Cinema: The $40,000 Method

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Shadows (Gena; Lion International) was made by Actor John Cassavetes, a young Stanislavsky buff long known in show business as a watered-down Brando-on-the-rocks. After a brief boom in television and B movies, Cassavetes in 1956 set up his own actors' studio in Manhattan. There one night his group improvised a scene that suddenly "exploded with life." Cassavetes had a wild idea: Why not improvise a full-length movie?

With $40,000 plus Cassavetes' sensitive and indirect direction, the actors improvised a sincere, original, powerful film. Always crude, often trite, sometimes even phony, this rackety little race opera is nevertheless loaded, like a truck full of oxygen cylinders, with huge, impounded energies.

The picture has no plot. Its story was discovered by the actors as they played, and it wanders as their minds wandered. The central characters are a sister and two brothers who live together in Manhattan. The older brother is obviously a Negro; the other two can pass for white. The younger brother (Benito Carruthers), a boy about 18, spends most of his time mousing around Times Square with a couple of young crums, lapping up Cokes in scummy luncheonettes, wondering why in the fluorescent world he can't find something better to do with his life. The sister (Lelia Goldoni), a girl about 20, falls in love with a white boy, loses him when he discovers her race, goes into a hysterical spin. The older brother, a man about 30, steadies her down, tries to straighten the boy out too, tries to get on with his career as a no-talent ballad belter. At the end, things are still pretty much as they were at the beginning.

Like all who dare to experiment, Cassavetes & Co. have made howling blunders. Obsessed with their characters, the actor-moviemakers have largely forgotten to place them in a believable setting. One minute they live like bourgeois, the next like beatniks. Sometimes, too, the method of improvisation makes insupportable de mands on the unremarkable actors Cassavetes happened to have. On the other hand. Shadows handles the race question with considerable intelligence. The cam era is resourceful, the group scenes puls-ingly spontaneous. The whole film has the luminous intensity of a thing — say an in candescent filament or a well-loved child — into which strong energies have been poured. Again and again the line between acting and living is erased. Caught in the ecstasy of collective creation, a handful of earnest amateurs have almost accidentally produced a flawed but significant piece of folk art.