Friday, March 25, 2011

Exploring Cassavetes: SHADOWS

When I first watched John Cassavetes' Shadows about a year ago, I rightfully wrote that it was spontaneous, ahead-of-its-time, awkward, and unpolished. However, I also wrongfully compared it to Altman, Allen, and Scorsese, none of whom even begin to match what Cassavetes is doing in his debut film. Like in Altman films, the dialogue overlaps, but unlike in Altman films, the overlap is not calculated as being part of a style or aesthetic, and it serves a function of directing your attention to multiple things at once (think the dance hall scene early on in the film). Altman still maps his scenes with clear focal points, the surrounding noise intended to locate his main attractions in 'true-to-life' situations. I compared Cassavetes' Manhattan to Allen's, again a gross miscalculation. Allen's New York is cultured and upscale, populated by neurotic intellectuals with easily pinpointed psychological issues. There is no place in Allen's filmography for grime or poverty or ramshackle apartments. Shadows depicts a more subterranean New York, one of bad nightclubs and damp courtyards and overcrowded streets. Scorsese may offer the best point of comparison, if only because Cassavetes exerts a more clear influence on him than the other two, and yet Scorsese's vulgar naturalism serves a far more holistic and deterministic function than Cassavetes', which is always employed as a means of penetrating his unclassifiable and unpredictable characters.

On viewing Shadows a second time I realized that I cared far less about its aesthetic merits than I did the first time: the telephoto street views, the jazz solos, and overall 'look' of the film meant far less to me than did the strength of the performances. When before I admired the film for being open-ended, now I realize that there is no real narrative that makes such a clarification necessary. The entire film is loose, freeform, devoid of linearity or purpose, and all that exists is undefined and undefinable characters undergoing crises of self that are beyond heartbreaking. When before I felt compelled to judge Tony for his racism, which causes him to reject Lelia and propels her into emotional hardness, I now found myself feeling his confusion, disillusionment and awkwardness in the face of what is undoubtedly a striking revelation, that Lelia is, in spite of her appearance, not white. I viewed him as another character in the ensemble rather than as an intruder or negative supporting player. Likewise, I found more to understand in the rest of the characters and their complicated performances. Overall, I felt an accumulation of raw experience that excited and stimulated me, and the prior conception I had of it as a loose, jazzy, independent experiment fell apart entirely. A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie have taught me that forming conceptions of Cassavetes films is fruitless work.

Supplementing my viewing were the first sections of Ray Carney's book-length study of Cassavetes' films. Carney's devotion to Cassavetes is so passionate and exclusive that he finds himself unable to care for the rest of American cinema, which he consigns to an unwavering style that emphasizes fixed characters and transparent 'deep meanings.' Whereas most Hollywood films tell the audience what to think and how to feel, set tones and moods and emotional cues, and strive for legibility at all costs, Cassavetes' films are about shifting surfaces and frenetic behavior, plotlessness and unpredictability. This dichotomy between two schools of cinema is unfortunately and self-evidently simplistic. Carney refers to Welles and Hitchcock over and over again. He claims this is because their films are the most viewed examples that illustrate his argument, but this leads to further difficulties. First, the reader gets the impression that Carney's understanding of Hollywood cinema is confined to a mere handful of canonized classics and well-publicized names. Carney is at pains to tell us that all of Hollywood operates on certain precepts, but fails to go outside his few meager examples. Even more grating is his insistence that both Welles and Hitchcock subscribe to this directorial philosophy, when he only seems to focus on Citizen Kane and Hitchcock's 50s period. Given that Welles's style changed drastically after traveling to Europe, Carney appears to be committing the cardinal sin of consigning the director to his most overpraised masterwork.

Thankfully, this polemic ends when he begins to write about Shadows, but while he has many important things to say about the film, he ends up returning to the same endless contrasts. Carney perpetually finds it necessary to prop up the rest of 'Hollywood cinema' as a negative image to illuminate Cassavetes' genius, and these comparisons prove tiresome. Even more repetitious is his inexhaustible arsenal of metaphors and explanations that emphasize the chasm between the self and its external representation, the clumsiness of his characters as they attempt to perform and express themselves, the ongoing process of revision and improvisation as the characters adjust and readjust to new events and surroundings, and various other iterations of what is essentially the same thing: the characters in Shadows have no fixed identity and are always changing. There comes a point where the reader wishes that Carney would write more about the specifics of the film, as opposed to Cassavetes' overarching philosophy and how this philosophy is so breathtaking and unique.

This is not to say that Carney does not provide many valuable insights. He is perhaps too attached to Cassavetes for these insights not to come across as veiled adulations, but his knowledge of Cassavetes is certainly comprehensive and incontestable. I am hoping that his analysis of Faces, a film he seems to regard even more highly than Shadows, fares better.

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