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John Cassavetes

"American Dreaming"

curate by Ray Carney

Titles Of Films

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
A Woman Under the Influence

In the spring of 1960, John Cassavetes was a young actor who had played a series of undistinguished roles in a string of low-budget B-movies and television shows. Six months later, he was being hailed as one of the most promising directors in the world. In July, his first film, Shadows, played to standing-room-only audiences at the National Film Theatre’s "Beat, Square and Cool Festival." In August, it played out of competition at the Venice Film Festival and received a special critics’ citation. In September, it played at a special screening at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, where approximately a thousand people were turned away from the box office. In early October, it played in the London Film Festival, to rave reviews and a sustained ovation from the audience. And a week later, on 14 October, it opened at London’s Academy Cinema, playing to capacity crowds and taking in more money than any film in the theatre’s twenty-five year history.
Cassavetes attended the opening with members of the cast and crew, and was over the moon with delight. His 16mm movie, made for $40,000 with unknown actors (none of whom had ever played an important film role before) was hailed by one critic as "a major breakthrough in the art of the cinema." Another wrote: "I unhesitatingly pronounce Shadows the most artistically satisfying and exciting film I have seen in a decade." Newspapers from The Times and Observer to the Daily Mirror and Daily Express ran laudatory reviews, and the most important film magazine of the era, Sight and Sound, devoted sections of three successive issues (autumn 1960, winter 1960–1, and spring 1961) to discussions of the film and an interview with the film-maker.
What most captivated the critics was the spontaneity and speed with which the movie had been made. Shadows itself ended with the declaration: "The film you have just seen was an improvisation," and the press pack proudly proclaimed: "Not one word of [the] dialogue was written. Not one scene was detailed in script." It described how the crew had "grabbed" most of the footage on New York streets: "They concealed their camera in subway entrances, restaurant windows, the backs of trucks." When interviewers asked Cassavetes to tell them more, he not only bragged that the whole project had been accomplished in forty-two days and nights, but said that it could have been done even more quickly if he had not occasionally had to suspend work while his young actors went off to appear in other projects to earn money. He told them the sound was a little rough because it was completely "live" — unlike a typical studio production, nothing had been looped or "faked." Then he regaled them with stories like the one about how the police had tried to shut down the "outlaw" production — at one point firing a gun over the actors’ heads to stop a scene.
What no one suspected was that it was a pack of lies. Most of Shadows was not shot on "location" or on the streets of New York, but on a stage. No policeman had ever fired a gun at the actors — or over their heads. More than half of the sound was not "live," but had been dubbed, looped or otherwise manipulated during the editing process. And, far from being a six-weeks’ wonder, Shadows had taken almost three years to make. Finally, notwithstanding the final title card, at least two-thirds of the film was not an improvisation, but was written by Cassavetes in collaboration with a professional Hollywood screenwriter. Every one of the scenes the critics praised in his "masterpiece of improvisation" had been scripted.


RAY CARNEY received his A.B. from Harvard magna cum laude and his Ph.D. from Rutgers (where his dissertation -- on William Wordsworth's process of poetic composition in The Prelude, The Ruined Cottage, and The Lyrical Ballads -- was supervised by William Keach and read by Richard Poirier and Thomas Edwards) passing his oral examination (conducted by Richard Poirier, Paul Fussell, and David Kalstone) "With Distinction." He also did separate periods of study with Philip Kapleau in Rochester, New York and Walter Nowick in Surrey, Maine. He has been an Assistant Professor of English in the English Department of Middlebury College (teaching English and American literature), William Rice Kimball Fellow at the Stanford University Humanities Center (working on a project on performance art and the intellectual background of the stand-up comedy routines of Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, and Richard Pryor among other figures), and Associate Professor in the Humanities Program of the University of Texas (teaching interdisciplinary American studies, focusing on the relationship of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art and philosophy).

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