Pull My Daisy, Shadows

Two Beat Generation films screen at Queen's Film Theatre as part of the Belfast Book Festival

As part of the Beats at QFT mini-season of Beat Generation films showing as part of this year’s Belfast Book Festival, Queen's Film Theatre present a recreation of the original 1959 double bill of John Cassavetes’ debut feature Shadows paired with Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s short Pull My Daisy.

Both films are regarded as landmarks in American independent cinema, and their seemingly improvisational nature and disregard for traditional filmic conventions were instrumental – along with the nouvelle vague movement in France – in inspiring the generation of ‘movie brats’ (Coppola, Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson and others) who came along a decade later and invented New American Cinema.

How do the films stand up today, though? Are they mere curiosity pieces – artifacts of a time period interesting only for what they tell us about the New York bohemian scene of more than 50 years ago – or do they communicate, as the best art does, essential truths about the human condition?

Pull My Daisy fares less well than Shadows. Adapted from the third act of Jack Kerouac’s unperformed play The Beat Generation, and based on a real life event in the life of Beat muse Neal Cassady, the 27-minute film tells the story of railway brakeman Milo, whose wife invites a respected bishop – as well as the Bishop’s mother and sitster – for dinner, only for Milo’s friends (including poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky) to gatecrash the dinner, which descends into chaos.

Over this scripted storyline is a improvised narration by Kerouac, which veers from baldly stating what is going on onscreen to spontaneous flights of wordplay that bear little or no relation to the storyline. Depending on how you approach the intentions behind the film, this can be either distracting or charmingly absurd.

The narration – punctuated with a jazz score by David Amram – and the onscreen goofing by Corso and Ginsberg in particular, highlights the oft-overlooked humour the Beat writers brought to American art. Being the first foray into film by acclaimed photographer, Robert Frank (he would later make the notorious 1972 Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues) Pull My Daisy ultimately stands as a testament to the collaborative, risk taking nature that existed among artists of that period.

‘The film you have just seen was an improvisation’ a title card states at the end of Shadows, but this is only partly true. The film was, in fact, filmed twice, once in 1957 and again two years later. The first version of Cassavetes’ debut feature was based on improvisations worked up between the director and his actors, but – dissatisfied with the original cut – the director re-scripted and reshot many scenes.

The film was made for a total of $40,000. Cassavetes raised the funds from friends and family, as well as from listeners to a late-night radio talk show on which he promised to make a film about ‘little people’ who weren’t represented in Hollywood movies.

Shadows, therefore, follows the lives of three black siblings in Manhattan: Benny, a bohemian trumpet player, his older brother Hugh, a jazz singer, and their 20-year-old sister, light-skinned Lelia, an aspiring artist.

Whilst Benny wanders the night time streets with his pals – drinking in clubs, chatting up girls in coffee shops – Hugh struggles to make a living in low class nightclubs, forced by economic necessity, and the urging of his manager, Rupert, into being the opening act for a girly show. Meanwhile, Lelia meets Tony at a party and the two – after a brief romance – sleep together.

It is only later, when Tony brings Lelia home and meets Hugh, that he discovers she is black. His first – fleeting – reaction of disgust is noticed by both Hugh and Lelia, and the fallout from this event propels the rest of the narrative into an examination of the three siblings' place in the society they live in.

Shadows has the look and feel of cinema vérité. Using modern, lightweight 16mm cameras, and shooting in real life locations (Times Square at night, the Museum of Modern Art), the movie has a sense of raw reality that transcends the sometimes clumsy – and other times out-of-focus – camerawork.

It’s obvious that Cassavetes as a director is on a learning curve here, but his use of extreme close-ups on the actor's faces during emotionally complex scenes would become a trademark in his more mature work of the late 1960s and 70s.

Shadows is also a taboo breaker. In our more enlightened world (or so we like to think), it’s hard to imagine the shock that audiences of the time would have experienced watching a film that so honestly examines the race issue in 1950s America.

Never mind that Tony and Lelia sleep together when they barely know one another – unthinkable in movies of that period – the later revelation that they are different races ensured that the film would have distribution problems for years afterwards. Perhaps even more shocking to an audience force fed on Doris Day romances and the sanctity of love and romance is Lelia’s comment as she lies in Tony’s bed after he has taken her virginity: 'I didn’t know it could be so awful.'

Ultimately, what ensures that Shadows still has the power to connect with a modern audience (and despite its no doubt important position in the development of American cinema) is that it tells an honest story about people, and their struggles in life and love – it is a film trying to be real. In today’s cinema, we could do with more of that.

The Belfast Book Festival continues until June 16.