How do we define the word 'Independent' in a cinematic sense? If we are to approach the concept from a strictly financial perspective, then the label denotes a film made separate from the studio system, funded by the director themselves perhaps, and more often than not made on a shoestring budget and with extremely limited resources. However, there is also the undeniable aesthetic, tone and consistent 'feel' associated with the word and the mountain of films that fall under its broad umbrella.

Within the first instance we find films such as Richard Linklater's Slacker (1991), Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981) and Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994). The films and their directors found in this vein seemingly thrive from the challenge of working with limited funds, or find inspiration in its restrictive nature. Whereas in the latter you have Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and everything that Ellen Page did for the five years after Juno (2007) - films that were made with considerable studio backing, but were marketed on their indie charm and ever-present quirk.

I have always found it easier to draw a clear dividing line between these two schools of thought, 'Independent' is the more applicable term for the financial sense of the concept, whereas the abbreviated 'indie' is better to describe those films that follow the conventions established by true independent cinema, but embrace the financial backing of investors who may or may not dilute the overall vision.

Fig 1: Leila Goldini as the youngest sibling 'Leila' in Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes)


The debate rages on though, and it will continue to for a while I imagine, but today's focus film, John Cassavetes 1959 drama Shadows, is arguably a landmark moment in the development of American Independent cinema, and could be considered to walk the line between both interpretations of the term. The film's fringe-at-the-time subject matter of racial tension and jazz parties, along with the improvisational nature of its performances, script and composition, went some way to establishing the template for the 'indie' spirit, whilst in the economic sense, Shadows was funded by a series of loans acquired from Cassavete's wide social circle.

Shadows concerns a trio of Black-American counterculture siblings in 1950's New York City, and the varying degrees of prejudice, romance, hardship, and success that they encounter. Cassavete's film explores these characters in intricate detail and distinctive style, incorporating ideas and cinematic techniques borrowed from the emerging French, German and British new waves, whilst retaining a distinctly American appeal and focus. The performances are incredible, the soundtrack electric, and the tone pitch perfect, but this is one of my all-time favourite films, and so as opposed to waxing lyrical for the remaining half of this article, I instead would like to deconstruct the centrepiece of the film's one hour and twenty minutes, a sequence in which three characters wander around an art gallery, as I believe it to be the extremely precise capturing and summation of independent art in general.

Middle sibling Ben and two of his beatnik friends have journeyed to The Metropolitan museum after the sudden urge to exercise their creative minds, and the simultaneous realisation that "they've got mummies there and everything". Whilst there, they take in the sculptures and modern art installed in the institution's gardens on a cold winter's day.

Fig 2: Ben, Dennis and Tom walk around the museum grounds


Ben's friend Tom bemoans the pretentiousness of the art scene and the academic, scholarly and "sexless" men and women that participate in it, before the other friend, Dennis, accuses him of having "no respect for art at all" which Tom reacts angrily to. Dennis and Tom then erupt into conflict in front of a surreal, twisted sculpture. Tom asserts that the appreciation of art is not a trait of intelligence, but a wholly subjective and often redundant practice. Dennis doubts Tom's appreciation of the medium and presumes that Tom's rejection of modern art is down to sheer ignorance; however, Tom then accuses Dennis of actively indulging in the pretentiousness that he so loathes, seeing him as equally ignorant and requesting that Dennis explain the strange statue behind them if he knows so much about art.

Fig 3: Dennis and Tom argue about the statue behind them - it can be observed that each character is visually associated with the type of art they champion - Dennis (left) is aligned with the surreal, Dali-esque humanoid figure, whereas Tom is aligned with the straightforward observational, realistic human.


Meanwhile, Ben has wandered over to what appears to be an African tribal mask etched in stone and stood on a podium. He takes a knee and stares into its eyes, a gesture that at once suggests a recognising of lost heritage, and identifying with the glazed expression, and a spiritual connection to the captured subject. The trance is broken as Tom walks over, still angry and dismissive as Ben proclaims the piece to be "wild". Tom again rejects the piece, storming off as Ben calls after him to tell him "It's not a question of understanding it man, if you feel it you feel it"

Fig 4: Ben looks deep into the stone mask


I believe that this short scene is a vehicle for the opinion of Cassavetes that, even if the art you are presented with seems out of line with expectations, or diverges from conventionality and established methods of expression, be that as a result of financial necessity or pure artistic indulgence, it can still hold incredible value. All of these characters express intense emotions when in the presence of the sculptures , be it the sedated trance Ben slips into or Tom's animated and vicious temper, but isn't that what great art does? Are these pieces not designed to draw raw, primitive reactions? And does some the best art from throughout history not constantly instigate heated debate concerning its credibility and value? - Even the Mona Lisa has its detractors.

Shadows was the beginning of a tangential path in the history of American cinema, borne from both a desire to express truthfully and its own financial limitations. Experimental in its nature and woven through with an improvisational, spontaneous tone, the film dared to challenge both the studio system and the language of cinema itself, all the while exploring the very nature of independent art as a concept.