As is fairly familiar knowledge by now, John Cassavetes first work, Shadows, actually exists in two versions, the first having undergone significant revisions after various private screenings left a desire for further change. Upon the release of the second version, a bit of controversy was created when those smitten with the first version, exemplified by Jonas Mekas, did not take kindly to the new incarnation. Eventually the first version fell out of circulation, and to most, out of existence altogether, until many years later, after a prolonged search, the film scholar Ray Carney was able to track down a print. The controversy was re-ignited when the Cassavetes estate, including Gena Rowlands, objected to the release of the first version, and interesting questions soon arose as to who could rightly lay claim to it.
Excerpt of a letter to John Casssavetes from Amos Vogel, written 11/17/59 (reproduced in full in Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society)
“….There remains a serious problem, of which you already know. I refer to the fact that a number of people—including Jonas Mekas and Gideon Bachmann—feel that the second version, as shown by us, is totally inferior and a ‘commercial compromise.’ I have spent hours with them, attempting to convince them that they are wrong. Jonas intended to make a public attack on the film at our showing, but I convinced him to first write you, since he also plans to write in SIGHT AND SOUND and elsewhere about the new version.
There now does exist a controversy in New York regarding the film, and a confusion as to what is the ‘proper’ version. I have discussed this with Cassel and assume he has told you about it. I cannot discuss it in detail in a letter, except to say that you must have a very clear-cut stand on the issue, as shown, for example, in your decision to send this new version to the various festivals and to have this be the version that will be distributed.
You will further confuse the issue, were you to decide to permit the earlier version to be show. The result will be that you will compete with yourself and create confusion in people’s mind, so that they will think there are two SHADOWS in existence.
For example, it is now being stated by certain people that Kingsley financed the new version; that it was done in accord with his wishes, and that thus it constitutes a commercial ‘betrayal.’ You and I know that Kinsley stepped out of the deal at a very stage; and that, in fact, the changes are due to your desire to strengthen the film, not to commercially compromise it.
Nevertheless, you will have to take a very strong stand, it seems to me, in favor of the new version being ‘the’ film. I realize that this is none of my business; I am simply giving you my opinion; in fact, I do not wish to become involved in this matter and prefer my name be kept out of it completely especially since the decision rests entirely with you. By my opinion stands…..”
---From an article in The Village Voice by Jonas Mekas (included in Movie Journal-The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971)
January 27, 1960
TWO VERSIONS OF SHADOWS
"It may seem to some that enough has already been said about John Cassavetes’ Shadows. After seeing it again last Tuesday at the Film Center, in its original version, and after comparing the exultation of this audience with the perplexity at Cinema 16, I definitely feel that the real case of Shadows is only just beginning.
I have no further doubt that wheras the second version of Shadows is just another Hollywood film—however inspired, at moments—the first version is the most frontier-breaking American feature film in at least a decade. Rightly understood and properly presented, it could influence and change the tone, subject matter, and style of the ntire independent American cinema. And it is already beginning to do so.
The crowds of people that were pressing to get into the Film Center (Pull My Daisy was screened on the same program) illustrated only too well the shortsightedness of the New York film distributors who blindly stick to their old hats. Shadows is still without a distributor. Distributors seem to have no imagination, no courage, no vision, no eyes for the new.
Again, I stress that I am talking about the first version of Shadows only. For I want to be certain not to be misunderstood. I have been put into a situation, one which a film critic can get into only once in a lifetime (I hope). I have been praising and supporting Shadows from the very beginning (see Cassavetes’ letter, Village Voice, December 16, 1959; Ben Carruthers’ letter, December 30, 1959), writing about it, pulling everybody into it, making enemies because of it (including the director of the film himself)—and here I am, ridiculously betrayed by an ‘improved’ version of that film, with the same title but different footage, different cutting, story, attitude, character, style, everything: a bad commercial film, with everything that I was praising completely destroyed. So everybody says: What was he raving about? Is he blind or something? Therefore I repeat and repeat: It is the first version I was and I am still talking about. (Here is the stay-away identification marker: the second version begins with a rock-and-roll session.)
