Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Letter to Elia

A Letter to Elia
seen on TV @ PBS

What surprised me most about Martin Scorsese's documentary A Letter to Elia - and, indeed, quite moved me - was how deeply personal it was. The film was at least as much about Scorsese's life, through the prism of motion pictures, as it was about Elia Kazan's.

Scorsese talked about how he saw reflections of his life - his neighborhood, his relationship with his family - while watching Kazan movies growing up and of how unusual it was to see such recognizable touchstones. I suppose you could say my movie epiphany came with Billy Wilder, the first time I saw Sunset Boulevard, although in that instance I had the benefit of being in an academic setting, with a teacher to help explain and interpret its significance. Scorsese didn't have that; he was taking Kazan's films in raw, unprocessed, and you could tell it made an impact on him.

I remember when Kazan got his Lifetime Achievement Oscar and the controversy surrounding it. At the time, the full impact of the moment didn't quite register with me, but I could easily see that there was a great deal of bitterness on the part of those who never forgot Kazan's role in naming names during the Red scare of the 50s. Seeing Scorsese up on stage with Kazan mitigated the situation for me somewhat; I figured if someone like him likes Kazan, he can't be all bad, right? Letter helped put things in perspective for me. Not being of that time, I can only imagine what the Red scare was like, though I imagine it's not far removed from the post-9-11 terrorist scare and the persecution of American Muslims in particular.

I thought of my father as I watched Letter. He and I would talk movies quite a lot, and he absolutely loved films like On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. In addition, he was a student of history, so he would've been well aware of the political climate of the 50s and the forces that acted against Kazan.

Also, in the featurette that followed PBS' airing of Letter, the testimonials of the actors about Kazan's approach with actors jibes with my own experiences. I've dabbled with acting in the past, and in fact I took a course at the Actors Studio after college. The techniques taught there made me completely re-evaluate the way I saw acting. In fact, at a party I went to recently I met someone who was similarly trained, and we ended up putting on a small seminar for some of the other guests. It was fun!

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