Photogenesis and the invisible: on John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). Notes for a seminar presentation. by Gerardo Muñoz

i. What is your name? Every time that I have watched John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) I end up facing the same question: what is taking place in this film? Perhaps it is the incorrect question insofar as Shadows (1959) is, first and foremost, a film about the event; about “what takes place”. Unlike Hollywood’s telic form over conflict, the whole premise of Cassavetes’ method of improvisation is a way to liberate the event in the moving image. This is what I would like to call here a photogenic event. The whole structure of Shadows is, to this effect, the bringing-fourth of appearing without narration or naming. Hence, what takes place is the way in which characters or figures emerge from light, retracting from the plunge unto theatricality. The photogenetic effect in Cassavetes is a way out of the logic of naming: remember “what is your name?”, as Bennie asks very early in the film (the café sequence). Indeed, the naming is always what emerges after the event, once boredom has kicked him and the separation from light and shadow, human and animal, theater and theatrically have taken place. The taking place in Shadows is a return to an abysmal site predating naming, faces, or intentions: it is absolute proximity. 

ii. The vocation of the quotidian. The photogenetic image works through the texture of life: this is why in Shadows nothing truly happens in virtue that everything takes place. The difference between happening and taking place is an irreducible distinction; mainly, what happens is not provoked a mediation between subjects and objects, but rather at a moment when both subject and object coincide only to immediately suspend each other. What takes place is life’s destiny, which ultimately entails that we are figures of exposure before we are subjects of narrative and causality. As in a diary or a midnight party, what takes place is the clandestine life once it enters in relation with other bodies, languages, and gestures. In this sense, Shadows remains faithful to one and only one principle: how to transfigure the boredom of factical life into a vocation of a clandestine life. It is not too clear that Cassavetes arrives at a successful answer to this problem; almost as if, indeed, to remain clandestine is to insist on the “invisible” image that is always missing from every life. The promiscuity between shadows and light transpires the possibility of the living all the other invisible and nonexistent lives that are scarified within that which we call “life”. 

iii. Under the glorious sky. If the task of vocation opens to the invisible in life, then this means that there is always a dimension that is exterior the anthropological determination. In the solitude of the nocturnal splendor of the late modern metropolis – as in the instance in which Lelia is outside of a Manhattan theater lost in thought or contemplating the shimmering lights above – the existence of the human shines along with the embers of the sky. This most definitely an inherence of paganism in the sense of the medium in life as a mode of appearance without judgement. As one can still contemplate it from the frescos at Villa Fernesina, the pagan gazing towards the sky is not a flight towards abstraction or transcendence, but rather a releasement of life’s destiny as affirmed in the terrestrial presence [1]. Paradoxically, at the moment of the total subsumption of life into the Spectacle, the medium frees the possibility of the deconstitution of life into the modes and resources of appearing. From the photogenic perspective, this entails full saturation on the horizon; from the pagan perspective, the onwards unfolding of existence becomes a fragment in the exploration of the common sky. 

iv. Inharmonious tonality. Now, fragmentation opens a heterochronic disassociation between images and events. Indeed, all of Shadows unfolding bears witness to the way in which the tonality of life is always at odds with the attunement of the rhythms of the world. It is in this threshold where interiority of the self and exteriority of music point to the peak of prophecy. For one thing, because music is the medium through the residual mystery of the “inexpressive” becomes the process of traversing the ecstatic formlessness of the event. This disharmony dislocates the homogenization vis-à-vis the sky of cinematography.  Bresson says something very beautiful about this disharmony: the image of cinematography must be such that it puts in relation the voice and the steps of a person in a way that the protagonist themselves have not foreseen. This nocturnal knowledge between image and sound, rhythm and tonality of life, becomes the triumph of the photogenic medium in which life dissolves in a kinetic outburst without recourse. 

v. The invisible and intoxication. At a very superficial dimension, Shadows is about alcohol consumption; hence about what happens to a life under the stage of intoxication. The only knowledge is that of the oblique pedagogy in which the way of the flesh becomes a pathway for language, friendship, and violence among other bodies. There is no transgression as an intoxicated subject, since intoxication is already the violence against the substance of the subject. In other words – and this was suggested to me by the contemporary artist and designer Claudia Patricia – the logistics of errancy is being able to do otherwise from a site in which no other possibility could have emerged. This absolute necessity moves against reality and the future planning of the metropolis. And here I must return to the beginning: what takes place is what allows a relation with the invisible. Already in 1959, Cassavetes understood that intoxication redeems an ethical life against an epochal phase in which total anthropological exposure would become the concrete utopia of the socialization of capital. 

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Notes 

1. Fritz Saxl. La fede astrologica di Agostino Chigi. Interpretazione dei dipinti di Baldassarre Peruzzi nella Sala di Galatea della Farnesina (Bardi Edizioni, 2017).

2. Gianni Carchia. “Dialettica dell’immagine: note sull’estetica biblica e cristiana”, in La legittimazione dell’arte: studi sull’intelligibile estetico (1982). 

3. Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943-1983 (NYRB, 2016).