Before making his dive into making movies, Cassavetes taught method acting in his own workshops in New York City. And it was the exercises performed and the students he worked with in those workshops that led to his feature film directorial debut, “Shadows.”
As an experiment in filmmaking, “Shadows” is engaging and sort of fascinating. That was helpful in getting through my first viewing because if I hadn’t been so intrigued by Cassavetes’ methods and intentions, I’d have been bored out of my skull.
“Shadows” is set in 1950s New York City and follows the lives of three siblings, Bennie (Ben Carruthers), Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) and Hugh (Hugh Hurd). Bennie and Hugh are entrenched in the city’s Beat Scene and struggle to find work as musicians, Bennie a trumpet player and Hugh a singer. Lelia struggles with her identity, especially after a potential boyfriend rejects her when he discovers her light skin belies her relation to her African American brothers.
That improvised nature is what I both love and dislike about Cassavetes’ experiment here, and make no mistake, it was absolutely an hour-and-20-minute experiment.
There’s something visceral and exciting about watching a filmmaker break ground right in front of your eyes. Cassavetes is essentially laying the foundation for the entire American indie film scene with this film.
And even though I was mostly bored, I must say that his method for capturing performances is certainly unique and memorable, even though he’s no doubt been copied to death in the decades since. The extreme close-ups Cassavetes used to frame most of the dialogue and conversations works quite well at giving each encounter and exchange a uniquely intimate feeling.
Each scene also has a sense of spontaneity to it, a quality that could only have come from the improvisatory nature of the dialogue, to be certain. The problem is there’s just not much to attach to, be it characters and certainly not the story (because there isn’t one). I found the actors capable at accomplishing what Cassavetes wanted, though none so compelling I feel the need to revisit the film.
I’ve made it sound like I thoroughly dislike the film and that seems a bit unfair. I don’t dislike it, I just sort of feel detached from it. I find it a unique window into the mind of a burgeoning artist and for that reason alone I can recommend it if you are like me and are interested in process and form as much as anything else.
Next week, I’ll continue looking at the films of John Cassavetes with a review of “Faces,” starring John Marley, Lynn Carlin and Seymour Cassel.