In A Letter to Elia, Martin Scorsese delivers a beautiful and touching tribute to Kazan, the director who inspired him and whose work moved him. Scorsese and Kazan became close friends towards the end of Kazan's life. Scorsese made sure that he was by his side when Kazan was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar award at the 1999 Academy Awards. If you remember that ceremony, Kazan got a lot of grief from people in the audience who were still not too happy about his involvement in the HUAC and for ratting out other communists. At this point in the documentary, I got a bit teary eyed. The fact that Scorsese stood by Kazan's side and gave him a big embrace publicly supporting his controversial friend moved me. I really believe that this documentary should have been called A Love Letter to Elia because that is what it was: a love letter directed by Scorsese for Kazan.
Scorsese's love for Kazan and his work goes back far into Scorsese's childhood. As a teenage, he followed Kazan's East of Eden (1955) from cinema to cinema. Scorsese takes the audience through one scene in which the James Dean character visits his mother at a brothel. Having seen this film some time ago, I didn't remember the scene, or even the film, as anything special but when Scorsese broke down the complex layers of the scene, the lighting, the cinematography, the acting, the significance to the plot, all elements that a director would choreograph with his crew, it made East of Eden seem nothing short of genius!
Scorsese's passion for East of Eden made me wonder about what it meant to be a fan of a single film. I mean truly a fan. Then I thought of the films that I "follow". There is Metropolis (1927) which I have seen in various versions, at the HFA, at the Coolidge Corner Theater, at home, on my computer and soon I'll be seeing it again and this time with live musical accompaniment. It's a film I want to keep watching over and over and over again. Then there is Out of the Past (1947). The reason I'm a classic film fan. The inspiration for this blog. The main source of my love for Robert Mitchum. The most confusing yet enchanting film I've ever seen. I've counted the number of cigarettes in the movie, I gave the main character a Match.com profile, I've shared it with friends, I've kept it to myself, it's the foundation upon which I build my love for movies.
What I enjoyed about the documentary what that this was Scorsese's personal perspective on the life and work of Elia Kazan. Because this little blog of mine, is all about the personal perspective so I really love it when people share their own. We get to see Kazan through Scorsese's eyes. And because Scorsese had such admiration for the man, we start to develop some admiration for him too. It was fitting that I went to see this with my good friend Kevin who just happens to be a Kazan expert. He gave a lecture about Kazan back in 2007, which I attended and prepared for by doing a marathon of Kazan film viewings. And even though I met Kevin during his Film Noir class, it was really after the Kazan lecture when we started to bond and become friends.
The documentary was followed by a screening of Panic in the Streets (1950), one of my favorite noirs. Keeping in mind some of what Scorsese said about Kazan in the documentary, I paid close attention to details in the film that I could possibly attribute to Kazan. The pacing, the camera angles, the set-up of the shots, the choreography of the final chase scene, etc. Something I noticed in this viewing that I hadn't in past ones, was how the gigantic Jack Palance was positioned over very small and diminutive characters. The contrast exemplified his character's power and the level of control he exerted over everyone around him. Everyone looks up to him, not because he's a good person but because he physically and symbolically towers over them.
I learned recently was that Panic in the Streets is now in the public domain. Which means you can watch the entire film on your computer thanks to Internet Archive. But between you and me, this film, and any other Kazan classic, begs to be seen on the big screen. It's the way Scorsese fell in love with Kazan films and it's really the best way to watch any classic movie.