathless use jump-cutting occasionally out of necessity (because of mistakes in shooting or damaged film), Godard managed to make this into a jazzy editing technique, while in Cassavetes’ film it merely looks like what it is — a mistake.
But Cassavetes’ obssession with characters and acting also frequently gives his shooting a great deal of grace and lyricism. Early in the film, Hugh, a down-on-his-luck musician, is forced to tell jokes and introduce strippers in a seedy club in order to be able to sing professionally. In a wonderful long take, his friends try to help him figure out the timing of a joke, and Cassavetes’ frame is (brilliantly) too close to the actors to include all three, so that as the scene progresses, the combination and configuration of faces is always shifting — now Hugh’s manager is in profile, while his friend is dead on; but here comes Hugh back into the frame, and now the friend is at a quarter-turn and partly obscured…. It’s a beautiful, Wellesian shot, but where Welles would often use this kind of framing to make us claustrophobic and uneasy, Cassavetes uses it to visually represent too many ideas trying to climb into a conversation at once, as well as subtly making different members of a conversation alternate between being “audience” and being “performer.”
(There’s another Welles-ish moment later in the film, when two characters are dancing, supposedly in a club, but in fact against a black background. This works fine, and indeed it isolates the characters from the world when they need to be isolated.)
Cassavetes’ romanticism is on full display here, too, and this is something that can be simultaneously mawkish, uncomfortable, and entirely natural. He has a real gift, as a writer of dialogue, for capturing how strange we sound when we’re trying to express love. So lines like “You know, despite your horrible exterior, it’s you I like” could almost come out of a Hollywood romantic comedy — but not quite. There’s a weird pulling of the punch at the last second with that word “like.” In a bad Hollywood comedy, that line would come at the end, after all the mishaps, when the characters are finally ready to admit that they’re crazy about each other, and the word would be “love,” and it would essentially bring the story and all the conflicts of love to a close. But in Shadows, the line comes at the beginning of a new romance, when the characters don’t know each other very well, and when Lelia has, indeed, shown the poor guy nothing but a horrible exterior. It’s a tentative line, an olive branch, not a smarmy conclusion.
I don’t want to make too much of this film — it’s his first, and as noted above it’s filled with mistakes. Even the acting, supposedly the focus, can be amateurish and stagey. But it’s so suprising and lively in so many ways that I think Cassavetes can absolutely be said to have achieved his goal of making a better, different kind of film through independent means. The only studio film of the period that I can think of that comes close to its evocation of the realities of jazz-soaked urban nightlife is The Sweet Smell of Success, but that film is so completely devoid of human sympathy that it seems as philosophically single-minded, in its way, as the race films. But in Shadows, although the brutality is there, it’s rib-to-elbow with comedy and familial affection and even boredom.
A few small details — Lelia Goldoni’s performance strangely foreshadows later Gena Rowlands roles, especially that of Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence (one of two films in this box set I’ve already seen). I don’t know whether this is coincidence or the decided influence of the director, but the way she arches her brows, her smile when she’s putting one over, the flamboyant way she uses her arms, even the way her eyes are made up — there are all sorts of little gestural similarities. Also, the two fight scenes are wonderful in their amateurish chaos. The score features a few performances by Charles Mingus, who was asked to score the film but who didn’t finish in time for its release, and by Mingus’ horn player, Shadi Hafi. Finally, this film taught me that “tangle ass” was an accepted phrase as far back as 1959, which I didn’t know.