Friday, March 18, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: America, America (1963)

America, America (1963) ****
Directed by: Elia Kazan.
Written by: Elia Kazan.
Starring: Stathis Giallelis (Stavros Topouzoglou), Frank Wolff (Vartan Damadian), Elena Karam (Vasso Topouzoglou), Lou Antonio (Abdul), John Marley (Garabet), Estelle Hemsley), (Grandmother Topouzoglou), Katharine Balfour (Sophia Kebabian), Harry Davis (Isaac Topouzoglou), Joanna Frank (Vartuhi), Robert H. Harris (Aratoon Kebabian), Salem Ludwig (Odysseus Topouzoglou), Paul Mann (Aleko Sinnikoglou), Linda Marsh (Thomna Sinnikoglou), Gregory Rozakis (Hohannes Gardashian).

Elia Kazan’s America, America is perhaps the best movie ever made about immigrants coming to America. It is not a happy film about good hearted immigrants working hard, but a film filled with anger and violence. The hero of the movie is Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis), who is a good man, but in order to get to America, he needs to do some very bad things. This is a journey that costs him and his family everything.

The movie opens in 1896 Turkey. Stavros and his family are Greek, which means they are second class citizens in the country – but at least they are not Armenian, as they are treated even worse. Stavros has an Armenian friend, and together the chip ice off the mountains, and then sell it in town. His family, and the Greek community, look down on his friendship, saying that it will bring him nothing but trouble – and the Armenian concerns are not theirs. Stavros sees things differently – once the Turks have disposed of the Aremenians, who do you think they’ll turn on next? This all comes to a head in a violent clash that starts Stavros’ father thinking that it may be time to move their large family to Constanipole – on the other side of the country. He has a cousin there that can set them up in business. The family gives all their valuables, and sends him on the cross country journey. It is this journey, not the one to America that comes late in the film that takes up much of the running time. Stavros does not meet anyone helpful to him on his journey – and in fact by the time he gets to Constanipole, and the cousin whose business is not what he claimed it was, Stavros will have lost everything and become a murderer. But for Stavros, he has only done what he needed to do to survive, and get to where he needs to go. But also, it is also only the first step for him – he wants to go to America.

Elia Kazan’s career can really be split into two different segments – before and after 1952. It was in 1952 that he testified in front of the Joseph McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee, where he named names of people he knew were Communists. This act defines Kazan for many people – and is the reason why his lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999 was so controversial – Hollywood has a long memory, and hated HUAC, and many considered Kazan a traitor for testifying. And yet, even according to Kazan himself, that was a defining moment in his career as a director. His films before then were mainly Hollywood studio movies – safer projects, issue driven and impersonal. Even if some of the films before then were great (and at the very least his 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire has to be considered a masterpiece), it was not until after his testimony that he started to make his more personal films. These include such great films as On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956) and America, America (1963) which is inarguably his most personal film. (It also includes four films I haven’t seen, but want to catch up with Man on a Tightrope (1953), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Wild River (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). He wrote a book called America, America in 1962, which recounted his uncle’s journey to America, and the following year he made it into a movie. This was his story, and one that he had to make.
America, America is an epic film –the type that Hollywood has all but forgotten how to make. Kazan’s eye for detail is exacting here, and the film is perhaps the superb technical accomplishment of his career. The film lacks theatricality, instead focusing on realism that is only aided by shooting on location in Turkey and Greece. This is not a movie that feels like an old time Hollywood epic, but something much more personal and real. As always, Kazan had an eye for unknown acting talent (among others he helped start the careers of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty), and here with a cast of largely unknown actors, he has given us a wonderful ensemble cast. Yes, it may be marred by the fact that some of the Turks are played by white men, but that is one of those things you simply have to accept in movies from this era.

There are some films that a filmmaker simply has to make. Great filmmakers often have a passion project that they dream about for years – and sometimes are lucky enough to make. For Kazan, that film was inarguably America, America. He struggled for years with this story – never knowing if he would be able to make it – not just because of financial reasons, but for personal ones. But he finally did make it, and perhaps after that, there was little else he felt needed to be said. He took six years off of filmmaking after America, America, before returning to make 4 more films (of these only The Last Tycoon in 1976, his final film, is all that well regarded). But he made his film. And it is a masterpiece.

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