film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Shadows (1959)

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So, there are some works of art I just don’t get, and never will. Sometimes people discover I’m not a fan of thus-and-such a thing, and will go on an impassioned lecture, trying to Explain Everything – but the issue isn’t that I don’t understand it, the issue is that I don’t get it. Like, I may understand the thought process behind an artwork like that thing Damian Hirst did with the shark in formaldehyde; but I just can’t relate to it as art. To me, it still looks like nothing more than a half-finished natural history museum exhibit. And honestly, this is perfectly fine – I’m just not wired to get those things, that’s all, and I’ll just happily leave them to others and go hang around the things I do get.

This….was one of those things I don’t get.

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This is not to say I didn’t see or respect the innovation and the novelty of the approach. Shadows was the directoral debut of John Casavetes, then toiling away as a character actor in formulaic TV and B-movies while desperately seeking something meatier. The problem was that his own taste was rather different from others’ in the industry; he was drawn to the work of the Beats, and wanted to make films about society’s outcasts and outsiders. Since he couldn’t find any such films to be in, he made one – using most of the salary from his own acting gigs to pay for the equipment and hire unknowns as the cast, filming without a permit and using improvisational games to cough up the script.

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The script thus produced here, and the outsiders in question, are a family of three siblings – Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), an aspiring writer, Ben (Ben Carruthers), who calls himself a jazz trumpeter but really just hangs around clubs flirting, and responsible Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a singer who understands the need for artists to sometimes “sell out” in order to make money. That’s the biggest reason Hugh is able to find more work than Leila or Ben – like a night-club gig where he’s reduced to singing only a few bars of one of his own works before introducing a bunch of strippers. It’s demeaning work, but Hugh takes it; he’s the breadwinner in the family, and feels especially protective of his siblings, particularly the girlish Lelia.

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Except Lelia may not be quite that innocent. She’s got a sort-of boyfriend in David (David Pokitillow), an older self-styled intellectual who spends most of his time trying to lecture to her – but at a party, her head is quickly turned by Tony (Anthony Ray), who’s just as intellectual but is younger and cuter and better at sweet-talking her. Tony talks Lelia into sleeping with him – for her it’s the first time – and seems to genuinely be falling for her after, so much so that he insists on seeing her home. And that’s when he meets her brothers Ben and Hugh. And freaks out a bit – because Ben, Lelia, and Hugh are actually all African-American, but Lelia was light-skinned enough that she appeared Caucasian. The naive Lelia doesn’t get why he’s shocked, but Hugh – recognizing Tony’s conflict for what it is – sends him away. Tony makes one more effort to see Lelia again, but by this time she’s moved on, begrudgingly going on a date with another black man (David Jones) at Hugh’s behest.

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To be perfectly honest, I cribbed that plot description above from articles about the film – because the film itself actually gave me vanishingly little to go on. Cassavetes based the script on a series of improvised acting exercises with students in one of his acting classes, and even offers a title card at the end claiming that the whole film was an improv. It wasn’t, but Cassavetes strove to retain the feel of an improv exercise, with actors talking over each other, scenes just sort of randomly starting and stopping, and practically no transition from one scene to the next. There’s ostensibly a subplot about Hugh’s career challenges and Ben’s career aspirations, but what I saw on the screen dealt with that very little; there’s Hugh’s disastrous night club gig, there’s a scene with Ben and his bandmates blowing off a rehearsal to go hang around MoMA’s sculpture garden, but those scenes felt disconnected to any of the other scenes in the film, and didn’t tell me all that much. In fact, the only character who felt like they really had a sustainable through-line throughout the film was Lelia.

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Honestly, I feel like a huge Philistine just saying that I didn’t get this. But – I’m sorry, I didn’t. Some of the individual scenes caught my eye – the MoMA sequence is kinda fun – but I was still left cold, wondering why I ultimately was being shown this stuff. I couldn’t quite follow the story through the murk of the “stuff” I was being shown and ended up confused. Intrigued in places – the slice-of-life glimpses I got made Lelia, Hugh, and Ben seem really interesting – but ultimately without as much insight into them as I wished I’d had.

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