Monday, 4 February 2019

John Cassavetes: Chasing Shadows

Shadows (Directed by John Cassavetes)
John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) is one of the pioneering works of American independent cinema. Made for $40,000 with a non-professional cast and crew, using rented and borrowed equipment, the film portrays several days in the lives of three African-American siblings – Hugh, Ben, and Lelia. Though most critics consider Shadows as being about the issue of race, Cassavetes always thought of the film as more personal. Almost all of the scenes were based on his own experiences and feelings at the time: from the humiliation of his early auditioning days, to Ben’s aimless detachment and cruising for girls, to the lonely, night-time wandering that lasted throughout Cassavetes’ life. Aspects of Cassavetes’ feelings and beliefs are also present in the portrayal of Lelia’s romantic impulsiveness, Rupert and Hugh’s belief in friendship and Tom’s angry speech about academic life. Most significantly of all, the relationship between self-centred drifter Ben and his dutiful brother Hugh mirrored the relationship of John Cassavetes with his older brother Nick. 

As the critic Raymond Carney claims: ‘Beyond these specific references, the general subject of Shadows was close to Cassavetes’ view of his own situation at this point in his life. He thought of himself as doing the same thing in his world as Lelia and Ben did in theirs. In their different ways, he and they were attempting to ‘pass’ for something that was not necessarily a reflection of their true identities. As would be the case with all of his subsequent works, the issues in the film were close to Cassavetes’ heart. He could not satirize or mock characters who were so similar to him.’

The following excerpts express Cassavetes’ thoughts on the making of Shadows:

We tried to do Shadows realistically. I just was as tough and as mixed up and screwed up as anyone else and made a picture about the aimlessness and the wandering of young people and the emotional qualities that they possessed.

The story is of a Negro family that lives just beyond the bright lights of Broadway; but we did not mean it to be a film about race. It got its name because one of the actors, in the early days, was fooling around making a charcoal sketch of some of the other actors and suddenly called his drawing Shadows. It seemed to fit the film. The NAACP came to us to finance it, but we turned it down. We’re not politicians. One of the things that has to be established when you’re making a movie is freedom. Everyone will get the wrong idea and say we’ve got a cause. I couldn’t care less about causes of any kind. Shadows is not offensive to anybody – Southerners included – because it has no message. The thing people don’t like is having a philosophy shoved down their throats. We’re not pushing anything. I don’t believe the purpose of art is propagandizing.

At the time I made Shadows I wished that I was a black man, because it would be something so definite and the challenge would be greater than being a white man. But now, American black men are white men so there’s no challenge and I don’t really wish to be that anymore. I don’t know about other men’s desires but it is my desire to be an underdog, to win on a long shot, to gamble, to take chances.

There is a great need in the cinema for truthfulness, but truth is not necessarily sordid and not necessarily downbeat. Unfortunately, the art films have dealt mainly with the evils of society. But society is more interesting than rape or murder. I think you can do more through positive action than in pointing out the foibles and stupidities of man. Yes, any man is capable of killing any other man, we know that, we don’t have to stress that. To say that it’s right and normal, to continue to say it, to have society and the Establishment confirm that view, is wrong.

Art films reach for the most obvious fallacies of society, such as racial prejudice. That’s been a fault of the art film – devoting itself to human ills, human weaknesses. An artist has a responsibility not to dwell on this and point it up, but to find hope for this age and see that it wins occasionally. Pictures are supposed to clarify people’s emotions, to explain the feelings of people on an emotional plane. An art film should not preclude laughter, enjoyment and hope. Is life about horror? Or is it about those few moments we have? I would like to say that my life has some meaning.

I think that there are certainly many, many wonderful things to be written about in this day and age of disillusionment and horror and impending doom. We must take a more positive stand in making motion pictures, and have a few more laughs, and treat life with a little more hope than we have in the past. Shadows is a realistic drama with hope – a hopeful picture about a lower echelon of society in the United States – how they live, how they react. The people are hopeful. They have some belief. I believe in people.

