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Dead Presidents (1995)

Larenz Tate

Larenz Tate

I’ve heard people complain that Dead Presidents tries to do too many things. Some see it as an unsatisfying cross between a gangster flick and a war movie. Others see it as an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to chronicle the Black experience in America. Many people complain that it goes on too long and has no focus.

Personally I don’t feel like Dead Presidents falls into any one category. Though directors Allen and Albert Hughes have made genre films, this is one case where I think they were reaching for something different. And this may be part of the reason why some people don’t respond to it. Dead Presidents doesn’t follow the usual dramatic arc. It’s more open ended. The story follows a young Black man named Anthony Curtis as his life unfolds. We first see him as a young man from a comfortable, middle-class home in the Bronx, then as a soldier in Vietnam, and finally as a vet dealing with poverty and alcoholism.

The Hughes Brothers are talking about America here, and there’s no doubt they see the system as destructive. But this isn’t a social tract and they don’t make Anthony a helpless victim. It’s more complicated than that. We see that as a young man Anthony could have gone to college and he decided to enlist instead. We see how black men were used as fodder during the Vietnam War, but the film makes it clear that blacks weren’t the only ones who were traumatized and crippled by the violence. We see Anthony come back home to a family he’s totally unprepared for, and how instead of dealing with the situation he gradually shuts down.

Keith David and Freddy Rodriguez

Keith David and Freddy Rodriguez

No doubt the Hughes Brothers could have jacked up the drama by giving us a bad guy to blame. But that also would have simplified things, and in Dead Presidents the directors are aiming for something more complex. They give us a sweeping view of a society where the deck is stacked. The country is always fighting a war somewhere, poverty is a prison that few can escape, and drugs are readily available for those who want an easy way to kill the pain.

Larenz Tate gives a moving performance in the leading role. Anthony is an average guy, a decent guy. Even as he sinks deeper into depression and bitterness, Tate keeps us with him. We can see that this young man could have done so much better, which makes it even harder to watch his downhill slide. Keith David plays Kirby, who lost a leg in the Korean War and now runs a local bar. Kirby is kind of a father figure to Anthony, and David plays the role with a touching mix of toughness and affection. The older man wants to help his young friend, but he’s caught in the same trap. Juanita is the mother of Anthony’s child, and she knows she’s caught in a trap. Rose Jackson’s nuanced performance shows us that even though Juanita loves her man, she can’t hide her mounting frustration. She wants to build a better life, and she won’t wait around forever.

Rose Jackson

Rose Jackson

Desperation finally drives Anthony to desperate measures. He and Kirby plan to rob an armored car. The heist goes horribly wrong. In the end, Anthony, Kirby and their accomplices all end up under arrest or six feet under. When Anthony is in court waiting for sentencing, he’s given a chance to speak and mentions his service in Vietnam. The judge, a WWII vet, is outraged, and tells the prisoner that Vietnam wasn’t even a “real war”. Then he hands down a sentence of fifteen years to life.

And the last we see of Anthony, he’s on a bus heading for prison.

DP LT Vietnam

Lightning Over Water (1980)

Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray

The generation of filmmakers who grew up after WWII came to revere the directors of the studio era. Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fassbinder, Godard, all had tremendous respect for the guys who worked under contract, took the scripts that got handed to them, and still managed to turn out movies that were personal and passionate.

The director who has probably gone farthest in exploring his relationship to that older generation is Wim Wenders. It’s not uncommon in films made from the 70s on to see cameos by the studio veterans. But Wenders didn’t just have these guys do walk-ons. He made them a part of his cinematic world. For him, putting Sam Fuller in The State of Things wasn’t just a nod to a mentor. It was a sign of friendship, and a statement about the continuity from one generation to the next.

Another filmmaker that Wenders was close to was Nicholas Ray. The older director had already appeared in Wenders’ The American Friend. They had not known each other long when Ray was diagnosed with cancer. Within a year his health had deteriorated to the point where it was clear he didn’t have long to live. And that was when they decided to make a film together.

Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray

Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray

Lightning Over Water isn’t really a documentary, though it is a document. It’s not fiction either, though the people who appear in it do act out scenes. It doesn’t fall into any category, and it’s about many different things. You could say it’s a film about filmmaking, and also about art. Fear pervades the atmosphere throughout, but love is just as present. And death is always just beyond the horizon.

