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Elia Kazan (#110 of 10)

Tribeca Review: The Cut and Applesauce

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Tribeca Review: <em>The Cut</em> and <em>Applesauce</em>
Tribeca Review: <em>The Cut</em> and <em>Applesauce</em>

The campaign of conscripted labor, systematic rape and murder, death marches, and displacement waged by Turkey against its Armenian citizens at the start of WWI, which resulted in perhaps as many as a million deaths, is marking its 100th anniversary this week. Yet it remains an extremely tender topic for Armenians, not least because the Turkish government has refused to acknowledge the extent of the calamity, sometimes even prosecuting and jailing Turkish citizens for citing the killings or calling them genocide. As a result, The Cut lived up to its title for me, creating two sets of strong, sometimes dueling reactions. The Armenian in me felt grateful to director Fatih Akın, an ethnic Turk who grew up in Germany, and his co-writer, Mardik Martin (Raging Bull), an Armenian-American, for taking on this charged topic and giving these gruesome facts a rare cinematic airing. But the film lover in me sometimes wished that The Cut, which often has the self-consciously art-directed, undead feel of a Natural History Museum diorama, were less encyclopedic and more irreverent, with more of the messy misbehavior and convincingly complicated characters that give Akin’s best films, Head On and Edge of Heaven, a jittery sense of life.

Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

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Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor
Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

Art-making is too often discussed in terms that implicitly liken it to magic, thusly neglecting the truth that it involves work that resembles the day-by-day toils of many other ostensibly plainer occupations. With Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, film critic Glenn Kenny quietly pushes against that mythology. A compassionate, pragmatic anti-sentimentality, or an attempt at one, serves as the through line for his examination of one the most mythologized of all screen actors. In his introduction, Kenny writes of “De Niro’s reluctance to do interviews, and his seeming stumbling while doing them, his famous taciturnity in contrast to his preternaturally vivid presence on screen, created a mythology that itself spawned a counter-mythology. It made De Niro as famous for being an enigma, a code that a journalist or critic with just the right amount of persistence and perspicacity could crack. But what if the answer is right in front of our faces, and always has been?” The author follows that with a quote in which director Elia Kazan (who worked with De Niro on The Last Tycoon) claims that the actor is among the hardest working that he’s collaborated with, and the only one who asked to rehearse on Sundays.

In other words, Kenny brings De Niro down to earth as a working artist, which serves to somewhat ironically reawaken your awe for the actor and the profound emotional nakedness that he once achieved reliably in one performance after another. Reading this, one wonders, not why De Niro drifted toward less immersive a-job’s-a-job roles, but how he plumbed himself as deeply as long as he did. The author emphasizes detail, connecting physical gestures from one role, sometimes mercilessly, to their repetition in another film (such as the reappearance of a “shoo” motion from Goodfellas in Awakenings.) He paints De Niro unsurprisingly as a master craftsman who’s intensely devoted to analysis and rehearsal, which he, somewhat, ineffably fuses with his personality and his soul. (I’m indulging my own mythology.) Following the familiar Cahiers du Cinéma “Anatomy of an Actor” template, Kenny discusses 10 “iconic roles” in De Niro’s canon that serve to shape the actor’s career as he evolved from galvanic acting titan to controversial “sell-out” to an inevitably mellower character actor who’s still capable, nevertheless, of imbuing a questionable project or under-respected performer with a bit of prestige by association.

São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: The Seventh Satellite, The Mystery of the Lagoons, Andino Fragments, The Day He Arrives, & More

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São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: <em>The Seventh Satellite</em>, <em>The Mystery of the Lagoons, Andino Fragments</em>, <em>The Day He Arrives</em>, & More
São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: <em>The Seventh Satellite</em>, <em>The Mystery of the Lagoons, Andino Fragments</em>, <em>The Day He Arrives</em>, & More

A prominent Brazilian film critic said that he was most excited for the nine Elia Kazan films screening at this year’s Mostra. I said that the prints should be good, thinking about the complete Elia Kazan retrospective at New York’s Film Forum in 2009, which included beautiful new prints of On the Waterfront and Wild River, and about the fact that Kazan’s widow Frances was attending this year’s festival in person. “Yes,” he said, “I’m sure they’re all on film.”

The remark was surprising, until I considered it. I lived in New York for three years before moving to São Paulo last December, during which time I discovered a number of amazing films I would never have had exposure to otherwise, oftentimes on beautiful 35mm prints. Yet the city also instilled a kind of provincial thinking, leading me to assume that every other large city had the same resources. São Paulo is a wonderful place for filmgoing, with large series or retrospectives happening less than every two months, yet when you go to see an American or European film in repertory it’s often an imported print with French or English subtitles, with additional Portuguese subtitles projected electronically beneath. This was certainly the case with complete retrospectives this year devoted to major filmmakers as various as Claire Denis, Alfred Hitchcock, Luc Moullet, and Béla Tarr; one of the programmers of last year’s massive John Ford series told me he couldn’t find a single Ford print in Brazil.

New York Film Festival 2010: A Letter to Elia

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>A Letter to Elia</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>A Letter to Elia</em>

As the title suggests, A Letter to Elia, co-directed by Martin Scorsese and noted film critic Kent Jones, breathes with the intimacy of slow and purposefully written correspondence between two friends and confidants. This sort of delicacy has been attempted before, especially in documentaries, but often exudes an unpardonable insincerity. A recent exception would be Kurt Kuenne’s devastating Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father, and like that film, both A Letter to Elia’a power and negligible flaws come from the fact that the film’s subject, the controversial filmmaker Elia Kazan, and co-director Scorsese were so close.