I’m not an Angry Young Man. I’m just an industrious young man. And I believe in people. I don’t believe in ‘exposés’, as exposés have just torn America apart, and the rest of the world. I don’t believe in saying that the presidential campaign is all phony, going inside it and looking at it. It’s been going on for years this way, but for the first time in history we’re going in and saying, ‘Yeah, see what they do? See how they get votes? See how this is done? See?’ Human frailties are with us. People aren’t perfect. But we have good instincts that counterbalance our bad acts. The main battle is you don’t make ugliness for the sake of ugliness. By attacking, constantly attacking everything in sight, no matter what anyone does, it’s not good enough because it can’t be trusted. And nobody, starting with the top of our government, can be believed. Everybody is a phony. So if everybody’s a phony, what’s the sense of going on, because there isn’t anybody worth making a picture about, talking about, writing about. There’s no hope in living and you might as well pack it all in and forget about it. Why should young people’s minds constantly be filled with the corruption of life? Soon they can’t do anything but believe there’s total corruption.

I adore the neo-realists for their humaneness of vision. Zavattini is surely the greatest screenwriter that ever lived. Particularly inspirational to me when I made Shadows were La Terra Trema, I Vitelloni, Umberto D and Bellissima. The neo-realist filmmakers were not afraid of reality; they looked it straight in the face. I have always admired their courage and their willingness to show us how we really are. It’s the same with Godard, early Bergman, Kurosawa and the second greatest director next to Capra, Carl Dreyer. Shadows contains much of that neo-realistic influence.

I’d like to feel that people have influenced me, but then when you get on the floor you realize you’re really alone and no one can influence your work. They can just open you up and give you confidence that the aim for quality is really the greatest power a director can have – if you’re in quest of power. In a way, you must be out for power. We wouldn’t make films if we didn’t think that in some way we could speak for everyone.

I’m not part of anything. I never joined anything. I could work anywhere. Some of the greatest pictures I’ve ever seen came from the studio system. I have nothing against it at all. I’m an individual. Intellectual bullshit doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested in working with people who like to work and find out about something that they don’t already know. If people want to work on a project, they’ve got to work on a project that’s theirs. It’s not mine and it’s not theirs. It’s only yours if you make it yours. With actors, as well as technicians, the biggest problem is to get people who really want to do the job and let them do it their own way. The labels come afterwards. If your films have no chance of being shown anywhere, if you don’t have enough money, you show them in basements; then they’re called underground films. It doesn’t really matter what you call them. When you make a film you aren’t part of a movement. You want to make a film, this film, a personal and individual one, and you do, with the help of your friends.

Shadows from beginning to end was a creative accident. I was going on Jean Shepherd’s Night People radio show, because he had plugged Edge of the City, and I wanted to thank him for it. I told Jean about the piece we had done, and how it could be a good film. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be terrific if [ordinary] people could make movies, instead of all these Hollywood big-wigs who are only interested in business and how much the picture was going to gross and everything?’ And he asked if I thought I’d be able to raise the money for it. ‘If people really want to see a movie about people,’ I answered, ‘they should just contribute money.’ For a week afterwards, money came in. At the end it totaled $2,500. And we were committed to start a film. One soldier showed up with five dollars after hitchhiking 300 miles to give it to us. And some really weird girl came in off the street; she had a mustache and hair on her legs and the hair on her head was matted with dirt and she wore a filthy polka-dot dress; she was really bad. After walking into the workshop, this girl got down on her knees, grabbed my pants and said, ‘I listened to your program last night. You are the Messiah.’ Anyway, she became our sound editor and straightened out her life. In fact, a lot of people who worked on the film were people who were screwed up – and got straightened out working with the rest of us. We wouldn’t take anything bigger than a five dollar bill – though once, when things looked real rough, we did cash a $100 check from Josh Logan.

