Label: Warner Home Video/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: February 8, 2011
Synopsis: A native Greek living in turn-of-the-century Turkey struggles to immigrate to the United States.
Special Features: Audio commentary by Historian Foster Hirsch / Theatrical trailer
Elia Kazan had built a career directing the scripts of America’s finest playwrights & screenwriters – William Inge (Splendor in the Grass), Tennessee Williams (Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll), Budd Schulberg (Face in the Crowd) – and in 1962 he decided to take a crack at the literary world himself, penning a semi-biographical novel based on the life of his uncle who struggled to leave a Greek town in Turkey for the United States, and not only build a life from nothing, but bring the family over one by one – the classic turn of the century American immigrant saga.
Titled America America, the novel was published in 1962, and when financing for the follow-up feature film fell through, Kazan was able to secure some financing from Warner Bros., with whom he had a successful professional relationship going as far back as 1951. The film was shot in Greece, Mexico, and briefly in Turkey (3 days worth, until overly critical government apparatchiks made filming impossible), and parts of Ellis Island (recreating the processing environment for turn-of-the-century immigrants).
Running close to 3 hours without an intermission and starring no one with any box office draw, Kazan’s epic movie flopped in North America, and virtually disappeared from sight, save for rare TV airings and an early home video release.
The film’s premiere DVD release from Warner Home Video is part of what may be a lifelong crusade by historian Foster Hirsch to get this film the recognition he feels it deserves, and he’s spot on in ranking Kazan’s genuine epic as his best, if not most personal work, and one of the finest, most unpretentious films about the immigrant experience.
TV movies like Ellis Island (1984) attempted to delve into the saga of immigrants assimilating into the cramped, poor quarters of key destination New York City, and good chunks of the first two Godfather films covered the poverty and hard knocks confronted by the Corelone family as they immigrated to the U.S. and tried to set up business roots.
Crime sagas and broad tales of first and second generations ‘making it’ were favoured by producers and studios, perhaps because in both cases the characters reinforced through moral dramas the goodness of America, whereas a film dealing exclusively with back-stories simply held America as a mythic endpoint.
America America is about Stavros, a young Anatolian Greek living in Turkey, who’s sent by his family to Constantinople where he’s supposed to work hard at his older cousin’s rug shop, eventually earning enough money to send for his family so they can live free from the persecutions being meted out on Greeks and Armenians.
Stavros had already seen his best friend Vartan (Frank Wolff) killed by the Turks, and he’s disgusted by his father’s smiling ignorance towards Turkish atrocities, but he realizes he’s the family’s best bet at salvation, so he heads for the big city, carrying his family’s entire wealth as seed money.
En route, he meets thieves, and once in Constantinople goes through several rebellious periods before he’s poised to settle down as the fiancée of a wealthy Greek until his fervent, festering desire to reach America can no longer be shackled up, and he boards a ship to the U.S., only to find another set of hurdles that may send him home again.
The most amazing aspect of America America is how it feels so modern in filmmaking techniques, and focus on intimate conflicts, channeled through a combo of classically trained, naturally talented, and veteran Method actors. Kazan peppered the cast with colleagues from the Actor’s Studio, but his gift for directing ensured newcomer Stathis Giallelis delivered a strong performance as Stavros, seething with anger from the constant disasters and teasing opportunities that delay his attempt to get on the next ship to New York City.
The variable accents among the large cast are initially jarring (particularly Estelle Hemsley, playing Stavros’ grandmother), but the New York City actors are otherwise perfectly tailored for their roles as Greeks and Armenians wanting to escape life under an oppressive regime. Kazan’s script doesn’t penalize or portray the Turks as monsters posed to commit genocide: they’re merely part of a combustible ethnic cocktail whose frictions goes back generations; it’s merely a matter of time before things begin to explode.
The ethnic friction is the key catalyst which sends Stavros packing, and Kazan uses his lengthy journey to test the young man’s mettle. Each disastrous event – particularly the cruel, slow-motion theft by smiling scumbag Abdul (Lou Antonio) – makes Stavros stronger, but his struggle to acquire his boat ticket is tough, and lasts years. The time span between Stavros’ undulating periods of poverty and modest wealth in Constantinople is cleverly compressed, but not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander (1978), the emphasis is always on intimate character moments. Even the wife (Katherine Balfour) of a wealthy American (Robert H. Harris) is given a handful of scenes that are filled with touching and telling nuances and dialogue.
Kazan’s dialogue is at times heavy-handed, but his style is neither rooted in classical literature nor the urban tenor of the dramas he directed in film and for the stage. Sex, infidelity, issues of manliness, and rampant sexism among the bourgeois stray between subtext and sleek social criticism, but they move in concert with a scene’s overall dramatic tone.
There are no filler moments, and editor Dede Allen (The Hustler, Bonnie and Clyde, and Reds) accomplished a rare feat: making a nearly three hour film feel like two. (The only titles that manage a similar feat are Michael Manne’s Heat, and Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff – two of the best edited long-form American dramas.) Allen’s editing is also a textbook example on how to compress an epic drama without creating confusion, dulling characters, over-emphasizing issues, and sacrificing small moments for the sake of a tighter running time.
Kazan’s film is told with economy and the discretion, yet there are few scenes which don’t come off as pure melodrama (and the few exceptions are forgivable). Not unlike Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964), there’s much to learn about skilled film editing, and America America shouldn’t be ignored due to its length.
Haskell Wexler’s black & white cinematography is one of his finest achievements as a cameraman, and his lighting design enhances drama while conveying a palpable sense of docudrama throughout the film – which suits Kazan’s vision because several biographical moments seem utterly incredible, if not somewhat implausible.
Scenes in Turkey are meant to contrast aspects of authority, wealth and utter poverty from the perspective of a poor kid (Stavros), whereas the Anatolian village looks bleak yet strangely serene, as though the mountains and rocky fields offer natural patterns, textures, and colours that sooth town inhabitants into living alongside nature than attempting to conquer it with ostentatious wealth and the might of emerging industry.
Manos Hadjidakis’ score is equally powerful in spite of being quite sparse. Cues vary between fleetingly contemporary orchestrations to traditional rhythms and striking vocal pieces, and the composer acutely knew when to get in and out of a scene, sparing the audience the kind of grand statements producers favour to ensure even the most feeble cinemagoer knows when a situation is Dire, a character is poised to commit Evil Villainy, and Stavros is making a Big Decision.
Kazan also seems to draw from past cinema maestros, adopting a bit of the Wellesian touch by narrating the intro to the film, and reading aloud credits during the end roll.
WHV’s transfer is very nice, offering sharp details and fine grey levels that preserve Wexler’s superb high contrast and graded lighting designs, and the audio mix is a solid mono, with a fine blend of natural and atmospheric sound effects evoking the rustic and period locales.
Hirsch’s audio commentary manages to last the film’s running time, and he provides a good overview of the film’s cast, its themes, scene examinations, and Kazan’s wrestling with production issues. There isn’t much apocrypha, but there are far less generalities than Richard Schickle’s commentaries which tend to render the latter’s efforts as exercises in viewer patience.
Hirsch has every reason to periodically remind viewers to pass on word of the film’s brilliance: it’s an important drama which in spite of its Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, got lost, and perhaps convinced Kazan the commercial failure of his finest directorial work was a sign film directing wasn’t worth it anymore.
Between 1964-1976, he directed three films: The Arrangement (1969), a critical dud based on his novel; The Visitors (1972), also based on his novel; and a star-studded version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1976). He only directed 15 feature films in a career spanning 1945-1976, but the prior 13 are qualified classics.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan
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