While both men are credited as directors, it’s clear that Wenders is leading the way. Ray is so weak that it’s sometimes hard for him to finish a sentence. He’s wracked by coughing fits. Just lying down in bed is so painful it makes him cry out. And because Wenders realizes that he’s the one in control, he’s overwhelmed by the responsibility. At the very beginning he tells Ray that he’s afraid of exploiting him. Ray dismisses the idea, but it’s clear that Wenders is extremely uncomfortable with this project.

He shouldn’t have been. You can hear the joy in Ray’s voice when he first greets Wenders. This frail old man shouts from his bed, “I’m ready to start work again.” Even if the line was written out in advance, it’s clear that Ray means it. Toward the end of his career he turned to teaching because Hollywood wouldn’t give him backing to make another movie. While he kept himself busy with other projects, he always wanted to get back in the game. Now, when he knows he’s dying, he’s got one more opportunity to make a film, and he’s determined to seize it no matter what the cost.

Ray enjoying his first cigarette of the day.

Ray enjoying his first cigarette of the day.

Ray seems completely at home on the screen. In spite of his weakened, wasted frame, he shows no sign of self-consciousness. He allows the camera to see him at his worst, and never shies away. There’s a strange beauty in this “performance”. He’s confident, even defiant. We can see where many of his onscreen protagonists got their swagger from. This is a man who’s dying of cancer, and the first thing he does on waking up is light a cigarette. You want to grab it out of his hand and throw it away, but you also know that would be pointless. He’d just light another one.

Wenders voicing his concerns to Ray.

Wenders voicing his concerns to Ray.

Wenders, on the other hand, is extremely uncomfortable in front of the camera. Aside from the fact that he seems stiff and awkward, you can tell that making this movie was an awful ordeal for him. It’s bad enough that his close friend is obviously very near to death. On top of that, Wenders is constantly concerned about invading Ray’s privacy and sapping his strength. The younger man wants to stop the whole crazy thing. The older man keeps insisting that they forge ahead.

Then Ray dies. And we find ourselves at a wake on a Chinese junk in the waters off Manhattan. The dread that permeated the film up til now is gone. The cast and crew trade stories, share their views the experience, and drink a toast to their dear, departed friend. One of the crew speculates that dying was his final act as a director. “He made us finish it. And the only way he could do it was to die.”

As I write this, I realize that the audience for this film is very small. Only the people who know Ray’s work, or know Wender’s work, could possibly be interested. It doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t offer a clear-cut resolution. The film jumps unpredictably between reality, fantasy and the hazy netherworld inhabited by the people who stand behind the camera. On top of that, it’s a very intense, very painful look at a man who’s dying before your eyes. But it’s also a testament to a friendship that was stronger than death. And a moving portrait of two men who loved each other very much.

LoW Boat 1

News from home (1977)

NFH 05

In the seventies Chantal Akerman spent a lot of time looking at things. In her films she often sets the camera in one place so that it can record whatever’s in front of it. Without actors, stories, or music to distract us, she lets us just observe the world. Lets us feel the light and the space and the unforced rhythm of life as it unfolds in its own haphazard way. This may seem simple enough, but it’s a radical departure from what we’re used to. In commercial cinema the world we see is artificial, even when the film is shot on real locations. The fictions that commercial filmmakers create inevitably shape our perception. A street, a store, a subway, they all become backdrops. But in Akerman’s work from the seventies, they are just a street, a store, a subway. She lets them be what they are. A lot of people won’t have the patience for her approach, and that’s understandable. Most of us look to movies for entertainment, to take us out of the world. But if you’re willing to invest the time, Akerman offers a different way of experiencing the world.

“Business is still slow, and father’s worried because he took out a loan.”

In News from home, Akerman continues to let her camera stand back and watch life unfold, but she adds another layer. As images of New York in the seventies appear on the screen, we hear a woman’s voice reading to us, and we soon realize that these are letters from the filmmaker’s mother. On the one hand, we have scenes of a vast urban landscape. The grinding anonymity of the city. Nameless people wandering down endless sidewalks. Busses lumbering past. Subway trains thundering in and out of stations. On the other hand, we have a mother writing to her daughter. Setting down the mundane details of family life. Reporting the relationship problems that relatives are dealing with. Complaining about the ups and downs of the family business. And above all, begging for more letters. The mother constantly reminds the daughter that her happiness depends on finding something in the mailbox.

