Indie Classics: Shadows
Before watching Shadows, an understanding of how it was created helps get the best experience from the groundbreaking film.
Director John Cassavetes taught an acting class and lead his students in an improvisation exercise to explore the emotions that come from unknown situations. The three main characters in the resulting film are siblings living in New York. One brother is black while the sister and the other brother are light skinned and pass for white. The original version didn’t live up to Cassavetes’ expectations, so he went back and added scenes, mainly scripted, and re-edited until the characters had more depth. Now they go beyond the racial issues on the surface and discover their own mistakes and how to overcome them.
In the final cut of Shadows, Lelia is easily the most complicated character. She starts out innocent and sweetly flirtatious but asserts her independence like a man. She betrays her innocence when her brother warns her not to walk alone at night but she does anyway and almost gets mugged. She mistakes romance for love from Tony, but her love for him is shattered when he finds out she has a black brother and he immediately backs out of their relationship. She is redeemed by Davey, a respectable black man who takes her on a date. Though she tries to make him miserable out of resentment for Tony, he sees through the confidence she hides behind and accepts her for who she is.
According to The Rough Guide to American Independent Film by Jessica Winters, Shadows is considered the film that started the American independent movement. Cassavetes became known for using film as a way of examining aspects of life he’d never experienced before. He decided to forego the usual pre-production research in order to allow his characters to find their own identities and answer their questions in the most natural, human way.
Though this film conveys great depth of character, it has its downside. I find the leading actress playing Lelia unconvincing at times. She continually delivers dialogue in an overdramatic tone of voice that makes her sound arrogant. Often she seems to be fighting back laughter like she can’t take anything seriously. She comes off as amateur, which, admittedly she probably is, but I still cringe at her lack of subtly.
Cassavetes’ style of storytelling more than makes up for the actors’ shortcomings. In fact, it is found throughout many films made since Shadows. His influence has given rise to a new genre that has been embraced by America, as evidenced by The Sundance Film Festival.