Friday, August 13, 2010

#251: Shadows

 (John Cassavetes, 1959)

Shadows is the first film by John Cassavetes, the father of modern independent cinema. He's also the ultimate example of commercial cinema to pay the bills/art cinema to feed the soul, having amassed a more than decent career in front of the camera in film and television alongside the dozen or so movies he made as a director.

Cassavetes is also the quintessential actor's director, the kind of filmmaker that would rather get at the truth in someone's portrayal of a character than advance the story. This makes his movies somewhat difficult for me: I don't thrill at the approach to a role that takes me by surprise. Shadows is even more difficult than his typical film, and not just because it was made on 16mm, features mostly inexperienced actors, and looks like it's been through the ringer over the past fifty years. There's a plot that wanders through the film about love and race that would be the subplot in any other film but is the only real appreciable story, while the rest of the film is more about the time and place than any kind of narrative.

Like they do in Blast of Silence, the characters take a back seat to New York City, once again shot in musty black and white as the camera crawls through side alleys into Times Square. But unlike that film, Shadows is entirely of its time, a movie made by its cast and crew to reflect exactly what they knew and what they experienced struggling to make a living in the city at the end of the decade. For this reason in particular, Shadows is just as important as a representation of one of cinema's finest goals as it is as the first film by a director that changed cinema itself. That the movie isn't particularly interesting or, well, good has to take third billing.

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