“I know you’re busy, but try and write. It’s all I have left.”

The contrast between the overwhelmingly impersonal and the painfully intimate gives the film a strange tension. There’s a calm detachment to Akerman’s approach, and in a way it seems to be a rejection of her mother’s pleas for contact. The distance between the images and the words appears to reflect the distance between the two women. Mention is made of the fact that Akerman left home without a word of explanation, and we don’t get an explanation, either. The mother reproaches her daughter, offers gifts of money, fills up pages with random bits of news, but we never hear a response from the filmmaker. She keeps her distance from us, too.

“You never write about how you’re really doing.”

Aside from everything else, News from home is a remarkable document of New York in the seventies. Having just crossed the Atlantic and landed in America, Akerman seems eager to absorb everything she sees. The camera captures kids playing in a fire hydrant’s spray, crowds of people pushing their way down a city sidewalk, cars gliding slowly down empty avenues. She lets us wander with her through the bright urban night, brimming with warm neon and diamond streetlights. We ride trains filled with tired commuters sitting silently in a cold flourescent haze.

It’s not hard to imagine Akerman wandering the streets of New York in the seventies. A young woman far from home, losing herself in the immensity of the landscape, letting herself be overwhelmed by the city’s grinding brilliance. I’m sure it was rough, and I’m sure it was lonely, but I’m also sure that it was totally intoxicating. As frightening as it may have been at times, she had to make the trip. She had to leave her family behind to see what the world was like.

NFH 04

Cosmopolis (2012)

Robert Pattinson

Robert Pattinson

David Cronenberg is fascinated by altered states of consciousness. His characters’ view of the world may be shaped by technology (Existenz) or drugs (Naked Lunch) or mental illness (Spider). Throughout his career, Cronenberg has made films about people who perceive reality in different ways, and he seems completely uninterested in making judgments. In fact, at times he may be asking if their perception of the world might not be valid. In Crash a man and a woman who survive an auto accident find themselves irresistibly drawn toward the violence of car culture. The hero of Eastern Promises has to walk a tightrope between the demands of a Russian crime syndicate and an American law enforcement agency, trying to survive in the space between the two. But survival isn’t always a priority for Cronenberg’s characters. Sometimes they just surrender to their fate.

In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer lives in a universe shaped by the ceaseless flow of cyber-capital. He spends most of the day riding through Manhattan, the financial center of the US, in a gleaming white limousine. It glides along the streets in sleek, soundproof isolation. While he can see what’s happening outside, he barely hears it when protesters are banging their fists against his window. We meet this brilliant young billionaire on the day when his financial empire is quickly imploding. Instead of freaking out, he ponders his misfortune with an odd detachment. Not only is he unruffled by the loss of his millions, he’s amazingly calm about the fact that an assassin is trying to kill him. He takes almost everything with an unsettling calm, and he insists on driving across Manhattan in spite of all the obstacles. “We need a haircut,” he tells his chauffer/bodyguard. Nothing will keep him from that goal.

Samantha Morton and Robert Pattinson

Samantha Morton and Robert Pattinson

Robert Pattinson gives a beautifully focussed performance as Packer, riding across Manhattan, consumed in melancholy meditation of a reality that appears to be coming apart at the seams. He’s a control freak who realizes that he’s losing control, and rather than screaming and crying, he seems fascinated by the circumstances of his downfall. In the course of his journey he picks up various visitors who accompany him part of the way. Juliette Binoche does a funny, raunchy turn as the art dealer who shows up to have savage sex with Packer, and then discuss the purchase of a painting by Rothko. Samantha Morton maintains an eerie serenity, a disturbing clarity, in her role as the financial philosopher who carefully breaks down the way money is changing our perception of time. She rides along in the limo, cradling her drink, talking calmly about how our reality is altered by the massive pressures of the markets. Morton plays this difficult role with perfect ease, staring off into space with shining eyes, an intellectual entranced by the beauty and the violence of capital. Abdul Ayoola gives a quietly moving performance as the chauffer who takes Packer on the last leg of his journey. And Paul Giamatti has just the right presence to play the grimy loner who wants to kill Packer. Though he’s filled with rage at the way the world has treated him, he seems unnerved when he finally comes face to face with his prey.

