Shadows - John Cassavetes -USA 1958 Ben Carruthers Lelia Goldoni Hugh Hurd
Viewed Side Cinema: 13 November 2005 - dvd - ticket price £3-50
Like a bomb going off……
The first hit is the most intense. Shadows is Cassavetes’ first film and its like he’s mainlining on some potent essence. Shadows is the rush of the real through the veins of consciousness. He’s the poet who captures the crazed and phased world of New York. As visionary he knows that the shadows that bleed through his lens are a true imprint of the times as they enfold him.
Like a bomb because this film is shot by compressing as tightly as possible the highly volatile elements of New York in the 1950’s. This city-society was the crucible of the modern. The beat ethos was redrawing the psychic map breaking down the defining social stratifications of sex class race and age. Poetry art music film drugs suddenly become central to the parameters of the self as the new consumer driven communication industries took shape. But in a crucial sense these industries hadn’t yet taken on a defining shape. So Shadows begins at the beginning, a time when everything seems young, possible and full of liberating potential. To the wail and burr of the jazz sax new personality types develop - the cool - the detached - the emotionally distanced - sexes races developing attitude to survive the new processes of radical individuation. And Cassavetes sees all this. And probes for the veins with the needle of his movie.
Shadows like a bomb, a hit, because the film is shot almost entirely in close up to capture the generation of these New Yorkers. Very few long shots, the opening club scene, a couple of street scenes, the sculpture garden, the rest is up close: very big close-ups of the faces of his characters. Cassavetes packs these faces and piles them into his frames. One face two faces three faces four faces five faces squeezed togather as unstable gassious particles, compressed explosive charges that will detonate at the slightest provocation.
Cassavetes understands that it is through the faces of his actors, his living exemplars of the City that the fault lines and the vulnerabilities as well as th energy of this world will be seen. The film can only be the film it is as a living laboritory because the actors played roles close to themselves - self projections - and within these roles found many of their own lines. Within the encompassing embrace of Cassavetes, this is a film founded on individuation and all the acting has this quality.
The individuality of American society had been given a new edge by the beat ethos. At an overt level there is a measure of solidarity shared values and attitudes in relation to the embracing of the hip and the rejection of the square. But there is also a heightened competitive assertiveness in a neo-Hobbsian war of all against all. The rictus and the laugh define most of the close-up interaction. The characters josh kid and joke with one another. But subjected to the harsh light of Cassavetes’ lens the aggression underlying most of the relationships is laid bare. Behind the smile and the bared teeth of the laugh lie the snarl and the growl. And to formally express this reality Cassavetes makes radical use of framed space. Loading his faces into frame, Cassavetes understands that this world is a milieu where personal space and body distance as segregation devices have been abolished. Everyone sits very close in this world. Cassavetes shoots in cabs in booths in compartments and packed club settings - all spaces designed to compress without discrimination. And as he squeezes his people together he uses space as an intensity amplifier. Denied physical space his characters spar and fight for psychic space, for that momentary instant at the top of the pile. A continuous writhing heap characterised by the outward expression of conviviality and humour but underwritten by aggression that at any point may explode into violence. And it does. Brief unimportant interludes that permit regroupings.
Shadows is world - the hip world. No story but incidents with individuals and groups working their way back and forth through the frame defining and redefining the action.
And why Shadows? Impossible not to think of the idea of Plato’s cave. Cassavetes making a point. Having his joke. Shadows. In the Platonic cave the prisoners sit in front of the fire and watch the shadows made on the wall by objects behind them. It is the only reality they know; they have no notion of the real world; they are deceived by shadows. One of the prisoners escapes, and in the light of the sun sees the real things, but returning to the cave to enlighten the rest cannot convince them of the truth. Cassavetes carries warning: however much the hip world thought it was being true to itself, alive on the beat the life, creating new being and new words, people were fooling themselves if they thought they could so easily escape the shadow of American culture and history.
Adrin Neatrour 25 Nov 05