The fourth festival day went by in the commemoration of the great film creator, Elia Kazan and his cult films. As part of the Side Programme, one of Kazan’s most popular movies, East of Eden, was shown.
East of Eden was filmed based on its namesake John Steinbeck novel that has a biblical story – a conflict between two brothers, Kain and Abel – as a base. The plot of the movie is developed in a small Californian town, just before America entered World War I in 1917. Young and rebellious Cal (James Dean) races his brother Aron – who is his father’s favorite – for his father’s attention. The conflict between brothers, the complexity of their relationship, the atmosphere of the movie, and the moral dilemmas that it questions, allowed it to achieve cult status, making this movie equally great in the eyes of the public as in those of the film critics. The twenty-three-year-old James Dean appeared in his first big role in the movie East of Eden, who only six months after the screening of the movie died in a car accident.
As the logical continuation of the “story” of Elia Kazan, the movie A Letter to Elia – a joint effort between director Martin Scorcese and journalist Kent Jones – tied onto East of Eden and was screened within the Contemporary Trends programme. Because of the way the movie was filmed and the way in which the theme was treated, the showing of this movie, which presents a unique homage to the great theatre and film director, replaced the planned workshop, turning the whole atmosphere in the theatre in much more than a regular film projection.
A Letter to Elia begins with scenes from the movie America, America (1963), which Kazan directed, based on his own novel of the same name. The movie discusses a Greek emigrant who desperately and by all means attempts to reach America. After the introductory scenes, Martin Scorcese appears in the movie, who, as the narrator, or rather a teacher, leads the audience through his and Kazan’s lives.
A Letter to Elia is a deeply personal, poignant portrait and auto portrait created from cut outs, photographs, and excerpts from Kazan’s autobiography and his personal notes (read by Elia Koteas), interviews filmed in Kazan’s prime years, and Scorcese’s comments in front of or behind the camera. We meet a version of Kazan who we might not have known well, but also Scorcese, his artistic role models and dilemmas. Referring to him as a second father, Scorcese tells us a story of Kazan since the family of the great director arrived in America, over Kazan’s education, first acting achievements while he was a member of the famous Group Theatre, his unforgettable and rewarded achievements in direction theatre productions, the day that he founded Actor’s Studio, to his departure to Hollywood in which his rich and successful film career begins.
A succession of the numerous Kazan movies, of which one takes a special place because many people saw it as very controversial in the time that it was released, especially because it was for a long time that it represents Kazan’s attempt to justify his “collaboration” with McCarthy’s commission for the so called witch hunt. The movie in question is the 1954 movie, On the Waterfront, which represents one of the most significant creations that marked postwar American cinematography. Dealing with corruption, violence, and organized crime in the labor unions, this movie talks about the unattained American dream, the fight for law and justice – topics that are current in the contemporary world regardless of how ordinary they appear. For this movie, which was rewarded with a total of eight Oscars, Brando achieved his first Oscar for best actor, and Kazan for the directing for the second time. On the Waterfront was named the movie of “cultural, historical, and esthetic meaning” and is sorted into the National Film Register of the United States of America in 1989.
With the help of excerpts from Kazan’s movies Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Panic in the Streets (1950), Wild River (1960), Splendor in the Grass (1961), East of Eden (1955), and Face in the Crowd (1957), we receive an answer to the question of how Scorcese grew up and formed as a personality and director. The last scenes of the movie show an old and lonely Kazan, surrounded by black and white photographs of members of his family, reveals to Scorcese that he sometimes talks to his relatives and that they sometimes respond.
The Oscar for lifetime achievement was awarded to Elia Kazan in 1999. The Oscar was handed to him by his past acting student, Robert De Niro, and of course, Martin Scorcese.