Home > Sunday Screening Films > Sunday Screening #26: Shadows

Sunday Screening #26: Shadows

Even though as of this posting there is only one comment about Red Dawn, I figured it’d be best if I put up next week’s Sunday Screening. There’s been no conversation about what’s next, so this will be a surprise even to Paul. So while you’re formulating your thoughts on Red Dawn, get mentally prepared for next week. It’s likely to be a very different experience.

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  1. July 10, 2011 at 11:30 PM

    Once again, I get to be first commenter (still waiting on you over at Red Dawn, Paul!).

    Maybe I was in a better state of mind watching Shadows because I knew it was only 81 minutes, but I enjoyed most of it very much. There are a lot of shortfalls that I’ll discuss (though I don’t consider most of the problems with the film), but I was really won over by the relationship of the siblings. It struck me as very true to life and the chemistry between them was incredible. Plus, I became a little smitten with Lelia.

    The plot is paper thin, following the lives of the siblings. They intersect, but the stories are largely unrelated. Early in the film, I was reminded of Slacker and though that feeling ebbed (but didn’t disappear entirely), Shadows still feels very much like a series of skits cut together. This is most likely due to the improvised nature of the movie, which in retrospect is easy to see, but while I was watching it, I thought all of the stammers and stutters were the result of trying to film quickly and using the best take. It comes across naturally to me and I liked that they talked like real people.

    There are a lot of technical and formal issues with the film. The dubbing isn’t great and the editing is downright bizarre at times. If the movie had been bad or uninteresting, I’d be all over these (maybe not the dubbing, but I’ve seen lots of Grindhouse movies where that’s de rigueur). Instead, the film withstands the flaws pretty well. Especially since it was Cassevetes’ first directing attempt and it was improvised.

    My biggest issue with Shadows, and what keeps it from being elevated from just being “good” (which, in my relationship with Cassevetes, the director, is high praise) is that I don’t know what it was trying to say. Mostly, what I got out of it is that men are all horndogs and have too much testosterone coursing through their veins. There’s a racial element, but that’s barely dealt with in a conclusive manner. The siblings all end up in a different place from where they started, but it didn’t seem like there was anything behind it. Please tell me if I’m missing something. Additionally, all of the “love” bullshit in Lelia’s story was terrible. Quite a drag coming off of the great Hugh story.

    Some random notes on which to end:
    — I yearn for the days when the credits were at the beginning of the film only.
    — It was pretty surprising, but also awesome to see Jean Shepherd’s (A Christmas Story) name in the opening credits.
    — New York City looks way better in black and white than in color.
    — I dug Cassevetes’ cameo as one of the guys saving Lelia from the creeper.
    — The guy playing the agent reminded me of Matt Besser (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0078800/).
    — I couldn’t tell if Benny was in blackface or not. Thoughts?
    — I think part of the reason the technical stuff didn’t bother me is the idea that nothing will stop the movie from getting made. So what if it’s imperfect? Get it made and get it out there. Learn from what you did wrong and do it better the next time. I found Shadows to be quite inspiring in that respect.

  2. Connor
    July 11, 2011 at 5:08 AM

    You are a whore for plot and narrative.

    • July 11, 2011 at 10:59 AM

      Even though there isn’t much of either of those elements, did I not say that I like the movie? My problems with it had nothing to do with those. You should be happy about that. Now, take me to school on the movie. What do you have to say?

    • July 11, 2011 at 11:01 AM

      Also, I’m a whore for good storytelling.

  3. Connor
    July 11, 2011 at 5:13 AM

    P.S. The dude who played Benny was black in real life as well.

  4. Connor
    July 12, 2011 at 1:43 PM

    There’s nothing wrong with being a whore, but it has to said that most of your gripes are within the realm of plot/narrative/storytelling. And yeah, it’s hard to get away from that when that’s the dominant strategy of most modern films, books, music and mass media. But in my mind, this movie gets judged on a completely different scale. Obviously, it’s a mostly improvised movie, but more to the point, it was directed by a guy who considered himself an actor first and foremost, with the prime intention of bringing the art of acting to a different place. As far as I know, it was the first improvised feature film in history, so of course the editing is bizarre, the storyline has massive holes and the plot is thin. I’m of the opinion that you judge a work based on it’s intention, and Cassavetes didn’t intend to carry the day with any of those elements. The film is based around discrete moments between actors that could never have existed in a traditional movie that adhered to a concrete script and professional production values. It’s a weird and confusing story that rewards you with tiny epiphanies every so often that remind you how close film can get to the joyous/painful/awkward aspects of reality. Every subsequent film that Cassavetes made (excluding Gloria and Big Trouble) worked on the same principle, even as the plotlines became more linear. The payoff is watching people interact in a way that you rarely get to see on film. Sometimes it’s boring (like life), sometimes it’s ecstatic (like life), and sometimes it’s immensely fucked up (like life).

