Shadows

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Dir./Scr. John Cassavetes 78 min./87 min.

[Editor's note: Jonas Mekas was an early champion of John Cassavetes's Shadows when it first screened in 1958, but he renounced it after the director recut it the next year. What follows is an exchange between Mekas and Cassavetes, as well as J. Hoberman's reviews of both versions. The original Shadows, long thought lost, turned up at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2004.]

The same evening there was a screening [in November 1959] of John Cassavetes's second and commercialized version of Shadows, which in no way should be confused with the original print, screened a year ago at the Paris Theatre, and about which I will have to say more at a later date, when my unrealistic anger for what has been done to that original simmers down. This should be around the time the original Shadows is shown again on January 19 [1960] at the 92nd Street YMCA. [Jonas Mekas, 11/18/59]

Letter to the Editor Dear Sir:

There would seem to be some discrepancy as to the purpose of trying to better a film. In a recent edition of The Voice, Mr. Jonas Mekas, who had for over a year been a staunch supporter of a 16mm film experiment called Shadows, blustered forth ridiculous accusations at the second version of the picture, implying that it was done as a commercial concession to would-be distributors.

Perhaps it would be wise to first regard the history of the film, which reaches back over a three-year period. Shadows started as a classroom experiment with a view toward fresh approaches to cinematic style. The film was improvised by the actors; it was shot with unbending honesty, care, and disregard for critics. It was made with the conviction of youth challenging the old guard, and everyone who had ever been defeated by expedients of living in an economic world was for the film. Not one actor was paid for his services, nor were the technicians given anything.

We did not know when we started that it would take three years of hard work to finally achieve the best of what we then felt we could accomplish. In the course of three years, the tide of outside enthusiasm dwindled and finally turned into rejection. The Shadows people continued, no longer with the hope of injecting the industry with vitality, but only for the sake of their pride in themselves and in the film that they were all devoted to do.

When the first version was finally assembled and ready, it was screened at Paris Theatre before some 2,000 people, in three midnight showings which were free to the audiences that attended. The picture Shadows, the original version, was received with mostly hostile eyes; a few, such as Mr. Mekas, felt that it had accomplished a new era in cinematic technique. Mr. Mekas's favor greatly pleased us and made us feel that at least someone had understood our efforts; then when his magazine,

Film Culture, graced Shadows with an award for originality, we were overwhelmed.

However the truth of the matter is that the original version of Shadows was not accepted by the great majority of thinking people, who had been very much in favor of this kind of picture. The truth as it had to be realized was that the audience failed to empathize with the characters as depicted in the film, and the natural rhythms and style employed in the film, of which we were all so proud, stood surrounded by the thinness of the characters, the lack of all-around design, and the inconsistency within the character development.

The fallacies as we recognized them came as a shock, a shattering admission of our own ineptness. It would have been easy to side with those few who refused to believe that the film was anything but marvelous, for it is one weakness that all human beings are prone to. It would have been easier just to call it a day, to wrap all the criticisms and say that those who didn't understand are idiots, and that we weren't trying to impress anybody.

However, it is my belief that expression of any kind must be understood before it can have any meaning. For me, films can educate, enlighten, entertain, and give people release from their hidden fears, their prejudices. For me, it is imperative that we sustain our integrity as far as it can reach, because given the position of leading and being listened to involves a responsibility that must be responded to. Otherwise, the man lives with the knowledge that he is a fake. Otherwise, it would be impossible, for me personally, to have people think that I am ethical and pure and to know inside me that I am a fraud. It would make me live with the fear of time, the fear that I would waste the only life that I have.

The second version of Shadows was attempted with this in mind. Mr. Mekas is right in that he states this version is completely different from the first version. It was made to be better understood, with the understanding that comes from life, not from opinions of others. It in no way was a concession and, in my own opinion, is a film far superior to the first. Some of the music is gone, the poetry of overall expression, but the individual expression, of individual people, is there. The cinematic style which was so prominent in the first gives way to the emotional experiences that the characters encounter. The scenes, in my opinion, are fulfilled; the imagination of youth that sparked the first version came back stronger, clearer, and more determined to enlighten rather than prove.

Perhaps Mr. Mekas is not aware that there is no sale on the picture, and that the money was contributed by various film-lovers. It would be advisable for Mr. Mekas to again look at both versions of Shadows without the unfounded prejudices that seems to trouble, and complicate, his thinking on cinema and its purposes.

John Cassavetes

Pacific Palisades, Calif. [12/16/59]

It may seem to some that enough has already been said about John Cassavetes's Shadows. After seeing it again at the Film Center, in its original version, and after comparing the exultation of this audience with the perplexity at Cinema 16, I definitely feel that the real case of Shadows is only just beginning.

I have no further doubt that whereas the second version of Shadows is just another Hollywood film, the first version, however, is the most frontier-breaking American feature film in at least a decade. Rightly understood and properly presented, it could influence and change the tone, the subject matter, and the style of the entire independent American cinema. And it is already beginning to do so.

The crowds of people that were pressing to get into the Film Center (Pull My Daisy was screened on the same program) illustrated only too well the short-sightedness of the New York film distributors who blindly stick to their old hats. Shadows is still without a distributor. Distributors seem to have no imagination, no courage, no vision, no eyes for the new.

