Outstreched arm

Thursday, June 23, 2005

What casts these shadows?

Shadows is my first John Cassavetes movie, and I'm not proud of such a lame (for a trendster like myself!) viewing history. I thought I'd start chronologically since the alphabetical approach wasn't working out with Lumet.

This is a virtually scriptless slice of beat New York, loosely centered around mixed-race siblings trying to make something of their lives. The oldest, a clearly black dude, is a singer who gets no respect; maybe because of his race, maybe because of his style. The middle brother is at about 50% blackness, and he's struggling with his identity both when it comes to race, and the choice of counter-culture. The baby sister, Lelia, is nearly white, but her "reality bites" problems are only superficially racial in nature.

Cassavetes uses two vehicles to move the celluloid along: brief textural shots, and dialogue. The latter is consistently claustrophobic in its framing, which solves a common problem of low-budget films, namely, a complete lack of interesting facial acting. Just look at any cheesy 50s' sci-fi flick where the camera must fit at least two actors and a prop in every shot (unless we have the POV of the extra-eating monster.) Intimacy isn't always a strength in Shadows, however; the performances cover the whole spectrum between touching and embarrassing.

The biggest problem, however, is that the overwhelming visual effect of Shadows is disjointedness. Most of this comes from the too-choppy-to-be-intentional editing. It's wise of Cassavetes to provide multiple angles for most shots, but they are duct-taped together in a way that produces visual confusion when there may need to be emotional confusion on the screen. One of the key scenes - Lelia's older brother meeting her oh-so-white boyfriend - is farcical in that it's basically a series of retina-challenging cuts. I understand that this is clearly a product of the laughable budget, but it still hurts the finished work. Imagine if all of Taxidriver was as clumsy as the film stock change in the closing scenes.

Still, a couple of great lines. When, in the above-mentioned encounter, Lelia's faux-racist boyfriend - an original character and behavior fully sketched out in just a few lines - sees he can use racism as a ticket out of an uncomfortable non-relationship and subtly insults her brother, he almost verbalizes his strategy: "Remember, you asked me to leave."

The film reminded me in many ways of Scorsese's Who's That Knocking At My Door, a similarly meandering, uneven improvisation that follows a plotline here and there. In a direct comparison, Scorsese easily wins on visuals, less obviously on performances, and overall lands half a star-point higher due to a better narrative focal point (the relationship between J.R. and his "imperfect" girlfriend). Shadows has a good thing going with Lelia's story; however, this peaks at the wrong moment, and fails to reflect in the rest of the movie, which is fine; it's just that it's somewhat less effective once you're done watching.

One area where Cassavetes scores far, far above most movies of any budget is the music: tribal and jam jazz, with occasional (and perfectly placed) sax and bass solos (some, apparently, by Mingus - Mingus Mingus Mingus!) They can cast that shadow over any setting as far as I'm concerned.

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