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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Shadows (1959) d. John Cassavetes

What's your take on Cassavetes?

Movie Review
Shadows (1959)
d. John Cassavetes
Criterion Collection #251
Part of John Cassavetes: Five Films
Criterion Collection #250

  Ever since I discovered John Cassavetes via a Le Tigre song reference, he's been presented as a take it or leave it proposition.  The lyric in the Le Tigre song is, "What's your take on, Cassavetes? Genius?  Alcoholic!"  This trope is mirrored in much of the critical literature discussing his films within the Criterion Collection.  The Criterion Collection John Cassavetes: Five Films includes Shadows- which is his first feature, Faces (1968),  A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) & Opening Night (1977) are all amazing films, each and every one.  Additionally, he was the first figure in the American Independent Film Movement.  Saying you dislike Cassavetes is tantamount to saying you hate independent film.  I mean even if you have some kind of problem with Cassavetes as a human being, I just don't see how that in any way compromises the importance of his art AND his status as an independent producer of art and artist simultaneously.

 Shadows, shot over a period of 2-3 years and compiled largely from two separate versions of the same story shot more than a year part- cost 40,000.  Released in 1959, the same year as Godard's Breathless, its impossible to watch Shadows and not consider/compare it to Breathless and other films of the French New Wave.  However even a cursory consideration of the two films leads the viewer to the inevitable conclusion that Shadows was just raw as fuck.  Precisely how raw is brought into focus by the accompanying feature-ette about the restoration process that preceded the re-release of the restored version of the film that is available for viewing on the Criterion Collection Hulu plus channel.

 Shadows is transparently a revolutionary film by virtue of its subject matter, technique, style, sensibility and mode of production.  It is loosely "about" an interracial brother/brother/sister combo and their circle of musical/literary friends.  Hugh, the older brother, is a dark skinned African American.  Lelia, the younger sister, is (thought played by a white lady) light skinned African American who effortlessly "passes" for white in the desegregated world of books and music in late 1950s New York City.  The depiction of the intellectual milieu of late 1950s New York- filled with be bop jazz, party talk about existentialism, and self conscious Beats who are anxious to avoid any discussion of Beats, will ring a bell both with those familiar with the era in question or hipsters in any generation.

  The technique: using non-actors, shooting in a variety of lighting conditions and scenery gives Shadows (and all of Cassavetes films) a pulsing energy which has come to define the style of Independent film, as well as becoming highly influential within Hollywood itself.   I could go on.  I guess I just don't see the argument AGAINST Cassavetes AT ALL and I think if you don''t like Cassavetes you are ignorant or haven't watched his hits.  Go watch his hits.

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