The Elia Kazan Collection

The latest holiday gift set from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment doesn’t have the wingspan of their previous blockbusters, “Ford at Fox” or “Murnau, Borzage and Fox” — but then, we’re unlikely to see anything on that scale again, as DVD sales continue to dwindle. But it does contain fifteen films, including five appearing on DVD for the first time: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “Viva Zapata!,” “Man on a Tightrope” and “America, America.”

Framed by a documentary directed by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones that mainly focuses on Scorsese’s childhood reactions to Kazan’s work (“East of Eden” seems to have offered him his first fearful glimpse of adulthood), the set is unlikely to change anyone’s overall opinion of Kazan, though the contrasts seem more cruel with the passing of time. The good work, particularly “Wild River,” looks ever better; the bad stuff, like “Gentleman’s Agreement,” has practically faded into unwatchability.

There was a little spasm of Ingmar Bergman bashing over at Glenn Kenny’s place last week that made me think how much Bergman and Kazan have in common: both were celebrated theater directors who made their movie debuts around the same time, building their style around a distinctive, stylized direction of actors that somehow passed for psychological realism in the postwar context; both liked to traffic in big themes (social and political for Kazan, philosophical and religious for Bergman) but found their most sure connection with audiences in their intimate treatment of the thrills and traumas of adolescent sexuality.

Both panted after grand cinematic effects — the weirdly canted angles in “East of Eden,” the avant-garde interjections in “Persona” — without showing much facility in filmmaking on the practical level of composition and cutting. Both made Red Scare movies that were their absolute worst (Bergman’s “This Can’t Happen Here,” Kazan’s “Man on a Tightrope”). And both eventually drifted away from big ideas into family history and autobiographical confession, Kazan with “America America” and “The Arrangement” and Bergman with “Fanny and Alexander” and “Scenes from a Marriage.” As superb as some of their individual films may be, both in the end seemed to be accidental filmmakers, for whom movies were a secondary form of expression while the true heart of their work lied elsewhere — not in the orchestration of sounds and images but in the theatrical alliance of language and gesture.

My New York Times review is here.

125 comments to The Elia Kazan Collection

  • Been showing Streetcar to some youths and while I agree that Leigh’s performance is ‘grandly theatrical,” I don’t quite see it in Kim Hunter and Karl Malden (of course their characters aren’t conceived as grand at all–more ‘Method-ly mundane’). Brando stands out for the way he keeps stealing the scene–when the girls and boys, who were initially impressed with his physique, finally heard his voice, you could feel the entire room screw up its collective face. Seems to make sense he’d try make an impact by other means.

    It’s a comedy–at least I think it’s a comedy; Tennessee Williams’ idea of a domestic situation rendered sordid by the Orleans ambiance. Kazan throws in shots of a bowling alley and train station and factory, and makes no attempt to reconcile this with the theatricality of the apartment set; he raises the ceiling to Olympian heights and expands a tiny two-bedroom so it looks the size of a small hotel lobby. I keep thinking: George Stevens did fast-paced domestic comedy that accentuated the cramped space in The More the Merrier.

    Possibly my favorite Kazan is Baby Doll.

  • Brian Dauth

    Noel: STREETCAR is a comedy the way Kazan (mistakenly) directed it. He tried to create a balance between Stanley and Blanche even though Stanley is a supporting character and the play is about Blanche and her ability to be both realistic and imaginative as the situation called for. Kazan staged the play at Blanche’s expense — reviews and commentaries from the time noted the humor of the staging and audience laughter even during the rape scene. Subsequent productions (including notable ones by Harold Clurman and Ellis Rabb) reclaimed center stage for Blanche.