I haven’t read Don DeLillo’s book, but I’d really like to. Published not too long after the dot com bubble burst, the author was obviously exploring the new ways in which the markets were changing our world. The film was released in two thousand twelve, and I’m sure many people read it as a comment on the more recent financial meltdown. But Cosmpolis isn’t a morality play about the soulless rich. Packer’s problem isn’t that he has no soul, it’s that his soul is starved. He’s a brilliant young man who spends his days analyzing the ebb and flow of markets, riding waves of currency. Existing almost completely in this alternate universe, this gleaming, abstract future created by the endless flow of capital, he begins to realize that he’s living in a vacuum. We see that there are plenty of women who want to have sex with him, but the one woman he really wants to have sex with, his wife, is out of reach. The bodyguard he’s hired to protect him becomes a nuisance to overcome, an obstacle that keeps him from experiencing the world. And when he finally arrives at the barbershop, we realize it’s not the haircut he needed, but the amiable grin of the guy who gives it to him, a man who knew his father. This chatty old man may be his only friend.

George Touliatos, Robert Pattinson and Abdul Ayoola

George Touliatos, Robert Pattinson and Abdul Ayoola

Composer Howard Shore has been working with Cronenberg so long they seem to understand each other perfectly. The director doesn’t care about drama, or driving his points home. In Cosmopolis the narrative moves forward on its own terms, relying on its own logic, and the music reflects this. Instead of a conventional film score with its dramatic highs and lows, Shore gives us an abstract soundscape that hovers in the background. Relying largely on color and texture, he creates a shifting sonic fabric that echoes the main character’s zoned-out state of mind.

Packer realizes that he’s come to inhabit the world of capital so completely that he’s estranged from simple, physical experience. He turns homicidal, then suicidal. He’s desperate to connect with somebody, even somebody who’s trying to kill him. But through all of this, Cronenberg avoids making judgments. He doesn’t care about putting Packer on trial. He’s more interested in getting inside this boy’s head.

"The present is harder to find.  It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future."

“The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future.”

Summer of Sam (1999)

John Leguizamo, Jennifer Esposito and Adrian Brody

John Leguizamo, Jennifer Esposito and Adrian Brody

Spike Lee is a New Yorker. That’s who he is. The city is the lens he uses to look at the world. In Summer of Sam he gives us a sweeping panorama of New York in the seventies. At the center of the movie is the series of murders committed by David Berkowitz, who called himself the Son of Sam, but this is really just the catalyst for the story that the director wants to tell. Lee uses the killings as a way to explore paranoia, pop culture, racial tension and sex. Especially sex.

Summer of Sam delves deep into the currents of sexual freedom and sexual repression that were roiling the country back in the seventies. The story revolves around two couples living in a working class Italian-American neighborhood. They all come from the same background, but they end up going in wildly different directions. The movie depicts their conflicts with the world around them, with each other, and within themselves.

The first couple, Vinny and Dionna, are married. He works as a hairdresser and she works as a waitress. Vinny loves his wife, but he can’t stop chasing women. What he wants is wild, nasty sex, and because he sees his wife as a “nice girl”, he can’t bring himself to ask her to do anything out of the ordinary. She even tries to get him to loosen up in bed, and it freaks him out. His Catholic upbringing tells him you’re not supposed to do those things with your wife.

Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo

Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo

There’s a key moment early on when Vinny takes his wife’s cousin home from a club. He makes crazy love to her in the back of the car, and after dropping her off he drives by a crime scene where he sees the Son of Sam’s latest victims. Vinny is deeply shaken. He’s convinced this is a message from God. The Catholic in him believes that God is telling him to stop messing around, or he’ll be next. In his mind it’s that simple.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Richie and Ruby. Richie comes from the same working class neighborhood as Vinny and Dionna, but he’s dying to escape. He feels irresistibly drawn to punk rock and the scene swirling around CBGB. Sporting a spiked collar and a bristling mohawk, Richie makes his money in Manhattan where he dances for men and turns tricks on the side. Even though they’re coming from the same place as Vinny and Dionna, Richie and Ruby let go of their hang-ups and live the way they want to.

But this doesn’t mean they live happily ever after. When they’re through partying in the city, they still have to go back to the same old neighborhood, and now Richie and Ruby are perceived as outsiders. Richie especially is seen as a freak to be avoided. If that were all, it might not be a big deal. But a pack of local losers have decided it’s their mission to catch the Son of Sam, and they gradually convince themselves that this weirdo with the spiky hair and the dog collar must be the killer.

Confrontation in a coffee shop.

