The film critic and scholar Ray Carney surmised that the work of independent filmmaker John Cassavetes was not given the critical acclaim it deserved because his films required the viewer to become involved. With most films, we observe the action from a safe distance. It may be a moving and powerful story, but we are still watching a story and able to stay outside the frame so to speak. We are voyeurs. With the films of John Cassavetes, you are in the room with the characters. This is for me a kind of cinema paradise. I feel like I am experiencing life, with all its incredible complexities and contradictions and mystery.
IN AND OUT OF THE SHADOWS, a new film with choreography by me and music by Tim Hagans, tributes Cassavetes’ first film SHADOWS. Released in1959, SHADOWS is the story of 3 siblings in New York City: Hugh, a jazz singer; Ben a jazz musician, and Lelia, a painter. Shot in black and white, we can see that the siblings have varying skin colors. One of the many points Cassavetes was trying to make in SHADOWS was that color was a question of perception and not reality. The film is about the emotional journey of the central character of Lelia. Her journey is a human journey, and therefore a universal one.
Lelia is the youngest character in the film. She is energetic and hopeful, moving in literary circles of people who see no color, until she meets a man who courts her and wins her affection. They become lovers and this is her first love experience. The young man becomes alarmed, however, when he meets her oldest brother, the dark-skinned Hugh, and realizes the woman he is having an affair with is black. Lelia is devastated at his reaction. She murmurs “I love you, doesn’t that mean anything.” Perhaps those words are key to understanding SHADOWS and all of Cassavetes’ films to come. He was continually exploring our human need for love and the power of love, and our turning away from it. Our turning away from what we crave most, for the most absurd of reasons.
It’s impossible to watch SHADOWS and not fall in love with the character of Lelia. When Tim Hagans wrote the music for IN AND OUT OF THE SHADOWS, he wrote it from her perspective. It’s a journey of what its like to discover the unfairness of life and then to come out on the other side and move forward. The musicians are expressing her emotional narrative when they perform the music. And so in making the dance, I decided to make the choreography follow the same narrative. Rather than a work where the different performers represent different characters in the film, we all instead represent Lelia. So we have Lelias of different genders and ages.
The middle brother Ben, runs through the city with his two buddies, and the only conflict they experience is their youth and their desires against the world in general. There are no issues of skin color. Scholars have written that Ben is passing for white, but to me it’s more that his 2 buddies see no color. They are just friends. I was on the subway across from 4 happy, bubbling teenagers having an animated discussion about skin color, of which they represented the many shades of the characters in SHADOWS from the snow-white lover of Lelia to the dark-skinned Hugh. It was as if they were discussing as insignificant a descriptor as hair or eye color. This seems indicative of Cassavetes’ idea that loosing the openness of youth is to the detriment of adulthood. I used the feeling of the boys in SHADOWS as they bound through the New York City streets — budding hipsters — also in the choreography.
We all suffer to some degree the pain of being judged by what is perceived on the surface about us, rather than the essence of our beings. People’s insecurities make them ostracize people for a variety of reasons, reasons that exist in their minds rather than in reality. If we all some day in future are the same color, will society find some other equally unreasonable thing to use as justification for what the playwright Arthur Miller so eloquently called ‘the breaking of charity” with each other.
Lelia moves forward out of her disappointment. She moves forward awkwardly and she is changed inside, yet in many ways she is just as vibrant as before, but in a different way. As Tim Hagans said when discussing the music, she emerges as a mature person. The choreography returns to something that is fluid but a little broken. We cannot erase our past, and sometimes it breaks us. So we try to move forward and one way we can do that is by finding each other.
You can watch SHADOWS in its entirety on YouTube. If you type in “Cassavetes SHADOWS” in the YouTube search engine, it will come up. Like all great art, SHADOWS makes us look a little deeper at each other, and ourselves.
We hope you will also join us for our new film IN AND OUT OF THE SHADOWS, Sunday November 9 at 8 p.m. ET on youtube.com/brangwendance