Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.16: Elia Kazan's America America

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: 74/B+

From 1950 to 1963, Elia Kazan had one of the finest runs of any director of his generation, throwing off the shackles of the well-meaning middlebrow films of his early career and making a series of deeply personal films about social issues, alienation, and generational conflict. His final major film, 1963’s America America, would garner three Oscar nominations but fail with audiences. The film is not as heralded as On the Waterfront or A Streetcar Named Desire, and with reason: it is a film of great strengths and weaknesses, towering and gorgeous, messy and awkward. It cannot stand as Kazan’s finest hour. But Kazan loved the film more than any of his other works, and with reason. It is, bar none, his most personal work.

1890s: Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis) is a young Greek living in Turkish Anatolia. Stravros has witnessed horrible oppression from the Turks over the Greeks and Armenians, and he dreams of making a new life in America. Stravros’ father sends his son to Constantinople with the family’s savings to make a living with his cousin, but he soon loses all that he owns and is forced to save doing odd jobs around the city. Stavros eventually falls in with a rich merchant and becomes engaged to the man’s daughter, but he never stops dreaming of America.

The film is based on the travels of Kazan’s uncle, and the personal nature makes the director awfully precious about the material. America America takes place over many years and nearly three hours runtime, and while Kazan’s story is a compelling one, the film is highly episodic and often without much organizing principle. It isn’t that any of the particular episodes (Stavros in Anatolia, on the road, working for cash, courting a rich man’s daughter, spending time with a rich American, on the boat to America) are poor in and of themselves, they don’t exactly add up to a well-structured film. The film is made more unwieldy by Kazan’s script, which too often throws obstacles in Stravros’ way as a way to prove a point about the arduous journey to America. No doubt Kazan’s uncle had many of the same hurdles, but it doesn’t make his experiences with a treacherous vagrant or with a thieving prostitute feel any less contrived. The film is also hampered by Giallelis’ highly variable performance, which is more convincing in moments of silent fury than in the outsized emotions Kazan deals with.

But those flaws are also part of what makes America America so great (or near great, anyway). The film is often clunky and melodramatic on a moment-to-moment basis, but it builds to a highly satisfying climax that wouldn’t register without those previous trials and tribulations. More importantly, Kazan and cinematographer Haskell Wexler give the film an absolutely stunning look, lyrical and lovely, complimented perfectly by composer Manos Hadjidakis’s score. Kazan and Wexler shoot Greece and Turkey in a way that shows the director’s gifts with expressionistic shadows (Giallelis’s conversation in the shadows with his hard father) and realistic, lived-in environments (the lively city of Constantinople). If anything, the film might have been better as a silent epic.

Kazan makes the city look both seductive and claustrophobic, and with reason: Stravros could have quite a life there, but it would mean giving up his dreams forever. A scene between him and his fiancée Linda Marsha is particularly moving: he has found a possible home filled with more privilege than he would find as a shoeshine boy in America, but he has no choice but to break the poor woman’s heart. He wishes for opportunity not for himself, but for his children, who could have a life without the repression he faces by the Turkish government.

Thematically, the film is thinner than Kazan’s past films, dealing with social issues (repression in Turkey), alienation (Stravros’ difficulty adjusting to life in Constantinople), and generational conflict (his family’s demand for his success) with less depth than one might have found in East of Eden. Kazan is more interested in telling a deeply personal story with as much emotion as possible. It makes for a sometimes difficult film, but a deeply rewarding one.
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