    Admittedly, part of the difficulty lies in what David Savran identifies as William’s two (often conflicting) dramaturgies: one realistic and one hallucinatory (“Communists, Cowboys and Queers: The Politics of Masculinity in the Work of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams). Stanley is realistic while Blanche, though capable of existing in the real world, also lives in the liberating (according to Williams) world of imagination. Kazan staged the play on the realistic level only, thus throwing the play to Stanley by depriving Blanche of her ambiguity and shape shifting (Kazan would mutilate CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF even more). Blanche’s flights of fierce imagination are rendered as garden-variety dottiness by Kazan (he admitted that he hated the character), and many directors have followed Kazan’s lead. Thus reduced, Blanche comes off as the comic foil to Stanley’s strong, realistic manliness.

  • Brian: you might have a point. Been wrestling with William’s text with the kids and it seems to me, well, Williams does have enough dialogue to create a domestic comedy, but that the play’s true life can be found in the stage directions and material Kazan cuts out, which are as hallucinatory as Blanche’s own monologues.

    Always wondered if someone else tried his hand at Streetcar, throw in the more fantastical elements–Dassin, maybe?

  • Alex Hicks

    Kazan’s treatment of Blanche is comedic enough to alienate us from her and bar our letting ourselves go with her flights of imagination but, yes, set too sordidly set and murkily realized) for effective comedy.

    Still, one has to have a heart of stone to entirely withhold laughing at Brando’s cinematic “STELLA! (No, not a film this Williams, Kazan and Brando fan likes at all.)

    Dave K’s “Weimar Film” at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/12/movies/12weimar.html?ref=movies is all light.

  • A side note: It is too bad there is no film recording the great Haruko Sugimura’s Blanche (she played the role at Streetcar’s Japanese stage premiere in 1953 — and, amazingly enough, revisited this role in 1987).

  • Brian Dauth

    Michael: At Tennessee William’s memorial service, Jessica Tandy asked the audience’s indulgence to imagine that the bare stage was an apartment in New Orleans; that Mitch was standing beside her; passed her hands over her face; was suddenly 40 years younger and Blanche DuBois in the flesh; and proceeded to give the monologue about Blanche’s first marriage. It was absolutely thrilling.

  • Brian — awesome story! This is one way that live theater offers possibilities that cinema probably doesn’t.

  • Imagine filming Streetcar on a bare stage with only actors and lights and sounds.

  • Alex Hicks

    “Imagine filming Streetcar on a bare stage with only actors and lights and sounds.”

    Stage productions can, of course, span extremes of sparseness and elaborateness of staging. Around 1985 I saw a Broadway staging of Pinter’s BETRAYAL that was extremely spare and a (Chicago) Goodman Theater staging of the same play with the most elaborately set, designed and lit staging imaginable –one gorgeous tableau per scene. Quite different experiences.

    Anyone for a Lars von Trier STREETCAR?

  • dan

    News has it that Luis García Berlanga passed away. His PLACIDO and WELCOME, MISTER MARSHALL are to me two of the best spanish films ever made. He was sadly undervalued by many. Was it the because he wasn’t as politically simplistic as Juan Antointio Barden was? Was it the fact his films achieved popularity both home and abroad? Anyhow, the films speak for themselves. Gloriously so.

  • Stephen Bowie

    Berlanga’s EL VERDUGO is a forgotten masterpiece, a really daring black comedy about capital punishment that compares favorably to Bunuel’s or Ichikawa’s social satires. A stateside tribute would be welcome.

  • Alex Hicks

    Oooops! Those two stage versions of BETRAYAL I saw were in more like 1980-81 than 1985.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    The Governors’ Awards were presented tonight by the Academy; they promise video soon (certainly by tomorrow). Meantime, this is what they have on line (as they do the other three recipients) as why Godard is being awarded:

    Jean-Luc Godard – Honorary Award
    For passion. For confrontation. For a new kind of cinema

    To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated.
    – Jean-Luc Godard

    Jean-Luc Godard’s career has spanned over half a century with the one constant in his work being that each new movie is primarily a study of form in relation to an idea. The forms evolved and the ideas changed, but his exploration of the relatedness of the two remained the same.