Confrontation in a coffee shop.

The script, by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Lee, uses these two couples to explore repression and freedom, fear and desire, weaving their stories into the larger fabric of life in New York in the seventies. Punk rock, disco, the Yankees, Italian mobsters, serial murders and Jimmy Breslin are all bound together in a volatile urban landscape where repressed desire is pulsing under the surface and fear drives a spiralling cycle of violence. On the surface it may seem like a chaotic mash-up, but the film is actually a beautifully structured collage. Overlapping layers of image and sound coming rushing at us, plunging us into this feverish, overheated world. In creating Summer of Sam‘s aggressive, abrasive style, the director was helped by numerous talented collaborators. Lee has often used a range of visual textures, and here Ellen Kuras gives him everything he needs, from brassy high-contrast to gritty, low-light images. Barry Alexander Brown’s editing gives the film pace and punch. The sound is amazing, capturing the screeching, scraping, rumbling, raging vibe of the city. Out of the huge crew that worked on this facet of the film, I’ll mention supervising sound editor Kevin Lee, sound designer Blake Leyh, sound re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman and foley editor Andrew Kris, though there are probably others that deserve to be named as well.

The murderer counts his kills.

The murderer counts his kills.

And I haven’t even gotten to the cast yet. John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino both seem to be living their roles from the inside out. Adrian Brody and Jennifer Esposito play their parts with a convincing mix of toughness and tenderness. But getting beyond the leads, the film has an incredible supporting cast. Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, Michael Rispoli and Ben Gazzara don’t even seem to be acting. You get the feeling they’ve been living in this neighborhood all their lives. And that same feeling extends to even the smallest supporting players. Casting director Aisha Coley deserves credit for filling the film with people who all seem to be a living part of the New York landscape.

But this film isn’t just about New York. It’s about people everywhere. As specific as Summer of Sam is to the time and place it’s set in, the conflicts these people are going through are universal. Wrestling with desire. Dealing with pressure from family and friends. And maybe most of all, searching for some kind of honesty. Once you get past the accents and the clothes and the music, you’ll find that Spike Lee isn’t just talking about New York in the seventies. He’s talking about all of us.

Jimmy Breslin talks about the city he loves and hates, in equal measure.

Jimmy Breslin talks about the city he loves and hates, in equal measure.

Moonstruck (1987)

Vincent Gardenia, Cher and Nicolas Cage

Vincent Gardenia, Cher and Nicolas Cage

John Patrick Shanley is such a generous writer. He loves his characters, and he wants to immerse us in their world. While at first glance they may seem petty, foolish, unreasonable, as we get to know them better we realize that they’re driven by the same desires, the same fears, as the rest of us. They may be flawed, but so is the rest of humanity.

Moonstruck is a richly detailed comedy about a woman approaching middle age, Loretta, who falls in love with her fiancé’s brother, Ronny. The premise is familiar, but Shanley takes us beyond the predictable complications of romantic comedy. He brings us into Loretta’s home to meet her mother and father, who have their own marital complications. We meet her grandfather, who walks his pack of dogs and worries that his family is unhappy. We sit down with everyone at the dinner table, where the in-laws tell stories about early courtship. Rather than just focussing on Loretta and Ronny, Shanley looks at the troubled relationships of the people around them. In most romantic comedies we take it for granted that the couple is in love, and the movie is about the hurdles they have to jump to be together. Moonstruck asks what love is, and the answer isn’t simple.

Nothing is simple in Moonstruck, least of all the families. Loretta’s fiancé Johnny is a mama’s boy, flying off to Italy to visit the woman who gave birth to him one last time. Loretta’s love for her father is tempered by the fact that he refused to give her away when she was first married. Ronny bears a burning grudge against his brother, believing that it’s Johnny’s fault he was maimed. The film shows how all these people are products of the relationships they have with their parents, their siblings, their children, both for good and for bad. In fact, the good and bad are inseparable. Loretta and Ronny can’t just ride off into the sunset together because they’re completely tangled in the complicated web that families weave.

Many of these people are driven by desire. The characters are either burning with it, or they’ve been burned by it. Loretta’s father, Cosmo, woos his mistress, trying to pretend he’s a young man again. His wife, Rose, lies in bed, frustrated that her husband won’t touch her. A college professor dates a string of young students, trying to rekindle his interest in life. And Loretta, who hasn’t been with a man since she was widowed, suddenly finds herself throwing caution to the wind and letting Ronny sweep her off her feet.

