Of all the innovative cinematic breakthroughs of 1959 that I've been blogging about over these past few months, Shadows is the smallest in scale, the scruffiest in appearance and probably fueled by the most relentlessly creative ambition of any single individual intimately involved with those films. Yes, The 400 Blows kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, Hiroshima mon amour established a standard of icy-cool existentialist self-awareness in film that still fascinates in 2011, Black Orpheus injected ethnic vigor and introduced street-level authenticity to modern musicals, while The Human Condition and Fires on the Plain opened Western eyes to new ways of portraying the horrors faced by those caught up in the destructive cross-currents of war. As remarkable as those great films remain, Shadows is the one that functions most effectively as a bridge between that time and the media culture we inhabit today.
Brief, loosely structured, occasionally blunt and even a bit bumbling at times, Shadows swoops in on the lives of late 1950s New York bohemians scraping by on borrowed cash and constant calculations of just how much of their dignity and self-respect they're willing to give up in the pursuit of various fulfillments. The characters are all creative types - musicians, singers, writers, or at least, would-be critics who linger on the fringes of the scene if they don't quite have the talents or means to create original work themselves. The overall narrative, haphazardly strung together, so it seems, follows the wanderings of Ben, a mopey beatnik who doesn't want to be lumped in with that crowd but totally looks and acts the part anyway, and his siblings Hugh, the older brother who assumes a nearly parental role, and Lelia, a feisty woman just turned twenty and eager to experience the excitement of young adult life for the first time and on her own terms.
Going by appearances, Ben and Lelia are biracial but were able to pass for white back in the years when "biracial/multi-ethnic" was not as familiar a demographic niche as it is now, whereas Hugh is unmistakably a dark-skinned African-American man. The guts of the story, and thanks to Lelia Goldani's charismatic performance, what's most typically remembered about Shadows in retrospect, is a hastily formed intimate relationship between Tony, one of those semi-talented hangers-on, a white guy, and Lelia whom he picks up one night at a literary party, obviously attracted to her beauty and adventurous spirit, but oblivious to her mixed-race ancestry. After working on seducing her a bit, he convinces her the following day to come on up to his place to explore his "romantic desires," which she does, only to realize once the deed has been done that it didn't at all live up to the overblown expectations that years of gossip, innuendo, imagination and advertising had set her up to believe. It's a brilliantly conceived and altogether frank exchange that remains noteworthy in its emotional impact today, and must have been stunning to watch in the early years of the film's release. This trailer leaves a vivid impression of just how astonished those first audiences were.
Nevertheless, despite that brutal letdown, some kind of genuine feelings develop between the two - perhaps for Tony it's the cynical prospect of proving to her that sex can get better with practice, while for Lelia it's something simpler, just the infatuation of a girl for her first adult partner, or the hope that her lot in life might improve at the side of a man like Tony. But let's just call it "love," since that's the word they both use, casually but earnestly in regard to each other. That love is put to the test when Hugh shows up one afternoon, interrupting a little make-out session on the sofa, is introduced by Lelia as her brother, and Tony is suddenly able to account for some of those exotic features (her "soft lips," for instance) that made her so charming and irresistible to him. Unable to deal with the tension that this new revelation generates, he beats a hasty retreat, especially after Hugh adamantly leaves him no other choice, opening a gulf of sadness and disappointment between the two young lovers that they now have to fill in on their own.
As poignant as those scenes may be in raising issues of racism and bigotry that had rarely been addressed so pointedly in the movies, especially in regard to inter-racial romantic relationships, what sets Shadows apart from a film like Sapphire (a British film released in 1959 which also touches on this topic) is how adroitly John Cassavetes wove the theme into very life-like exchanges on multiple topics between his actors. This isn't a calculated roll-out of socially progressive talking points designed as a plea for tolerance and open-mindedness; rather it's just a plain-spoken portrayal of the conflicts and anxieties that beset so many people in the course of everyday living, a recognition of the frustration and division that put us at odds with each other. From the invasive, occasionally staggering camera work that fills the screen with massive heads and intense close-ups to the wry, impatient dialog, rehearsed and lived in to the point where the actors could freely improvise fresh remarks in character and generate new responses from each other on the fly, a revolutionary approach to story-telling was given birth here. Cassavetes uses his technique not simply as a stylistic novelty or a facile attempt to be merely "different," but to break his audience through into a level of involvement with the characters on screen that challenged their familiarity and comfort with the usual theatrical standards of performance. Though sometimes imitated, it's a road not so easily traveled, and Cassavetes, despite the critical and limited commercial success of Shadows as a unique experiment of its time, went on to experience all sorts of difficulties in pursuing this vision.
But at the time that Shadows was made, of course, Cassavetes was just getting his directorial career underway and I figure he had to feel pretty good about what he'd accomplished, especially given the bumpy road that his film had to take to reach its current form. His distrust of the studio system would only find its confirmation years later. In the meantime, he blazed a trail of raising his own funds, assembling his own actors and crew, and filming in actual locations, not stage sets. In a way, watching Shadows feels a bit like watching some of the Golden Age of Television productions like The Days of Wine and Roses, Requiem for a Heavyweight or The Comedian, in their emphatic immediacy in portraying the turmoils of contemporary life and the hectic East Coast big city vibe common to them all. Of course, there are significant differences too; Shadows is an edited film, shot and re-shot over the course of a couple years, unlike the now-or-never single takes of the GATV features, and it touches on topics that remained taboo on TV for at least another decade or more.
Where Shadows succeeds the most is in its ability to capture the spirit and energy of its setting, Beat-era Manhattan, a transitional moment in the evolution of popular culture. It's not quite as adept in capturing the street scenes of past or future love letters to New York (see The Naked City as just one example of that kind of thing) since Cassavetes wasn't so intent on framing those magnificent streetscapes (nor did he have the budget to do so anyway.) But it's the dynamism of that exchange between restless creative strivers hanging on to their last hope of scoring the big break that will make them artists again, and the louts with whom they associate for lack of any better companions to be found, that brings these Shadows to life again. In some parts of the USA, that monolithic mood and era we refer to as The Fifties was already over, and in that sense, Shadows can be seen as the breaking light of a new day and attitude in the creation of film art.
Next: Floating Weeds