Sunday, June 28, 2015

It Was You, Kazan

"God is not love. God is courage. And love is the reward." -- Norman Mailer

April 1952. Two weeks after the emotionally elephantine Streetcar Named Desire cops four Academy Awards (including Best Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor), ex-Red-and-then-Hollywood big shot Elia Kazan, Streetcar's director, testifies before the House Un-Amelrican Activities Committee, naming eight former comrades as members of the Worldwide Communist Conspiracy, including Ed Bromberg, Paula Miller, and future snitch Clifford Odets. Eight names already known to HUAC.

Never one to avoid the spotlight, Kazan sends an unrequested letter to the New York Times days after his turning:
I believe that Communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem. That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien conspiracy and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.

I believe that the American people can solve this problem wisely only if they have the facts about Communism. All the facts. Now, I believe that any American who is in possession of such facts has the obligation to make them known, either to the public or to the appropriate Government agency.

Whatever hysteria exists - and there is some, particularly in Hollywood - is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy. Hard and exact facts will cool it. The facts I have are sixteen years out of date, but they supply a small piece of background to the graver picture of Communism today. I have placed these facts before the House Committee on Un-American Activities without reserve and I now place them before the public and before my co-workers in motion pictures and in the theatre.

I joined the Communist Party late in the summer of 1934. I got out a year and a half later. I have no spy stories to tell, because I saw no spies. Nor did I understand, at that time, any opposition between American and Russian national interest. It was not even clear to me in 1936 that the American Communist Party was abjectly taking its orders from the Kremlin.

Firsthand experience of dictatorship and thought control [Kazan moved to the US, from Greece, when he was four years old.] left me with an abiding hatred of these. It left me with an abiding hatred of Communist philosophy and methods and the conviction that these must be resisted always. It also left me with the passionate conviction that we must never let the Communists get away with the pretense that they stand for the very things which they kill in their own countries.
In a memoir published in '97, Kazan admits he took a "warrior pleasure at withstanding" his political enemies -- defined in the early-1950s as anyone more threatening than Ike or Dick Nixon. He explains the decision to squeal by embracing his years (1934 - 36) helping to create the legendary Group Theater in New York, and how his beloved Communist Party put him "on trial" because he refused to move the Group in appropriately Stalinist directions. After all, Kazan's devotion was to Art for Art's Sake, not to making messages. . .

In 1954, Elia Kazan directed a highly awarded movie (eight Oscars this time, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay) whose entire existence depends on a defense of squealing. Written by Budd Schulberg of What Makes Sammy Run? fame (who should know since Schulberg also destroyed his Red friends by testifying before HUAC), the scenario is based on the true-life heroics of Anthony DiVincenzo, a whistle-blowing longshoreman who did testify before an actual waterfront commission and was ostracized for it. Even though Schulberg attended every day of DiVincenzo's commission testimony, Schulberg, Kazan, On the Waterfront producer Sam Spiegel and Columbia Pictures itself refused to acknowledge DiVincenzo's contribution. After a lawsuit lasting decades, the studio finally settled.

Young and somewhat punchy ex-prizefighter Terry Malloy is pressured by older brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) and Charlie's gangster union associates to lure friend Joey Doyle into a physical confrontation with union thugs -- thugs who immediately murder Doyle by throwing him off a high rooftop. Stunned, realizing Doyle was eliminated to keep him from talking to a waterfront crime commission investigating union corruption, Malloy is pulled in dangerous directions by the dead man's lovely young sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and by a crusading local priest (Karl Malden). After another longshoreman is murdered to maintain silence, Terry goes to Father Barry and confesses that it was he who "set up Joey Doyle for the knock-off." Now in love with Edie and pushed hard by the priest, Terry decides to testify but not before brother Charlie tries, and fails, to buy him off with a cushy new job -- a failure that leads to Charlie's death. Full of wrath, Malloy testifies, is shunned, beaten up, threatened with death -- yet he wins the girl and his testimony does seem to break the back of the criminal union.