But desire is tempered by awareness of death. As he walks into the kitchen, Loretta’s father echoes Vicki Carr singing, “Or I will die….” The grandfather meets his ancient friends in a cemetery where they stand together over a grave. Ronny and Loretta go to the Met to see La Boheme, a story about lovers separated by death. As these people eat and drink, argue and make love, mortality is always standing in the background. When Loretta’s father criticizes her engagement ring, she responds by telling him it’s temporary. He shouts back at her, “Everything is temporary!”

Director Norman Jewison handles the intricate script with admirable assurance, breathing life into the people that Shanley has created. Jewison has an impressive grasp of the craft of filmmaking, but he’s more than just a craftsman. At his best he imbues his work with a vibrant energy and an exhilarating expansiveness that can carry you away. In Moonstruck the warmth of his images makes palpable Shanley’s love for his characters. And he makes New York glitter. Much of the film is shot on location, and the characters seem to really belong on these streets. Jewison took great pains to capture the community that the story takes place in. As an example, the director felt it was so important to have his actors experience the heat and the smell of a real bakery that he changed the last name of Ronny’s character to fit an actual bakery that he felt was perfect for the scene. While the film is part fairy tale, this insistence on rooting it in actual experience gives it weight and texture. Jewison is lucky to have the gifted David Watkin as cinematographer. His attention to light makes the streets, the shops, the homes all feel alive. Watkin’s work with the actors is even more impressive. He doesn’t just photograph faces, he photographs feelings.

The lovers end up together, but Shanley doesn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow. Frustrated by Loretta’s resistance, Ronny tells her, “Love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything.” Shanley doesn’t believe that relationships are about looking for happy endings. Ronny goes on to say, “We are here to ruin ourselves, and to break our hearts.” And in the end, Loretta acquiesces. She accepts the messy, crazy chaos of life.

But at the end, the film doesn’t focus on the lovers. In the last scene everyone is gathered around the breakfast table, parents, siblings, in-laws, and they drink a toast to the family. In spite of all the pain, anger, guilt and shame that goes with those relationships, Shanley seems to be saying that the good outweighs the bad. He still embraces the family.

Shadows (1959)

Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd and Ben Carruthers

Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd and Ben Carruthers

An intense young man walks the streets of New York while a moody, abstract bass line murmurs to us in the background. A young woman stops under a bright theatre marquee to check out the lurid display as a rambling solo sax underscores the scene’s sexual tension. In John Cassavetes’ Shadows, the jazz soundtrack doesn’t just complement the visuals, it’s an integral part of the director’s approach. The spontaneity and sensitivity of the music reflects the loose, open-ended feel of the movie. It’s not just a different style. It’s a different way of thinking about film.

The credits tell us that Shadows was improvised, which isn’t really true. It did grow out of improvisations by the actors, and Cassavetes was open to their inspiration during the shooting. But even if there wasn’t a traditional script, the director had definite ideas about the film’s shape and structure. Cassavetes knew where he wanted to go, even if he didn’t always know how to get there. It was his first film, and he has acknowledged that it’s uneven. Shadows may be messy and chaotic, but its loose, freewheeling approach allows the actors to connect with us in ways they never could in a more conventional film.

Just as a jazz musician takes a melody and makes it their own by opening themselves up to the moment, Cassavetes and his collaborators start with a basic structure and allow themselves the freedom to be spontaneous. They’re not locked into the demands of a commercial film, where the story is crucial and everything is planned and prepared. They take chances, they make mistakes. Sometimes this approach doesn’t work, and the film just seems amateurish and ragged. But at other times it gives us moments that seem remarkably true. An uncomfortable silence that says more than any words could. An awkward gesture that reveals a character’s insecurity. These sparks struck by accident illuminate the film. They give it an immediacy we don’t often see on the screen.

Shadows has been praised for its originality, and in some ways it did blaze new trails. But Cassavetes had his influences, and to a degree the film was an outgrowth of trends that had begun to develop in the late forties. After WWII, many filmmakers had started to venture away from soundstages and shoot their movies on real locations. Europeans, especially the Italian Neo-Realists, had forged a new kind of filmmaking that was rooted in everyday life. And in New York in the fifties there was a growing movement to create an independent cinema. Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke and Lionel Rogosin had all made low-budget films using actual locations.

