Saturday, November 14, 2009


Dir. John Cassavetes
There's an episode of AMC's Mad Men where a few insubordinate staff members sneak into Mr. Cooper's office to see his new acquisition: a painting by the now-famous abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Staring at the painting affixed someone asks what the painting means. The young Ken Cosgrove offers a profound explanation. He suggests that the painting isn't supposed to mean anything but rather the point is that one “falls into it.” If there is any better explanation for the work done by so many modern artists all over the world in the period following WWII's aftermath, I have yet to hear one. The conclusion of the war, the horrific revelation of Hitler's concentration camps and, most importantly, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was the beginning of a new era in art. A certain listlessness pervaded in the young post-war generation. It manifested itself many different ways but one of the most important was a dramatic sense of nihilism. While the film capitol of the world, Hollywood, largely sought to continue boosting morale, many young people nevertheless went on to deeper and more depraved states of hopelessness and apathy. The war time boom and subsequent celebration likely felt disingenuous to them and certainly did not renew feelings of purpose. The coping mechanism of the world seemed to be to treat the war as a distant memory even after it had just occurred. By the late 1950s, with Cold War paranoia reaching a climactic point and disruption and chaos creeping back into everyday life, the skepticism and doubt of this disenfranchised lot must have been all but confirmed; their convictions in the absurdity of existence undoubtedly strengthened. In producing and directing his first film, Shadows, in 1959, John Cassavetes firmly squared himself as the voice of the forgotten who cannot forget; those who suffer with an invisible, internal burden which they can never shake off.

Shadows' legacy is built off its meticulous attention to reactionary lives. When viewing the film one doesn't get a sense of construction but rather organic process and movement, which has become a key feature in the ongoing American independent film movement which owes a great deal to Cassavetes. His film is a study of self destructive behavior at the dynamic and artistic heart of America: Newt York City. Where two years before author Jack Kerouac published an intelligentsia oriented study of the common man in “On the Road,” wherein he horrendously glorified the strivings of simple, unrealized people and cruelly, if inadvertently, widened the gap between himself and working man's world, Cassavetes sought to undue the damage caused by lack of perspective. Cassavete's characters in Shadows are not the aristocracy of cool or the Man-God Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's world, but just people. They are people without careers, without direction and without anything to do. At times they rejoice in their condition and other times they are humbled and broken by it. Without the plot devices of Hollywood or the conditioned detachment of the Beat Generation, they still manage to learn lessons and grow. In inaugurating independent cinema Cassavetes proved that lives are not products of cultural indoctrination and mind control, but rather that our existence is the basis for all creation, petty or sublime.

Using improvisation to build his narrative, Cassavetes achieves two remarkable, interrelated goals. First, he demonstrates the cinema's unique ability to capture and recreate the natural, if only given the opportunity to break free of the contrivances of stereotypes. Second, he shows how art, and in particular the cinema, can bring disparate people together and destroy the barrier between participant and viewer. In demonstrating its capacity to unite, Cassavetes christened a new relationship between people and cinema. Moving beyond the voyeurism of Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, Cassavetes does more than just implicate his viewers, he involves them. Extreme closeups, a disorienting and complex diegetic system (which closely ties it to legendary French independent film: Breathless), and authentic realism drive the viewer's close relationship to the film. Even the film's politics (interracial relations were still taboo at the time), which could be a vehicle onto itself, are subordinate to the film's intensive dedication to the engaging and animated lives of its characters.

All things considered, it is not hard to see why Shadows wasn't a great commercial or critical success when it was released. In the year of Hitchcock's magnum opus Vertigo (which itself was a box office failure), the historical epic Ben-Hur (which won a record setting 11 Oscars), Some Like it Hot (perhaps the most subversive Hollywood picture of its time) amongst so many others, the likelihood of an upstart director's cheap shot-on-location film, which stars a troop of amateur actors largely playing themselves, getting noticed by a large audience was hardly plausible. Conversely, the idea that Shadows and John Cassavetes would become a considerable part of the catalyst for a new generation of noble and daring young filmmakers seems almost fundamental now. In his bold attempt to recondition audiences and reprocess reality into a coarser but more fulfilling substance, Cassavetes took a great risk. Lucky for us, it would turn out to be a risk that inspired generations of risk takers who, to this day, continue to define American independent cinema.

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