    • July 12, 2011 at 2:43 PM

      Connor — Reading your post, I can’t help but feel that you are not hearing what I’m saying about these films (or reading in this case). This may be a discussion better suited to be done in person, but I’ll try it here.

      I acknowledge that the plot of Shadows is paper thin, but I don’t mark it as a strike against the film. Nor do I say that the choppy editing is a bad thing. In fact, I explicitly state, “Instead, the film withstands the flaws pretty well. Especially since it was Cassevetes’ first directing attempt and it was improvised.” My problems with Shadows are primarily the relationship between Lelia and Tony (I think it’s him… the one she sleeps with). I felt that it was handled very poorly on a level that has nothing to do with plot, but on character. Also, I didn’t feel like the film had any real theme or point to it’s existence other than, as you say, an acting exercise. That’s fine. It didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film (and I did enjoy it), but it prevented it from being better than it is.

      In our other conversations about Cassevetes, you seem to think that I’m hung up on plot elements, but I’m not. I totally respect A Woman Under the Influence (and I gave it 3 stars on Netflix). Great performances, well-drawn characters. My issue with that film is purely my own: I don’t like that genre. Watching intense, emotional movies where someone’s life is falling apart isn’t something I like to spend my time doing. That isn’t to say I haven’t really enjoyed that sort of film before. I just watched Mike Leigh’s Naked and was greatly impressed by it. I just know that A Woman Under the Influence is not a film that was made for me and I will never begrudge you for loving it. Same goes for your favorite film, Mikey and Nicky, right down to the Netflix rating (Opening Night, though, I simply couldn’t make it through).

      I feel like your harping on me about plot stems directly from my reaction to Hesher, which you had problems with yourself. But my biggest problem with Hesher (aside from lazy writing) is that the characters are cardboard cutouts. They have one defining quality: sadness. And plot or no plot, if you don’t have interesting characters, you don’t have an interesting movie.

      Having said all of that, you told me that Shadows was the most problematic film of Cassevetes catalogue for you. I’d like to hear why, if you are into sharing.

  5. John
    July 12, 2011 at 8:04 PM

    This is my first Cassavetes film. My gut reaction is that I enjoyed it. I appreciated the informal, staccato rhythm of the three storylines of the siblings, the frequent jazz in the soundtrack, the look and feel of New York City in black and white. It’s rough and naturalistic and reminded me strongly of Godard’s “Breathless.” I actually liked “Shadows” better than “Breathless” because there was more going on in the story and the conflicts were more interesting to me. Lelia especially was an intriguing character, and I enjoyed Hugh’s struggles the most, but Benny’s storyline seemed the least fully realized.

    I got the feeling that the film is meant to be a sketch, an impression. It simply seemed to portray contemporary life as observed by Cassavetes. I think it works very well on that personal, slice-of-life level. I also think that the rewards of watching a film that has more cohesion, more development, and more of a cumulative effect to react to have the potential to be greater, but that could be my own personal preferences creeping in.

    For those of you who have seen Cassavetes’ later films: do you have any recommendations?

    • July 13, 2011 at 1:03 AM

      Connor is the man to go to for the Cassevetes recommendations (he has the Criterion box set). However, should he not see your comment, I’m sure he’d recommend A Woman Under the Influence and Mikey and Nicky (not directed by Cassevetes, but a very similar feel to his movies). I would recommend The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which was probably my favorite up until this film (and may still be).

      Regarding the statement, “I also think that the rewards of watching a film that has more cohesion, more development, and more of a cumulative effect to react to have the potential to be greater, but that could be my own personal preferences creeping in:” you seem to fall more in line with the way I watch movies. Hopefully, Connor will come on hear and explain his point of view a bit more seeing as how we always butt heads (hehe… buttheads) on this subject, even though neither of us is right or wrong. I also think we may be arguing similar things using different terms due to our points of view.