On the Waterfront is an egg with the shell of ruthless (almost hysterical) ambition, a series of sleazy justifications on the part of its twin-stoolies Kazan and Schulberg, a driving desire to please its contemporary Masters, particularly Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn, the biggest pig in the trough. (Rumor had it Cohn once ordered Sammy Davis Jr.'s eye poked out for sleeping with Kim Novak, a Cohn favorite. Funny how Steiger would basically play Cohn in 1955's The Big Knife, written by Odets.)

Yet inside the shell is the yoke of a beautiful and tender heart. It may be the only great film ever made in service to social evil. (As Salt of the Earth, its 1954 bizarro Doppelganger, is a rotten movie in service to social good.) The shell, as we watch, cracks and falls away, leaving the exposed heart. Schulberg and Kazan's "Local 374" bears no relation to any union local known to man. Its cartoon "leadership," whose waterfront headquarters seems to be the same shack used by Widmark and Thelma Ritter in 1953's Pickup on South Street, is made up of mumbling meatballs who say things like "I'll top the bum off lovely." Local boss John Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is never seen as a union official (negotiation, tactics, goals). His early economic explanation to Terry in the bar about his own source of power and payoff is nonsensical. Friendly is more of a 1940s gunsel whose only antagonism is directed toward his own workers. This is a center of labor corruption? The workers themselves are all whipped, passive, castrated, afraid to do or say anything. They are put in their place by accents, vocabulary, dress, shabbiness, and dirt. (Kazan and Schulberg's class prejudice is stunning. Is this the 50s or the 30s?) No one talks about anything interesting. But for brother Charlie and Pop Doyle (John Hamilton), there are no families here. No small groups of friends. No clubs or associations. No American Legion posts or bowling teams. No fun or enthusiasm. Pigeons -- frozen, scared, alienated, and helpless.

Did America win the war or not? Early-50s Hoboken is presented as a place where some invading army marched through leaving devastation and despair in its wake. Did Schulberg and Kazan, covering themselves, understand their projected solutions? The Catholic church seems one of them. A church seen as wholly apart from social action (beyond private and public confession), embodied by Father Barry, played in full car-alarm mode by Malden. (His speech in the hole after K.O. Dugan's death makes the movie go splat.) All secular political action is denied, except through cooperation with witch hunts. (And through the love of a beautiful young woman.) The writer and director seem to have forgotten the neighborhood roots and networks of their own upbringings. There is no sense of corporation, company, owner. (The shot of "Mr. Big" watching commission hearings on television must've been a salve to someone's conscience.) The word MONEY is never mentioned. Here the manufacturing and spreading of communalist terror is marked. It is the 1930s turned upside down. Kazan and Schulberg identify completely with Terry (who seems to have no second thoughts): under threat of death, a man testifies against gangsters vs. Kazan/Schulberg  -- men who sold out their friends and their pasts in service to McCarthyist gangsters. And so rewarded for it.

Important moments make no sense. Why is Charlie murdered? What has he done to endanger the local? Killing him would only guarantee, as it does, Terry's "ratting." (A theatrical and very moving device.) As is the ending. Friendly wants his men to start unloading the waiting dock shipments. And, after having Terry beaten up, the men do, with the mauled Terry leading the sheep around John Friendly, into the arms of a much more fearsome-looking character -- presumably the owner of the waiting cargo. Edie and the Father smile. "The End" The iron door shuts.

It feels intended as a triumph, of sorts. Did Kazan and Schulberg really look at this? Is it possibly an underground blast at 50s US capitalism, where the workers truly have no escape? No, it isn't. And in the time of John L. Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, James Carey, Cy Anderson, David McDonald, and the brothers Reuther, what a lie it would be. We really are supposed to feel that the Good Guys win in the end. Hence, the shell.


Inside is something else. Despite the brutal Methodism of much of Steiger's, Cobb's, Hamilton's, and (especially) Malden's performances, On the Waterfront's greatness is born from the calm, quiet beauty of all things between Edie and Terry. (And, of course, he and Charlie in the back of that cab.) Their moments seem from another work, for there is no felt connection between the blaring power struggle outside and what the young couple have together. Terry is not turning against his past to protect or to please her. He rejects her hopes to move far from the waterfront. (Edie: "To a farm, maybe. . . " Terry: "A farm??") Instead, even after his testimony and shunning, his hopes are to hurt John Friendly -- the man who killed his brother -- even more. It doesn't matter. Their scenes together contain some of the loveliest and most moving moments in film.

