Monday, May 31, 2010

Films # 7 & 8: Kazan/Brando Double Feature (May 30th)

A Streetcar Named Desire

1951, 124 min.
Directed by Elia Kazan

On The Waterfront

1953, 108 min.
Directed by Elia Kazan

I'm beginning to feel like a bit of a street preacher, spreading the word of The Paramount Theatre. My experiences have been so rich thus far, I can't wait to share. It also has become a bit of a new law around my home: any out-of-town visitors are required to accompany me to a show at The Paramount.

Today's lucky contestants are my parents, who were visiting for Memorial Day weekend. Mom and Dad, COME ON DOWWWWWN!

Truth be told, it was kind of an impromptu affair. On Saturday night, I saw them at a family party here in the Austin area. They asked what I had planned the following day and I replied that I had a double feature to attend. After asking what they had planned (they had nada), I decided to invite them to attend the first film (since I knew they had a lengthy drive back to their home in South Texas) of Sunday's Elia Kazan / Marlon Brando double dip. They were newbies to The Theatre just as I was, so they agreed to meet me there.

Unfortunately, when I woke Sunday, I found I was a bit under the weather. My body fell victim to what I can assume is the late night Chinese food I ingested late Saturday. It is said the body is a temple, and evidently mine has a "No MSG" sign hanging in there. Like that Ghostbusters logo, you know? Who am I gonna call? Pepto Bismol.

Queasiness aside, I gathered myself together for the 2 o'clock start time of Streetcar. I got there early, with plenty of time for free parking and a short trip to the theatre. I was nervous. It was like a "take your parents to work day" kind of unease. The pre-existing case of the stomach "blahs" didn't help. I decide to hit the water fountain upstairs and swing by the bathroom to splash some water on my face. I push open the door, and...

Well, I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. This was an ornate washroom, and was almost like stepping into a time machine. Man, everything at The Paramount has such... style. It reminded me of that scene in The Aviator when Leo (as Howard Hughes) washing his hands in that nice bathroom and then can't bring himself to touch the handle and open the door in fear of contamination. Since I'm a bit of a notorious germ-o-phobe myself, that scene always stuck with me. Thank goodness I'm not that crazy. Yet.

Refreshing myself, I venture back downstairs and get a call on my cell. Mom and Dad are arriving. I meet them outside as they get in line to buy tickets, and I begin to hear the compliments already. After a few minutes, we enter The Paramount and they swoon. I give them a mini-tour and spout off trivia tidbits. I'm sure to recount the Harry Houdini story relayed to me by Brandi (and I gave her credit, of course. The folks raised me right) After a brief overview, we get in line for some soda and popcorn.

Glancing at my watch, I see that perhaps I spent too much time showing off. I could hear a trailer for The Adventures of Robin Hood, and could hear parts of what I believe was the trailer to Giant. No rush, as long as we can make it to our seats for the feature. We go up the stairs to our seats. Entering the auditorium, I am surprised to find the lights come back on briefly, but it does helps us find our seats.

No sooner did we find our seats when the film began.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those movies where you want to take a shower afterward. Every inhabitant is dripping with sweat, and you feel their varying levels of desperation. Its depiction of a sweltering New Orleans makes the entire film feel like its set on a frying pan. Lust and desire provide the sizzle and the motivation of many of its characters. Add an egg and watch it fry.

One such egg does, in fact, arrive. The film begins with Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh), an aged but distinctive Southern Belle of a woman, arriving to stay with her sister and brother-in-law, Stella (Kim Hunter) and Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche is full of flamboyance and more than a fair share of delusion. She seems delicate (and elusive), but it doesn't take long for her to make her nest in Stella and Stan's one-room apartment. Blanche explains that the family estate has been lost, and the implication is clear that her stay will be an open-ended one. Stella wants to help her sister who is in desperate need, but Stanley eyes Blanche with suspicion. Of course, there is also more than suspicion in his eye towards Blanche...

Every performance in the film is first-rate. As well they should be, since every actor was chosen from a production of the Tennessee Williams play on which the film is adapted from. All except Vivian Leigh were from the Broadway production (also directed on stage by Kazan), and she was selected from the London production. Leigh perfect here, especially since her iconic role in Gone with the Wind allow us to easily accept this role as a slightly wilted Southern flower. Karl Malden, who many younger viewers may only identify from American Express commercials, is excellent as a would-be suitor for DuBois. His loneliness is as apparent as the clothes on his back, also drenched with the sweat of desperation. Kim Hunter gives a solid but overlooked performance in this cast of eventual titans. She and Brando in particular are the epitomy of co-dependence. Their marriage changes akin to the direction of the wind in a storm; hot then cold, steamy then angry, all subject to fits of his drunken rage.

