By today’s standards, it might not look like much, but all conversations of independent filmmaking cannot go anywhere without John Cassavetes and specifically his debut Shadows. It’s hard to get out of our modern perspective with so many different outlets to get films made, but back in the 1950s your only road was Hollywood and that was only a select few. Then Cassavetes got the idea to make a film with a group of his acting school students, who were trying to carve a niche for themselves amidst the method acting revolution overtaking New York.
In its initial cut, Shadows was far from popular, and after it was overhauled and re-edited it did a bit better. But now it is the emblem of indie movies — it’s a different type of film-making altogether. It’s the Beat Generation. It’s New York City. It’s handheld camera work. It’s thumping jazz. It’s improv. It’s spontaneous. All of this loosely ties together the narrative of three siblings dealing with universal issues like family and highly volatile ones like interracial relationships.
The first is younger brother Ben Carruthers, a light-skinned black who has a struggling career as a jazz musician which he balances with a nightlife of escapades with his buddies. More often than not he’s getting in trouble, in a pinch for cash, and his violent temper gets the best of him more than once.
Then there’s his older brother Hugh who is trying to sing a new gig with the help of his agent, but he must settle for a stint at a sleazy nightclub. It feels below his talent and completely wastes his ability, but he just goes with it. On the side, he tries to keep an eye on his younger brother and sister who he feels responsible for.
The youngest, Leila, is still an innocent and naive girl who thinks she knows how to take care of herself. Over the course of the film, she winds up with a few very different men. The first is a stuffy author with an authoritative streak. The second is a soft-spoken bright-eyed man, who gets her to sleep with him. Finally, the last one is a young African-American man who is gentlemanly, but not about to be made fun of. In fact, over the course of these relationships, we see the evolution of Leila as she starts out as a demure girl with the big doleful doe eyes. Slowly she becomes more controlling and self-absorbed, but still, she has a lot to learn about actual romantic love.
She’s not the only one either. We leave Ben as he lays battered with his buddies after they got in a brawl with some tough guys over some broads in a diner. There’s no big epiphany at the end of this or some riveting conclusion. We leave them in a moment of their existences just like any other. It’s nothing altogether novel or interesting, and ironically that’s what makes Cassavetes’ film so fascinating. It broke the mold — perfect in all of its imperfections or more aptly because of them. Not to mention the fact that it flipped conversations on race and gender upside down.