The Criterion Collection has reissued their seminal set featuring five (actually six) films from American independent filmmaker forefather John Cassavetes. Initially released about a decade ago, the reissue features an upgrade from DVD to Blu-Ray with new transfers. Beyond that? According to the Criterion site, there has been a slight reshuffle with regard to bonus content and the three hour doc A Constant Forge (2000) has moved from its own disc to sharing space with Shadows (1953). Essentially, this is just an upgrade in terms of transfers and we’ll be reviewing one film a week for the next couple weeks. On today’s docket, we have Cassavetes’s debut Shadows and Charles Kiselyak’s three-hour documentary A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes.
Shadows was a product of Cassavetes’s work with a small theater class that began as a series of improvisions before evolving into a more structured film (which went through two separate incarnations). The film follows a several characters shuffling around the streets of New York City in the late-1950s. Two characters, Hugh (Hugh Hurd) and Rupert (Rupert Crosse), are young African-American men trying to make it on the jazz circuit. Hugh has large aspirations to play large nightclubs and chafes against the idea of taking jobs in which he is asked to act as an MC for burlesque shows. Rupert, his manager, continuously reminds his client to be pragmatic. Everyone has gotta start somewhere. Hugh’s younger brother, Ben (Ben Carruthers) is an aspiring trumpet player who spends too much time drinking and getting into scuffles. Hugh and Rupert’s lighter skinned sister, Leila (Leila Goldoni) is trying to compromise her protective older brothers with her desire to lead an independent life. She eventually falls in love with an aspiring writer named Tony (Anthony Ray). Tony, who is white, believes that his Leila is also white and it provokes a raw confrontation that is equal parts love, denial, betrayal, and pragmatism.
My plot summary doesn’t quite do the film’s episodic narrative justice. As central as the relationship to Tony and Leila seems, it is but one thread in the narrative. Re-watching the film for the first time in about a decade, I realized how long it takes them to get together (indeed, Cassavetes takes perhaps a half an hour to introduce Leila and the film is barely 80 minutes). Their relationship is the centerpiece of perhaps 4 scenes: they meet, they go out on a date, they make love, and then they realize they cannot be together. Shadows often evokes the Beats with its use of jazz (Charles Mingus!) and literary debate and, like the Beats, Cassavetes’s wants to destroy the romantic ideal of a relationship and replace it with a pragmatic depiction. Watching Tony and Leila go from punch-drunk affection into a post-coital embrace in which Leila asks her partner what happens next, I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) in which Sal meets Terry, the “cutest little Mexican girl.” They run off together, her family teaches him Spanish, and they work in the fields together. Then, the relationship fades and Kerouac writes “We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.”
I cannot recall to how great a degree Sal and Terry’s relationship was shaped by their difference in ethnicity but, unfortunately for Tony and Leila, it is defined by it. When Tony brings her home and meets her brothers, he seems to get sick to his stomach. Then, realizing how horrible his gut reaction appears, he tries to salvage it by asking Leila out again. She is rightly upset, but their relationship is equally ended by Leila’s brothers. They seem to justify it on the basis that Tony has upset Leila (and he has), but we also cannot keep from remembering that a biracial relationship was taboo in the late-1950s. Thanks equally to this progression of scenes and to the performances of Goldoni and Ray, the message of the film fails to make it a “Message Movie.” We feel just as nauseous as Tony – albeit for a completely different reason – in that scene because Cassavetes has followed the adage that specificity nurtures universality. And this, when applied to relationships, seems to have been Cassavetes’s chief focal point throughout his body of work: what does love really look like?
Shadows comes packages with a series of interviews, essays, and a restoration demonstration (go UCLA Film and Television Archive!). Yet, the chief attraction on the disc is the epic documentary about Cassavetes’s life and work: A Constant Forge. The documentary provides a brief overview of Cassavetes’s life and the films he made (accounting for perhaps 30-45 minutes of its 3 hour length) before segueing into a series of anecdotes from collaborators (Gena Rowlands, Jon Voight, Seymour Cassel), fans (Sean Penn), and scholars (Annette Insdorf and Ray Carney). However, while the documentary provides a helpful primer, it is also not without its issues. As Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney (who termed the doc “A Constant Forgery”) has argued, the film basically presents a sanitized version of Cassavetes’s life and work. Carney, who was initially hired on the project as an advisor, was fired when he came head to head with Rowlands. Essentially, despite being a filmmaker whose work was preoccupied with showing love in the raw, the documentary produces a romanticized portrait of its subject. Admittedly, the interviewees allude to the fact that Cassavetes could be hard to get along with and demanding but Kiselyak seems to gloss over a lot of this with his the idea that every production was a “family” production. It’s far from being a horrible doc but it isn’t a definitive account.