Tuesday, January 18, 2011

DVD Review: A Letter to Elia

A Letter to Elia *** ½
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese & Kent Jones.

In addition to being one of the greatest directors in cinema history, Martin Scorsese is also one of the world’s premiere film historians. His two epic TV documentaries, A Personal Journey Through American Film with Martin Scorsese and My Voyage to Italy, documented the history of American and Italian film respectively, and are among the most engrossing docs ever made on cinema history. He has contributed countless DVD commentaries on other director’s work, giving insight into the film that is fascinating. In short, Martin Scorsese loves films.

His new documentary, A Letter to Elia, which he co-directed with film critic Kent Jones, looks at the films and the legacy of Elia Kazan. Kazan will always be remembered for two things – being one of the best directors of all time, who helped to revolutionize film acting in his films like A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and East of Eden. And of course, for being perhaps the most high profile name to go in front of Joseph McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee and name names of former Communists. This haunted his legacy right up to the end. Late in his life, when he received a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars, there were some who hated the idea of him receiving the award – and the usual standing ovation was somewhat muted – with some refusing to clap at all.

A Letter to Elia certainly does not try and shy away from Kazan’s involvement with HUAC – but it doesn’t dwell on it either. To Kazan, he was in a lose lose situation – on one hand, naming names would hurt the careers of others, and on the other hand, not naming names would have resulted in him being blacklisted. And according to Kazan, his best films all came after his testimony – he became a more personal filmmaker, and certainly in On the Waterfront you can see Kazan perhaps trying to justify his actions.

But what interests Scorsese isn’t Kazan’s politics, but rather the films themselves. He provides cursory analysis of films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Boomerang, Panic in the Streets and A Streetcar Named Desire, Wild River and A Face in the Crowd (which surprisingly gets very little mention). But where Scorsese really dives in deep is into On the Waterfront and East of Eden – and to a lesser extent, America, America. These are the films that helped to shape a young Martin Scorsese – who was in his early teens when those first two movies came out. Now, he recognizes the mastery of Kazan’s direction, and of all the different elements that went into making the movies. But as a kid, he was swept up in the emotions that they stirred – the faces of the characters, who seemed all too real to him. For Scorsese, these films helped him express feelings he had, but did not understand. They shaped Scorsese, not just as a filmmaker but as a person.

A Letter to Elia is only an hour long – it was made essentially as a special feature for a box set of Kazan’s films that was released back in November – including all the films Scorsese talks about (which is a good thing because previous to this Wild River and America, America were not available on DVD – they are now must sees for me this coming year). And yet, it still has the feel of Scorsese’s other documentaries on film. Watching this film, much like watching A Personal Journey Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy, serves as a reminder as to why film buffs like myself fell in love with movies in the first place. Nowadays, it is all too easy to grow cynical about movies – film critics like to beat up on practically everything, and every year it seems like more and more critics are decrying it as the worst year ever for movies. A Letter to Elia doesn’t contain that cynicism – and for that, I think we should be grateful.

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