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Senior Shackster
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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)
Criterion takes art films and foreign titles and does full restorations before releasing
them in expensive DVDs. Since so many of their movies are obscure or independent,
they fill a void in the marketplace and should be commended for their efforts. Tiles
include the Jacques Tati comedies, "Carnival of Souls" and "The Blob". Who else would
spend the money to market pictures like John Cassevetes "Shadows".

So I feel a bit uneasy criticizing their discs since they are an important company.
However this release has a lot of problems and is surrounded in controversy.

First of all, for those who are unfamiliar with John Cassevetes, he was a well known
character actor who had notable roles in "The Dirty Dozen" and "Rosemary's Baby".

His other career was as one of the first independent 'auteurs' that worked outside
of the Hollywood system. He was an auteur (French word for author) before that
term was adopted by New Hollywood filmmakers in the sixties and seventies. As I've
mentioned before, 'auteurs' do not work in collaboration with others (screenwriters,
editors etc.) which was how the studio system operated. Instead they represented a
single man's vision with complete creative control of all aspects of their productions
including writing, directing and editing with the 'final cut' of what's released in theaters.
This could result in some interesting movies providing the filmmaker had discipline. If they
didn't, the directors often went way over budget or had a difficult time finishing the movie
at all. Within this category their talent ranged from interesting but technically crude (Cassevetes)
to quirky (George Romero, Herk Harvey) to non-existent (Ed Woods). Orson Welles was
an example of an undisciplined 'auteur' who took years to complete and release his
indie films. Some were never finished. And of course there's me but I'll let others rate
my feature films.

Cassevetes made his first feature in 16mm in 1957. It was called "Shadows". Photographed
in grainy black and white and later blown up to 35mm, it received some critical accolades
when originally shown in selected theaters. It was filmed in a 'cinema verite' manner
with a hand held camera on real locations instead of sets in New York City. Using
newcomers from his Method acting class, the finished picture didn't really have a linear plot.
It contained a series of isolated sequences chronicling counter culture types in their enviornment
from that era. Those were actual apartments and the actors even used thier own names.
Some of them later became Hollywood performers including Rupert Crosse ("The Reivers")
and Ben Carruthers ("The Dirty Dozen"). What there is of a story detailed a mixed race family.
One brother is a no talent singer who is reduced to doing songs before a burlesque show. The
other is a beatnik who wanders around aimlessly and the third is a sister who is so light skinned
she passes as a caucasian. The only plot device that adds drama is when her white boyfriend
finds out she's a mulatto and leaves her which was considered controversial at the time. Now it's
merely a dated secondary aspect of the picture.

The gimmick Cassevetes used was to have the actors improvise all of their dialogue while he filmed
them from random angles. Most scenes are just snippets of their life or some crisis without
any linkage. This was considered quite innovative and the picture garnered a cult reputation.

Now comes the controversial aspect of this movie. After the first release in 1957 (of
which only one 16mm print was made), Cassevetes decided to round up the actors and
re-shoot half of it to make it more commercial. He chopped up the original negative
to do this and 'simulated' the improvisations to give the illusion that the actors weren't
scripted. This version was considered inferior to the original, at least for those who saw
both copies. The second version was released in 35mm in 1959. The second version is
what Criterion and UCLA restored and there's even a mini-documentary about how they
went about it. They got rid of as much of the dust, scratches and dirt as they could although
the final result still looks like a home movie despite their efforts. This is a film that
you watch soley for the quirky performances and as a time capsule of the era. The visual and
audio elements are very primitive if not distracting. There's even part of a camera slate at the
beginning of one close up.

As always with film preservation, archivists have to prepare for the unexpected...

Film professor and Cassavetes biographer, Ray Carney, miraculously found the sole copy of the
16mm first version of the movie in the lost and found department in the NYC subway system.
Cassavetes had apparently left it on a train. It turned out to be near mint and
he immediately transferred it to digital videotape for release and offered it free to Criterion
along with his running commentary about the career of the filmmaker.
Now film buffs could compare the first legitimally improvised copy with the second staged
version to see which they preferred.

This was announced to the press but before before Criterion made the master DVD they got a
call from Gina Rowlands, Cassevetes widow, who threatened a lawsuit if the original version
of the film was ever released to the public. Depite the efforts of Carney and the Criterion
folks, nothing would change Rowland's mind. They even removed Carney's commentary from
the disc to avoid legal hassles. Suffice it to say, this is a major disappointment.

So is this Criterion disc worth watching? Only if you want to be a Cassevetes completist
and see his entire output. It's going to be rough going for many movie fans used to some
technical professionalism in independent films. I guess it's harder to make excuses for the
director's terrible cinematography and inept editing when you consider the fact that the second
version was staged rather than improvised. Also, there are enough indie auteurs who have
good technical specs despite the limited funds (myself included). Just because a production
is low budget doesn't mean it has to look and sound like a student film.

I would not advise watching this movie without becoming familiar with Cassevetes style
of filmmaking. Start with his best 'improvised' (or staged improvised) feature which is
"A Woman Under the Influence". It stars Rowlands who is brilliant as a mentally disturbed
housewife cracking up. It's less primitive than "Shadows" and was shot in 35mm color instead
of 16mm black and white. Then if you like that movie try some of his earlier work like this
picture, "Faces" and "Husbands". They take some getting used to but the concept is that you
are peaking into some disfunctional people's lives with a hidden camera as they reveal the
darker side of their nature. The actors interrupt each other or talk simultanously often having
tantrums or forgetting to finish their sentences. Sometimes the close ups are out of focus or
the performers leave the frame. The lighting is so bad you can't always tell what's going on. It's
an aquired taste but if you're in the mood you might find it intriquing.

Regarding Cassevetes improvisation...

There are few problems with it as a filmmaking technique. While it may be possible for acting
students or inexperienced thespians to improvise an entire performance, it's difficult or
impossible for those who have put in some years on stage, TV and screen. All actors and
actresses will adopt certain manerisms based on positive reactions of audiences. It
becomes instinctual in the long run. So to claim an experienced actor has
'improvised' his or her role isn't plausible since they will always rely on their tried and
true bits of business that have worked in the past. Actors like Marlon Brando
liked to scratch himself, Steve McQueen played with props and Meryl Streep got teary eyed
for effect. That's not to suggest they did't give good performances but improvisation really
isn't part of their "Method" or at least not on the level that Cassavetes claims performers like
Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara or Gina Rowlands gave in his later movies. They were calculated
portrayals but effective on that level.
 
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