Shadows

"Good"

Shadows Review


Long before Hollywood studios sold "independent" films to the masses and digital video filled the screen with directionless angst, independent cinema had a purpose and a master -- John Cassavetes. Although Cassavetes' directorial debut Shadows captures the actor-turned-director at his most unrefined, it's also his most ambitious. Like the Charles Mingus soundtrack that pulsates throughout the film, Shadows is a cinematic improvisation (as the end credits mention) of amateur vitality.

New York City is typically the stuff of romantic ruminations, but Shadows' NYC is a clash of interests and ethical moralities -- a place where unmotivated musician Ben (Ben Carruthers) and his artistry-driven, professional singer brother Hugh (Hugh Hurd) can co-exist. The film foremost deals with race in relationships -- personal, professional, and fleeting -- following the two brothers and their sister Leila (Leila Goldoni). Hopes are dashed as Hugh's nightclub performance is cut short by a white owner and an untalented chorus line, Ben's free-wheelin' life becomes as empty as his brother implies when he's beaten up for hitting on some other cat's chicks, and Leila's first love turns out to be a racist, pseudo-intellectual.

The skin-deep racism swirls atop the undercurrent of intellectual-bigotry. Although Cassavetes' attack on the public's idea of entertainment -- quick and cheap trumps soulful substance -- is obvious through Hugh's failing career, the director focuses his assault on pretentious intellectuals. They idly waste their time under the guise of reason and thought, discussing existentialism while confusing a beautiful woman's occupation as an exotic dancer with high art expression. Leila hangs around pretentious parties assuming the depth of intelligence matches the emotional. But when her innocence is taken by an empty racist posing as an intellectual, her world is sent spinning -- causing her to look down upon her peers and potential suitors as she grasps for a handle on her new world.

Like Leila, Cassavetes is also looking for a directorial handle on the moment. Driven by creation, yet stunted by inexperience, it's Cassavetes' desire for meaningful expression that makes Shadows work. Through his unassuming camera lens, his actors are free to move and live within the frame. Not for a moment does it feel that these characters are being led, but rather followed by a director who believes in the energy. Take this scene between Hugh, Ben, and Leila -- Hugh consoles Leila while battling Ben for dibs on the first morning shower. The scene flows so naturally that the only moment of our awareness is revealed by a clumsy, paint-by-numbers-artsy shot of all three faces in the depth of field, showing that Cassavetes doesn't quite know where put the camera. Although Shadows is a mixed bag of execution, the life within the frame still permeates through its shortcomings. And its pursuit of pure cinema is a lesson that today's so-called "independent" filmmakers should learn.



Shadows

Facts and Figures

Run time: 87 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 18th March 1961

Distributed by: Criterion Collection

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Fresh: 16

IMDB: 7.4 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

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