When I started, I thought it would only take me a few months; it took three years. I made every mistake known to man; I can’t even remember all the mistakes we made. I was so dumb! Having acted in movies, I kinda knew how they were made, so after doing some shooting, I’d shout out something like ‘Print take three!’ I’d neglected to hire a script girl, however, so no one wrote down which take I wanted – with the astounding result that all the film was printed. It was really the height of ignorance. We did everything wrong, technically. We began shooting without having the slightest idea of what had to be done or what the film would be like. We had no idea at all. We didn’t know a thing about technique: all we did was begin shooting. The technical problems of the production were endless and trying. The ‘Sound Department’ often looked at the recorder, only to see no signal whatsoever! The only thing we did right was to get a group of people together who were young, full of life and wanting to do something of meaning.

There was [also] a struggle because the actors had to find the confidence to have quiet at times, and not just constantly talk. This took about the first three weeks of the schedule. Eventually all this material was thrown away, and then everyone became cool and easy and relaxed and they had their own things to say, which was the point. Though I had to scrap most of what we shot in the first eight weeks’ shooting, later on, once they relaxed and gained confidence, many of the things they did shocked even me, they were so completely unpredictably true.

The things we got praised for were the things we tried to cure. All those things were accidents, not strokes of genius. We didn’t have any equipment, we didn’t have a dolly. And we had all this movement, so we used long lenses. And [we were] photographing in the street because we couldn’t afford a studio or couldn’t afford even to go inside some place, you know. And our sound – when we opened Shadows in England, they said, ‘The truest sound that we’ve ever seen.’ Well, at that time, almost all the pictures, certainly all the pictures at Twentieth Century Fox, were looped. You know, all the sync that the actors actually spoke on the stage was cleaned up and made to be absolutely sterile, so that there was no sound behind anything. If you saw traffic, you wouldn’t hear it. You’d just hear voices so that the dialogue would be clean. But we recorded most of Shadows in a dance studio with Bob Fosse and his group dancing above our heads, and we were shooting this movie. So I never considered the sound. We didn’t even have enough money to print it, to hear how bad it was. So when we came out, we had Sinatra singing upstairs, and all kinds of boom, dancing feet above us. And that was the sound of the picture. So we spent hours, days, weeks, months, years trying to straighten out this sound. Finally, it was impossible and we just went with it. Well, when the picture opened in London they said, ‘This is an innovation!’ You know? Innovation! We killed ourselves to try to ruin that innovation!

When it was finished, we didn’t have enough money to print [all] the sound. There was no dialogue [written down] so every take was different. So we looked at it and said, ‘What the hell are we going to print here? I don’t know what they’re saying. It looks terrific, everything’s all right, it’s beautiful – we’ll lay in the lines.’ So we had a couple of secretaries who used to come up all the time and do transcripts for us. They volunteered their services, they had nothing to do, we had all silent film. So we went to the deaf-mute place and we got lip-readers. They read everything and it took us about a year.

We used a 16mm camera, partly because it was cheaper and partly because we could do more hand-held stuff with it, and it was easier to handle in the streets. We used a [Nagra] tape-recorder and a hand-held boom. We rarely had rehearsals for the camera, even though Erich Kollmar, the cameraman, likes rehearsals. I encouraged him to get it the first time, as it happened. Erich found that the lighting and photographing of these actors, who moved according to impulse instead of direction, prevented him from using a camera in a conventional way. He was forced to photograph the film with simplicity. He was driven to lighting a general area and then hoping for the best. So we not only improvised in terms of the words, but we improvised in terms of motions. The cameraman also improvised, he had to follow the artists and light generally, so that the actor could move when and wherever he pleased. The first week of shooting was just about useless. We were all getting used to each other and to the equipment, but it was not because of the camera movement that we had to throw footage out. In fact, when you try it, you find that natural movement is easier to follow than rehearsed movement, since it has a natural rhythm. A strange and interesting thing happened in that the camera, in following the people, followed them smoothly and beautifully, simply because people have a natural rhythm. Whereas when they rehearse something according to a technical mark, they begin to be jerky and unnatural, and no matter how talented they are, the camera has a difficult time following them.

