Open Ear Open Eye

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John Cassavetes' radical 1959 improv film Shadows was once labelled a sell-out because it was a remake. Now the long-missing original version has turned up. Tom Charity compares the two.

"The original sin of the American independent cinema, when it shifted away from the avant-garde, was the introduction of narrative." James Schamus (executive producer: 'Poison', 'Safe', 'Happiness', 'Hulk'), quoted in Peter Biskind's 'Down and Dirty Pictures'.

Forty-five years after it screened at the Paris Theater in New York City, John Cassavetes' Shadows (1958) received its European premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, on 24 January 2004. This may come as a surprise to those of you who thought you'd seen the film - but that was Shadows (1959), which as we shall see is quite a different animal.

In 1957 John Cassavetes was 28 years old, a successful New York actor with dozens of television dramas and a handful of movies to his name. Along with Burt Lane (Diane's father), he was running an actors' workshop at the Variety Arts building on 46th Street, exploring facets of direction, stagecraft and performance. One study that particularly interested him was improvisation: Cassavetes was temperamentally ill-suited to the repetitions of theatre, and found the restrictions of screen acting - hitting a mark, acting in short takes - no more to his liking. Improvisation looked like a way to go, a mode of spontaneous expression as restless and reckless as his mood swings. Out of his improvisation classes came Shadows.

Read our lips

Setting up an explosive dramatic situation, Cassavetes had four of his students act out a scene where a black girl who passes for white is flirting with a white guy when her two (darker-skinned) brothers come home. The class was so exciting they decided to see if they could make a movie out of it - Cassavetes thought they could do it for as little as $7,000 if everybody pitched in. Too make a long story short, they did. Shooting proceeded haphazardly, often nocturnally, for about ten weeks from the end of February 1957. There was no screenplay, but of course the actors had rehearsed the scenes and situations many times over. More problematically, there was no script girl, so while Cassavetes merrily shouted "Print it" after his preferred takes, nobody was noting down his choices, with the result that all the exposed footage was printed (about 30 hours of it). With no script to consult, and no record of the actors' ad-libs, synchronising sound and picture was to prove a whole new nightmare - legend has it that Cassavetes brought in lip-readers to help out. It was over a year before he had a married print to show for everybody's pains. This is the original version of Shadows , which screened two or possibly three times at the Paris Theater in November 1958.

The screenings were free, 'cast and crew' affairs, with friends, family and presumably investors in the audience. Cassavetes would remember them as "absolutely disastrous": "There was only one person in the theatre who liked the picture and it wasn't me - it was my father, who thought it was 'pure'. Not necessarily good, but pure."

Al Ruban, a friend of Cassavetes who would become a lifelong collaborator, attended one of the screenings. He told me in 1999 that "a lot of people left and a lot of people didn't particularly like it. I told John that it was OK in a naive kind of way and he said he thought so too."

That might have been that, except for two things: Cassavetes decided he could fix the film with some additional shooting; and Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas declared this film a masterpiece.

The last stone

Born in Lithuania in 1922, Mekas was an exile who washed up in New York in 1949. A year later he bought his first Bolex and began recording everyday snatches of the life of the immigrant community he knew. He studied under Hans Richter, and started screening avant-garde films at Gallery East on Avenue A. In 1955 Jonas and his brother Adolfas began publishing Film Culture magazine and in 1958 he contributed the first of a series of weekly columns to Village Voice .

In January 1959 Mekas and Film Culture awarded Shadows their very first Independent Film Award. "Cassavetes was able to break out of conventional moulds and traps and retain original freshness," the magazine claimed. "The improvisation, spontaneity, and free inspiration that are almost entirely lost in most films from an excess of professionalism are fully used in this film."

Later that year Mekas wrote a piece for Sight & Sound grouping Shadows with the short films of Stan Brakhage and with Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's Pull My Daisy (1959), citing their "open ear and open eye... their disrespect for plots and written scripts". He concluded: "Since their most passionate obsession is to capture life in its more free and spontaneous flight, these films could be described as a spontaneous cinema."

Cassavetes, meanwhile, was busy unmaking the movie Mekas regarded so highly. This time he raised a more substantial budget (most of it on credit), bringing the total up towards $40,000. The reshoots lasted only ten days, and as Ray Carney's bfi Classic Film book on Shadows reveals, Cassavetes collaborated with screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur ( Edge of the City ) on a shooting script. So much for spontaneous cinema.

