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American indie cinema is born on the mean streets of New York

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Both the new This Is Where I Leave You and last week’s The Skeleton Twins are about brothers and sisters. For the next five days, we single out more films that highlight that unique relationship.

Shadows (1959)

The story behind Shadows, the directorial debut of John Cassavetes, is nearly as good as Shadows. Cassavetes, then known primarily as a television actor, fundraised his first feature during a 1957 Manhattan radio appearance. Putting together a shoestring budget of $40,000—some of it courtesy of donations from listeners—he shot the film on 16mm in New York, hiring mostly unknown actors from the Method workshop he taught. Fearful that he had lost the thread, Cassavetes then reshot large portions of the movie two years later. The original version, which earned raves from NYC avant-garde types (including Jonas Mekas), disappeared for decades. In 2004, after years of searching for it, film historian Ray Carney announced that he had obtained a print of the lost movie, which someone had allegedly discovered on a subway car. This reportedly more adventurous cut remains a cinematic Holy Grail—rarely seen, endlessly discussed.


For diehard fans of Cassavetes, who would go on to make about a dozen more prickly gabfests before his death in 1989, the enduring interest in that other version of Shadows stems from a kind of disbelief: How could it possibly be more vibrant—or better, for that matter—than the great movie that replaced it? Often cited as the ground zero of American independent cinema, Shadows was specifically designed to be an alternative, a small story about the kind of people—young, African-American bohemians—Hollywood usually ignores. The magic of the movie is that it somehow manages to bottle the nocturnal excitement of Beat-era New York, while also puncturing the romantic myth of a city too hip for the prejudices plaguing the rest of the country. The Manhattan glimpsed here is all jazz and late-night parties and cosmopolitan conversation. But it’s also disappointment and pretension and intolerance.

Entirely improvised by its cast, Shadows spends a few days in the Big Apple with three grown siblings: Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a professional crooner struggling with the indignity of his own cultural obsolescence; Benny (Ben Carruthers), a shiftless hipster who kills his days and nights in the company of doltish troublemakers; and 20-year-old Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), whose light complexion spares her some of the bigotry her brothers face, but not the predatory sexism of the squares who court her. Cassavetes switches among the low-key misadventures of his three characters, whose paths cross at parties and at the cramped NYC apartment they share. There’s not so much a plot as a continuing series of colorful, often amusing conversations. By the end, none of the siblings have found closure; Cassavetes captures the purgatory of their urban lives, a sense that they’re stuck in a destructive cycle. (Because of its setting and its focus on personal and professional stasis, the film can be seen today as an ancient ancestor of Inside Llewyn Davis.)

Shadows is messy, no doubt about it. Cuts often arrive off-cue, tearing us away from the actors a second too soon or too late. The ADR is sloppy and occasionally unconvincing. And Cassavetes sometimes overexposes his images, giving the footage a blown-out texture. Part of that roughhewn quality is just a byproduct of the director’s inexperience and modest means. But it’s also an expression of his DIY sensibilities, his privileging of performance over craft, and his attempt to mimic the jagged rhythms of the music he tangentially celebrates. The film is messy, because life is messy, especially for those scraping by on the margins of America. Maybe that alternate version of Shadows will never become widely available. No great tragedy: We have the ideal version already.

Availability: Shadows is available on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Criterion’s John Cassavetes box-set, whose individual discs can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store. It’s also streaming on Hulu Plus and available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant Video.

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