    Born in Paris in 1930 and raised in Switzerland, Godard studied ethnology at the Sorbonne but reportedly spent more time in movie theaters than in class. He began to write about the films he saw in Cahiers du Cinema and formed alliances with artists who would become the nucleus of the French New Wave. Though loosely modeled after Hollywood gangster pictures, Godard’s debut feature “Breathless” (1960) challenged cinematic conventions and stunned critics, filmmakers and audiences alike with its improvisational style, impulsive handheld camerawork and intentional jump-cuts. As this iconoclastic film took the world by storm, its director became a leading spokesman for the New Wave.

    Throughout the sixties, Godard’s work became more radical, both in form (“A Woman Is a Woman,” 1961; “Contempt,” 1963; “Band of Outsiders,” 1964; “Alphaville,” 1965) and in content (“Pierrot le fou,” 1965; “Masculin féminin,” 1966; “Two or Three Things I Know about Her,” 1967; “Weekend,” 1967) until finally in 1968, following the events of May, he abandoned the framework of commercial filmmaking entirely. Along with Jean-Pierre Gorin, he formed a leftist filmmaking collective dubbed the Dziga Vertov Group. They made “cinetracts” – films outlining the group’s beliefs such as “Vladimir and Rosa” (1970), “Tout va bien” (1972) and “Letter to Jane” (1972). The Dziga Vertov Group dissolved in the early seventies.

    Godard’s subsequent work maintained his career-long commitment to the symbiotic tension between form and content as well as the ongoing duality of high and low art and sound and image. His later films are often marked with a formal beauty that belies the roiling tension within, for example: “Passion” (1982), “Prénom Carmen” (1983), “Je vous salue, Marie,” which was condemned by the Catholic Church for alleged heresy (1985), “King Lear” (1988), “Germany Year 90 Nine Zero” (1991) and “For Ever Mozart” (1996). In his ambitious eight-part documentary “Histoire(s) du cinéma” (completed in 1998), Godard examined no less than the totality of film as the great 20th-century art form. Godard’s latest film, “Film Socialisme,” debuted at Cannes this year.

  • More on Jean-Luc Godard, from Richard Brody’s blog (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/):

    Today, Jean-Luc Godard is in the news—he’ll be awarded an honorary Oscar at a special ceremony in Los Angeles (which he said he won’t be attending)—but what he really should be in the news for is his movies, and there’s a bit of news about them. At Cannes, in May, Godard announced that his next film would be called “Adieu au Langage.” Last Sunday, in an interview (by Matthias Lerf) in the Zurich newspaper Die SonntagsZeitung (The Sunday Paper), he described the project:

    It’s about a man and his wife who no longer speak the same language. The dog they take on walks then intervenes and speaks. How I’ll do it, I don’t yet know. The rest is simple.

    Simple? I thought you wanted to hire a star.

    Only if he brings in some money. I’d shoot immediately with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner, they’d be perfect. They were gods. Who could we take now?

    Godard laughed at the interviewer’s suggestion of Scarlett Johansson (“No, no, that’s business”) and said that the dog might be played by his own dog: “I don’t want him trained like a movie dog.” Also, he said that, though he hasn’t seen any of the recent films shot in 3-D, he is very interested in the technique:

    Maybe I’ll even shoot my next film in 3-D. I always like it when new techniques are introduced. Because it doesn’t have any rules yet. And one can do everything.

    Of course, the one film in which Bogart and Gardner were together was Joseph Mankiewicz’s “The Barefoot Contessa”—in which he played a director and she an actress. I’ll keep an eye out in the press for further developments.

    And, if anyone is interested. The TIFF Bell Lightbox is apparently getting “Film Socialism” as an Exclusive Engagement in December, so expect, maybe also, a potential US distribution for the film.