When Cassavetes unveiled his new, improved version of Shadows at Amos Vogel's Cinema 16, Mekas was appalled. His diary entry for 11 November 1959 reads: "At this fateful night I realised what I have to say, if I have anything to say, I'll be able to say it only as an anarchist. My realisation that I was betrayed by the second version of Shadows was the last stone... They didn't know what they had: a blind man's improvisation which depended on chance accidents." He used his column in Village Voice to condemn Cassavetes' commercial sell-out: "same title but different footage, different cutting, story, attitude, style, everything: a bad commercial film with everything that I was praising completely destroyed."

It made painful reading. Mekas knew that Cassavetes had recently accepted a contract to play the jazz-playing private investigator Johnny Staccato on television and had moved his family to Hollywood, in part to pay off the debts incurred on Shadows . The extent to which the charge troubled the film-maker may be judged by his first studio film Too Late Blues (1961), original title Dreams for Sale .

Imagination of youth

Was the new Shadows really a sell-out? The debate raged on the letters page of the Voice . Amos Vogel wrote to Cassavetes at his new home at Pacific Palisades, reporting that the screenings had been a "personal and artistic triumph" but warning darkly that Mekas had stirred up a controversy in New York, and that a confusion existed as to which version was the "true" Shadows : "You must have a very clear-cut stand on the issue... you will further confuse the issue, were you to decide to permit the earlier version to be shown. It is now being stated by certain people that... it constitutes a commercial 'betrayal'... I showed this version because I knew this was 'the film' as far as you and your co-producers were concerned; and because I personally feel the new one is the better one."

At Vogel's behest Cassavetes also wrote to Village Voice , 16 December 1959: "Expression of any kind must be understood to have any meaning... Mr Mekas is right in that he states that this version is completely different. It was made to be understood with the understanding that comes from life, not from the opinions of others. It in no way was a concession, and in my opinion, it is a film far superior to the first. The cinematic style that was so prominent in the first gives way to the emotional experiences the characters encounter. The scenes, in my opinion, are fulfilled, the imagination of youth that sparked the first version came back stronger, clearer, and more determined to enlighten rather than prove."

According to Film Quarterly , Spring 1961, the first version was counter-programmed at the Young Men's Hebrew Association for six performances, but if so, there's no official record of it. Until this year in Rotterdam, the first version was never seen again.

Cassavetes was vague about its fate. He thought he remembered sending the print to a film college where the students may have cut it up in an editing exercise - or perhaps that was wishful thinking? Ray Carney made exhaustive enquiries after it, but to no avail. In his book on Shadows , Carney contented himself with an imaginative reconstruction, based on his researches and on microscopic scrutiny of the extant version (clues include the colour of Benito Carruthers' skin - he used a sunlamp in 1957, but had given it up by the reshoot; subtle changes in wardrobe; the length of his hair; the curl of a collar...). In my own book John Cassavetes: Lifeworks , I confidently asserted that the first version no longer exists.

And yet here it is.

Lost and found

The story of the print's recovery is a testament to the dogged perseverance of Ray Carney, and to blind chance. According to Carney, a friend knew a woman who remembered her father had bought a box of miscellaneous items from a New York Subway lost and found sale. Inside the box was a can of film. Shadows meant nothing to him, and he consigned the can to the attic, where it remained for untold decades (the man is dead now, and his daughter cannot recall) until Carney pestered her to search it out - and against all odds, there it was, the one and only print of the 1958 cut.

The two versions run to almost the same length, 78 and 81 minutes respectively. (It had been assumed that the first cut ran to about an hour.) Only a little over a third of the material in the first cut survived in the second version - much of it from the second half of the film. (Was the first version shot in sequence? There's no evidence to support this, but it's noticeable that the film grows in confidence and composure as it progresses.)

The differences are too many and various to itemise in detail, but to give a flavour: right from the off, the first film doesn't open with the credits sequence (the rock 'n' roll party occurs later here, after Benny's fight with his brother Hugh); there are different opening shots of Benny walking down Broadway; the scene in which he hits Hugh for a loan as a chorus line rehearse their song is shorter and less nuanced; Lelia doesn't see Hugh off at the station and consequently doesn't walk down 42nd Street at night; when we do get the credits, now seven or eight minutes into the film, Anthony Ray (Nicholas Ray's son) is top-billed and the actors' names are superimposed over images of their characters.

In terms of what's missing: Lelia comes into this first film later, has less dialogue and doesn't sleep with Tony (who takes her home when she asks him to). The original version doesn't establish that the three siblings live together until later; it doesn't suggest the brothers' protective feelings for their sister until later; it's less interested in Lelia generally, and while she insists on her own autonomy she's often seen from the perspective of her suitors David and Tony, who both have significantly more screen time here. Given that a lot of the extra footage in the 1958 version consists of Benny, Tom and Dennis mooching around Times Square drinking and looking for girls, the film has a very different feel. It's as if Cassavetes' world view deepened between the two shoots. It's hardly surprising that, as one of the boys, he easily identified with them, but by the second film he was also able to empathise more closely with the paternalistic Hugh and, above all, with Lelia.

