A Closer Look at John Cassavetes’ “Shadows”

Screening: Friday, October 26, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

By Drew DeVine

How do we make sense of something like Shadows? You see the grainy black and white cinematography and the lack of editorializing Hollywood camera angles and your brain’s first response is to begin an inner dialogue about questions of “realism” and all of its aesthetic pros and cons. Or maybe you start to think about this small film as a kind of American parallel to the contemporaneous lo-fi films of the French New Wave (which Cassavetes was apparently unaware of during production). These are all tempting initial reactions, but for my own part they have never helped me come to grips with why this early, unpolished debut resonates so deeply in the memory.

Anyone looking for so-called realism will find themselves immediately confused by gang’s first run-in on the street. The dubbed dialog is shrill and distancing. The bodily movements of the actors are too stylized and cartoonish to create the feeling that we are seeing something like real people interacting with one another. I would argue that to get inside what Shadows seems to be doing, we have to make the same sorts of imaginative leaps we make when watching conventional Hollywood forms of representation. We accept that these characters are not meant to be engaged on the level of documentary subjects, but as highly exaggerated accumulations of motivation, gesture, and expressive surface. For me, despite what may have been Cassavetes’ intended goals, it is not a matter of de-styling Hollywood to get to something truer. It is a matter of stylizing cinematic experience in a way that is just as extreme to get to another place that is (at least potentially) just as true or untrue. The only difference is that where Hollywood’s stylistic extremity depends upon clarification, Cassavetes’ extremity depends on complication, confusion, and hitting the unknowable blue notes. These characters develop not in euphonious pop song arcs, but in dissonant solo jazz breaks. Characters are not unlockable treasure chests, but a conglomerate of interacting, conflicting shadow identities.

What are the pleasures of Shadows? I will first admit, in the most base sense imaginable, a strong attraction to Cassavetes’ very specific brand of grainy, wild cinematography (which is more earthy and sensual than the intellectualized approach of the French New Wave). Is there anything in cinema like the wild, tactile presentation of dancing in the title sequence, thrown into complication by Hugh’s posturing moodiness in the corner? Yet even more than these moments of filmic rough beauty, I love Ray Carney‘s claim (made in all of his occasionally problematic tomes on Cassavetes) that we are here being forced to deal with these characters on their surface, the same way we have to attempt to understand and respond to the unreachably complex motivations and needs of the people we encounter in our daily lives. But because Shadows is not real life, and instead an extremely stylized film, it is almost harder to parse than real life. In coming to terms with these characters, we have to look closely at their movements, think deeply about the inconsistencies in their behavior, and remain sensitive to their bewildering gestural patterns on a confusing, moment-by-moment basis. We try in vain to cling to every facial microexpression, hoping to make it yield motivational clarification. But just when we think we’ve figured them out, they seem to be coming from a different place entirely. It is hard to follow them, because the film refuses to give us Godlike access to their goals. In fact, the more I watch this film, the more I agree with Carney that the film does not even believe in stable goals in the first place. These characters are fundamentally confused about what they want. If we try to understand them by pinning them down to one goal or one perspective, in the end we will walk away as confused as they are. Ultimately, it is we who have to yield to their extreme singularity, forced to choose between qualified appreciation or simplistic denunciation. Some cannot stand to undergo this process. I find it exhilarating.

Drew DeVine is a MA student in Emory University’s Film and Media Studies Program, a Cassavetes enthusiast, and smart as a whip. Screens on High is honored to have him as a guest-blogger!

Reserve tickets for the Friday, October 26 screening of Shadows here.

Little Fugitive: Precursor to the French New Wave

Screening: Saturday, June 23, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

As many critics have noted, Little Fugitive (1953) has–to put it mildly–a minimalist story: 7-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) is the butt of a cruel joke and goes on the lam believing he’s killed his older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster). He heads to Coney Island where he wanders around, stuffs himself full of carnival food, collects empty bottles for nickels, and rides a pony around a pitiful little race track about a hundred times. The narrative, however, is not what’s groundbreaking about this film.

As soon as Joey arrives at Coney Island, the story (its caricatures and all other trappings of the 1950s television-era) melts into the background. Shot with a concealed strap-on 35mm camera, what emerges from these bare narrative bones is a rare historical document of Coney Island–its beaches, hotdogs, lovers, ferris wheels, and its tens of thousands inhabitants all caught performing their minor roles in the chaos of their natural habitat.

Amidst the inherent overstimulation of Coney Island on a summer day, Morris Engle (who shot the film and also wrote and directed it along with Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin) beats a path for his young protagonist. Joey weaves and darts among bigger bodies, squeezing by and bumping into them the way focused kids do when they are after a stray ball or have just found change for more sugar. The camera most often at waist height, Engle recognizes the inevitable slapstick of being little and the utter sweetness of demanding to be taken seriously anyway. So we can’t help but be endeared when Joey tackles a piece of watermelon so big it eclipses his entire upper-half or, in perhaps the best sequence of the film, swings a baseball bat so hard it turns him around and furrows his brow pitch after pitch.

And yet, as hilarious as these moments are, Little Fugitive also casts a sensitive gaze on what it’s like to be small and lost in a world that’s not built for you…turns out it’s a lonely and filthy reality where triumphs are hard-earned but fleeting and there’s no choice but to live moment by moment. This, perhaps, does not make a “good story” or so Bosley Crowther for the New York Times seemed to think when, upon the film’s 1953 release, he wrote, “there is little conception of drama in this trick, and the mere repetition of adventures tends eventually to grow dull” and “count it a photographer’s triumph with a limited theme.”

This “repetition of adventures” and “limited theme,” however, is what inspired Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which kicked off the French New Wave. Little Fugitive‘s affective duration, the attention it grants to mere human existence, and its will to record a specific time and place was seen by cutting-edge French filmmakers and Neo-Realists around the world as a vital testament to humanity in all its everyday joys and tragedies. Luckily for us, there is an adorable pint-sized fugitive and a lot of over-sized snacks at the center of this “bad story” and landmark film.