Shadows, John Cassavetes first feature, was, film historian and critic Leonard Maltin “considered a watershed in the birth of American independent cinema.” It is certainly easy to see how his DIY, improvisational style of filmmaking stood in stark contrast to the grandiose, elegantly choreographed pictures of the day. There is a jarring rawness in it that flirts with amateurishness, and sometimes crosses that line, but is never anything less than confrontational and immediate. There is something about how the sound is mixed in this picture, or the distance at which they set the camera, or the unorthodox, jazzy, even clumsy editing that makes this film in your face with its themes and story.
Shadows is the story of an artistic trio of siblings- Hugh (Hugh Hurd), the eldest, a grumpy jazz singer, Ben (Ben Carruthers), a beatnik jazz trumpeter, and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), a naïve artist. Hugh is black, and his siblings are not. Interracial relationships were not considered in the same light today as they were in the 50s, but it is hard looking at this film today to see the treatment of the subject matter as groundbreaking or particularly innovative, despite how much it would have been at the time. It is, however, rather insightful; David, a former, older lover (the connection is never defined but implied) apologises for having introduced her to Tony (a younger, more recent former lover, who is uncomfortable when she realises she comes from a black family), stating “I didn’t realise he was like that.” We learn he has gone the duration of his friendship with Tony without realising his attitude towards race: whilst David doesn’t share this attitude, he has never had to deal with it as he has never been affected by it; he is a white man. There is no way he could understand the depth of racism that runs in society, to which he is unwillingly complicit, due to his privilege as a white man. This is a subtle acknowledgement from Cassavetes, but perhaps the strongest statement on race vocalised throughout the film.
The film is edited to a soundtrack by famous jazz musicians Charles Mingus and Shafi Hada, and itself in structure plays a lot like jazz: there is no definite story, or end, or destination reached by any of the characters, and each of them take over parts of the film seemingly on a whim; a vignette of Hugh’s disastrous performance transitions into Ben and his friends talking in a café. The episodes of this film and the sequence in which they occur appear to be of very little consequence in and of themselves, and are in the order they are, seemingly, because that’s what Cassavetes felt was most natural. The rhythm of the editing within scenes is atonal as well, cutting to separate faces mid sentence (the sound editing equipment used means that when the scene cuts, so does the audio), and lingering on faces and individuals after the conversation has finished. In this periods of time at the end of scenes, we don’t witness a reaction, we aren’t given an emotion or realisation to identify with, we are simply being taken along for the ride.
This brings us to where we sit in the film. We are always a little too close for comfort to the action, scenes of loving, and bitter confrontation that occurs in the film. In a scene where Hugh, his long suffering manager Rupert (Rupert Crosse), and his pianist are discussing the upcoming set, the camera is put where a fourth member of the conversation might take place. We feel as though we are active in this conversation, and ready to offer our opinion as soon as we are asked. We are intimate with all of the characters in this way throughout the film, allowing their humanity to shine through and speak through the screen. This rings true especially for Ben Carruthers as Ben, whose gaunt and rebellious frame stays in the mind after the film ends.
Cassavetes’ film was a stunningly innovative and courageous film in terms of form and content, and whilst the content has thankfully come to be less than controversial over the years, the form and ingenuity of Cassavetes’ style remains remarkably singular.