Shadows (1959)

The one and only time I saw a John Cassavetes film (Faces, at university in 1997), I hated it so much that I pretty much swore off Cassavetes ever after. However, as the years have gone by, that occasional niggling voice that keeps telling me I can’t make a fair assessment of someone generally acclaimed as a great filmmaker (unless you’re writing for Alt Film Guide, interestingly) without actually seeing more of his films has kept tut-tutting me every now and again, and so tonight I finally caved in and watched Cassavetes’ legendary first film. I need to ignore that voice more often, it seems. I will say I preferred Shadows to Faces, but that’s purely because it’s only 81 minutes long rather than 130… at least that’s what the timer on the DVD player told me, cos it felt as long as the other film. It achieves an interesting paradox, feeling simultaneously way ahead of its time in terms of its overall feel (even if its claims to be an “improvisation” are at least a little overstated) yet also totally anchored to the period in which it was made in terms of its narrative concerns, i.e. the lives of three black siblings in New York in the late 50s, one of whom can pass as Caucasian, whereupon complications ensue. None of the three siblings nor their various affairs—music careers going to shit, romantic entanglements with racists, hanging out with hipster arseholes—struck me as being terribly interesting, neither in themselves nor in their presentation; too many people in this film I just wanted to slap silly (particularly Lelia Goldoni as the “white” sister, who irritated seven shades of hell out of me). Overall I thought Shadows was a monstrous bore, and that’s about the worst thing a film can be for me; it’s not actively bad, but neither does it seem capable of overcoming its problems. I’ll acknowledge its historical position, but however fresh and exciting it must’ve seemed in the context of American cinema at the time it just struck me now as awfully flat and dull. And this was the one I actually thought I might like; maybe Cassavetes and I really are doomed to failure after all…

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