The film centers on three siblings living together in New York. The three are played by Hugh Hurd, Ben Carruthers and Lelia Goldoni, and the actors’ first names are adopted by the characters in the film. Hugh is the oldest, a singer who’s having trouble getting gigs. Ben, in the middle, plays trumpet, though he’s more interested in partying than making music. And Lelia, the youngest, seems to just be trying to find herself. Shadows doesn’t have a central story. Or rather, it tells a few different stories, and they overlap in interesting ways. The characters hang out in bars, go to parties, make love and have fights just like real people do. The film doesn’t build to a conventional climax. There’s no tidy resolution at the end. Hugh, Ben and Lelia just go on with their lives.

The music in Shadows is by Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi, but apparently recording the soundtrack was just as chaotic as the rest of the production. From what I’ve read, Cassavetes wanted Mingus to compose the score, but apparently the two had a series of disagreements, which may have had to do with money or deadlines or both. No two accounts I’ve read agree on the details, but little of Mingus’ music ended up in the final film. Apparently Cassavetes worked with Hadi on recording the sax solos that make up most of the score. However difficult the process was, the end result gives the movie a tone that is absolutely unique. The cues are discrete pieces, reflecting the mood of the individual scenes. And the freedom we hear in the music is completely in tune with the spirit of the movie. It doesn’t tell us what to feel. It allows us to feel.

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Many of the earliest American movies were made in New York. While the center of commercial production shifted to Los Angeles in the teens, low-budget producers were still making films on the East Coast during the twenties and thirties. After WWII there was a resurgence of production in New York, and in the fifties independent filmmakers created a style all their own. Instead of Hollywood fantasy, these films embraced gritty reality. Instead of relying solely on studio sets, the directors often shot in the city streets.

Robert Wise was a product of the studio system. Starting out as an editor, he had worked his way up the ladder at RKO and in the forties he became a director. Early films like The Body Snatcher, The Set-Up and The Day the Earth Stood Still had earned him a good deal of attention. At his best, Wise had a taut, straightforward approach that worked especially well in the world of B-movies.

But Odds Against Tomorrow feels totally different from Wise’s studio work. It has a looseness, a freedom that you don’t find in the director’s lean, suspenseful Hollywood thrillers. I think in large part this is because he was working in New York. It may have been the crew, or the locations, or maybe just stepping outside of the Hollywood box, but this movie stands apart from anything he’d done before.

To start with, the tone of Joseph Brun’s photography is different from anything I’ve seen coming out of Hollywood at the time. Brun’s images are rich and complex, but the light is generally diffused, giving us few solid blacks and bright whites, more shades of grey. The film takes place in winter, and the light feels thin and chilly. It’s also interesting to see how much attention is given to things on the periphery, details that don’t advance the story. Working in Hollywood, Wise was known for a direct, no-frills approach. Here the camera lingers on the shadows cast by horses on a merry-go-round, newspapers flying down an empty street, a pool of water rippling in the gutter.

This wouldn’t just be Brun’s doing. I suspect that this willingness to linger on the details is at least in part the work of Dede Allen. Odds Against Tomorrow is one of Allen’s earliest feature credits, but she had been working as an editor for years. Of course, Wise had started his career as an editor, but the rhythms here are definitely a departure from his previous work. My feeling is that this more creative, intuitive approach is probably due to Allen’s involvement. It seems to point toward her later work with Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. Instead of moving relentlessly forward, the film allows us to look around and linger on things that don’t advance the plot. The focus is less on the story than it is on mood, atmosphere, character.

The characters are very interesting. Ed Begley is Dave, an ex-cop who got busted and has fallen on hard times. He seems to be a sensitive, caring person, but he’s willing to do some ugly things to get what he wants. Robert Ryan gives a stunning, low-key performance. He has tremendous authority on the screen, and he uses it to pull us inside characters who are deeply flawed and deeply unhappy. Playing Earle, Ryan manages to keep us with him every minute, even though the man is a bitter, violent racist.

Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley and Robert Ryan

Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley and Robert Ryan

Johnny, played by Harry Belafonte, is the most sympathetic of the three, and also the most complicated. At first he appears to be smart, suave and confident, a talented nightclub performer who’s enjoying a certain amount of success. But as we learn more about him, we realize that his life isn’t nearly as sweet as it seems. The failure of his marriage is eating away at him, and his addiction to gambling has put him in a huge financial hole. And race is also an issue for Johnny, though it’s hard to pin his feelings down exactly. When he’s in his own world he seems completely comfortable with his white friends, but when he sees his wife inviting white acquaintances to her apartment, he can’t keep his resentment from boiling over. Belafonte plays the part with a striking mixture of assurance and sensitivity.