Kazan's behavioral genius is present throughout in other ways. The way Edie walks by herself along the railroad tracks on her way to Father Barry, and her search across the rooftop looking for Terry, to give him her dead brother's jacket. The tenderness Terry shows toward his birds and toward his young Golden Warrior followers. Terry's shy, heartbreaking way of moving when he's alone, as if not worthy of being among others. His look up to the night as he unknowingly sends Joey Doyle to his death. The sad, ripped coat he wears to his testimony. His attempt to warn K.O. Dugan before the hit. The heart-stopping hesitation as he at last sees his brother ("Hey, Terry! Your brother's down here. He wants to see ya. . ."), now crucified against a wall with bullet holes surrounding his heart. And there is Bernstein's beautiful, dirge-like score. And Boris Kaufman's liquid, enormously detailed photography -- beyond noir.

Or is it all Brando? (Perhaps it is, since Waterfront's quiet ardency is nowhere to be found in previous Kazan works.) Most things iconic do not deserve to be. Brando's Terry Malloy is not only worthy of its legend, but is probably the greatest lead male performance in US postwar cinema. Written and seemingly played as a dumb and tender animal, Brando's Malloy -- among many things -- contains within itself a subversive power deeply at odds with the movie's "point" -- a man who has suppressed his soul in a kind of mechanical despair, following orders and enduring all the rest. But the girl and the situation is releasing his soul from its bondage. And Brando gives us a promise that it may break free altogether, to have at last a time purely for its own joy.

"Salt of the Earth came out at the same time as On the Waterfront, which is a terrible movie. And On the Waterfront became a huge hit, because it was anti-union. See, On the Waterfront was part of a big campaign to destroy unions while pretending to be for Joe Sixpack. So On the Waterfront is about this Marlon Brando or somebody who stands up for the poor working man against the corrupt union boss. Okay, things like that exist, but that's not unions. I mean, sure, there are plenty of union bosses who are crooked, but nowhere near as many as CEOs who are crooked, or what have you. But since On the Waterfront combined that anti-union message with 'standing up for the poor working man,' it became a huge hit. On the other hand, Salt of the Earth, which was an authentic and I thought very well-done story about a strike and the people involved in it, that was just flat killed, I don't even think it was shown anywhere. I mean, you could see it at an art theater, I guess, but that was about it. I don't know what those of you who know something about film would think of it, but I thought it was a really outstanding film." -- Noam Chomsky
Ummm, no. Presented by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, written by Michael Wilson (blacklisted), produced by Paul Jarrico (blacklisted), directed by Herbert Biberman (blacklisted), and starring the immortal Rosaura Revueltas and Juan Chacon, Salt of the Earth is a black-and-white cross between a 1970s identity politics screed by Norman Lear or Alan Alda and Ed Wood without the magic or mystery. There is really nothing good to say about it. It does matter after all, beyond one's sincerity and intended meaning, what one does with the camera, with the light, at the editing table, with the actors.

In a place called Zinc Town, New Mexico, close to the Mexican border, a miners strike breaks out over safety and sanitation issues, and over preference being given to "Anglo workers" (who are nowhere to be found). When the men are forced to end the walkout via a Taft-Hartley injunction (not explained by Salt), their wives (!) take over the picket line for them, while the men go back home and do the dishes. What this accomplishes is unclear. On the movie's own terms -- and on reality's own terms -- it is absurd. One thing it does accomplish is the "empowerment" of the women. Toward what end is also unclear, except for the obvious further misery of the poor husbands. Based on the actual 1951 strike against Empire Zinc, Salt was denounced on the floors of the US Senate and House, boycotted by the American Legion and its members, its financing was investigated by the FBI, film labs refused processing, union projectionists were ordered not to spool it, right-wing vigilantes fired gunshots at the set, low-flying aircraft buzzed noisily over it to prevent recording, and the lead actress was deported back to Mexico. Since the movie would convince nobody of nuthin' (except for the already convinced), one can only marvel at what must have been the diseased and cowardly dark heart of mid-50s USA -- at a time when the world truly was America's oyster.