Significant additions in the second version include Lelia, David, Benny and the boys at the soda fountain; the scene at MoMA; the pre- and post-coital scenes; and the scene between Lelia and her brothers after Tony has revealed his prejudice. These scene additions were correctly hypothesised by Carney in his bfi monograph (one rare, minor error he makes is that the joke-rehearsal scene between Rupert and Hugh turns out to be in the original cut), and they bear out his conjecture that, working with Aurthur, Cassavetes subtly enriched and complicated the characters of the siblings and downplayed the theme of racial prejudice, which is more explicit (read: clumsy) in the first version.

Although Tony has more screen time in the 1958 cut, his character is actually afforded more dignity in the recut. Twice in the original, the Charles Mingus score is allowed to comment on the character. The first time, a sharp, discordant note underlines his shock as Lelia greets her brother Hugh, a kind of musical exclamation mark. The second time, a cornet drowns out, and in effect caricatures, his end of a pathetic phone call to David as he tries to explain away his shame. It's a playful touch - it gets a laugh - but it trivialises the character.

Incidentally, there's a lot more Mingus in the first cut, mostly mood music to the bright lights of Times Square, but also a snatch of gospel-singing ('Leaning on the Everlasting Arms') after Benny's brawl. When it came to re-scoring the film Mingus wasn't available, and Cassavetes turned to saxophonist Shafi Hadi, a sideman on the original session, and less likely to editorialise. (There are also two Sinatra songs in the first version for which Cassavetes didn't clear the rights.)

Unreliable narrator

In later years Cassavetes denigrated the original cut as "a totally intellectual film - and therefore less than human. I had fallen in love with the _camera, with technique, with beautiful shots, with experimentation for its own sake." But Cassavetes was an unreliable guide to his own work, and no one watching Shadows '58 is likely to be struck by its technical virtuosity, nor (Mingus aside) by its experimentation - except that the whole project was an experiment, an adventure and a lark by a group of aspiring actors who didn't really know what they were about (arguably this became the theme of the second cut). If we can see it as more than a rough draft for the later version, it becomes clearer that, at least in its first half, the 1958 film does operate impressionistically, in snatches and snapshots of New York bohemia. And there's something very modern about its loose assemblage of scenes linked not by dramatic line but by place, time and mood. The first version of Shadows "breaks with the official staged cinema, with made-up faces, with written scripts, with plot continuities," just as Mekas wrote. "Even its inexperience in editing, sound, and camera work becomes part of its style... It doesn't prove anything, it doesn't even want to say anything, but really it tells more than ten or 110 other recent American films. The tones and rhythms of a new America are caught... for the very first time."

Did Cassavetes betray that vision? I would rather conclude that he finessed it. It is a rare experience to make a film twice over, an education Cassavetes never forgot. In Faces (1968) and A Woman under the Influence (1974) he consciously set out to recreate the conditions which produced Shadows , working with no outside financing, enthusing a small crew of young novices, shooting reams of footage through night after night... but it was in the editing room that the lessons really stuck: Shadows taught him how malleable a film can be; how the subtlest adjustments can alter dramatic perspectives; how you can push an audience to work for you. Cassavetes spent years editing and re-editing his pictures. Carney has tracked down a longer print of Faces ; there are two versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) in circulation (although the original, longer cut is very rare); Husbands (1970) exists (or has existed) in at least three different cuts. None of these alternatives - these shadow films - can ever be definitive; each, even in the abstract, is ripe with possibility.

Reverse angle

In November 2000 I was lucky enough to meet Jonas Mekas, a silvery, intense, bright-eyed 78-year-old. "Cassavetes, I admire," he told me, his mittel-European inflection still as thick as soup. "At least Cassavetes doesn't create phoney stories, he pulls out from - works with - who the actors in front of him really are. That is closer to a possibility of cinema.

"Even Shadows, which I was so enraged about, as time goes I realise that the later version was the real Cassavetes, not what was in the first one. What I supported in the first one was what I was all about. What I missed [in the second version] was the direction in which I was beginning to go... I was missing myself!" He laughed, a soft, throaty chuckle. "The first version should have been left alone," he said. Then allowed, with a shrug: "The second is still an important piece of cinema..."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012