Prisoners of Pain & Pleasure: THE NIGHT PORTER

Where do I even begin with Liliana Cavani’s 1974 THE NIGHT PORTER as the core foundation of the film’s subject matter is about a sadomasochistic relationship? The core of this story lays heavily in the tragic isolation between Lucia, a Holocaust survivor (played by Charlotte Rampling) and Max her former Nazi torturer (played by Dirk Bogarde) who happens to be her lover working as a hotel porter in Vienna long after the war has ended. Some might consider this as a “nazi sexploitation” film and that might make most uncomfortable but from a psychological standpoint it’s simply about two lost souls making sense of their lives while being crippled by the inherent need to cerebrally fuck with each other. And perhaps the whole sadomasochist label can be substituted for what it actually is; Stockholm syndrome because being abused and isolated for a lengthy period of time can do an extensive amount of damage.

Much of Lucia and Max’s past is revealed through some bone-chilling flashbacks and how their sexual relationship evolved throughout the duration of Lucia’s time at a concentration camp as a young woman. As the past tangos with the present where Max, working as a night porter in actuality is attempting to live a life among the shadows he lurks behind. He’s still considered a Nazi who’s basically a war criminal on the run. However, out of sheer coincidence Max reconnects with Lucia who happens to be staying with her husband in the hotel Max works for and the pair reignite their affair.Max’s Nazi colleagues catch wind of Lucia and fear she will report them all. In order to protect himself and Lucia the two lock themselves away in his tiny apartment. It’s almost as if the tables are turned where Max endures the torture of living in fear while being stripped of his freedom which is what Lucia experienced in the concentration camp. Except this time Lucia is with him enduring the same psychological torment and eventually starvation. The two have sealed their fate complying themselves entirely to madness which springs on hallucinations as well the act of rationing food. Their physical degradation is an enormous metaphor for their emotional desire to pain which consequently is breaking them down, stripping away their sense of humanity. It’s like slowly watching their souls shred away in some meat grinder.

In one of the most provocative, probably infamous scene of the film is in a flashback where Lucia’s half nude wearing some baggy SS pants, suspenders, and a hat while swaying about and singing a Marlene Dietrich song. It’s as enchanting as it is haunting but nicely played out in a dizzying dreamlike manner all the while paralleling the infamous story of Salome from the bible. That’s right there’s a severed head involved which amplifies the magnitude of this moment as a decree of pleasure or perhaps pain depending how you perceive it. Even the camera’s movements effectively hypnotize the audience as if they’re apart of this erotic saunter by pushing and pulling out on certain features such as the onlookers who happen to be wearing creepy masks. All the men in this room have this stoic presence where the choreography feels natural, not staged.

Stylistically it reminds me of a bruising nightmare, parading itself inside a wound that never fully heals as it creeps into your soul and doesn’t let go. It’s a resilient, heavy film to handle but it does so with a manner of obscure grace. This film shouldn’t be perceived as a realistic entity because there are elements of fantasy at play here. It’s almost as if the flashbacks adhere to fantasy because of how detrimental the reality of they’re past had been. It’s easier to spruce up or at least project a fantasy as opposed to reliving the actuality of the monstrosity over and over again like some coping mechanism. I mean if you had a relationship with a Nazi would you be charmed to have him in your life again knowing you were sexually abused by him as a young girl? This takes the whole Lolita concept to an astronomical level. It’s confusing.

For instance, in what I assume could be another dream sequence with Bert, (played by Amedeo Amodio) a homosexual dancer dancing only in a thong among the other officers and Max in an open dingy-lit room has this desirous effect behind the male gaze objectifying the male body from Max’s perspective. However, in reality it’s Bert who makes a reference in wanting to dominate Max and preserve him as his slave but the irony is typically the submissive has all the power. The submissive can choose to intentionally deny the dom perhaps subjecting himself to a layer of pain for resisting.

