Thursday, May 27, 2010

Films # 5 & 6: Elia Kazan Double Feature (May 27th)

Wild River
1960, 110 min.
Directed by Elia Kazan

Splendor in the Grass
1961, 124 min.
Directed by Elia Kazan

It was another hot day before I ventured out for the double feature (I have a feeling I'm going to start a lot of blog posts that way). Yep, 'tis gonna be a looong, hot summer. Mind you, I'm not referring to The Long Hot Summer, since that's not on the Summer Series schedule. No matter, there are more than plenty to keep us entertained (over 80 films). Each one will be a lovely oasis from the hot Texas sun.

So I drive to the theatre and am fortunate to find... wait for it... free parking! I didn't pass Go. I did not collect $200. But more importantly, I didn't pay five or six bucks for a parking space! And it was only a block away. As Borat would say, "very niiice."

I walk the block to the theatre with a definite skip in my step. Time is short before the first film begins, so I go and take what has become my usual seat in the mezzanine. I wave to Brandi, who is working again upstairs. As a follow-up to our last conversation, she comes up to me and asks for the website of the blog we discussed (this very one, by the way). Silly me, it appears I told her everything about this blog last time except for the location. Doh! So I write it down for her, so she can now partake of my ramblings like the rest of you, my dear readers. Bless you all. May you one day also have free parking. Or get a really good Chance of Community Chest card.

Well, soon thereafter the lights go down and the trailers begin. There are two shown today. The first is for the 50th Anniversary of Breathless. See the blog post on Casablanca for details.

What happened next was unexpected to me. Bear in mind that all of the films I've screened thus far have been before 1953. Why is that important, you may ask? Well, 1953 was the year The Robe came out. It is most notable for being the first film shot in Cinemascope, and therefore is the first widescreen film. Since the Bogart films and the Thin Man films I've seen were filmed pre-1953, they have not filled the entire screen when being projected for us. Honestly, I took it for granted, and had no expectations of what an image would look like when it filled the width of the screen at the theatre.

Therefore, when the next trailer began. I literally gasped.

The next image after the Breathless trailer was of the Columbia Pictures logo and it's expansion to a 2:35 ratio not only filled the screen, it nearly filled my field of vision. Wowwwww was all I could whisper to myself as the following trailer began...

Yes, it was for Lawrence of Arabia, and the desert never looked so good. Trust me, the YouTube link I posted is NOTHING compared to seeing this up on the silver screen. The shots were exhilarating, and the cinematography was absolutely breathtaking.

As the trailer ended and the first feature began (no cartoons today), I was thrilled at the new experience I was about to behold. My eyes were about to feast upon a CinemaScope film on this screen: the little known Wild River by Eila Kazan. No, it is not that movie with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon. You're thinking of The River Wild. This is most assuredly NOT that film.

Wild River wasn't a film I was familiar with in Kazan's filmography, and I can see why it was mostly overlooked by the general public. First of all, it requires some heavy lifting on the part of the audience (not exactly what most mainstream moviegoers want to do). It's also not a perfect film, and there are plenty of ambiguities on the part of the characters that are not resolved by the time the closing credits come. I, however, thought it was quite good despite its flaws. I'd give it a solid 3 1/2 stars on a 4 star scale.

The film starts with truly terrifying archival news footage of a river washing away. An interview with a gentleman who lost three young children in the floods places a human face on the tragedies that must have occurred over a span of decades, much like the tides themselves.

The setup is fairly simple. In the 1930's, a young and enthusiastic (borderline naïve) Tennessee Valley Authority agent, Chuck Glover (played by the stoic Montgomery Clift) is assigned to a small Tennessee town to convince an aging matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) and her clan that imminent domain isn't a bad idea. The TVA needs to buy her land and relocate her because the dams being constructed will flood her tiny island to prevent the aforementioned tragedies. Now that I think about it, there's a parallel with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Only without the charm.

Based on the attitudes of the townsfolk toward the TVA and their well-intentioned cause, I was surprised how topical and relevant this film quickly became. Seems that some people are resistant to change by their nature, be it a recoiling from the term "New Deal" or a more recent campaign poster that said "Hope." In fact, many of the arguments against this form of progress can likely be heard verbatim on talk radio today.

Glover's arrival places a face on the "meddlin' federal gov'ment" that so many harp about in the town. For some, it provides a sympathetic figure that represents what noble work the TVA is trying to accomplish. Of course, to others, that face is simply a target to try and hit in the mouth.

He finds that the large segments of the population are apt to drag their heels. The matriarch herself isn't prone to listening to reason, and he finds that his assignment is not an easy one. After all, he's facing pressure from all sides: a staff that doesn't believe he will succeed, superiors who want him to close the deal quickly, and the knowledge that forcing eviction is not a wise PR move.

Oh yeah, and to complicate things just a smidge: he falls for the matriarch's granddaughter (Lee Remick), a widower with two young children. Here's a man drowning in responsibility.

