The Beat generation espoused a rejection of mainstream American values, and John Cassavetes’s Shadows feels like a relic from that movement, with its improvisatory bebop jazz feeling, cameras in the street, method-style performances, frustration about accepted social norms, and an interracial romance between a hipster white guy (Anthony Ray) and a light-skinned black woman (Leila Goldoni) that eventually takes over the episodic narrative. Cassavetes was pushing the envelope at the time, reacting to the formulaic techniques of Hollywood movies. Shadows will forever have the novelty of coming first—frequently credited with being the pioneer American independent movie. The rough-around-the-edges aesthetics and occasional “let’s hit the nail on the head” earnestness is made up for by scene work that is cheerfully goofy, spontaneous, aggressive, and inventive (for example, three tough guys run laps around a sculpture yard, throwing punches at one another, muttering lines like “Ya got no appreciation for art?” and “This joint gives me the creeps!”). Shadows isn’t told through drawn-out scenes where we observe keyed-up performers doing abrasive verbal somersaults; it’s more of a collage that freely jumps back and forth between a series of brief flirtations, and it’s as if the viewer were marching through a block party catching little snippets of activity. At 80 minutes, its cinematic flash fiction, and a suitable entry point into the lively body of work Cassavetes made.
With the digital restoration, Shadows looks as good as ever, for a movie made for almost no budget and known for its gritty imperfections. The dialogue tracks are clear, without pops or hisses.
An essay by Gary Giddens makes a case for Shadows as being timeless in its depiction of raw human emotions. There's also an article by Cassavetes where he considers that new filmmakers should take into account that the old guard actually liked people, and had a fascination with the "epic quality of man rather than a lessening of his ideals." An interview with Leila Goldoni, who was 18 years old when she acted in Faces, is a recollection of the acting class she took under the tutelage of Cassavetes, and her sense that "unconscious acting is the best." She discusses how the film defied the conventions of the romantic sheen of the 1950s, particularly with the post-sexual scene where her character is frankly underwhelmed. Seymour Cassel, who was a key Cassavetes collaborator, shares the story of how he met the director during a very brief interview (they talked for an hour, then Cassel kept visiting the set of Shadows every day and helping out, having the time of his life). Rare, silent behind-the-scenes footage of the acting workshop Cassavetes ran with Bert Lane isn't very informative, since we don't actually see any physical acting exercises and can't hear the verbal improvisations (and the camera basically seems to be filming monologues). The disc is rounded out with a stills gallery and theatrical trailer that emphasizes how the film "breaks all the barriers" of cinema.
Shadows feels like a Beatnik relic, which gives it tremendous value.