It’s challenging trying to comprehend Cavani’s approach specifically when it comes to using men and women’s bodies as is shown in two very distinctive scenes between Lucia’s dance and Bert’s. Perhaps, it’s the use of these dreamlike sequences to shed light on the psyche behind these characters, deeply embedded desires that can’t necessarily manifest in reality. However, Max and Lucia’s sadomasochistic relationship is convincing beyond belief such as the scene where Lucia locks herself in the bathroom with Max pounding on the door. She shatters a bottle of perfume and unlocks the door, as Max barges in crushing his bare feet on the broken glass. He violently stomps his foot further into the glass with a faint smirk on his face totally relishing the moment as does Lucia. It’s such a surreal concept to fathom what drives pain and pleasure to unite in what’s considered a provocative moment.

What makes this film perplexing not only the subject matter but what it prevails in is its stifling atmosphere that conveys how misery is tantalizing and isolation is like slowly suffocating an excruciating death. We see this when their barricading themselves in the apartment agonizing over what the next step of survival is. They can’t go back nor can they move forward, so essentially they’re both pleading to the depths of insanity. And to undergo such an insanity one has to emulate the other’s abusive tendencies. Lucia succumbs to Max’s sexual proclivities by harboring her own agenda basically mirroring his behavior to get what she wants. It’s a tug-a-war affect without compromise. Aside from being married to an American conductor, Lucia’s delved into shattering her “normal” persona to surrendering herself back to being Max’s “little girl”. It’s heartbreaking but in order to conquer the beast one has to become the beast or so it seems.

I’m sure this hotly debated film in 1970 had to have crossed the line for most people who don’t find abuse entertaining. Personally, I see it more as an exploration on an explicable passion that surrenders to the realm of pain and pleasure because it’s what connects them. Because everything in life whatever shape or form has this duality to it and using some force of symmetry maintains it’s presence such as the balancing act between the mind and heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed tackling this film as I’m sure I’ll continue to wrestle with it years to come. I feel like there’s so more to discover here and as I’m barely scratching the surface it shall be revisited because this marvel of a challenge is what I love about cinema. Liliana Cavani is a force to be reckoned with.

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Prisoners of Pain & Pleasure: THE NIGHT PORTER

