Saturday, February 21, 2009

Shadows (1959)

John Cassavetes must surely rank as one of the most influential filmmakers from any country, in any style or genre, of the last 50 years. His work is, in many ways, so influential that his influence is almost hardly noticeable, much in the same way the stylistic touches of Godard-so radical in their time-have almost come to be accepted as conventional.

However, like the films of Godard, it's impossible to watch a Cassavetes film and feel indifferent or blase about his incredible innovation and startling originality. I had the pleasure of watching the Criterion DVD of Cassavetes' "Shadows", a film so ahead of its time that it's almost difficult to conceive of what it must have looked like to audiences in 1959. The Criterion DVD uses a print restored by UCLA, and the care put into the restoration is detailed in a special restoration featurette included on the disc. The film is still rough, given its independent roots, but looks and sounds quite good all things considered.

It's the seminal film of the American Independent film movement, and departs from the experimental "underground" movement of the same period by weaving the technical and thematic innovations with a slightly more conventional approach (a feature length, narrative film). "Shadows" is a truly experimental film, however. It captures its setting-Manhattan circa 1957-with the same kind of "documentary" realism that Truffaut and Godard lensed the city of Paris through in their seminal New Wave films such as "The 400 Blows" or "Breathless". The jazz score, featuring incidental music by Charles Mingus, compliments the imagery perfectly, but also works well with Cassavetes' cinematic technique, which is almost jazz-like in its improvisation and deft style.

"Shadows" is, above all, an intensely personal film. As I mentioned earlier, it's impossible to watch it and not get caught up in the excitement of something new and original. It's easy to imagine younger viewers seeing the film and wondering what the "big deal" is; especially ironic considering how many younger filmmakers indirectly steal Cassavetes' techniques without even realizing where they come from. The film is technically rough, yes, but shooting it on 16mm, "guerilla style", as Cassavetes did, was the only way to achieve the kind of results he was after.

It remains one of the truly seminal films in the history of American cinema, and like his counterparts in Europe, Cassavetes remains a true innovator whose ideas will never grow stale, regardless of how many times they are imitated, copied or stolen.