Thursday, October 7, 2010

Elia Kazan in his films

The generational thing, again: Elia Kazan was born in the same year as my father, and at just the age when it would impress me his early Hollywood film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, reached one of the main movie houses of Alameda, California. I had already read the book, though I knew few Irish Catholics and I had never been to Brooklyn. The combination of emotional intensity and absence of sentimentality and great photography impressed me permanently: this was no Bing Crosby movie! But I still knew nothing of directors, and I never have become a real movie buff. Actually, I never have seen either Gentleman's Agreement or On the Waterfront, though it is so easy to get things now that I resolve to see them soon, having been much impressed by Martin Scorsese's "Letter to Elia" two evenings ago on PBS. I saw A Streetcar Named Desire only when it had long been a classic, some time in the 1980s, still paying no attention to the director's name. Only on American Movie Classics did I see Baby Doll, again after I moved to Louisiana in 1981 and, likewise in the heyday of AMC, I saw A Face in the Crowd on television. By then I paid more attention to the credits and knew that they were Kazan's, and I added them to my list of unforgettable films. AMC also brought Wild River to my attention; at a time when I was interested in the TVA, but it was on account of Mongomery Clift, whom I remembered from The Heiress (which I saw unforgettably as an adolescent when it first appeared), that I made sure that I saw it broadcast. It is a beautiful film, but by 1960 not for Clift; I ought to see it again.
Actually, the next one that I saw in a large theater, first run, was East of Eden, and as an avid Steinbeck reader, and a Californian whose maternal family was partly settled up and down the Salinas Valley, in 1955 (I have seen it repeatedly since). Though the novel is not Steinbeck's greatest, the film is, in my opinion, perfect. It is so beautiful, and it is as if Kazan had got more out of Steinbeck than the latter himself had known was there. (The same is true of Baby Doll, compared with its Tennessee Williams original).
Finally, in Eugene, Oregon, I saw America America first run at the best downtown movie house, and it is the Kazan that I have seen repeatedly, most often. It is unlike Aiolikê Gê by Venezês; it is not idyllic in any part. When I go to it from a Google search I find descriptions that to me fall far short of the unflinching but all-forgiving truthfulness in this great film. The uncle, on whose experience it is based, was from Kayseri, south of Ankara, and I have wondered whether they actually photographed Mt. Argaeus, the sacred mountain of Caesareia (its ancient name), since I have never been there (there are plenty of volcanic peaks in California that he might have used), but it is only since I began to study ancient coins, where the mountain figures on the reverse of many of them, that such a detail could even occur to me. Kazan himself was brought from Constantinople as a small child, but he has put all his mind and insight into the sequence in Constantinople. And then, the photography and editing are so great; he makes everything both true and iconic. "Style is the man himself." Its other truth is to his realization of his uncle's self, and doubtless his own. This is no exhibitionistic vehicle like Zorba. One can watch this film any number of times; the more, with time, one brings to it, the more there is. Even more than East of Eden, it is the film that has haunted me.
Now I think better of Martin Scorsese, too (not that I ever denigrated him), for understanding Kazan. And the way we talk about this or that person before the HUAC, when we have never been in their skin, should make us ashamed of ourselves.