I have no space for a detailed analysis and comparison of the two versions. It is enough to say that the difference is radical. The first Shadows could be considered as standing at the opposite pole from Citizen Kane; it makes as strong an attempt at catching (and retaining) life as Citizen Kane was making an attempt at destroying life and creating art. Which of the two aims is more important, I do not know. Both are equally difficult to achieve. In any case, Shadows breaks with the official staged cinema, with made-up faces, with written scripts, with plot continuities. Even its inexperience in editing, sound, and camera work becomes a part of its style, the roughness that only life (and Alfred Leslie’s painting) have. It doesn’t prove anything, it doesn’t even want to say anything, but really it tells more than ten or one hundred and ten other recent American films. The tone and rhythms of a new America are caught in Shadows for the very first time. (Pull My Daisy does it too, perhaps better, but it came out one year after Shadows.) Shadows has caught more life than Cassavetes himself realizes. Perhaps now he is too close to his work, but I am confident he will change his mind. And the sooner the second version is taken out of circulation, the better. Meanwhile, the bastardized version is being sent to festivals and being pushed officially, while the true film, the first Shadows, is being treated as a stepchild. It is enough to make one sick and shut up."
Excerpt of a letter to John Casssavetes from Amos Vogel, written 11/20/59 (reproduced in full in Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society)
“Despite the fact that Jonas Mekas promised me not to write anything about the film until after having spoken to you, you will be by the enclosed that he rushed into print with his first attack on the film.
By referring to a ‘commercialized version,’ ‘in no way to be confused with the original’ which was shown at Cinema 16, and then urging people to see the presumably ‘un-commercialized’ version elsewhere, he has compounded the confusion which I warned you would exist if two versions of what is only one film continue to circulate.
It is clearer now that the ‘other version’ should never have been publicized and certainly should not continue to circulate.
Retroactively, he cheapens our showing and your artistic integrity. While as a critic he has a perfect right to his opinon, we are both harmed by this.
For this reason, I have already sent a strong letter to Village Voice and urge you to immediately send them a strong statement of your own, upholding the version shown as ‘the film’. Perhaps it would be good to even wire them, asking them to be sure to print your statement…”
Excerpt of a letter to Amos Vogel from John Cassavetes, written 1/19/60 (reproduced in full in Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society)
"...Your letters regarding the reception that the film received at Cinema 16, along with the many that were sent to me because of the screening, certainly helped to fill the expectations that we all had for the film when we originally started..."
Excerpt of letter written to The Criterion Company from Al Ruban, business manager of the Cassavetes estate
“…stating clearly that we do not approve the inclusion in the creation of a DVD by the Criterion Collection of any film footage, picture and/or track of or alleged to be of Shadows the John Cassavetes feature film, other than the full complete version restored and preserved by UCLA Film and Television Archive…”
Excerpt from essay by Ray Carney detailing his search for the long-lost first version (a the complete essay can be found here, with a considerable amount of additional background information and further exposition on a whole host of issues involving Cassavetes):
“…One could ask whether the discovery proves Jonas Mekas right; but that’s the wrong question. It doesn’t really matter. The two versions of Shadows are sufficiently different from each other, with different scenes, settings, and emphases, that they deserve to be thought of as different films. Each stands on its own as an independent work of art.
The real value of the first version is that it gives us an opportunity to go behind the scenes into the workshop of the artist. Art historians X-ray Rembrandt’s work to glimpse his changing intentions. Critics study the differences between the quarto and folio versions of Shakespeare’s plays. There is almost never an equivalent to these things in film. That is the value of the first version of Shadows. It allows us to eavesdrop on Cassavetes’ creative process–to, as it were, stand behind him as he films and edits his first feature….”
(all stills from the second version of 'Shadows')