The story is quite involving. The cinematography is really quite beautiful, showing nature in the Tennessee valley. It is very much an American picture. Wild River perfectly captures our needs to commit to progress, to do the best thing for the greatest number, to respect the individual, and do the "right thing" for the ones we love.

Kazan's greatest genius in this film is to give credit to all of those ideals. It would be far too easy to simply take the point of view of Glover's TVA agent. To take a "Do what must be done for progress! Damn the consequences!" kind of attitude. And although the matriarch is stubborn as a mule, she's nobody's fool. She makes valid points, and the audience empathizes with her in spite of the grouchy demeanor. What gives anyone the right to buy the land she's called home all her years? Then again, who really owns land?

Wild River is a bit melodramatic in its performances at times, but still a brilliant film. It is wondrous to see a beautiful piece of America that is not often depicted on film. What is amazing about this film, however, is how balanced it is. You actually understood the value of progress versus tradition, even if the tradition is simple (and at times, backwards).

The conclusion is bittersweet, but has a great deal of grace and dignity. It doesn't force a hand onto the audience. It asks about the nature of "progress" itself and whether it is itself a natural act, or something artificial as the dams men build. Can we control the river? Can we control nature? Can we control human nature? And just what level of control (if any) is ever appropriate? These were questions that lingered long after the day ended.

After Wild River, I did little more than stretch. Eager to drink in more of Elia Kazan's work, I looked forward to the well-known (but previously unseen by yours truly) Splendor in the Grass.

"What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind... "

I'll admit, I had never seen Splendor before because I thought it was going to be a silly love story. The 1960's version of a Nicholas Sparks novel, if you will. Oh my, my, my. How wrong I was. Yes, at its heart is a love story, but it's SO much more. Yes, it's a story of hormones run amok. Yes, it's a romance where both teens think they have everything planned out. Where they know better than their parents because this love is meant to be. And yes, it's about heartache. But most importantly, it's about how growing up is not about any of those things. It's about learning from the experience of life itself.

Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty (in his first role) play two high school teens in love in 1928 Kansas. She is Deanie, basically the girl next door (although I never had a neighbor who looked like Natalie Wood), an every girl of sorts. He is Bud, the star tailback and the son of an oil tycoon. Both face different kinds of pressure. But their most prevalent one seems to be sexual repression.

You see, he wants the good girl to go bad (sorry if I just put that annoying Cobra Starship song in your head), yet he has seen first-hand how those girls turn out. His older sister, Ginny, is a spoiled brat and the family's black sheep. Therefore, his overbearing father (Pat Hingle) caters to him and pins all of the family's hopes on his lapel. The kind of dad who insists "eat a good breakfast before the game, son." You know the kind.

In fact, one of the most curious themes is the notion that parents have absolutely no clue how to raise their children. As is said in the film, all they know is how heir own parents raised them. In a film full of life's truths, these might resonate the most.

The sexual frustrations of a teenager are maddening indeed, but this film takes it to a whole new level. Bud is trying to round the bases, but keeps getting held up by the proverbial third base coach. They try to talk to many authority figures about their desires, but it's clear no one in authority can give decent advice (a theme echoed throughout the film). The only one who does is, unfortunately, Bud's dad. He suggests, get this; that if you don't want to spoil the good girl... find a bad girl to release your frustrations. No joke. Although, now that I think about it, I think that was the same advice given to The 40 Year-Old Virgin in 2005. Yikes, Bud's dad, such frank sexual discussion!

Also shocking is Deanie's mother's advice. Mom is stern in telling Deanie to abstain, and basically says that she need not worry about sex until she's married. And even then, "A woman doesn't enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children." Whoa. I nearly slapped my forehead in disbelief. In 1961, you can imagine what kind of shock value it had. Heck, there were a few times I almost blushed myself... in 2010.

Bud starts to fold under the weight of his world. Dad arranges for him to go to Yale. After which he says he'd be happy to give his blessing to a marriage to Deanie. Poor Bud has no desire to go to college; he yearns for a simple rancher's life with his good girl. But when you come from money like his father has, well... That's just not kosher.

So as not to spoil the surprise, I'll just say that things happen. And the movie keeps going places I didn't expect it to. All the performances are top notch, but Splendor belongs to Wood, for this is her journey. Throughout the film she remains the sweet girl, but as she begins to crack under her pressures, life gets more and more tragic. She's a little girl lost, with no one to turn to for guidance. Not her parents, not her pastor, not her doctor. I guess there's a reason teens feel so isolated. Sadly, it's often because they are.

Splendor in the Grass is ultimately an incredible journey and a tremendous life lesson. Of all tragedies that may befall us, it's ironic that the only thing that can save us is the perspective that comes with going through those very events. I was wrong about my initial impression of this film. It wasn't just a love story. It's one of the greatest films I've ever seen. Maybe I'm a romantic, but this movie was devastating in the best possible way. Rarely has the audience left the film with a mixture of such bittersweet sadness and catharsis.

My mindset was heavier than I'd been accustomed to after leaving The Paramount that night. It gave me plenty to digest. Film took me to places I hadn't explored, and left me full. For tonight at least. Tomorrow I'll surely be hungry for more.

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