I think the important contribution that Shadows can make to the film is that audiences go to the cinema to see people: they only empathize with people, and not with technical virtuosity. Most people don’t know what a ‘cut,’ or a ‘dissolve’ or a ‘fade-out’ is, and I’m sure they are not concerned with them. And what we in the business might consider a brilliant shot doesn’t really interest them, because they are watching the people, and I think it becomes important for the artist to realize that the only important thing is a good actor.

Normally to shoot somewhere like Broadway there would be ten or a dozen gaffers [lighting men], then another five or six grips [technicians] to move the cameras and cables, and then all the producers and directors on top of that. They wouldn’t want anything [out of focus]; everything would have to be clear cut. In a [Hollywood] picture you have marks to hit, and the lighting cameraman always lights for you at a certain mark. The actor is expected to go through a dramatic scene, staying within a certain region where the lights are. If he gets out of light just half an inch, then they’ll cut the take and do it over again. So then the actor begins to think about the light rather than about the person he is supposed to be making love to, or arguing with.

In my own case I had worked in a lot of [commercial] films and I couldn’t adjust to the medium. I found that I wasn’t as free as I could be on the stage or in a live television show. So for me [making Shadows] was mainly to find out why I was not free – because I didn’t particularly like to work in films, and yet I like the medium. The actor is the only person in a film who works from emotion, in whom the emotional truth of a situation resides. If we had made Shadows in Hollywood, none of the people could have emerged as the fine actors they are. It’s probably easier technically to make a film in Hollywood, but it would have been difficult to be adventurous simply because there are certain rules and regulations that are set specifically to destroy the actor and make him feel uncomfortable – make the production so important that he feels that if he messes up just one line, that he is doing something terribly wrong and may never work again. And this is especially true, not for the stars, but with the feature players who might be stars later on, or with the small players, the one-line players who might become feature players. There’s a certain cruelty in our business that is unbelievably bad. I don’t see how people can make pictures about people and then have absolutely no regard for the people they are working with.

In the course of [the filming] 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. [On] the last day of shooting, I couldn’t turn on the camera. I was so fed up with doing it because there was no love of the craft or the idea or anything. We’re doing this experiment, and now it’s the last day, nobody’s here except McEndree and me. He couldn’t turn on the camera and I couldn’t turn on the camera and Ben was standing there asking, ‘Are you going to roll this thing or not?’ We’re just standing there looking at each other. We couldn’t turn on this camera because it had been such a hassle.

I went to a theater-owner friend of mine and I said, ‘Look, we want to show our film and we can fill this theater.’ It was the Paris Theater in New York and 600 people filled that theater and we turned away another 400 people at the door. About 15 minutes into the film the people started to leave. And they left. And they left! And I began perspiring and the cast was getting angry. We all sat closer and closer together and pretty soon there wasn’t anyone in the theater! I think there was one critic in the theater, one critic who was a friend of ours, who walked over to us and said, ‘This is the most marvelous film I’ve ever seen in my life!’ And I said, ‘I don’t want to hit you right now. I’m a little uptight, not feeling too hot and none of us are, so’ And he said, ‘No. This is really a very good film.’ So, like all failures, you get a sense of humor about it and you go out and spend the night – when it’s bad enough, and this was so bad that it couldn’t be repaired.

I could see the flaws in Shadows myself: It was a totally intellectual film – and therefore less than human. I had fallen in love with the camera, with technique, with beautiful shots, with experimentation for its own sake. All I did was exploiting film technique, shooting rhythms, using large lenses – shooting through trees, and windows. It had a nice rhythm to it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with people. Whereas you have to create interest in your characters because this is what audiences go to see. The film was filled with what you might call ‘cinematic virtuosity’ – for its own sake; with angles and fancy cutting and a lot of jazz going on in the background. But the one thing that came at all alive to me after I had laid it aside a few weeks was that just now and again the actors had survived all my tricks. But this did not often happen! They barely came to life.

– Excerpts from ‘Raymond Carney: Cassavetes on Cassavetes’.


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