  • Lorenzo Mans

    RE: Berlanga — Nothing available on DVD in the US. I have a DVD-R of El Verdugo (The Executioner) recorded off French cable TV. I agree on its greatness. The only other film of his I’ve seen, Welcome Mr. Marshall, seemed to me very similar to an Ealing film. Would love to see more.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    First report on the Governors’ Awards – the “controversy” over Godard was addressed. Interestingly, the presentation to him was shared by a range of people – known but mainly not big names – from different crafts who talked about how he had an impact on their fields:

    http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/academy-honors-francis-ford-coppola-45193

  • Some common subjects in the films of Elia Kazan:

    Scientific figures who try to bring social change (CDC hero: Panic in the Streets, father and refrigeration: East of Eden, hero and Tennessee Valley Authority: Wild River)
    Other intellectuals who are outsiders promoting social change (magazine writer: Gentleman’s Agreement, woman college student: On the Waterfront)

    Fathers and sons (Gentleman’s Agreement, Panic in the Streets, East of Eden)

    Technological work environments (morgue: Panic in the Streets, refrigeration: East of Eden, cotton gin: Baby Doll)
    Railways, with people on foot (streetcar: A Streetcar Named Desire, opening chase: Panic in the Streets, James Dean and train: East of Eden)
    Mass hiring places for working class men (sailors: Panic in the Streets, dock workers: On the Waterfront)
    Entertainment areas filled with crowds (bowling alley: A Streetcar Named Desire, restaurant: Panic in the Streets, fairground: East of Eden)
    Water-side areas (docks: Panic in the Streets, docks: On the Waterfront, Monterey: East of Eden, river: Wild River)
    Rural areas, shot on location (East of Eden, Baby Doll, Wild River)
    Greeks coming to the United States (Panic in the Streets, America, America)
    New Orleans (A Streetcar Named Desire, Panic in the Streets)

    Christian churches physically attacked by bad guys (On the Waterfront, America, America) related (murdered priest: Boomerang)
    Public speaking to groups of workers (doctor: Panic in the Streets, priest: On the Waterfront)
    Heroes on television (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd)

    Women with nervous breakdowns (A Streetcar Named Desire, Splendor in the Grass)

  • Jim Healy

    In the honorary Oscars article Tom linked us to, it would seem Clint Eastwood forgot Carroll Baker when preparing his joke: Eli Wallach isn’t the only surviving cast member of BABY DOLL.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Someone who has seen the video of Eastwood’s comments (supposedly the video has been posted, but I can’t locate it yet) says he actually said Wallach was one of the surviving cast members from Baby Doll, so it seems like HR got it wrong.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    If Godard watches the tributes to him (all done by past or present members of the Board of Governors who either met and/or felt themselves profoundly influenced by him) I hope his English is nuanced enough to understand that they really, really respect him but are a tad too earnest and awkward to really achieve what they wanted, beyond implying that they seemed a bit relieved that he kept his distance.

    I’ve known Tom Sherak over my career (back when he was in charge of distribution at Fox). The disconnect between him (as President of the Academy) accepting the award for Godard and what Godard represents is pretty stunning. Maybe he’ll fly to Switzerland and try to deliver it personally – that I’d pay to see.

    Sherak btw is pretty close to Jerry Lewis, and within the industry raises a lot of money for the MDA (the “Jerry’s kids” charity). He likely was the main force behind Lewis’ Oscar two years ago.

  • Brian Dauth

    Alex: it is funny that you should mention Von Trier. After I saw DOGVILLE, I thought how appropriate the approach he used in that film would be for filming MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA and some other O’Neill plays (I did not think immediately of WIlliams — though “The Night of the Iguana” might be a good candidate).

  • I guess this caps the brouhaha about Godard’s Oscar:

    Honary Oscar meant ‘Nothing’ to me

  • Blake Lucas

    In the N.Y. Times on the Governor’s Awards, Phil Alden Robinson is quoted:

    “He didn’t just break the rules, he ran them over with a stolen car,” said Phil Alden Robinson, a governor who had proposed Mr. Godard for an honorary Oscar.

    As a Godard admirer, I thought that was a neatly evocative line, one JLG himself might have enjoyed even if the Oscar itself does mean nothing to him.

  • Tangential to all this, hated Field of Dreams, liked Sneakers, loved his script for All of Me. Well, loved All of Me, period.