The Return of Shadows


Rotterdam, The Netherlands—John Cassavetes’s Shadows, the founding work of the American independent cinema, has always had its own shadow—an ur-version championed in these pages in 1959 by Voice critic Jonas Mekas, who subsequently disowned the filmmaker’s longer, revised cut. Unseen, supposedly dismantled, and thought lost for over four decades, an ur-Shadows has unexpectedly surfaced.

Turned down by Sundance, where it might logically have been shown, this ur-Shadows premiered at the ultra-cinephilic Rotterdam Film Festival. To anyone familiar with the controversy around Shadows and its shadow, the 78-minute ur-film is full of surprises. The known version is not, as Mekas suggested, a virtual remake. Most of Shadows is already ur. Nor is the ur-version less narrative. On the contrary: There is radical concentration of activity. The frantic round of parties, performances, and pickups on Manhattan’s main stem begs to be diluted. Does the action span 24, 36, 48 hours? Where’s the downtime? Other differences: Ur-Shadows lacks a bedroom scene but boasts a more experimental Mingus score, as well as a few songs whose rights would not have come cheaply.

The reappearance of this extinct creature is due to Ray Carney, a Boston University film scholar who spent years in search of this particular grail. The provenance is still mysterious. Carney, who must utter the word “Cassavetes” more times in a day than most people take a breath, credits the New York City Transit Authority. The movie was apparently left on the subway sometime after its screenings at the 92nd Street Y. Who lost it and how exactly the professor found it remain to be explained.