Filmmaker Firsts: John Cassavetes

#11: Shadows (1959) – dir. John Cassavetes

After many months of listening to college friends and peers complain about how they were suffering through a class focused solely on the films of auteur John Cassavetes – who I knew only as the fascinating actor from The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby, Mikey and Nicky and other works – I finally got the chance to see his directorial debut, Shadows, on the big screen.

I’m sure nobody who has seen Shadows could forget the images of Ben Carruthers making his way down New York streets with dark glasses and hunched shoulders, the perfect image of the Beat era. I keep hearing that Shadows is a film that puts its viewers to sleep – I’ve heard that from my colleagues and I heard it today from two twentysomething guys in the audience – but how can anyone be bored when the visuals of New York are so entrancing and the jazz score by Charles Mingus beats to a bebop thrum?

After a lunchtime hangout that feels inspired by Marty and may have also been an inspiration for Diner, Carruthers and some pals decide to go to the courtyard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What does Carruthers see when he looks at this huge, emotionless face? Is his interest in a sculpture of a woman only its nudity or is it also its dark-skinned appearance? Perhaps the face, like the faces we see in the shot of Goldoni and Anthony Ray lying in bed (the image at the top of the post), suggests that facial expressions – or masks of expressions – aren’t always the same as the soul of a person. To paraphrase what Carruthers says to his friends, you don’t need to have gone to college to understand art; you just need to feel it.

Carruthers and Lelia Goldoni play the light-skinned brother and sister of a darker-skinned black family. While Carruthers is moody and enigmatic, Goldoni shows a tender innocence that changes once she loses her virginity to one of the neighborhood boys (Anthony Ray, who would soon marry ex-stepmom Gloria Grahame in real life – a bizarre bit of trivia). Cassavetes gives Goldoni the chance to play around with different character types, switching to a hardened, snobby, teasing version of herself after her sexual encounter.

The relationship with Ray sours when he meets her brother and realizes Lelia isn’t white. Racial tensions are a huge part of why the film has made the cultural impact that it has. While the issues are very much a document of the specific time and setting, the film still feels fresh and relevant in the way that it views the relationships between men and women, including discussions of race, as well as Goldoni’s desires for autonomy in a male-dominated society.

In one scene, Goldoni wanders around Times Square and looks at movie posters, including some for the Brigitte Bardot film The Night Heaven Fell (1958). Although Goldoni later tells a suitor that she doesn’t like movies (always an amusing joke when said in movie dialogue), her interest in this scene is obvious. Shadows is cinéma vérité, but characters can still dream of high-budget glamour and the kind of sex symbols that don’t seem to exist off-screen.

The family dynamic is perhaps the most interesting thing. Seeing how these characters try to understand one another, how they involve themselves in each other’s lives… add to all of that the improvisational nature of the film and the result you get is mesmerizing. You can’t take your eyes off of these people, even though their lives are fairly ordinary and low-key. I can’t tell if liking Shadows will necessarily lead to liking Cassavetes’ later features, but I’m definitely glad that I saw it. It was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon, comfortably ensconced in an uncrowded lower-level theater at the Museum of Modern Art. There’s something quite nice – in a coming-full-circle kind of way – about the fact that Shadows is considered worthy of being preserved by a New York museum.

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