Akis Lalos

Jul 9, 2020

3 min read

Shadows (1959): New jazz dharma

This really is the one that changed everything.

The film is grounded in a sort of vocabulary that was new at the time, in fact I think the influence of this is much more important than Breathless. You can tell now that it’s scripted to be that way, that it’s overdramatic in spots, and perhaps a bit long in the tooth. But for the time, it must have felt as intended, something wholly new and natural, a breath drawn for the first time.

The main threads are not unusual, relationships, music, getting somewhere in life, but that’s because in retrospect the casualness is familiar. It wasn’t always there in American film. It would seem new when Woody Allen would do it a decade later. Heck, it would seem new when Tarantino would do it three decades later.

The film points at the new morals, the life you wouldn’t see in a Louis Mayer confection; a girl sleeps with a guy on the first date, whites and blacks hang together, fight and make-up, a girl dates a black guy, she is bossy and ‘masculine’. An exotic dancer turns out to be pregnant and happily married. Stereotypes are turned, for the first time that I know of so openly. That’s fine.

But what’s really cool about it is that we don’t just have life a certain way, but life wondering about what it means to be in the film — what it means to look at itself.

This is not Godard’s schematic self-reference of exposing the camera and actors. Here it is completely merged with the flow of life. The talk between jazz musicians about how to spice the ‘act’, how the audience loves jokes, while joking about it to us. The girl who’s written a story to be honest about life, purely felt, and her author friend who wants to sleep with her telling her about motivation. The beatnik guy who rants against ‘teachers’ who won’t show life itself, a surrogate for Cassavetes himself.

There is no broader story. It’s all by turns jazz riffing and making room that points at itself taking shape. It’s about all this having a presence, one as ubiquitous and mysteriously reflected on everything as the lights on the marquees and the strange man who pulls on the girl in that eerie, wonderful scene in the movie theater. This one moment right here, a few seconds, is the new language of cinema that is now saturating through Malick, more fully undertaken at the time in Hiroshima mon amour.

And it’s wholly ‘now’, what the beats knew as Zen at the time through Watts and others; the dharma wheel seen in the hot dog vendor’s cart on the street.