John Cassavetes is considered one of the godfathers of independent cinema after he released his directorial debut, “Shadows:” a film that is pure anti-Hollywood and is straight from the heart. No product placements, big stars stealing the shot, or over-zealous sets costing millions of dollars. “Shadows” is a movie that focuses on real human problems, not over-dramatic soap opera scenes.
“Shadows” is about two brothers and sister who has to deal with racism since one brother, Hugh, is black and the other, Ben, looks less black and more white. Their sister Lelia also looks nothing like an African American.
We follow Hugh through his beatnik jazz scene chasing girls with his friends. We watch Ben struggle as a jazz singer and we observe Lelia being conflicted with her racist boyfriend.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is how it was written. At the time, John Cassavetes was teaching an acting workshop. One day he decided that they were going to do an improvisational session. Cassavetes gave his actors very lose guidelines such as, “you two are in the kitchen having breakfast, go!”
This exercise lasted four hours and resulted in the script for “Shadows.”
With this improvisational script, John Cassavetes and his troupe of actors shot “Shadows” for the first time. In this first version, the actors improvised a great deal and the shots were more stylized. But Cassavetes realized that it wasn’t working. He felt like he was an amateur over using a cool toy.
So he tried again. They re-shot “Shadows,” but this time Cassavetes focused the shots more on the human problem and not so much the artistic quality. The resulting version marked the beginning of Cassavetes independent filmmaking career.
While watching “Shadows,” you can tell that it was shot on a budget, but it doesn’t deter the story or the acting. Even one of the shots is out of focus and some scenes you can’t tell what people are saying but it’s still a great movie.
This movie was made with pennies compared to some Hollywood movies but “Shadows” is so much better than some main stream cinema.
A year a later in France Jean Luc Godard came out with his first film “Breathless.” Even though the two films were made in different years in different countries, there still lies a resemblance.
Both films are very anti-Hollywood and were shot with very little money. “Breathless” was shot with mostly handheld cameras, while “Shadows” wasn’t but still had the spontaneity from the acting.
Even some of the shots look similar. A couple of the opening city scenes in Shadows look familiar to the city scenes of “Breathless.” It’s not the placement of the camera that’s similar, but the general look and feel.
In the end, “Shadows” is the beginning of a career that will be praised for time to come. It is a film that defies Hollywood’s big cinema and helped start a revolution in underground cinema. John Cassavetes despised the controls of Hollywood producers and showed that it’s possible to make a very good film that comes from the heart. After “Shadows,” Cassavetes continued to make his films in an anti-Hollywood fashion, not because they made a lot of money, which they don’t, but because it felt right. He wanted to express himself without any censorship and without any outside control. Escape the clutches of Hollywood and watch “Shadows.