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Where do I even begin with Liliana Cavani’s 1974 THE NIGHT PORTER as the core foundation of the film’s subject matter is about a sadomasochistic relationship? The core of this story lays heavily in the tragic isolation between Lucia, a Holocaust survivor (played by Charlotte Rampling) and Max her former Nazi torturer (played by Dirk Bogarde) who happens to be her lover working as a hotel porter in Vienna long after the war has ended. Some might consider this as a “nazi sexploitation” film and that might make most uncomfortable but from a psychological standpoint it’s simply about two lost souls making sense of their lives while being crippled by the inherent need to cerebrally fuck with each other. And perhaps the whole sadomasochist label can be substituted for what it actually is; Stockholm syndrome because being abused and isolated for a lengthy period of time can do an extensive amount of damage.
MXLLS
Much of Lucia and Max’s past is revealed through some bone-chilling flashbacks and how their sexual relationship evolved throughout the duration of Lucia’s time at a concentration camp as a young woman. As the past tangos with the present where Max, working as a night porter in actuality is attempting to live a life among the shadows he lurks behind. He’s still considered a Nazi who’s basically a war criminal on the run. However, out of sheer coincidence Max reconnects with Lucia who happens to be staying with her husband in the hotel Max works for and the pair reignite their affair.Max’s Nazi colleagues catch wind of Lucia and fear she will report them all. In order to protect himself and Lucia the two lock themselves away in his tiny apartment. It’s almost as if the tables are turned where Max endures the torture of living in fear while being stripped of his freedom which is what Lucia experienced in the concentration camp. Except this time Lucia is with him enduring the same psychological torment and eventually starvation. The two have sealed their fate complying themselves entirely to madness which springs on hallucinations as well the act of rationing food. Their physical degradation is an enormous metaphor for their emotional desire to pain which consequently is breaking them down, stripping away their sense of humanity. It’s like slowly watching their souls shred away in some meat grinder.
In one of the most provocative, probably infamous scene of the film is in a flashback where Lucia’s half nude wearing some baggy SS pants, suspenders, and a hat while swaying about and singing a Marlene Dietrich song. It’s as enchanting as it is haunting but nicely played out in a dizzying dreamlike manner all the while paralleling the infamous story of Salome from the bible. That’s right there’s a severed head involved which amplifies the magnitude of this moment as a decree of pleasure or perhaps pain depending how you perceive it. Even the camera’s movements effectively hypnotize the audience as if they’re apart of this erotic saunter by pushing and pulling out on certain features such as the onlookers who happen to be wearing creepy masks. All the men in this room have this stoic presence where the choreography feels natural, not staged.
Stylistically it reminds me of a bruising nightmare, parading itself inside a wound that never fully heals as it creeps into your soul and doesn’t let go. It’s a resilient, heavy film to handle but it does so with a manner of obscure grace. This film shouldn’t be perceived as a realistic entity because there are elements of fantasy at play here.  It’s almost as if the flashbacks adhere to fantasy because of how detrimental the reality of they’re past had been. It’s easier to spruce up or at least project a fantasy as opposed to reliving the actuality of the monstrosity over and over again like some coping mechanism. I mean if you had a relationship with a Nazi would you be charmed to have him in your life again knowing you were sexually abused by him as a young girl? This takes the whole Lolita concept to an astronomical level. It’s confusing.
SLXLM
For instance, in what I assume could be another dream sequence with Bert, (played by Amedeo Amodio) a homosexual dancer dancing only in a thong among the other officers and Max in an open dingy-lit room has this desirous effect behind the male gaze objectifying the male body from Max’s perspective.  However, in reality it’s Bert who makes a reference in wanting to dominate Max and preserve him as his slave but the irony is typically the submissive has all the power. The submissive can choose to intentionally deny the dom perhaps subjecting himself to a layer of pain for resisting.
It’s challenging trying to comprehend Cavani’s approach specifically when it comes to using men and women’s bodies as is shown in two very distinctive scenes between Lucia’s dance and Bert’s. Perhaps, it’s the use of these dreamlike sequences to shed light on the psyche behind these characters, deeply embedded desires that can’t necessarily manifest in reality. However, Max and Lucia’s sadomasochistic relationship is convincing beyond belief such as the scene where Lucia locks herself in the bathroom with Max pounding on the door. She shatters a bottle of perfume and unlocks the door, as Max barges in crushing his bare feet on the broken glass. He violently stomps his foot further into the glass with a faint smirk on his face totally relishing the moment as does Lucia. It’s such a surreal concept to fathom what drives pain and pleasure to unite in what’s considered a provocative moment.
What makes this film perplexing not only the subject matter but what it prevails in is its stifling atmosphere that conveys how misery is tantalizing and isolation is like slowly suffocating an excruciating death. We see this when their barricading themselves in the apartment agonizing over what the next step of survival is. They can’t go back nor can they move forward, so essentially they’re both pleading to the depths of insanity. And to undergo such an insanity one has to emulate the other’s abusive tendencies. Lucia succumbs to Max’s sexual proclivities by harboring her own agenda basically mirroring his behavior to get what she wants. It’s a tug-a-war affect without compromise. Aside from being married to an American conductor, Lucia’s delved into shattering her “normal” persona to surrendering herself back to being Max’s “little girl”. It’s heartbreaking but in order to conquer the beast one has to become the beast or so it seems.
LXLMS
I’m sure this hotly debated film in 1970 had to have crossed the line for most people who don’t find abuse entertaining. Personally, I see it more as an exploration on an explicable passion that surrenders to the realm of pain and pleasure because it’s what connects them. Because everything in life whatever shape or form has this duality to it and using some force of symmetry maintains it’s presence such as the balancing act between the mind and heart.
I thoroughly enjoyed tackling this film as I’m sure I’ll continue to wrestle with it years to come. I feel like there’s so more to discover here and as I’m barely scratching the surface it shall be revisited because this marvel of a challenge is what I love about cinema. Liliana Cavani is a force to be reckoned with.