      And I agree that Benny’s story didn’t carry as much weight as the others. His arc seemed to be the growing out of chasing girls, but it didn’t feel like it was given as much time to develop. But now that I mention it, I may have found a theme to Shadows other than “guys are horny jerks.” Everyone’s story is about growth and/or maturation. Hugh decides that it’s worth it to keep plugging away at clubs, Benny isn’t into chasing, and Lelia comes to a realization about herself (that would be really complicated to relate here).

  6. Lisa Mejia
    July 13, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    I’m finally here!
    I just finished the movie, and I’m liking it more and more the more I think about it. The version at I watched was on Netflix Instant, and there was a disclaimer in the beginning about this film being put together from restored original film. I took from that that not all of the scenes were salvaged. And yes, Nate, I miss the opening credits of yester years too.

    I have to admit, I didn’t really get into the story until Lelia’s storyline started. It was at that moment when the three siblings came together and it became their movie. Even though I was aware of the “light skinned” element of the summary, I was still hit off guard when Tony leaves after Hugh comes home. It was as if that was the first moment you were aware of the fact that these were African Americans.

    I liked the siblings relationship and stories a lot. They are all on different paths, but they all interact with each other and are still apart of each other’s lives. It reminded me of my relationship with my siblings.

    From an artist standpoint, I enjoyed Hugh’s storyline. He was caught between that ever hurtful stage between artistic value and the payday. At the same time, he’s trying to be there and take care of his siblings, even if they don’t want it.

    I think the most interesting, the one who grew the most, was Ben’s. To me it seemed that when he became aware of what happened between Tony and Lelia, Ben realized that he was that guy. He’s been that guy before, and now that it’s affected his sister, he has issues. Granted, he’s not the one who is causing racial tension with the girls he sleeps with, but he doe end up leaving them. It’s an interesting journey for Ben.

    As for Lelia, I wish there was more. It’s a big deal that she lost her virginity to a guy she thought she loved who ended up having issues cause he realized she was black. That is a lot of baggage that can fuck up a girl. I thought it was funny how she made that new guy wait forever for her and she made him work for it, but I’m a little confused on her motivation. Did she do it to weed out the assholes, or was it her way of getting back at Tony? At the dance, and after their conversation, it seemed to be the latter.

    I also liked how the Beat generation was a part of this film, but not all over the film. I enjoyed it. I do have to admit, though, that I was a little worried. I was worried that the first film of a filmmaking legend would of turned out like Weekend. Glad I was wrong.

    • July 13, 2011 at 6:43 PM

      One of my professors at Boston University has an alternate version of Shadows that apparently wasn’t very well received (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Carney#Alternate_Cassavetes_works). You should really just read his whole page, because it’s insane and he’s an oddball to say the least. It almost reads like he wrote the Wikipedia page himself.

      Regarding race: even though it took me a while to figure out that they were actually brothers and sister (I wasn’t sure if it was slang or a term of endearment), I really liked how they dealt with the issue and how arbitrary racism is. A lot is communicated by the actors without exposition, which is something I always appreciate. The minute Tony is around Lelia’s brother and friends, you know exactly why he’s uncomfortable.

      I love how much joy Lelia’s brothers got out of her tormenting that poor guy at the end of the movie, but I’m a sucker for a family that actually likes each other. I think Lelia was doing it to get some of the control back in her life. She was taken advantage of (and it wasn’t even fun for her) and the guy turned out to be a racist ass. Her response was to dominate the next man interested in her. When she puts her head on her date’s shoulder at the end after her chastises her, I think it’s both out of sadness about what happened with Tony and about how she’d been treating this guy.

      Also, I don’t think Weekend is a good place to start for Godard. Probably anything pre-1968.

      • Lisa Mejia
        July 13, 2011 at 10:21 PM

        I loved Breathless, and that my my start/introduction to Godard, so it wasn’t too bad. I just don’t know if Weekend was a good followup.

        I never really thought about the fact that Lelia was taking her life back, but it makes complete sense. People tend to do the opposite of what they’ve done in the past, especially if the past had a horrible ending. I think you got to see the real her for the first time when she put her head on the guy’s shoulder in the end. Almost as if you got to finally see in her soul.

        I loved the relationship between the siblings. I think my favorite scene for that connection was when they were getting ready in the morning. Morning is one of those times in a day when people are their true selves, no bullshit. It was nice to see the banter between them.

        As for the article, I’ll let you know what I think.

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