Best Director Final 50: Elia Kazan for America, America

ELIA KAZAN FOR AMERICA, AMERICA (1963)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Tony Richardson for Tom Jones

Federico Fellini for

Otto Preminger for The Cardinal

Martin Ritt for Hud

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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For as familiar as the tale of arrival in America has become in American culture, the tale of departure is largely untold. Most of Oscar’s films about the American journey are narratives of immigration, kicking off with the conclusion of the voyage (The Godfather: Part II, In America) or the tumultuous acclimation that follows (I Remember Mama, Hester Street, Gangs of New York). Even the Swedish epic The Emigrants, setting aside its three-hour sequel about settler life, allots one-third of its narrative to the homeland before shifting to the middle passage across the Atlantic and arrival in the American North. Few films place their emphasis on the overwhelming presence of the world being left behind, versus the pale mental evocation of the Promised Land. Elia Kazan, however, does not treat the American journey as a fait accompli. Rather than commencing the story of his family’s heritage with his uncle kissing American soil, Kazan makes it the culmination of a three-hour saga. Kazan’s film is a true narrative of emigration: the title, “America, America,” beating like a drum in the back of his young ancestor’s mind as he braves the tortuous and uncertain ordeal of gaining passage to the New World.

Kazan’s direction in his final nominated work is a stark departure from his previous, largely studio-bound efforts. Unlike the painterly, romantic quality that immigration stories would accrue in the ensuing years, Kazan carves a rough-hewn world for Stavros. The framing is sparse, the soundtrack alternately sparse and cacophonous. The film stock renders all images in harsh grades of near-white and near-black.  Even the filmmaking itself is flawed in places: as Stavros finally emerges from the immigration facility and into the light of the New World, the overexposed camerawork (intentionally, according to cinematographer Haskell Wexler) makes the ground glow dazzlingly. The roughness extends even to the acting; even among the stiff competition of his 217 fellow Best Director nominees, Kazan had a matchless reputation for directing actors, but the performances here seem blunter, harder to decipher than in the rest of his filmography. Part of this may be the incongruity of hearing vernacular American English dialogue in a film that, with its location exteriors and unfamiliar faces, is otherwise so indistinguishable from a foreign art house film.

The first of Kazan’s many formidable instincts in the film is his choice—a first among Best Director nominees and unique outside of Woody Allen—to speak directly to the audience. His terse voiceover, introducing the film as a recreation of his family’s oral history, announces an intensely personal tale. The accompanying montage of the Anatolian countryside establishes the interminable vastness of the old country. While it can sometimes feel as though “the Hollywood version” has beaten our imaginations to every corner of the world, the views of the central Turkey are strikingly foreign. The impossibility of traveling from Old World to New is a major topic throughout the film. Kazan enmeshes story in details of his uncle Stavros’ turn-of-the-century existence: the harsh Greek life under the hectoring Turkish majority, the heavy layers of tradition and familial relation in his Orthodox upbringing, the incomprehensible bustle of Constantinople (all made manifest by Gene Callahan‘s impressive black & white art direction, both on location and in the studios in Greece). Layer after layer of culture create a compelling reality, against which “America” is merely an idea.

While we know Stavros must eventually succeed in fulfilling his father’s charge to establish a beachhead in America for his family’s long migration, Kazan’s Original Screenplay-nominated script (his lone career honor for writing) withholds any material progress for the first three-quarters of the film. For more than two hours, the hopelessly overmatched Stavros lurches from setback to setback, no closer to his goal in an underground hovel than under the thumb of his mercantile father-in-law. The ultimate voyage is still mined with arbitrary strokes of fate that snuff out the hopes of men around him (in particular, the haunting reverberations of a sick comrade’s cough spell a doom that still lingers in my mind). Though American immigrants took their voyages for many reasons and from many places, the heavy trappings of the homeland presented in this film seem to shade in the backstory of every one of the films I mentioned at the start of this post. Coming toward the end of Kazan’s reign in Hollywood, America, America would make for the top half of a fascinating double-bill with the first of his films to garner major Oscar attention: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I would be intrigued to see how this early, classical studio vision of Irish-American tenement life in New York might form an interesting fairy-tale complement to the gritty realism of the journey out of the Old World.

THE VOTE

Reflecting the tumult of an industry in transition, 1963 was one of the years of exceptional misalignment between Picture and Director. Apart from Tony Richardson’s manic costume farce Tom Jones, Kazan’s fifth and last nomination was the only crossover. More of the story resides in the remaining nominees: Otto Preminger, who could seem to nail both categories; Martin Ritt, the sure hand behind one of the most mathematically inexplicable Best Picture snubs, and Federico Fellini, nabbing a second nomination for himself and a third consecutively for Italian cinema. With The Cardinal still pending, my vote goes to Fellini’s undeniable masterpiece (with Kazan a solid second), but we’ll wait and see who ultimately receives the final anointment!

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2 thoughts on “Best Director Final 50: Elia Kazan for America, America

  1. whoiscliff says:

    Thanks, alert readers! Should be all right now.

  2. […] somewhat (but not completely different) light. The Turks have had a rough go of it lately, first as an oppressive ethnic majority, now as the perpetrators of a penal system that made the term “Turkish prison” […]

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