Saturday, November 01, 2008

Movie Notes: Shadows (1959)

Shadows was the first film directed by John Cassavetes and it was created almost entirely through the improvisation of the actors. Essentially, an American neo-realist film (an American film in the style of Italian neo-realist cinema), Shadows shows the lives of young men wandering aimlessly through life, two jazz musicians trying to maintain a shred of artistic integrity, and a young girl becoming disillusioned with sex and love. It is often treated as a film about race because the central characters are a black family in New York City, but I think the subject is really more about people's expectations of each other and their own lives, and how these expectations can come to change suddenly.

The film centers on a black family: Hugh, the jazz musician struggling to keep his head above water and maintain some artistic integrity; Ben, a strange hood growing tired of a life of restless wandering, fighting, and screwing; and Leila, whose first relationship has come to an impasse after her white lover discovered she was black. The scenes play as vignettes and I can see how they likely began as acting exercises. The dialogue always rings true though and there are many lines that are surprising for the late 50s, particularly the young girl's line after losing her virginity that she never knew sex could be so bad.

The film was shot on the streets of New York with a handheld 16mm camera, apparently because the filmmakers couldn't get access to any sound stages. It has a rough look, owing to being shot on-the-fly and funded by Cassavetes's friends and family. There are scenes where we can see the shadow of the camera on the actors and hairs in the lens. The soundtrack is made up of jazz, some of which was composed by Charles Mingus.
Shadows is considered one of the great American films and it was easy to see why. There's nothing in the film that seems commercial, hokey, or fake; everything is there to capture some small aspect of life as it is lived. There are few easy resolutions or tidy endings, but the characters work through some of their problems and end at different places than they began. Lastly, all of them are imperfect in some way, but their flaws come from a place of real humanity; there are no 'bad guys' in the film, as you get in many exploitation or "message" films. It is just an interesting story about people trying to get by. As such, it is exceptional.

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