It is embraced in some corners as a piece of Rossellinian neo-realism, a homeland version of the incomparable Europa '51 (one of the great political films). Bunkum. Most of the cast were union regulars involved in the actual Empire strike. Unfortunately, the regs can barely speak let alone "act." (Professionals such as Revueltas and Will Geer are just as poorly directed.) Most scenes revolve around pronouncements such as "The installment plan is the curse of the working man" and "Brother Boris here, of the International, will lead us to victory" and "You treat your wives the way the Anglo bosses treat you" and (my favorite) "Guns are not people -- people are people." Again, on Salt's own terms, it is not progressive. It does not argue for solidarity. There is no whiff of perhaps joining up with the no doubt equally aggrieved Anglo miners. The enemy remains undefined. And the righteous sisters show lots of awareness of their own rights but none toward the frustrations and helplessness of their striker husbands.

Let us compare two scenes from Waterfront and Salt, across two sections of each film. First, having a beer:

The bosses struggle to get their men back to work:

There are many great political films, as obvious in their message as is Salt: Europa '51, Even the Rain, Casualties of War, Weekend, October, Pigs and Battleships, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Crimson Gold, Good Men Good Women, To Sleep with Anger, Do the Right Thing, Los Olvidados, even Syriana. But all of them, to varying degree, go to that place where the heart touches the beyond. They all genuflect, for all their brave ideologies (and despite the communal nature of the movie-making process itself), before the Mystery: movies -- through the demands of isolation and selectivity -- are a deeply private, anti-communal art form.

Elia Kazan kneeled before his Masters; and before the Mystery. Salt does neither; and it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


I'd always thought (after dozens of viewings) that Hitchcock's astonishing shift from James Stewart's POV to Kim Novak's begins with Judy's look into the camera and her writing, then tearing up, her confession letter to Scottie, almost 100 minutes into Vertigo. No.

The movie is pregnant with her tenderness and sorrow from the start. Perhaps the whole work is born from her actual fatal descent off the bell-tower, looking back. For how could something like this come from a man as hard-headed, humorless, cold, prosaic, and contemptuous of women (Madeleine at first, Midge, Ellen Corby at the McKittrick) as is the ex-detective?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Angels Flight

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
-- Christina Rossetti, Remember

“There’s a new art in the world and this doctor’s starting a collection.” – Velda

That Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is a great American film, one of the greatest ever made, only a rash or foolish person will deny. While its greatness seems now to be generally recognized (contemporary critics of the 1950s all trashed it), the core of the greatness appears not to be. It is normally taken up by the Quentin Tarantino / Martin Scorsese types who embrace it as little more than director Aldrich, in this only his third big studio picture, sneering around with private eye / tough guy / sexy girl genre works of the post-WWII period ~ a meta P.I. movie. It is much beyond that. Kiss Me Deadly seeks to capture and does, via early-50s Los Angeles and the private eye and science fiction genres, a moment caught between a dying Deco / FDR culture -- a culture which intensified the individual while strengthening the community beyond -- and the cold technical Modernist world to come.

The movie is based on one of the better jobs done by the most popular hack writer of the time, Mickey Spillane. Erstwhile Mike Hammer picks up a hitchhiking girl on the highway, a lovely girl wearing nothing but a trench coat. After gassing up and moving through police checkpoints, they're immediately hijacked, the girl killed, Hammer left for dead. It seems the girl (Berga Torn in the book, Christina Bailey in the movie) knows something very important and everyone wants to know what it is: the "Great What's It?" in the movie's words. Practically everyone (and in Robert Aldrich's original movie ending, everyone) winds up dead. The differences between the Spillane world and Aldrich's are enormous. In the movie, New York City becomes Los Angeles. Four-million dollars in heroin becomes a box of atomic power. The Mafia becomes the Dulles Bros. national security state. Most important, Spillane's thematic vacuum becomes a work about one era dying and something sinister and incomprehensible struggling to be born.

