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.