MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVD Geek: Elia Kazan’s America America

Elia Kazan’s labor of love and the capstone of his career, the 1963 America America, has been released by Warner Home Video.  Based upon the experiences of Kazan’s uncle, but imbued with the internal drive and emotional power of a direct autobiography, the film depicts the emigration of a young boy, living in Turkey but of Greek heritage, who first leaves his village and then struggles in Constantinople to earn the passage for his ultimate destination, as indicated in the film’s title.  Having failed by laboring, he turns his attention to marrying well so he can afford the trip.  Running 168 minutes, the film conveys the scope and cathartic experience of the life-changing journey it is depicting.  It is strikingly photographed in black-and-white by Haskell Wexler and intricately edited by Dede Allen, so that specific moments have the same rapturous effects that one associates with the great black-and-white pantheon films, and Kazan’s guiding of the performances through those same moments is equally masterful—the scene in which the hero confesses to his fiancée that she is only his means and not his end is as great as filmmaking ever gets.  The movie is uniformly in English, which makes especially the transitions the hero goes through harder to absorb—unfortunately there is no alternate language track on the DVD, which might eliminate some of the jarring disorientation that occurs only because Kazan has otherwise staged the movie so genuinely that its English dialog just seems out of place—and is populated by a mostly still unknown cast.  Supporting player John Marley, who sports a beard but can be recognized by his distinctive voice, is the one performer whose career expanded substantially in the years after he made the film.  Stathis Giallelis stars.  Although the movie achieved general critical acclaim and was one of the most distinctive nominees in the 1963 Oscar ceremony, it was simply too much like a foreign film to attract a popular audience, but not enough like one to attract an art house following, and it hasn’t even had much of a life in syndication in the decades since.  As Kazan historian Foster Hirsch puts it on his commentary, “This is a film whose time has still not come.  I’m hoping that the release of this DVD will change that.”

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The picture transfer is spotless, and the larger the screen you can see it on, the better.  The monophonic sound is solid and the musical score by Manos Hadjidakis is beguiling.  There are optional English and French subtitles.

Hirsch has plenty of time to share everything he knows about the film, and at times he does fall into describing what is happening on the screen, but it is more for filler than for a misguided sense of purpose.  He is a strong Kazan enthusiast, but he does acknowledge the parallels between the characters within the film acquiescing to authority and Kazan’s own political follies.  Kazan shot some of the film in Turkey before being forced to complete it in Greece, but it would be interesting to know which footage was taken from where, even in general terms, which Hirsch is unable to elucidate.  He touches a bit on the conflicts Kazan had with Wexler because of his political stances, but does not go into enough detail for the viewer to judge whether or not it affected the work, although Hirsch gives his assurances that it did not.  The best passages come from where Hirsch has been able to talk with the film’s actors and elicit from them Kazan’s remarkable directing methods, which were essentially to understand the inner psychologies of both the actors and the characters so supernaturally well that he would only have to say a specific phrase or two to get the performance he wanted, and Hirsch is able to report what some of those words were.  One actor, for example, grasped the complete nature of his character after Kazan suggested to him that the character, “Sleeps with his hands between his legs.”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon