Sunday, March 31, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.11: Elia Kazan's East of Eden

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Even before his HUAC testimony, Elia Kazan was an outsider. Born a Greek in Turkey before his family emigrated to America, Kazan never felt like he belonged much of anywhere. His most contentious relationship was with his strict father, who demanded that Kazan follow him in the family business rather than follow his dreams to be a director. No doubt Kazan’s interest in John Steinbeck’s opus East of Eden was in the difficult relationship between father and son. Many book-to-film purists would no doubt wince at Kazan’s adaptation, which cut out the entire first half of the novel. Steinbeck, a good friend of Kazan’s, was less concerned, knowing that Kazan could capture the pulse of the story. He was right. East of Eden isn’t quite Kazan’s best film, but it might be the ultimate expression of some of his most powerful themes: alienation, the corrupting power of capitalism, and the pain of generational conflict.

Salinas, California, 1917: Caleb “Cal” Trask (James Dean) is a deeply troubled young man. His brother Aron (Richard Davalos) is an All-American Boy adored by his father Adam (Richard Massey), but the withdrawn and sullen Cal constantly quarrels with the man. Cal is further upset when he learns his mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet) is not dead, as his father claimed, but the madam of a brothel. Cal tries to connect with his father, first by helping him with his ice business, then by asking Kate for money when Adam’s business fails. When America enters World War I, Cal’s business venture succeeds, but Adam turns him away for being a war profiteer. The matter is further complicated as Cal falls for Abra (Julie Harris), Aron’s girlfriend.

East of Eden was Kazan’s first color film, and further, it was shot in CinemaScope, which has a higher aspect ratio than most 35mm films. The director was initially nervous about shooting on such a grand scale, but he needn’t have worried: this film is gorgeous. More importantly, Kazan uses it to further his theme of alienation. In some shots, Kazan uses the wide-open, John Ford-like spaces to heighten the isolation of his characters, as with an early shot of Dean on top of a train, which barrels forward as Dean cowers and shivers in the center. In other scenes, Kazan uses the wide picture to heighten the distance between his actors, often as a way to show how removed Dean and Davalos are as brothers.

Best of all are certain scenes where Kazan brings in naturalistic frames within the shot to emphasize the center action. A notable sequence between Massey and his sons at a dinner table has the outer parts of the frame cloaked in shadow and darkness, a terrific frame for the long table that helps emphasize the distance between Cal and Adam. Better still are the scenes in the brothel hallway, which is dark and foreboding by design and indicates a certain fall from grace for the two brothers. It’s a deeply uncomfortable scene that predates Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in using big picture to make intimate moments feel more pronounced.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Kazan movie without a first-rate cast. Richard Davalos is quite good as Aron, a boy so upstanding that it seems there’s something not quite about him, which becomes clearer as he starts to treat Cal with disdain and cruelty later on. Burl Ives is also strong as Sam the Sheriff, a folksy, kindly, reasonable individual who’s the only one in the film with everyone’s best interest on his mind. Still, the best of the supporting males in the film has to be Massey, whose animosity with Dean on the screen was even more pronounced behind the scenes. Massey was just as sternly paternalistic and professional as Adam, and Dean’s Method instincts and unpredictable behavior riled him to no end. A reportedly furious Massey asked Kazan to get this kid to say his lines the right way and on time and to cut out the bullshit. Kazan, a master manipulator, encouraged Dean’s behavior, and Massey’s irritation and anger feels real as a result.

Jo Van Fleet was a difficult personality herself (Kazan claimed the only two times he ever yelled at an actress were with Van Fleet), but it was well worth her work in the film. As interpreted by Van Fleet, Kate is an often cold and difficult woman, one whose attitude towards her children and her ex-husband can be kind in one moment and vicious in the next. But Van Fleet never condescends to Kate. She comes off as a successful but deeply unhappy human being, one who chafed under Adam’s stern moralism but never found happiness elsewhere either. Her scene with Dean midway though the film runs the gamut of emotions: curiosity as to why he sought her out, irritation at his impetuousness, anger over her history with Adam, and a sad recognition in how similar her son is to her. Kazan’s hints that she may have a drug problem only add more to the sadness of her character.

Van Fleet would win a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but Julie Harris is even better as Abra. In a sense, it’s easy to understand why she might have been overlooked a year after Eva Marie Saint’s win for On the Waterfront: she’s the same kind of Kazan type, a warm and understanding blonde who bridges the gap between the main character and his problems. But Harris is wonderful in the role, and her scenes with Dean rival the Brando/Saint moments in the earlier film in their off-handed tenderness. Whether she’s stroking his face with a flower, goofing around in front of a funhouse mirror, or pleading with Adam to take Cal back into his heart, she’s an absolutely lovely character, and Harris sells every moment. She also shares something else with Saint: the ability to hint at how sexual desire pushes her towards a frightening young man. Abra’s relationship with Aron is pure and awfully nice, but there’s a clear sense that she’s bored with the upstanding Aron and fascinated with his more difficult brother. Kazan never quite underlines the sexuality between the two, but the hint of it is awfully powerful.

At this point in time, it’s often difficult to separate James Dean the Actor from James Dean the Icon. Dean is the ultimate symbol for young rebelliousness and live-fast-die-hard lifestyle, and it’s not without reason, considering how closely his life mirrored his persona. He was a boy who wanted very badly to be Marlon Brando, but while he shared the older actor’s unpredictability, he did not have Brando’s guttural sensitivity. Rather, Dean’s greatest gift was his shyness, his awkwardness, his painful vulnerability. Dean’s portraits of rebellious youth connect so well because he was that difficult, sensitive teenager whose every action was borne out of heightened sensitivity. Dean’s three films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) show an actor of remarkable instinct and power, never mind his lack of training and sophistication compared to Brando and Montgomery Clift.

For me, Dean’s work as Cal comes as a close second to Rebel Without a Cause as his best work. He fits so perfectly in the role because, as Kazan and Steinbeck learned, he practically was Cal. Like Kazan, Dean had a difficult relationship with his father, and as soon as Kazan sensed that he knew the kid was perfect. As Cal, Dean’s every gesture and word is that of someone deeply unsure of himself, unbalanced and volatile, inarticulate and broken. Dean’s explosiveness comes out perfectly in a number of emotional outbursts, but that quality would be better used later that year in Rebel Without a Cause. Dean’s best instinct in this film is how much he retreats from others, often turning away in conversation and hugging an object close to himself, as if he does want to connect but is deeply afraid of what might happen if he does. Everything is a big deal for Cal, just as everything was a big deal for Dean.

East of Eden isn’t as overtly political as many of Kazan’s films, but there is more than a hint of social concern there. Kazan felt a deep connection to small town America that he didn’t feel with cities, but he nevertheless felt that small town values could easily be perverted by greater forces. An early shot frames Cal right next to an American flag, and it hints at just how capitalism will play in this boy’s life. Adam is an entrepreneur, to be sure, but he’s also an idealist who has less interest in money than he does in doing good for the people. When his business fails, it clearly hurts him, but not nearly as much as his involvement in the draft board when the war starts up. He feels that this war is unjust, that it’s taking Americans to terrible places, and that his involvement in the draft board is taking away his health. The war provokes prejudice from otherwise decent Americans as they persecute Adam and Aron’s innocent German-immigrant friend. More notably, a rival businessman profits off of selling beans to the government for exorbitant prices, something Adam cannot forgive, and something that becomes important later on in the film.

The film is at its most powerful, however, when playing up just how strong the generational divide is between fathers and sons. The film may take place in World War I-era America, but it’s playing to the teenagers of 1955. Cal’s every action seems alien to Adam- he stays out all night, he has no interest in the Bible, and his emotional outbursts are often outright frightening. Steinbeck’s novel made clear parallels between Adam the father and Adam the Biblical figure, the first man. Similarly, Cal and Aron are Cain and Abel, the bad and good sons of the first man. Yet Steinbeck and, more to the point, Kazan, don’t think of Cal as bad. He’s more misunderstood, good intentions and exposed nerves. And for all of Cal’s anger towards his father and mother, the only thing he wants is their love. When he tries to see Kate up close for the first time, he begs for her love as he’s dragged out by the brothel’s bouncers. A notable quote early in the film: “Talk to me, father”. He wants to know the goodness in his father, but the stern man cannot reveal any weakness or warmth to his sons.

The film’s most famous scene, with reason, is at Adam’s birthday celebration. Cal has just earned back all the money his father lost in his business, and he presents it to his father. When his father learns that Cal earned it via war profiteering, he rejects the present and rebukes Cal. At this point, Dean was instructed to storm out of the room, dejected. That’s what Massey expected, and of course, that’s not what Dean did. Instead, Dean shrank and twisted down, only to rise up, cry out, and embrace his father. An angry Massey could only think to shout out “Cal!”, which only adds to the power of the scene. Kazan uses Dutch Angles at various points in the film to show how off-center their relationship is, but it’s most effective here. It’s deeply emblematic of the nature of the film’s central relationship- a loving but stern and furious father, and an emotionally volatile son who only wants his affection.

Of course, that Cain/Abel metaphor has to go somewhere, but it doesn’t go exactly where one might think. At this point, Aron has grown increasingly moody and spiteful towards his brother. Kazan smartly stages Cal’s retreat from his father by putting him behind a tree, his face obscured, as Abra rushes out and embraces (and likely kisses) him. Aron pulls Abra out, and at this point he faces Cal, his back turned to camera, as he cruelly chastises him- “You’re mean and vicious ansd wild”- while Abra, in the foreground, belabors over her love for both of them.  Cal, the rejected brother, often made out to be the bad one, now does something understandably spiteful, though destructive. The film cuts to the brothel and Cal introduces Aron to the mother he thought was dead. It’s a deeply disturbing scene as Cal pushes Aron into a room with his mother, with Kazan emphasizing the claustrophobia of the situation. He then cuts to a high shot of Cal walking down the corridor, his shadow sticking out as if he’s finally embraced his dark side.

It’s a devastating moment, made more so as Aron joins the war. His family races to find him, but as the train pulls away, it’s clear that he’s finally broken off and turned into the true dark brother. In a moment that plays like something out of a David Lynch film, Davalos breaks the train window with his head, towers over his father, and laughs like a madman. “Cain rose up and slayed his brother”, as Ives quotes the Bible, and indeed Cal has damned his twin, not to mention driven his father to a stroke. Ives’ suggestion that Cal should run away brings the boy’s sense of alienation and self-loathing to new heights.

But the film is ultimately more optimistic than that. This youth-divide film takes on a John Ford/Frank Capra populist side by the end. Harris’ angelic mediator Abra certainly helps, but it’s ultimately a moment that fulfills Cal’s earlier promise that “some day he’ll know who his real son is”. Cal’s every action is one of love, and as he screams at his father’s horrid nurse (truly the least helpful nurse in the history of film not named Ratched), a slight smile forms on Massey’s face. Dean bends forward, prostrate, practically praying at his father’s bedside as he promises to take care of him. The camera pulls back, and Abra leaves the two alone. Where earlier wide shots emphasized their distance, this one now emphasizes proximity. Kazan no doubt felt that any difficult relationship could be reconciled through love. East of Eden’s strength is making that relationship so combative that one can’t help but fall way to the warmth of its ending.

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