"Let Me Get One More"- HACKSAW RIDGE

I couldn’t help but notice the underlying theme in Mel Gibson’s directorial work and this hit me in the very early hours this morning. Fairly random, I’m aware, but if you look at BRAVEHEART or PASSION OF THE CHRIST and HACKSAW RIDGE what do all of these three stories embody? A man’s will and fierce determination to defy the odds. A man essentially sacrifices himself through the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma of the injustices any mortal soul may face. William Wallace, Jesus Christ and Desmond Doss all project this solo journey governed by a belief that is unshaken or put through vigorous trials to ultimately manifest in some great virtue.

HACKSAW RIDGE is based on the true story of Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) who enlisted in the army as a Conscientious Objector served as a medic during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. He saved numerous lives single handedly without the use of a weapon or killing anyone. From a historical context this is a rare gem of a story that seems to be have left out in American History books, nonetheless it’s awesome someone’s shining a light on the subject matter.

This film takes you into Desmond’s earlier life as a kid and submerges you into the proceedings of his ideology; a man who is preserved in his relationship with God and a man who doesn’t believe in violence. The second half of this narrative throws you into the gnarly battle of Okinawa where Desmond’s belief is put through the ultimate trial. Gibson does an exceptional job depicting the harsh gravity of war in how it resounds with dire agony and dread. The stark contrast between the arrival of Desmond’s company and the troops returning from Hacksaw has an enormous impact on the psychological aspect of war; you go in wholesome and primed but come back shattered and destroyed. This idea of that person is indicated in Hugo Weaving’s character (Desmond’s father) who fought in the first World War and came back haunted by the tragedy of his fallen soldiers paralyzing him as a drunk. Personally, I believe this is an excruciating affective portion of the the story that has a genuine impact. We still deal with this problem on every level today because the shadow of war is always lurking in the background whether we choose to see it or not. We’re constantly grappling with mental health problems in 2017.

Getting through the violence is half the battle in this film but also the range of characters that are part of Desmond’s story will make you enjoy this story as indicated in the set up followed by a well written pay off. There’s a certain DIRTY DOZEN aspect of it that made me smile.

And regardless of your take on Mel Gibson, his true mastery shines in this heart-harrowing tale of courage synchronous to a war that tore so many lives apart also makes me question how did this only win two Oscars and not Best Picture?

According to film critic Roger Ebert, “It’s one of the few original action movies released in the last decade, and one of the only studio releases this year that could sincerely be described as a religious picture. This film is inept and beautiful, stupid and amazing. It doesn’t have the words or images to express how deep it is. That’s why it’s more interesting to talk about than it is to watch. I wonder what the real Doss, who died in 2006, would have thought of it.”

Hollywood does loves to arm wrestle with religious and war hero subjects while embracing tough subjects of racism, sexuality, and sexism. I mean, I suppose things have changed in the past ten years. Remember when CRASH snubbed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN for Picture Year in 2005? And MOONLIGHT won this year, but I have yet to see this film and am sure it is worthy of the win for what it is. So for now, I suppose Mel Gibson will always have BRAVEHEART that won best picture in 1995.

If you have an interest in war films and can stomach the gritty violence it portrays this one is for you.

Pain & Resistance: Steve McQueen's HUNGER

Steve McQueen’s HUNGER (2008) is a powerful, meditative work of art peering into the 1981 Irish hunger strike in the Maze Prison spearheaded by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). What’s so extraordinary yet painfully captivating about this film is the explicit images McQueen drives into the heart of the narrative. Aside from the 17-minute-long dialogue between Sands and a priest which consequently is a static shot of deeply emphasized information about who and why Sands is hell bent on this hunger strike. It moves so fluidly into the third and final descent of his journey in some agonizingly heartbreaking imagery which sums up into one word; suffering. He’s suffering for his cause. He’s adamant in his beliefs despite how a priest attempts to dissuade him from something that will ultimately result in his death. And, not only was Sands the only prisoner to strike, there were 9 other lives who perished in that fight.

