The ultra-realism of John Cassavetes hasn’t really sat well with me. Anyone who’s read this blog, even in the very first days of its existence, will know how I don’t care for Italian neorealism, and John Cassavetes is basically Americanized Italian neorealism. Even with his first feature, Shadows, I was expecting there to be the planting of seeds of the hyper-realism that would define his later work. What I wasn’t expecting was this being so… movie-like, with a narrative and a score and everything. Sure, the hyper-realism is indeed blossoming with this first feature of his, but there was more to it than just that.
The film caps at the end with a superimposed title, stating “The film that you have just seen was an improvisation”, so a plot summary will be a little difficult (especially since all the characters have the same names as the actors), but I’ll try. Ben is a young wannabe jazz musician living in New York with his sister Lelia and brother Hugh. At a party, Lelia has a short falling out with her boyfriend David, and ends up hooking up with another white man, Tony, who is initially unaware she is a virgin, and is completely unaware she is black, due to her lighter skin tone. When Hugh shows up at the apartment, being introduced as Lelia’s brother, Tony suddenly needs to leave, which upsets both her and Hugh, and by proxy Ben when he later questions why Lelia is angry. Needless to say, everybody’s storylines end up being resolved, even though their futures are still left uncertain. Now, like I said in the opener, there was more to this one than just neorealism, which meant there was more to this one that I ended up liking. For one, for an independent production, the film was surprisingly well acted; with the exception of Lelia Goldoni, who acts like she’s reading from the script just off-camera. Speaking of which, it was her acting in particular that convinced me that there was a script to this one, and that it wasn’t improvised by the actors, making the end title card, from what I gathered, a bit of a farce. Also, the film uses a smooth jazz score to undercut much of the tension of the scenes, and is even there during a lot of the in-between sections, which made the already rather short film a breeze to sit through. Really, after the languorous pacing of the other two Cassavetes films I’ve seen, that this one was so short, and such an easy watch, came as quite the surprise, and not an unwelcome one. All combined, this made for a much more enjoyable picture than I was expecting, which made me wonder where and why Cassavetes would end up digging his heels into this whole neorealism shtick he would embrace so lovingly.
I gotta say, I was so ready to write this one off as just another Cassavetes picture I’d end up not caring for, but this was nice. Nice, and short, and thrifty, and surprisingly entertaining the whole way through. I can’t say the same for the remaining Cassavetes film on the list for me to see, at least not yet, but to have a bit of a reprieve was an experience I am largely thankful for. This isn’t as Cassavetes as his later films (and why, I suspect, I enjoyed this one), but there’s enough here to satisfy fans of his and other classic film lovers alike. Apparently, Cassavetes actually filmed this one twice; once in 1957, and then again in 1959 when he got a lukewarm response to the initial cut. The earlier cut, thought lost until just recently, apparently has less of a narrative thread to it, which means that it would probably have ended up even more off my radar than Cassavetes usually is. So, for that, I am again thankful that this one was as good as it was.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10