Wednesday, June 29, 2005

East of Eden (Elia Kazan)

Elia Kazan was practically canonized when he died a few years ago, though it was only a few years before that when his Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscars set off a fireworks display of controversy because Kazan had ratted out his peers during the McCarthy witchhunts in the 1950s. I thought both reactions were a little stupid. Kazan was respectably unapologetic about his hatred of Communism and his earlier, naive flirtation with it, but anti-Communist idealism usually doesn't involve fucking your friends for the benefit of a dangerous liar's electability. Kazan was a cowardly creep who saved his own ass at the expense of his friends, and his "undisputed" classic, On the Waterfront, was not only a rationalization for his naming of names, but also a celebration of his "heroism." If it had been a good film, I wouldn't have cared as much about its political ideology, but On the Waterfront is one of the most overrated "classic" films in the canon. It's the most egregious example of Kazan's heavy-handedness, especially in Karl Malden's character and performance. Kazan doesn't hint about his messages or themes, he crushes your fucking skull with them. Why was it stupid to boo him at the Oscars, then? Well, Kazan may have helped to ruin several of his peers' lives and stomped on the audience with "respectable liberal" (conservative) (what's the fucking difference) boots, but he got some of the most important performances in film history out of his actors and had deeper respect for the settings of his films than most mainstream directors before or since. Kazan's films have a palpable sense of place, and a deep respect for the atmosphere, spirit, whatever you want to call it, of the location used. He cares about the places he films, and it shows up onscreen. He also gets some amazing performances out of his leads. Brando in On the Waterfront murders the rest of the film. His scene with Eva Marie Saint in the park, pulling on a glove, is a deep wound from which the film can't recover. How can this challenge to feel something new survive such an artificial apologia of cowardly betrayal? East of Eden kicks Waterfront's ass. Most of the film's heavy-handedness comes from Steinbeck's novel's Biblical allegory. The film makes you forget it is a Biblical allegory from the strength of its setting and the nutzoid beautiful performance of James Dean, in the first of his three starring roles before his early death (and the only one released while he was still living). This is the most secular Biblical fable I've seen. Forget that allegory. This film is earth. You can smell it. You can feel it. It's human. I got excited early in the movie when Timothy Carey has a few scenes with Dean. Both of these guys act so honestly, they can trick you into thinking they're lousy actors. People get embarrassed by these performances and laugh sometimes, thinking the actors are hammy or bad. But the audience is embarrassed because it's being forced to feel something. We're forced to confront how much of what we see in the movies, what we read in books, what we listen to in music, what we say to our wives/husbands/boyfriends/girlfriends/kids/parents/siblings/friends/coworkers is just bad acting. We lie too much, mostly without knowing it, and it hurts us when we realize it. That's why we laugh at the "bad acting" we think we're seeing. Kazan blew it, though. He was pissed at Carey and dubbed his strange, deep, mumbly voice with another actor's. Carey still tapdances on Kazan's face, voice or no voice. God, this movie is good. It's so flawed, but so good. It makes me feel like I saw something. I didn't just waste a couple of hours ducking my own existence, wasting my time. I saw something. What a fucking waste that James Dean had to drive like an asshole.

No comments:

Blog Archive