New York Film Festival 2010: Fernando de Fuentes’s Mexican Revolution Trilogy

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New York Film Festival 2010: Fernando de Fuentes’s Mexican Revolution Trilogy
New York Film Festival 2010: Fernando de Fuentes’s Mexican Revolution Trilogy

The Mexican Revolution wasn’t one rebellion, but several. Beginning in 1910, military parties grappled like wrestlers, the winner changing on a regular basis. Political stability needed more than a decade, and over two million casualties; till then, peasant armies clashed on fields day and night.

Guns, blood, shifting loyalties—all ripe for cinema, but Mexico’s film industry didn’t emerge until years after the chief battles. By the time Fernando de Fuentes, Mexico’s best early filmmaker, addressed the Revolution (with a trilogy consisting of Prisoner 13, El Compadre Mendoza, and Let’s Go with Pancho Villa), nearly a quarter-century had passed since the first uprising. The trilogy is showing at this year’s New York Film Festival, in prints from Mexico City, in honor of the Revolution’s 100th anniversary—and, coincidentally, the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain. To say that this is a rare treat would be understatement. Not only were these films unknown in the States when they were made; Mexican cinema didn’t have an international reputation, period, until de Fuentes’s later films.

The three films don’t have common characters or a continuing storyline. Each focuses on a different sector of society—Prisoner 13 on the urban military rulership, Let’s Go with Pancho Villa on the rural peasant rebels, and El Compadre Mendoza, the middle film, on the bourgeois civilian class torn between the two. Yet the films’ strongest commonality is sympathy for the Revolution’s casualties, regardless of which side is being spotlighted. I don’t know what de Fuentes’s personal politics were, but the trilogy’s compassion for every group’s victims offers a profoundly liberal—I mean humanist—perspective.

That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!: Wild River

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That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!: Wild River
That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!: Wild River

If 1960’s Wild River is director Elia Kazan’s most successful film, it’s because this is the most successful example of how Kazan liked to contrast actors. The wrestling matches are the most exciting parts of his movies: Carroll Baker paddling her husband’s neck flab in Baby Doll, or James Dean throwing his brother at their mother in East of Eden, or Brando shoving the door in to get to Eva Marie Saint, say far more about characters’ relationships than the film’s overwritten scripts do. The best moments in Kazan’s films are inevitably full two-shots, bespeaking his theatrical training. Unlike the work of the great film stylists, we watch Kazan not for the shots but for the struggles in them. The acting style he favored doesn’t work in abstraction—the actors need something concrete to push against.

In River, he gets two performers that are as concrete as they come. Montgomery Clift plays a 1930s Tennessee Valley Authority rep who comes to a small town to buy out a family’s home so the TVA can build a dam. The family lives on an island that he has to row to, and as he’s pulling away after a visit, one of the group’s young women (Lee Remick) leaps onto his raft. He stares at her, amazed, and she explains hurriedly: She barely ever leaves, and she’s lonely.

Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)

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Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)
Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)

Ben Begins:

Just this week I watched and reviewed Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) and in my review I referred to Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery (1948). Now I am commenting on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film, Le Corbeau (1943)—which another reviewer has called a “distant cousin” to The White Ribbon—and which makes me think of Shirley Jackson yet again; this time, her short story, The Possibility of Evil (1965). I categorized The White Ribbon as a “poison-in-the-well” piece. Others may or may not find this categorization convincing, but there can be no debate that Le Corbeau is a poison-in-the-pen piece.

As with Jackson’s story, the plot has to do with an individual anonymously sending hateful gossip to all and sundry in town in order to satisfy what can only be a nefarious purpose. The crucial difference between the story and the film, however, is that the audience knows from the outset who the culprit is in the former but only finds out at the very end of the latter. Jackson’s is a critical character study that lays bare a sociopath who perversely sees herself as a righteous pillar of the community. Clouzot’s is a whodunit mystery that would be trite if not for its penetrating investigation of parochial hypocrisy and the dark underbelly of those next door neighbors we thought were nice…but little did we know.

One Solution for Two Problems: Acting in Three Kazan Films

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One Solution for Two Problems: Acting in Three Kazan Films
One Solution for Two Problems: Acting in Three Kazan Films

Andrew Sarris wrote of Elia Kazan in The American Cinema that “his career as a whole reflects an unending struggle between a stable camera and a jittery one.” Historically that’s more or less been the rap on Kazan—a highly-acclaimed filmmaker with many strong titles, but one whose work was too simultaneously bland and conflicted for the critical establishment to elevate him to auteur. The son of Greek immigrants and eventually a famed Broadway director, Kazan began filmmaking with a group-directed short called People of the Cumberland, broke into feature directing with 1945’s adaptation of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and left it 18 films later with a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. He came close to greatness on film, though rarely reached it: At his peak period he was at the high end of the middle bracket of several frankly liberal directors, many of whom had crossed over into movies from film and TV. He’s lighter and earthier than the leaden, sententious cinema of Stanley Kramer and Richard Brooks, though he never achieves the pure ecstasy and reverie of the best Nicholas Ray.