22 June 2009

ELIA KAZAN : A Director's Journey (Dir. Richard Schickel, 1995, US) - The Actor's Director

Elia Kazan directs Brando on the set of 'On the Waterfront' in 1954

Film critic and academic Richard Schickel continues to produce documentaries for television on key American directors, and though his approach to the medium may be quite pedestrian, he nevertheless succeeds in ellicting a candid response from reluctant film makers like Eastwood and in this case, Eliza Kazan. Narrated by Eli Wallach, this is an accessible introduction to the films of Elia Kazan, examining not only his political beliefs but tracing his evolution as a film maker. When in 1999 Martin Scorsese strode across the podium to bestow upon Kazan an honorary Oscar, the response from the Hollywood liberal elite was somewhat muted and in some cases, provoking outrage. Yet is it right to solely judge a film maker on their political attitudes as continues to be the case with Kazan? Politics aside, what this documentary demonstrates is Kazan's incredible journey from theatre to film and finally to writing novels. His contribution to American cinema was unrivalled in the 50s and 60s, helping to influence the art of performance and prefiguring the emergence of Art cinema in a body of work that showed a startling degree of social realism.

Schickel leads us through his major films, supporting the enduring images with what is a very honest interview with Kazan about his approach to cinema and why he felt compelled to testify before the House of Un American Activities in the 50s. A lapsed Communist, Kazan reveals himself to be a humanist at heart and though his testimony may have alienated him from the affections of the liberals, he remained committed to making daring and unconventional cinema. I prefer Kazan's later period which included films like 'Baby Doll', 'A Face in the Crowd' and 'Splendour in the Grass'. But is he is a pioneer like Welles, Hitchcock or D W Griffiths? Perhaps not, but he can certainly lay a claim to being one of the most influential post war American film makers of his generation. Let's be blunt, without Kazan, there would be no Cassavettes or Scorsese.

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