These days the term ‘independent film’ is often shorthand for anything kooky, bittersweet, scripted by Zach Braff and/or starring Zooey Deschanel and bankrolled by a major studio.
Back in John Cassavetes’ day, independent films were independent. In fact, he practically invented them. You may know him as ‘that guy off of that thing’ from his numerous guest appearances on TV shows like Columbo and the odd movie (The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby).
But those were a means to fund his true calling – like a proto Mike Leigh, Cassavetes formed his own repertory company, collectively workshopped stories together and filmed them. And he did it all out of his own pocket. His first two movies are almost a decade apart, but they share similar concerns – alienation, social exclusion, and the often puzzling desires of the human heart.
Also, everyone drinks and smokes a lot. His first, Shadows (1959), with its raucous Charles Mingus soundtrack and hep-cat dialogue, has almost become a parody of itself.
Yet this hugely influential film is also brave and heartfelt, subtly contrasting the experiences of the gawky, troublesome Ben (Ben Carruthers) and his contrary sister Lelia (Leila Goldoni) – both are mixed-race, both can pass for white – as they try, in their own ways, to integrate themselves into a socially fractured New York.
It’s a rare snapshot of ordinary people from a time in which the film industry was interested in anything but. “There were no more excuses,” reflects Marty in Scorsese On Scorsese. “If he could do it, so could we.”