Robert Aldrich is the anti-Carl Dreyer, in this work. Rather than stripping down all decor until one finds a purified essence, Aldrich floods the film with an excess of mid-50s urban Modernist detritus -- architectures, automobiles, ladies clothes; the interior designs of apartments, hospitals, business hallways -- making all of it seem radioactive, in what may be the first movie to be usefully called a film blanc. (Aldrich's '55 follow-up The Big Knife would also qualify.) While at the same time -- in a vertigo of decoration -- placing us firmly in a destoyed and desiccating Los Angeles: Kaiser Hospital, born in the 30s, seemingly refurbished by Mark Rothko; sweet Nick's dumpy garage where he works on Mike's white '51 Jag, then his '50 MG convertible, and dies working on the Hammer '54 black Corvette; a zinc-white Calabasas gas staion; a haunted mansion on what was once called Hill Place; Bunker Hill, all of it, especially Angels Flight and the flophouse once home to Christina and roommate Lily Carver; the Hillcrest Hotel; Club Pigalle; Hollywood Athletic Club; Hotel Jalisco. All gone. Classical 20th-century Los Angeles, the L.A. of Raymond Chandler and Lew Archer, being destroyed as Kiss Me Deadly was being made, or soon after. In Aldrich's world, Mike Hammer seeks meaning and clarity, similar to Philip Marlowe in Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" from the same time, in a vanishing L.A. of the foreign, the frightened, the lost, the individual (while the authority figures all trying to hold it together -- and all authority here, "criminal" or "the law," are the same -- are interchangeable).

Into a normally muscular and artless genre (especially artless under the insanely butch hand of Spillane), here we are given the feminine and creative: poetry, opera, painting, ballet, sculpture, music both classical and jazz, writings. (Christina's stunning apartment inside the Bunker Hill dive is museum-like in her artworks and books and music.) And the movies. Aldrich and director of photography Ernest Lazlo, from the glowing titles which move backward, as Mike's rocket-ship car (and Nat Cole) moves him and Christina back into the past and toward the future simultaneously, a vertigo of time, an astonishing start to a movie (meaninglessly ripped-off by hack George Lucas to begin his Star Wars) -- from this opening shot everything is made strange, mysterious, beautiful, and unique. Throughout Aldrich intensifies Hammer's confusion and estrangement by intensifying the palette of his own form: extreme cuts and angles, dissolves and freezes and fades and his deep use of sound: the music and the soft protected sounds of homes and apartments, traffic noises always beyond the windows, Hammer's sorrowful wall answering-machine, echoing stone hallways and stairs, concrete sidewalks, the sounds of science and technology, the hollow under-furnished echoing of "Lily Carver's" terrible place. And Frank DeVol's overall score: Caruso, Chopin, Schubert, Johannes Brahms, his own. It is only extreme camera movement which Aldrich foregoes, as his main figure Hammer is frozen between Scylla and Charybdis.

Mike's journey -- movingly played in as beautiful a manner as it is brutal by Ralph Meeker -- is a despairing and failed one, however much he struts and smirks, however much he seems to have a magical power to get himself out of jams and to knock people out or to kill them. There's a greater magic against him, a State of anti-Grace, an occasion of sin. Mike's great love is for cars (and possibly for his sexy operative Velda) and yet most of the people he contacts die via car -- Christina Bailey, Nick the mechanic, boxer Lee Kawolsky, Nicholas Raymondo, the real Lily Carver. Those he touches who don't die by car, die anyway, including Velda and himself in Aldrich's original end-of-the-world ending. Mike Hammer stays tough and super confident, until he doesn't, until by the end he becomes a stunted wounded zombie -- dead too, in a way. Dead to all he knows.

Of all great movies, Kiss Me Deadly is perhaps the one that captures its moment in time the most deeply, beautifully, and mysteriously -- and most shocking: the most concretely. Until at the finish, when the Point Dume beach house explodes and the world ends, we are left with a giant, flaming, American Medusa unearthing her hideous face, freezing us -- as she had Mike throughout -- with an oracle of things to come.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

20th Century Americans

If there is a Noam Chomsky of American film criticism, it is WSWS's David Walsh. The economics behind the projects and the promotions are what Walsh is great at and he's recently written a rather unusual two-part essay celebrating Orson Welles @ 100. A must read.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Passion Flower

You really want to know what Bob Kennedy was?

He was fucking beautiful.
-- AP reporter Joe Mohbat

Monday, June 1, 2015