The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Green Hornet
John Seale, ASC, ACS
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Kazan Collection
Complete Metropolis
Night of the Hunter
ASC Close-Up
The Elia Kazan Collection (1945-2010)
1.33:1 (Full Frame), 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 (anamorphic)
Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0, and 1.0
Twentieth-Century Fox Home Video, $199.98

One of the great pleasures of the DVD format is the ease with which it facilitates close study of a particular artist’s career; whereas prior generations of film buffs had to wait patiently for old movies to pop up on television or at local revival houses, today’s aficionado can easily scoop up the entire collected works of many directors, cinematographers and stars, an endeavor greatly aided by the abundance of boxed sets on the market. Whereas some of these collections are little more than hastily assembled attempts by studios to cash in on their libraries, others provide genuine contributions to film scholarship. Twentieth-Century Fox, for example, has released indispensable collections of films by John Ford, F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, among others, and its new Elia Kazan package joins those sets as must-viewing for any serious cinema fan. With 18 discs containing 15 of Kazan’s best features (only four missing from the collection) and over a dozen hours of extra features, The Elia Kazan Collection offers a much needed argument for the depth and breadth of the director’s talent.

Kazan was a far more diverse filmmaker than his reputation suggests. As in the cases of so many famous figures in cinema history (Orson Welles comes to mind), his narrative has been reduced to broad, simple strokes that leave out many of his major achievements and erase all signs of nuance. Thus he is defined by a few significant historical moments, most notably his influence on screen acting as a result of his role with the Actor’s Studio and his discovery of Marlon Brando and other major performers and, less flatteringly, his willingness to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Clearly Kazan’s contribution to the art of screen acting, as on display in A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and other films, is undeniable, and his testimony regarding former colleagues before HUAC was a pivotal event in his life.

Yet to focus on these aspects of his life and career at the expense of all others is to ignore the vastness of Kazan’s gifts. He was a poet of both the urban (Panic in the Streets, On the Waterfront) and the rural (Baby Doll, A Face in the Crowd) whose view of human nature was simultaneously generous and wary, and he was able to attack the major issues of his day (race relations, the growing influence of the media, vigilante justice, sexual hypocrisy and many, many others) without ever losing sight of individuals and the minutiae of their daily lives — and his oeuvre contains very few slips into sentimentality or preachy moralizing. Watching his movies back to back, in chronological order, makes it clear Kazan was as profound a thinker as the American cinema ever had, and his excellence with actors was paralleled by his command over the graphic qualities of the frame and his facility with editing.       

These technical skills are clear and obvious in the generally top-notch transfers in The Elia Kazan Collection. A handful of the early films are occasionally marred by slightly flawed source material. Pinky and Streetcar, for example, come from intermittently scratchy prints, but overall the subtleties and contrasts in the black-and-white photography are well preserved, and the three color films in the set are striking and broad in their tonal range. While many of the films included have been previously released, five are new to DVD — and four of those are indispensable treasures. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata!, Man on a Tightrope, Wild River and America America are the new titles. Of those, only Man on a Tightrope, an entertaining but slight tale of a circus troupe escaping from communist Czechoslovakia, is minor Kazan. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the director’s feature debut and a recent addition to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, is a coming-of-age tale that is deeply moving without forcing its sentiment, and Viva Zapata! is that rare biopic celebrating its hero while keeping him recognizably human.

The real cause for celebrating the release of The Elia Kazan Collection is the inclusion of two late gems, Wild River and America America. Though Kazan made Wild River in 1960, he had been thinking about it for decades after a trip to Tennessee in the 1930s. That trip led to Kazan’s ambition to make a film about the Tennessee Valley Authority, a New Deal agency that brought hydroelectric power to rural areas (among many other accomplishments). After years of struggling with numerous collaborators and myriad versions of a script, Kazan ended up with the story of a TVA agent (played by Montgomery Clift) who is sent to evict a stubborn matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) from her family home before it is submerged beneath a local river. Though Clift feels his project serves the greater good, he soon learns — like many Kazan protagonists before him — there is always a price to be paid for any choice, right or wrong, and doing good is never as simple as one would like.      

Aesthetically, Wild River represents the full realization of a promise made by East of Eden in 1955. That film was Kazan’s first in color and Cinemascope, and its bold palette and compositions marked a transition from the spare realism of earlier works like Boomerang and On the Waterfront to a more heightened sense of stylization that would reach full flowering in 1961 with the deliriously melodramatic Splendor in the Grass. Like East of Eden, Wild River merges Kazan’s penchant for journalistic detail and location shooting with an expressionistic visual approach, resulting in a film that is simultaneously lyrical and brutally honest about human nature. Cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks, ASC, unifies the movie’s often disparate tones (As critic Dave Kehr once noted, it is a film that “shifts from reverie to hysteria in the blink of an eye.) with a color scheme devoted to various shades of green, brown and blue that convey beauty and desolation in equal measures.                    

The final film in the boxed set (Kazan’s last three directorial efforts, including the criminally underrated The Last Tycoon, are sadly absent.), America America is Wild River’s polar opposite, a low-budget guerrilla production as rough and immediate as Wild River is polished and stylized. Based on the experiences of Kazan’s uncle, America America tells the story of Stavros, a Greek immigrant who endures enormous hardships (and commits correspondingly enormous sins) on his journey to America. By all accounts, one of Kazan’s most arduous shoots, America America got off to a rocky start when Kazan and his crew learned the funding had been pulled at the last minute; Warner Bros. picked up the tab, but at an extremely low budget in relation to the project’s ambitions. This limitation turned into an artistic advantage, however, as it forced Kazan into a style that matched his protagonist’s scrappy energy: working once again in black and white, Kazan stripped his story of all artifice and made one of his most intensely personal films.

It was also one of his most difficult; even with financing secured, he faced a number of problems, from a lead actor who had difficulty speaking English to a location (Turkey) in  which the government placed tight restrictions on where and what the director could shoot. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, ASC (who also shot second unit and stills on Wild River), got around the latter problem by stealing some shots with a small handheld camera — a perfect example of the production’s hardships inspiring aesthetic rewards, as Wexler’s jittery camera moves echo and emphasize Stavros’s nervous intensity. (Wexler would repeat this approach to great effect a few years later in his Oscar-winning photography for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.) By all accounts, Kazan and Wexler’s relationship was a rocky one; perhaps this is yet another of America America’s productive tensions, for whatever their personal differences, the filmmakers jointly created a masterpiece.

Both Wild River and America America contain illuminating commentary tracks (by critics Richard Schickel and Foster Hirsch, respectively), as do the majority of films in this supplement-laden collection. In addition to multiple commentary tracks by various film scholars and Kazan collaborators, many of the discs include making-of featurettes, outtakes and screen tests. Best of all is a feature-length documentary directed by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones titled A Letter to Elia. This 2010 film is, as its title suggests, a highly personal impression of the director; Scorsese and Jones address not only the broad outlines of Kazan’s life and work, but also delve into detail about the powerful impact his cinema had on Scorsese as a young moviegoer. The result is a documentary that works on two levels: as a celebration of an artist and as an insightful exploration of the ways in which one filmmaker influences another. It is the perfect summation of a great career, and the perfect capper to a great boxed set.

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