(Originally posted on 2/27/04)
In 1959, while Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was heralding the arrival of the French New Wave, John Cassavetes’ equally groundbreaking Shadows was igniting the independent American film movement that’s now blossomed into Sundance, Miramax, and all those small quirky films starring Patricia Clarkson. Yet despite its daring innovation in both subject matter (interracial relationships) and filmmaking technique (gritty hand-held cinematography, an improvised script, oblique editing, a jazzy score), the film is more interesting as a piece of cinema history than as a compelling narrative of bigotry in beatnik-y ‘50s New York City. As was his trademark, Cassavetes’ film is completely improvised, but his actors’ amateurish performances are drearily limited and inexpressive -- the problem, time and again, is that we can see them struggling to act. Cassavetes’ on-the-fly guerilla filmmaking style is chiefly characterized by close-ups -- some of which are so extreme that only parts of people’s faces are visible -- that impart a vibrant, expressionistic intimacy. Similarly, the rough-around-the-edges black-and-white compositions and syncopated, jazz-influenced editing exhibit a crude grace. Ultimately, the film’s underlying strength is its wrenching portrait of resigned despair over the world’s inescapable prejudice. Benny trudging through the night after a beating; the look of Lelia’s older brother Hugh’s face when his baritone singing performance is cut short by white go-go dancers; Tony’s repulsed discovery that Leila is black – in these dazzling scenes, Shadows transcends its rudimentary construction and meandering digressions and achieves a startling emotional sincerity.