Regardless of how you look at the history of the IRA, and the British government this film is very specific on a piece of history where a tumultuous stance of resistance eventually makes the British government give into the prisoner’s demands after the fact. But drawing back to the meditative essence of this film, McQueen’s focus is the Maze prison and the abusive, inhumane conditions these IRA prisoners were forced to endure along with the harsh brutality these prison guards were relentless in a dizzying portrayal with the use of slowed motion.

Not only does the toll weigh on the prisoners but the prison guards themselves are living with this driving force to hammer in their authority which is viscerally captured in these subtle moments. When a squad unit is called in to infiltrate there’s a faint split screen with the guards clubbing the prisoners for not bathing as a stance of protest while a solo guard in the corner is worked up over a demeaning moment of humanity. Or the moment after a prison guard attempts to beat Sands in the face but punches a wall instead. He’s left visibly shaken while soaking his bloodied knuckles in a sink of water. It’s thought provokingly brilliant because any kind of dialogue or voice over would completely tarnish this entire piece. You see the image, and you can essentially feel the psychological aspect of it because it has more power than anything words can convey.

When Sands is visited by the priest, he shares with him about how he was a cross country runner in his youth which sculpted him into who he’s become in the present. And with that stark tenacity to endure through copious periods of time to achieve a specific objective makes the audience connect to Sands then and there. Later, we’re given flashbacks of him running when he was younger at the most crucial moment of the film, it’ll make you weep. Any imagery that can link you from the past to the present will evoke that sense of nostalgia and it is potent.

Aside from the visual aesthetics, the physical transformation Fassbender went through is heavy and fortified with fierce determination to get into that mind space of Sands. He lost 40 pounds and when you see him wither away it’ll break your heart because nothing will sway him from making his statement known.

When you ask why would someone do this? It comes down to not wanting to be labelled a “criminal” but to be given a political status for their misgivings which then you’d really have to dig into the history behind the IRA. As it’s said in a voice over through Margaret Thatcher, “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing, and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.” There’s no pointing at who’s a bad guy or good guy because the ultimate subject here is humanity. Humanity in it’s raw, vulnerable, flawed form and how we one use’s their body as their last and final weapon. There are scenes where streams of urine are being spilled across the guard floor, or feces being smeared on the walls of their tiny decapitated cells. These are all forms of protest. But what’s most disturbing is as he wastes away day by day lying motionless and at times retching his guts out, while ointment’s applied to his bed sores, the prison continuously tempts him with a tray of warm food set next to him. It’s disturbing on so many levels to which there’s such disregard to the sanctity of humanity.

This film isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s startling and riddled with deep sadness and harrowed agony. McQueen does an astounding and enormous job on getting you invested, drawing you into this psychological chamber of abuse affectively branding you with blatant imagery that will stay with you and hopefully give you a greater glance into the harsh realities of standing up for what you believe in.

