Criterion Files #251: ‘Shadows’ Creates Independent Film Off the Top of Its Head

By  · Published on March 16th, 2011

John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) is often cited as a watershed moment in American independent film, and Cassavetes himself rather conveniently historicized as our nation’s “first” independent filmmaker. Such historical designations are often used as a way to narrativize precedents to the 1980s and 1990s Sundance-emboldened independent film “movement” and draw historical equivalents to the practices of now and then.

This tendency often positions Cassavetes’ undoubtedly important contributions in a way that simplistically juxtaposes his artistic efforts with that of, say, anybody from Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Taranatino, ignoring the essential differences in historical context and means of aesthetic expression between them while also conveniently evading the many other American “independent” filmmakers that came before Cassavates himself.

While Cassavetes is undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind filmmaker (excluding the many he has influenced), perhaps the biggest problem with this conventionally reductive veneration of Cassavetes is the notion that he acted alone, that he was an anomaly in an otherwise dominant system. John Cassavetes is undoubtedly one of America’s most important filmmakers, but seeing him as such an incongruity prevents us from understanding exactly why he was so important.


Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Maya Deren, Jack Smith, and Stan Brakhage are seldom viewed as contemporaries to Cassavetes because they rarely, if ever, made feature-length narrative films, but to understand their work is to understand exactly what Cassavetes’ work was attempting to respond to. These filmmakers were also “independents,” but the avant-garde is hardly ever designated as independent because it typically engages in non-narrative forms of expression.

“Independence” in the context of American filmmaking is often an economic term and is severely limited as a distinctive signifier of separation in terms of aesthetics or storytelling, for American independent films are frequently, like Hollywood films, narrative feature-length stories with a discernible plot and characters, and repeatedly work within the same paradigms (genre, storytelling expectations) as the studios they have ostensibly engaged in an independent schism from. Thus, to be an “independent” film is to be a film that is slightly different from studio filmmaking in terms of business practice and some divergent storytelling aspects/techniques, but is still recognizable enough to the norm to be viewed as a slight disruption of that norm.

Independent films are dependent on what it means to be a “film” according to Hollywood.

Such a distinction, of course, excludes the avant-garde despite the fact that the postwar American avant-garde engages in an independence from conventional cinema in so many more ways than traditional independent film. Cassavetes’ films are easily classifiable as a precursor to contemporary American independent filmmaking because they contain the semblance of a “conventional” linear plot structure outside of the economy of Hollywood, but the spirit of the art has more in common with Cassavetes’ avant-garde brethren because its goal of independence is far more radical.

Postwar American avant-garde filmmakers saw the conventions of Hollywood and its corresponding aesthetic limitations as a means by which corporate entities grew to dominate the human psyche, shaping human subjectivity through its practices of aesthetic and narrative repetition and its conditioning of expectations. Warhol and Smith, for example, broke from this paradigm by subverting the perceived “sacred” nature of the star image. But filmmakers like Brakhage went even more extreme, seeking an independence from all conventions of artistic expression in hopes of opening up human subjectivity to new expressive possibilities. By finding an aesthetic independence from the way Hollywood teaches us to “see,” Brakhage looked for new means of perception. His voyage toward independence was often literalized by unconventional material means he often made “films” independently of the film camera altogether, like in Mothlight (1963), where the subject of the film becomes film itself.

The Film You Have Just Seen Was Improvised

What all these artists had in common was the desire to find truth through cinema where it was previously obscured by artifice. With Cassavetes, independence meant spontaneity, and through this spontaneity one could find truth. Improvisation was the essential means of capturing the truly spontaneous act on celluloid, an act within the artistic framework of a feature film that was independent of the predeterminations and telegraphed closure determined by studio scripting.

While Shadows should never be confused as a documentary (though it was probably less scripted than many non-fiction films at the time), all its efforts went full force towards the intent of portraying the “real” that the rest of cinema obscured, in both subject matter and style. This is why Shadows was a landmark film not only because of its form but also its subject matter. In terms of its portrayals of conflicts regarding race and gender in the Eisenhower era, Shadows is unprecedented. To exhibit the complexities of white/black relations, the film’s central female character passes as either race, and through her oscillation between black identity and assumed assimilation gives us a story about how even the supposedly enlightened “counterculture” carries with it harmful racial prejudice.

But perhaps the moment that marks Shadows’ true independence is its discourse on gender, standing as one of the first American films to frankly depict female sexuality, not only in terms of the reality of a single woman actually desiring sex and actively seeking it out, but in its depiction of the harsh reality of sex itself. While in a postmodern era we may be rightfully suspicious of any efforts to convey unmediated “truth” through cinema just as we might rarely consider any form of spontaneity or improvisation “purely” either of these things, one can’t help but realize how important and – yes, essentially and irrevocably “real,” – it is to have an American film from 1959 in which a woman, after losing her virginity, devastatingly states, as if all the illusions of the world have just revealed the sad truth of their nature, “I never knew it could be so awful.”

Jazz Cinema

Completed the same year as the release of Alfred Frank and Robert Leslie’s Pull My Daisy, these two films represented two sides of a coin in their respective depictions of beat culture, a culture that would be parodied and exaggerated often in popular media but one that remains rather organically portrayed here. And the improvisations of jazz music (which permeates Shadows’ soundtrack and narrative) are both reciprocal to and representative of Cassavetes’ efforts in spontaneity and improvisation. But jazz is often reductively thought of as “pure improvisation,” when the best of jazz is often a rigorous improvisatory engagement with familiar or conditioned musical structures, or a decoding of music’s conventional codes. It’s not simply made-up notes. While Jack Kerouac saw the editing of the written word as blasphemy, many beats and their contemporaries (from Norman Mailer’s prose to the paintings of Jackson Pollock) engaged in a spontaneity that was undoubtedly a perfectable craft.

That Shadows as we know it today is actually the second version of the film (Cassavetes reshot most of his work from the 1957 edition of the film) speaks to the fact of spontaneity and improvisation was an involved process in postwar artistic expression. True independence, as Shadows and its surrounding art objects exhibit, is something difficult to come by.

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