We wouldn’t get such vivid performances if the script didn’t provide such interesting characters. The screenplay was written by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding, based on the novel by William P. McGivern. As with many of the best heist films, the focus isn’t on the job but on the people. The robbery is a mechanism that allows us to observe the lives of these three men, and to watch how they interact. As the pressure builds, we see each of them slowly starting to crack, we see more of who they really are.

And John Lewis’ music provides a rich, resonant background for all of this. The jazz score is another aspect of the film that ties it to the New York school. There were many soundtracks written in Hollywood that incorporated jazz elements, but in New York the filmmakers often turned to actual jazz musicians. Lewis paints a moody, brooding backdrop for this bleak tale of desperation. He’s not afraid to use dissonance, and his brass arrangements make the tension in the story palpable. For the quieter moments he turns to vibes and guitar, which complement the sombre visuals well.

Wise made a number of excellent films in his long career, and he wasn’t afraid to take chances, to try new things. His openness to different approaches is probably one of the reasons Odds Against Tomorrow is such a striking movie. If he had shot it in Hollywood, it might have been a solid thriller. But I think shooting it in New York made it something more.

Jungle Fever (1991)

Spike Lee (center) talking to Annabella Sciorra and Wesley Snipes

This movie is so full of pain, and still it’s so beautiful.

Jungle Fever takes place in New York in the nineties. Flipper, a black architect who is married and has a young daughter, has a brief affair with Angie, his white secretary. When the relationship is discovered their friends and families are outraged. The consequences are devastating for both of them.

But this is not your typical Hollywood drama. Writer/director Spike Lee doesn’t make simple movies with tidy resolutions. His characters are not isolated individuals living in a Hollywood fantasy. They are flesh and blood people who live in real places, and their lives are inextricably linked to the world that’s spinning around them. Even though the lovers meet in an office in Manhattan, the film really revolves around the communities they live in. Flipper’s home is in a middle-class neighborhood in Harlem, where he enjoys a happy, stable life with his wife and daughter. Angie lives in Bensonhurst, a working class Italian-American community. On top of her job as a temp, she also cooks and cleans for her father and brothers.

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the message is that an interracial relationship can work, that love conquers all. Not in Jungle Fever. However much Flipper and Angie may care about each other, they can’t escape the worlds they live in. For Flipper’s wife Drew, it’s not just that he cheated on her with any woman. Being biracial herself, the fact that he slept with a white woman awakens a deep, complicated anger that Drew has held inside her for years. Flipper is also the target of withering scorn from his father, a fundamentalist preacher. On Angie’s side, she ends up suffering terribly for awakening the violent hatred toward blacks that is deeply ingrained in her working class neighborhood.

For most filmmakers, all this would be enough. But Lee steps back from the love story to give us the bigger picture. We get a good, long look at Flipper’s family. His brother, Gator, is a crack addict. Gator shows up at his parents’ house looking for cash. The mother doesn’t have the strength to deal with her wayward son. The father is only interested in passing judgment. Flipper would like to just forget about Gator, but later in the film the mother insists that her successful son go find his addict brother. This forces Flipper to leave the comfortable world of Manhattan professionals, and to face a side of the city that frightens him. Some people may feel that all this is an unnecessary distraction. In fact, I think this context is crucial. The film isn’t just about Flipper and Angie. It’s also about the world they inhabit.

The offices in Manhattan, the crash pad for crack addicts, Harlem, Bensonhurst, Soho. These are all part of Spike Lee’s New York. Though some of the scenes he shows us are brutal to watch, Lee’s love for the city he lives in illuminates the film. Working with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, he frames and lights the various neighborhoods to capture the character of each. And you can tell how deeply he loves his city by the fact that he’s willing to embrace both the beauty and the horror. If at times his images are bathed in a sentimental glow, there are other times where he brings us face to face with the city’s darker side, and his gaze is unflinching.

In the end, Flipper and Angie decide they have no choice but to return to their neighborhoods, return to their homes, and try to rebuild their lives. This is not a fairy tale. They can’t escape the world they live in.