Again, I stress that I am talking about the first version of Shadows only. I shall be relentless in stressing this point. For I want to be certain not to be misunderstood. I have been put into a situation, one in which a film critic can get into once in a lifetime (I hope). I have been praising and supporting Shadows from the very beginning, writing about it, pulling everybody into it, making enemies because of it (including the director of the film himself) — and here I am, ridiculously betrayed by an "improved" version of that film, with the same title but different footage, different cutting, story, attitude, style, everything: a bad commercial film, with everything that I was praising completely destroyed. So everybody says: What was that critic raving about? Is he blind or something? Therefore I repeat and repeat: it is the first version I was and am still talking about. (Here is the stay-away identification marker: the second version begins with a rock-and-roll session.)

I have no space for a detailed analysis and comparison of the two versions. It is enough to say the difference is radical. The first Shadows could be considered as standing at the opposite pole from Citizen Kane; it makes as strong an attempt at destroying life and creating art. Which of the two aims is more important, I do not know. Both are equally difficult to achieve. In any case, Shadows breaks with the official staged cinema, with made-up faces, with written scripts, with plot continuities. Even its inexperience in editing, sound, and camera work become a part of its style, the roughness that only life (and Alfred Leslie's paintings) have. It doesn't prove anything; it doesn't even want to say anything, but really it tells more than 10 or 110 other recent American films. The tones and rhythms of a new America are caught in Shadows for the very first time. Therefore, we may call it the first modern American film.

Shadows has caught more life than Cassavetes himself realizes. Perhaps now he is too close to his work, but I am confident he will change his mind. And the sooner the second version is taken out of circulation, the better. Meanwhile, the bastardized version is being sent to festivals and being pushed officially, while the true film, the first version of Shadows, is being treated as a stepchild. It is enough to make one sick and shut up. [Jonas Mekas, 1/27/60]

Arguably the founding work of the American independent cinema, John Cassavetes's 1959 Shadows is the prototype for Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, and all their progeny. Cassavetes's first feature was a one-film American new wave; with his aggressive sincerity and swaggering integrity, Cassavetes became the prototype for the American independent director—the Method actor turned filmmaker.

Shadows can be bracketed with Breathless, completed the same year, as a low-budget, post-neorealist, pre-cinema vérité Something New. Both are predicated on handheld camera, stolen locations, elliptical editing, and extended bedroom scenes featuring self-conscious performances by twenty-year-old actresses acting like they are characters in a movie. But Shadows is more episodic and performer-driven. Using the members of a drama workshop he directed, Cassavetes shot thirty hours of footage based on their improvisations. The Charles Mingus score later added makes the jazz analogue explicit. Indeed, as the movie's principals are black, white, and mulatto, race is crucial to the movie. So is authenticity. Anticipating life in a Warhol movie, Cassavetes's performers struggle to remain in character (in the now) despite miscues, blown lines, and unforeseen improvisations; much of Shadows naturalism derives from applying a workshop sense of invented personalities to everyday life and a corresponding failure of the characters — or is it the actors?—to successfully live up to their images.

Opening commercially in New York in March 1961 (a month after Breathless), Shadows impressed the New York Times as a near documentary "shot without benefit of a screenplay, without a word of dialogue written down, without a commanding director to tell the actors precisely what to do." In fact, the movie had been substantially reshot and re-edited since its first public screening in late 1958. It's appropriate that the restored print is having its premiere at Anthology's Jonas Mekas Theater. Then writing for the Voice, Mekas was Shadows's greatest critical champion, at least until Cassavetes revised the movie for narrative coherence a year later. Ray Carney has published a framework for the original version in his BFI Shadows monograph. It would be an amazing event if the ur-Shadows were ever to reemerge. [J. Hoberman, 6/18/03]

John Cassavetes's Shadows, the founding work of the American independent cinema, has always had its own shadow—an ur-version championed in these pages in 1959 by Voice critic Jonas Mekas, who subsequently disowned the filmmaker's longer, revised cut. Unseen, supposedly dismantled, and thought lost for more than four decades, an ur-Shadows has unexpectedly surfaced.

Turned down by Sundance, where it might logically have been shown, this ur-Shadows premiered at the ultra-cinephilic Rotterdam Film Festival. To anyone familiar with the controversy around Shadows and its shadow, the seventy-eight-minute ur-film is full of surprises. The known version is not, as Mekas suggested, a virtual remake. Most of Shadows is already ur. Nor is the ur-version less narrative. On the contrary: there is radical concentration of activity. The frantic round of parties, performances, and pickups on Manhattan's main stem begs to be diluted. Does the action span 24, 36, 48 hours? Where's the downtime? Other differences: ur-Shadows lacks a bedroom scene but boasts a more experimental Mingus score, as well as a few songs whose rights would not have come cheaply.

The reappearance of this extinct creature is due to Ray Carney, a Boston University film scholar who spent years in search of this particular grail. The provenance is still mysterious. Carney, who must utter the word Cassavetes more times in a day than most people take a breath, credits the New York City Transit Authority. The movie was apparently left on the subway sometime after its screenings at the 92nd Street Y. Who lost it and how exactly the professor found it remain to be explained. [J. Hoberman, 2/4/04]

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