Pain & Resistance: Steve McQueen’s HUNGER

hunger12
Steve McQueen’s HUNGER (2008) is a powerful, meditative work of art peering into the 1981 Irish hunger strike in the Maze Prison spearheaded by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). What’s so extraordinary yet painfully captivating about this film is the explicit images McQueen drives into the heart of the narrative. Aside from the 17-minute-long dialogue between Sands and a priest which consequently is a static shot of deeply emphasized information about who and why Sands is hell bent on this hunger strike. It moves so fluidly into the third and final descent of his journey in some agonizingly heartbreaking imagery which sums up into one word; suffering. He’s suffering for his cause. He’s adamant in his beliefs despite how a priest attempts to dissuade him from something that will ultimately result in his death. And, not only was Sands the only prisoner to strike, there were 9 other lives who perished in that fight.
Regardless of how you look at the history of the IRA, and the British government this film is very specific on a piece of history where a tumultuous stance of resistance eventually makes the British government give into the prisoner’s demands after the fact. But drawing back to the meditative essence of this film, McQueen’s focus is the Maze prison and the abusive, inhumane conditions these IRA prisoners were forced to endure along with the harsh brutality these prison guards were relentless in a dizzying portrayal with the use of slowed motion.
Not only does the toll weigh on the prisoners but the prison guards themselves are living with this driving force to hammer in their authority which is viscerally captured in these subtle moments. When a squad unit is called in to infiltrate there’s a faint split screen with the guards clubbing the prisoners for not bathing as a stance of protest while a solo guard in the corner is worked up over a demeaning moment of humanity. Or the moment after a prison guard attempts to beat Sands in the face but punches a wall instead. He’s left visibly shaken while soaking his bloodied knuckles in a sink of water. It’s thought provokingly brilliant because any kind of dialogue or voice over would completely tarnish this entire piece. You see the image, and you can essentially feel the psychological aspect of it because it has more power than anything words can convey.
When Sands is visited by the priest, he shares with him about how he was a cross country runner in his youth which sculpted him into who he’s become in the present. And with that stark tenacity to endure through copious periods of time to achieve a specific objective makes the audience connect to Sands then and there. Later, we’re given flashbacks of him running when he was younger at the most crucial moment of the film, it’ll make you weep. Any imagery that can link you from the past to the present will evoke that sense of nostalgia and it is potent.
Aside from the visual aesthetics, the physical transformation Fassbender went through is heavy and fortified with fierce determination to get into that mind space of Sands. He lost 40 pounds and when you see him wither away it’ll break your heart because nothing will sway him from making his statement known.
When you ask why would someone do this? It comes down to not wanting to be labelled a “criminal” but to be given a political status for their misgivings which then you’d really have to dig into the history behind the IRA. As it’s said in a voice over through Margaret Thatcher, “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing, and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.”  There’s no pointing at who’s a bad guy or good guy because the ultimate subject here is humanity. Humanity in it’s raw, vulnerable, flawed form and how we one use’s their body as their last and final weapon. There are scenes where streams of urine are being spilled across the guard floor, or feces being smeared on the walls of their tiny decapitated cells. These are all forms of protest. But what’s most disturbing is as he wastes away day by day lying motionless and at times retching his guts out, while ointment’s applied to his bed sores, the prison continuously tempts him with a tray of warm food set next to him. It’s disturbing on so many levels to which there’s such disregard to the sanctity of humanity.
This film isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s startling and riddled with deep sadness and harrowed agony. McQueen does an astounding and enormous job on getting you invested, drawing you into this psychological chamber of abuse affectively branding you with blatant imagery that will stay with you and hopefully give you a greater glance into the harsh realities of standing up for what you believe in.

An Indie Film is Born: SHADOWS

SHADOWS (1959) directed by John Cassavetes is purely a film about people. People struggling as artists all of which are three siblings of African-American decent; Benny (Ben Carruthers), is a wandering beatnik, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the little sister trying to find her creative vein and Hugh (Hugh Hurd), the older brother who’s a jazz singer. The lives of these three intersect through problematic circumstances such as Hugh not getting the respected gigs he feels he deserves or Lelia feeling apprehensive of the path her love life has taken all hindered by the conflict of race and perhaps just bad luck.

The opening sequence is intimate and breaks the barrier of personal space as the camera blazes through a room crammed of people dancing like squished sardines but are having a “whale of a time” nonetheless. The camera also captures Benny climbing over bodies of these dancing crazed loons squeezing in between them to isolate himself in a shadowy corner of the room simply observing and not partaking is a vigorous preamble for what’s to come or is there really any correlation?