Marlon Brando's performance is absolutely electric. He's a mixture of a gorilla and a hurricane. A primal force of nature. Like a hurricane, he brings the lightning and the thunder, but you can't help but watch. A man who challenges any semblance of authority, he does not eact well to his new house guest. Determined to undo what he perceives as Blanche's air of superiority and uncover her past, his repeated confrontations with her progress from suspicion to cruelty.

Alas, it is this urban and primal atmosphere that begin to ake our toll on the soft-boiled DuBois. Events transpire that start a slow decent into a personal hell for Blanche, and it leaves her a scrambled mess. Certainly not light Sunday afternoon fare at the movies, but Streetcar is ultimately empowering and insightful.

As the lights came up and we made our way downstairs, my parents thanked me for the afternoon. Film discussion is a hobby of both my mother and myself, so I knew we'd have some fodder for the next time I called. With the long drive ahead of them, I knew it was best they take their leave as soon as they could. We hugged and said our farewells that afternoon, and I ventured back inside for the second film (and my fourth by Elia Kazan in a few days).

On the Waterfront is another collaboration between Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, and is another fine film. The story of a mob-controlled waterfront and the lives that their twisted vines touch, it features more outstanding performances across the board. Marlon stars as Terry Malloy, a washed up ex-prizefighter who is now just regarded as he neighborhood "bum." His brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the legal counsel of the local mob boss, so Terry is thrown odd jobs and generally taken care of by the thugs. When Terry is used as bait to coax a potential informant to his death, a line of dominoes begins to fall and Terry begins to question whether it's safe to protect those who protect him.

Two of the best performances in the film belong to the two main characters who help sway Terry's decision. Edie (an Oscar-winning Eva Marie Saint, in her film debut at that) is the slain victim's sister who starts to rile feathers as she demands answers and action for her brother's murder. Terry takes an interest in her, but his puppy love is in danger of releasing the mob's hounds. Karl Malden again appears along Brando in a Kazan film, and as the neighborhood priest, he is the moral center of the film (despite being a rough and tumble guy who's not afraid of having a pint). Malden is solid in a much different role than he played in A Streetcar Named Desire, but is no less effective.

In addition to the acting, On the Waterfront further illustrates why Kazan was one of the finest film directors in American cinema. The craftsmanship of the film matches the caliber of the acting, and they received the Oscars to prove it (winning Best Director, Actor, Screenplay, Editing, Supporting Actress, Art Direction for Black and White film, and Cinematography for Black and White film). What struck me most of the technical fields was the great cinematography. It is, after all, a shadowy place in the underworld of mob bosses and corruption, and the photography handles the mood and locale perfectly. Many shots have a "film noir" feel, and pursuits down back alleys and riverfronts have a deeper sense of dread because of the lighting.

In a film where so much talk is bantered about regarding "cheese-eaters" (rats) and "stoolies" (pigeons), it's inevitable that thoughts turn to Elia Kazan himself. For those unfamiliar with his biography, Kazan in 1952 testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and "named names." Fingering Hollywood figures and alleging their Communist ties; it was a scar he carried with him until the day he died.

Many regard On the Waterfront as his response to the politics of the day and his decisions. Yes, there can be a nobility in shining a light on the darkness. And yes, such action is incredibly brave. But there was a world of difference in taking a stand against corruption and naming names out of fear. In Kazan's case, his act was cowardly (let's not mince words here), but his skill as a filmmaker was undeniable. The four films I've screened of Kazan's the past few days have been powerful, illuminating, provocative and brilliant. Wild River, Splendor in the Grass, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront are of a caliber few could ever match.

Perhaps he saw himself as a Terry Malloy. Perhaps he would've lost it all if he didn't cooperate. Ironically, he picked the wrong side. The sad truth is that the thugs in his life were the HUAC, and Kazan saved himself from persecution by those whose main tool is fear (much like the Waterfront neighborhood did by remaining silent). It's not whether you talk or remain silent, it's whether you take a stand against fear and tyranny. Many deny him his brilliance because of choices made away from the camera. Like poor, feeble Terry Malloy; it's his own choices that constructed the cross that he chose to bear. Kazan made many more brilliant films, but none could erase the tarnish of his HUAC testimony. It's a shame.He could've had it all. He could've had class; he could've been a contender...

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