Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Day 18: Shadows

There’s a title at the end of Shadows informing the viewer that the movie was improvised. It’s not surprising. Shadows is a free-form and lively character driven film. There’s a plotline, but it moves forward based on the characters and their actions, and there are many detours from it along the way. The movie pauses for long stretches to observe the behavior and attitudes of the people involved. And there are times when, perhaps, the movie pauses a bit too long or repeats itself as the characters find different ways to express the same thing. In short, it has the benefits of a good improvisation (feeling emotionally “live” and the ability to explore tangential areas at a whim), but contains some of the drawbacks (being too indulgent). It’s not a powerhouse of a movie, but it’s well observed and thoughtful.

Shadows is shot and edited not unlike Godard’s Breathless, a low-budget, haphazard style that obeys none of the traditional conventions and flaunts them at whim. There are a lot of close-ups in the movie, and there are a few sequences where the movie dissolves at random from one angle, close on the actor, to a second angle equally close. The sound ranges from adequate to awful. It’s unclear, from watching the movie, whether the roughness is a matter of choice or a matter of economic necessity. I’d lean towards the latter. But this is one of those movies, like Night of the Living Dead, where the dirt poor production values are an asset rather than a drawback. For instance, the score of the film is mostly solo instrument improvisation, not really synced to the action taking place. Because the movie deals, in part, with musicians, it feels like source music and is more effective at drawing us into the world than any finely orchestrated counterpoint could be. The story focuses on people who are on the fringes of society and the gritty, scrappy production echoes their lives. You could say this is a happy accident, but it’s also good casting: putting the right ideas into the right aesthetic.

The movie focuses on three siblings in New York City, sometime in the late 1950s. Hugh is an unsuccessful singer; when the movie opens, he has a gig at a strip club and he suffers the indignation of introducing the strippers after his set. Benny is a rootless, aimless young man. He hangs out with a two other similar men and together they play cards, wander the streets, and try to pick up girls. Leila is Hugh and Benny’s sister, a young woman, still uncertain who she is or what she wants out of life. She is somewhat enlightened (note: this being the 1950s, there is no scene involving a corset) and defies the convention that she must be subservient to or classified by the men that she dates.

All three characters are African American and they are rendered with an honesty and realism that seems progressive for the time. The emotional crux of the film occurs when Leila, who is so fair skinned she passes for white, sleeps with a white man named Tony. But, as this is an observational movie at its core and not a didactic, message movie, the racial conflict is subtly drawn. Tony is conflicted when he meets Hugh, and, though he’s just professed his undying love to Leila, makes a feeble excuse to leave the apartment. When Hugh then insists that Tony leave in order to protect his sister from being hurt, Tony insists that the two remember he was forced to leave. It’s an interesting character beat, showing Tony’s uncomfortability with the fact that he’s slept with a black woman, as well as his desire to not be seen as prejudiced. He later tries to redeem himself by offering some bland, racially sensitive platitudes and the movie wisely ridicules him for this empty gesture.

The acting in the movie is, for the most part, a treat. There are a few false steps every now and then, particularly with Leila. However, for every bad, overly acted moment, there’s a naturalistic one that follows it. Like everyone you know, the characters’ extreme emotions are held in check and break out in only the most dire of circumstances. And sometimes they break out in very interesting (and very honest) ways. Leila reacts to the hurt Tony causes her by making a new suitor wait for hours while she gets ready for their date and acting in a very controlling, powerful manner. Benny and his cohorts flee to an art museum when challenged about their unambitious lifestyle and engage in some funny and poignant discussions about the art they find there.

Where the movie succeeds is in its matter-of-fact presentation of the lives of these characters. So often, matters of racial inequality or discrimination are presented with pointed fingers and an epic grandiosity that cheapens all the characters involved, reducing all of them to “types,” no matter how well drawn the characters are (I’m looking at you, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Here, we simply observe the way these characters live and interact with the world around them. Racial issues are a part of their lives, but not all of their lives. Near the end of the film, Benny and his friends hit on some girls whose boyfriends are momentarily absent. When the boyfriends return, a fight breaks out between the two groups. I wondered if the extremity of the boyfriends’ reaction had anything to do with Benny’s race. The movie doesn’t say and there’s really nothing in the movie to suggest it. A lesser movie would make that the only reason the fight breaks out.


kikkokatty2433 said...

Do you really have time to watch a movie everyday and write about it?

David Wester said...

No, but therein lies the challenge!

Donny B said...

Just found your blog and like it a lot. You really seem to know what you're talking about, unlike a lot of bloggers who just rant on and on.

Your review of Corpse Bride reminds me of what I thought of MirrorMask, the recent film written by Neil Gaimon. I wrote about that and other movies/pop-culture stuff on my blog at:


(kind of cheap to sell my own blog on yours, I know, but I thought I could give it a try)

Anyway, you have a great idea for a blog. Looking forward to your upcoming movie choices.

Raymond said...

Nice Blog. Mine consist of political ranting and a self obsessed journal that no one reads. I really do like what you have done here.

I noticed on your profile that you listed "Cat's Cradle" as one of your favorite books. Kurt Vonnegut is my FAVORITE author hands down, but I must say that "Breakfast of Champions" is my fav!

Your Blog has an indepndent flair to it. Almost like you are taking movie reviewing out of the hands of biased and corperatly funded magazines and brining it back to the people. But I suppose that is what Blogging is all about anyway. Keep up the great work and I'll definatly be back. :-)

"Just because we can read, write and do a little math doesn't mean that we deserve to rule the universe." - Kurt Vonnegut

Alex said...

Hi David

Very eclectic tastes, and good reviews, congrats.

I just wanted to suggest you some non-US movies you might like:
- 8 1/2 by F. Fellini
- The Sheltering Sky by B. Bertolucci
- Mediterraneo by G. Salvatores
- Hana-bi by T. Kitano
- Porco Rosso by H. Miyazaki
- Onegin by M. Fiennes.

Hope you will like them as much as I did.


Ash Karreau said...

Cassavetes is always hit and miss for me. Actually, the films are always great, but sometimes I find them impossible to enjoy. A Woman Under The Influence, in particular, makes me squirm uncomfortably in my seat for its entirety, though it's an excellent movie.

Michael Walton said...

Great reviews, great blog.

David Wester said...

Raymond: You're right, I'm fighting those fuckers in city hall with this blog, taking movie reviews to the people in the streets. Together we will create a better world of film scholarship, that is, until people realize I have very little authority to write what I do!

David Wester said...

Ash: I'm curious, what is it that makes you squirm so? This was my first Cassavettes experience. I am interested in seeing more, but not super-excited.