The most prominent scene is when Hugh returns from his trip to meet Lelia’s new lover, Tony while the abrupt pacing, jump cuts, close ups, and facial expressions of the actors all articulate the unmentionable racism that lurks beneath the shadows of humanity. It invokes a sense of shame intertwined with this uneasy dizziness to escape the crescendo of a moment. There’s a vast symmetry to this moment specifically with the film, THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL (1959) where Harry Belafonte’s character develops a close friendship with Inger Stevens character which is later muddled up when Benson (Mel Ferrer) who’s white totally distorts the civility of their unity all in the midst of nuclear holocaust. It’s a great film, but also received some controversy for none other than the conflict of race which predominantly and unfortunately still exists.

SHADOWS is an American independent film that stepped outside of its box in terms of discarding the skin known as the Hollywood studio system and did something more visceral, without top of the line Big Wigs, and most importantly something warm and imperfect. SHADOWS has a soul wrenched with clashing ideologies and layers of complexity and it has jazz. Jazz is certainly the cherry to this out of focus, out of sync, divine, rhythmic, black and white mismatched madness. (Say that five times fast) Personally, I saw SHADOWS as an ecstatic force of energy, of spastic convulsion between desperation and perseverance. Its an intimate depiction of problematic tension resulting in measured shouting matches and smooth rhythms that articulate a need for resolve. Just as the rhythm of jazz pulsates through each scene coupling an undertone of intensity, it reminded me of the composer, George Gershwin’s quote, “Life is a lot like jazz, its best when improvised.”

An Indie Film is Born: SHADOWS

220px-Jc_shadows

SHADOWS (1959) directed by John Cassavetes is purely a film about people. People struggling as artists all of which are three siblings of African-American decent; Benny (Ben Carruthers), is a wandering beatnik, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the little sister trying to find her creative vein and Hugh (Hugh Hurd), the older brother who’s a jazz singer. The lives of these three intersect through problematic circumstances such as Hugh not getting the respected gigs he feels he deserves or Lelia feeling apprehensive of the path her love life has taken all hindered by the conflict of race and perhaps just bad luck.

The opening sequence is intimate and breaks the barrier of personal space as the camera blazes through a room crammed of people dancing like squished sardines but are having a “whale of a time” nonetheless. The camera also captures Benny climbing over bodies of these dancing crazed loons squeezing in between them to isolate himself in a shadowy corner of the room simply observing and not partaking is a vigorous preamble for what’s to come or is there really any correlation?

The most prominent scene is when Hugh returns from his trip to meet Lelia’s new lover, Tony while the abrupt pacing, jump cuts, close ups, and facial expressions of the actors all articulate the unmentionable racism that lurks beneath the shadows of humanity. It invokes a sense of shame intertwined with this uneasy dizziness to escape the crescendo of a moment. There’s a vast symmetry to this moment specifically with the film, THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL (1959) where Harry Belafonte’s character develops a close friendship with Inger Stevens character which is later muddled up when Benson (Mel Ferrer) who’s white totally distorts the civility of their unity all in the midst of nuclear holocaust. It’s a great film, but also received some controversy for none other than the conflict of race which predominantly and unfortunately still exists.

SHADOWS is an American independent film that stepped outside of its box in terms of discarding the skin known as the Hollywood studio system and did something more visceral, without top of the line Big Wigs, and most importantly something warm and imperfect. SHADOWS has a soul wrenched with clashing ideologies and layers of complexity and it has jazz. Jazz is certainly the cherry to this out of focus, out of sync, divine, rhythmic, black and white mismatched madness. (Say that five times fast) Personally, I saw SHADOWS as an ecstatic force of energy, of spastic convulsion between desperation and perseverance.  Its an intimate depiction of problematic tension resulting in measured shouting matches and smooth rhythms that articulate a need for resolve. Just as the rhythm of jazz pulsates through each scene coupling an undertone of intensity, it reminded me of the composer, George Gershwin’s quote, “Life is a lot like jazz, its best when improvised.”