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Racism in the shadows: John Cassavetes's first film explored the dark corners of American society and exposed cordial racism more than five decades ago - it is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and online

The year was 1959. American classics such as Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder), Ben-Hur (William Wyler), North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock) and Suddenly Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) were just out. Presumably, reviewing those titles, Americans then were interested in mainstream entertainment: variety theatre, Roman adventure, suspense and Gothic. Yet no one seemed very concerned about what was going on with ordinary, everyday American.

Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk) was an exception, with a stronger social message about racism. And finally there was John Cassavetes, the most audacious filmmaker then. The difference is that Cassavetes preferred the natural, life-like flow, not an imitation – unlike Sirk, who was the father of melodrama. Shadows has an abrupt and open end, with titles explaining: “The film you have just seen is an improvisation”. This means that there was no script, and the production would remain independent throughout. John Cassavetes is the spiritual father of American independent filmmaking.

Shadows is Cassavetes’s directorial debut. The story follows the life of black jazz musicians, poets inspired by the Beat Generation, white dancers, gamblers and outsiders. Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) is a young mixed-raced woman who is attracted to Tony (Anthony Ray), a white womaniser. Lelia is an opinionated independent romantic woman, who is used to listen to other women’s speeches on existentialism and Simone de Beauvoir. She likes Tony and sleeps with him in their first night. When the couple meet again, Lelia introduces him to her brother, a black jazz singer.

Tony promptly makes an excuse to leave, in a clear example of cordial racism. The silent exclusion. This kind of racism is the most dangerous, because it is hidden. It is easy to point out the racists when they scream out loud or carry out hate crime. It’s more complicated when the threat is wrapped up in sheets of a social system. Nevertheless, Shadows is not a political, activist movie.

Cassavetes was a white fellow. He describes the years he spent pounding the pavement in New York as a young unemployed actor unable to get a job. Like his characters, he is passionate about life and art. His financial struggle gives him strength to create a new film language grounded in authenticity which would heavily influence directors such as Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and Lars Von Trier.

Shadows has no the epic moments, expensive and gigantic sets, like in Ben-Hur. Instead, Cassavetes penetrates his characters’ souls with the close-ups.

His dialogues are not elaborate, as in Suddenly Last Summer (based on a screenplay by Tennessee Williams). This conversation takes place at the Metropolitan Museum:

– What’s that?

– It is a statue.

– I know! What kind of statue?

– Oh, you ignorant. It is not a question of understanding. If you feel it, you feel it. Art is it.

This kind of authenticity and humour was missing in the cinemas then – and perhaps today still.

Shadows had a permanent impact on American cinema. It is frankly about sex as it is intoxicated with youth. It opens with a rock band and people dancing and then it progressively moves into a jazz soundtrack, composed by Charles Mingus. It is mundane. Its coherence is knit by chiaroscuro photography; in other words, shadows.

John Cassavetes’s first film was restored from three original celluloids into a new, high-definition digital restoration, and it is now available with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. You can also watch it online for free, if you start a trial membership with the BFI – just click here for more information.

Watch the original film trailer below:

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By Maysa Monção - 09-07-2016

Maysa Monção is a Brazilian writer, teacher, translator, editor and art performer who currently lives in London. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, ...

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