925. America, America (1963, Elia Kazan)

screened Sunday May 27 2007 on Warner Brothers VHS in Astoria NY TSPDT rank #787 IMDb

Elia Kazan's most personal film is ostensibly a recounting of his Greek uncle's prolonged journey from Turkey to the U.S., but as with On the Waterfront [TSPDT #80], there's an autobiographical subtext beneath the hero's struggles. Played broadly by Stathis Giallelis (fashioned as a Greek James Dean but with far less expressive range), Kazan's uncle Stavros is perpetually stifled by the demands of others -- whether a man trying to bilk him with whores or a propsective father-in-law pushing marriage on him -- en route to making the coveted passage across the Atlantic. The tone of the film is one of constant struggle, not only with others but with one's own conscience, though you might glean this less from Giallelis' limited capacity to emote than from the subtext of Kazan's checkered past of naming names for the HUAC in order to preserve his own career. Kazan works from his own rich albeit episodic script that often seems at odds with its own efforts to promote the myth of the heroic immigrant. Stavros is guided by an almost animalistic urge to freedom, commiting murder, adultery and jilting a would-be bride along the way. This complex characterization could have been seen through by a stronger talent than Giallelis; as it stands the film never quite coheres emotionally around his blank reactive presence. Cinematically, this is one of Kazan's more experimental efforts, enlisting a young Haskell Wexler to attempt a decidedly European late neo-realist look, often claustrophobic in its tight frames on anguished faces. The film's gritty, unglamorous look does little to take the edge off Kazan's characteristically strident direction, and the film's happy ending is unconvincing, but there are a number of powerful moments along the way that soberly examine the necessity and virtue of brute determinism to find a better life. This very well could have been Kazan's Barry Lyndon [TSPDT #79] Want to go deeper?

Wikipedia's entry on the film offers a useful plot synopsis

Wonderful review by Bob Wake of Culture Vulture distills the film's strengths and weaknesses

For historical reference, Bosley Crowther's original review in the New York Times

Pauline Kael:

Though the picture is flawed by the miscasting of the central role (Stathis Giallelis doesn't convince you that he has the will or the passion-or the brains-to realize his dream), and the main narrative line is unconvincing melodrama, there are some fine images, such as the sealed, stifling, yet warm and inviting interiors of a rich merchant's home in Constantinople, and some memorable performances, such as Paul Mann's as the merchant and Linda Marsh's as his daughter. You can feel the desperate ambitiousness to create an epic (this film was intended as the first of a trilogy), and some of the crowd scenes that the cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, has shot have scale and turmoil and a feeling of authenticity. Yet the hero is so blandly uninteresting that there's nothing to hold the movie together, and the tired ideas in the script (by Kazan)-such as a Judas figure who robs the hero and a Christ figure who gives his life for the hero-become embarrassing.

Film Reference.com's page on Elia Kazan:

"His films have been most consistently concerned with the theme of power, expressed as either the restless yearning of the alienated or the uneasy arrangements of the strong. The struggle for power is generally manifested through wealth, sexuality, or, most often, violence. Perhaps because every Kazan film except A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Last Tycoon (excluding a one-punch knockout of the drunken protagonist) contains at least one violent scene, some critics have complained about the director's "horrid vulgarity" (Lindsay Anderson) and "unremitting stridency" (Robin Wood), yet even his most "overheated" work contains striking examples of restrained yet resonant interludes: the rooftop scenes of Terry and his pigeons in On the Waterfront, the tentative reunion of Bud and Deanie at the end of Splendor in the Grass, the sequence in which Stavros tells his betrothed not to trust him in America America. Each of these scenes could be regarded not simply as a necessary lull in the drama, but as a privileged, lyrical moment in which the ambivalence underlying Kazan's attitude toward his most pervasive themes seems to crystallize."

This review of Richard Schickel's 2006 biography of Kazan morphs into a very astute assessment of the director's filmmaking characteristics:

"As a filmmaker, Kazan lacks fluidity, surprise and any semblance of grace in the handling of groups or crowds, or the natural movement of people into and out of groups. Think of a Kazan moment that has more than two actors, and you are seeing a table of men at cards, a line of men watching a fistfight, a mass of men joining one by one to swell a protest: static action and reaction, in which every detail has been predigested. He asked John Ford once how he arrived at his camera setups, and Ford said that he got up early and mapped everything out before the actors came. The point was to let the images tell the story as they did in silent films. Kazan did not think he could do that. With him, the actors and their relationships and the words and design of the script were always primary."

Elia Kazan's biography on Wikipedia offers some details on his controversial involvement with the House of Un-American Activities Committee

This Kazan bio has more of a career overview

Listen to a 30 minute audio interview with Kazan by Don Swain, circa 1985