Two Independent Film Reviews: Shadows, The Squid & The Whale

If you’ve never watched an Independent Film:
You might not be used to a film that delves into a character’s actions and motivations. Independent films are often times multi-vocal in their technique, so we get to experience the emotions of multiple characters. The best thing about watching films like these is that they are thought-provoking and you can use the themes in each of these films to start a discussion or inspire you to search for your own meaning. Both of these films deal with issues such as family relationships, race or class issues, sexuality, naivety and have realistic and flawed characters. While viewing Shadows and The Squid and the Whale keep in mind the idea of unveiling, the lowering of the mask/s each character wears. Think about how many of us are forced to wear masks to hide our true intentions and our true identities. Both of these films are artistically resonate and are highly recommended for your viewing and thinking pleasure!

Shadows (1959)  87 min
written and directed by John Cassavetes

Cassavetes follows three siblings in Shadows, a fragmented film that takes place in New York City in the 1950’s. During the closing credits audiences are told that what they had just seen was a film entirely made up, a collected narrative that was completely improvisational. Today viewers of the film should know that Shadows was carefully crafted by the vision and dialogue of John Cassavetes. Each character is projected in front of us in a way that allows us to feel the pulse, drive and ripeness of their movements, motivations and emotions. Shot on location with a 16 mm handheld camera in New York City in 1957 and again in 1959 for additional scenes, Shadows is often considered to be the film that spawned the birth of independent film in the United States. The film revolves around racial relations in the Beat Generation while remaining relevent to issues that influence society today. It focuses on the growth of its characters as their masks are cast aside and true identities begin to show through.

Characters that exist in between two worlds, black and white…

Hugh is a good musician but he finds overcoming obstacles difficult as he wonders what could be in store for a musician who can’t get any gigs. He’s able to remain optimistic, though unsure about the future. Hugh provides a caring parent figure for Lelia and Ben, his younger siblings who face different social barriers due to their race. The ambiguity of their skin color allows them partial access to both black and white worlds but their inclusion in one world means alienation in the other.

Ben is a musician like his brother but he is in a frustrated frame of mind. At the beginning we see him walking around and having a good time with his gang but as the film progresses Ben walks alone. We feel his isolation pushing toward resentment.

Lelia contrasts sharply with her brothers and embodies many qualities. Her character changes with each scene. We sense something clever, something innocent, and something magnetic about her on the screen. Cassavetes shows us her face up close but her emotions are almost impossible to pin down. Lelia feels the world pulling her apart. She loves her family and is coming into her own as a young woman who wants to be an intellectual. When she lets down her guard and takes off the mask we are just as bewildered and jaded as she becomes in the end.

No character is cast as the lead. This aspect allows the audience to focus in on the main character in each separate sequence.

Film as a Whole:
If you were going to take anything away from the film thematically it would be that the experience of coming to know yourself can be painful. In the case of Lelia, revealing herself was difficult, she put up her defenses for protection from those people who would categorize and take advantage of her. The editing is not seamless; the sound is not always synced because the film after all is low budget. Do not think for one moment that these are negative criticisms of this film. The no-names that reside on the cast list must have been divinely influenced. Shadows is groundbreaking because people are still watching and talking about it. If  Cassavetes had meant for it to be perfect it would not have worked. Hollywood is the place for perfection, Cassavetes did something that Hollywood would never do when created something flawed. Something flawed but still so beautiful that we accept the imperfections and eventually begin to realize that is what we love so much about it.

This sort of film makes you want to get a camera into your hands and capture a piece of the world much like Cassavetes did. It wasn’t perfect but that wasn’t the point! He was challenging the seamlessness and perfection that Hollywood demanded. When you watch this film don’t overlook its seemingly jagged composition, that’s life, a jagged world filled with shadows. So many things unresolved. Objects lurk in the corners of the screen waiting to be noticed, waiting to be discussed and changed. Maybe we don’t get the whole picture but a snapshot of characters at a turning point, and it’s up for us to decide what came before and after it.

One Last Note for Musicians:
The wonderfully fitting jazz score adds volumes to the impact of Shadows, without it the film would lack the authenticity the current score solidifies. I believe these are real musicians because there is really good music playing in the background. Jazz also resonates with those on the fringe, instruments that finely tune pain and loneliness as well as the lighter moments with family, friends and lovers. The music makes the audience feel it, at least as long as the music plays and the credits are still rolling.


The Squid and the Whale  (2005)    81 min
written and directed by Noah Baumbach

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline and William Baldwin.

As children we are often frightened by things that wouldn’t impact us as profoundly if we were adults. Have you ever sensed the fear you once had but allowed yourself to transform those feelings and rationalize them? Walt Berkman finds it difficult to rationalize his parents’ seemingly sudden decision to separate. Walt and his younger brother Frank are bounced back and forth as their father, Bernard and mother, Joan take turns dealing devastating blows to the other side. Noah Baumbach gives us an updated version of a family that functions, but barely. The Squid and the Whale is clever, witty and at times uncomfortable because of its ability to show us things we didn’t want to see.

Four characters collide in a script that leaves little else to be desired. The Berkman family is on the verge of a breakdown, two parents square off leaving their two teenage sons to pick sides. The film is resonate with our culture today and its after affects will be felt by anyone who has ever experienced dysfunction in their family.

Now that I’ve told you how to approach an independent film take a look at our second feature with all of those things in mind. Think about your own family and the situations that happen in your daily lives. Does the film contain similar issues? What does it mean to be dysfunctional? There are four main characters in the film. Which do you like or dislike? Let them make their impressions on you, try to think about the motivations of each character and put yourself in their shoes.

If you are too worried about finding the meaning in this film you will miss it altogether (and before you try to work out the title, I will tell you the film was named after a Giant Squid and Whale diorama located at the American Museum of Natural History!)

Stop analyzing everything I say and watch the movie, Bernard! Watch it, enjoy it, laugh.


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