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America, America by Elia Kazan

The movie America, America was adapted by Elia Kazan from his novel of the same name.  A 163 minute ode to his Greek uncle who immigrated to the United States from the Anatolian Mountains the movie begins with a dark screen and a voice over explaining that the Greeks had moved to the Anatolian mountains and lived with the Armenians.

When it opens to the main character Stavros Topouzoglou and his Armenian friend/mentor Vartan getting ice from the mountain to take to the village in 1898, the viewer is immediately drawn into the story.  Vartan is telling Stavros it is time to immigrate to America before it is too late foreshadowing the imminent change in their fortunes.

Segue to a meeting of the Turkish council that rules over the Greeks and Armenians.  The council is portrayed as very normal men, which makes their decisions more startling.  The governor reads a note from the Ottoman ruler that some Armenians had bombed a bank in a Turkish city. The governors are to punish the Armenians in a way of their choosing.

When Stavros and Vartan return to the village, the Greeks are hurrying to their homes and the Armenians are being moved to the church.  Refusing to show fear, Stavros goes to the bar, therefore, he is not rounded up and sent to the church.  Detained by his Greek mother who forces him to return home, Stavros crawls out a window to rejoin Vartan.  They make the decision to leave the bar to head to America, but as they leave, they hear the Armenian people in the church and watch as the Turkish soldiers set the church on fire.  Vartan attacks a soldier and some young people who were also missed in the roundup, tear open one of the doors and many of the Armenians escape.  Vartan has been killed.  This portrayal of the persecution of the Armenian people by the Turkish government on film was unprecedented and could be the first example of the human rights movies of the seventies.  The film was shot on location in Turkey until officials decided that the film could reflect badly on Turkey.  When Kazan moved the production to Greece, cans of film were confiscated.  Fortunately, the labels on the cans had been switched so those portions of the film were saved.

Stavros runs to his grandmother who still lives in the caves in the Anatolian Mountains to ask for money to go to America.  She curses him for being a sheep like his father and sends him on a way, but she does give him a knife.  As he leaves her cave, he commits an act of generosity that will later have great ramifications  He sees a man who has been walking long enough to have worn out his shoes. Stavros gives him his shoes and walks home shoeless.

Stathis Glallelis was cast for the part of Stavros.  Kazan went to Greece to run auditions.  Glallelis auditioned but as he was a newcomer he was turned down.  Kazan returned to the United States.  When Glallelis spent all his money to follow Kazan to the U.S., Kazan decided he embodied the spirit of Stavros.  He later regretted this choice.  Glallelis did not have the emotional range necessary to play Stavros.  He was unable to create the empathy necessary to pull the audience into his struggle making some of his actions seem more self-serving than determined.

The protagonist Stevros’s long journey to  America, begins when his father decides to entrust him with all their belongings and send him to his uncle in Constantinople in Instanbul.  His father appears to be trying to shock him into responsibility.

His mother cries for the goods she knows he will lose, not returning his hug before he leaves, foreshadowing his poor decisions that will result in the loss of all their goods before the week is out.

Once away from home he is quickly befriended, conned,  and then manipulated out of all his possessions by a gregarious Turk, whom he finally ends up killing in self-defense. The rest of the movie focuses on Stavros making his big plans come true, so his father will be proud of him.  He works at hard labor for 9 months to earn 7 of the 110 pounds he needs to take the boat to America by carrying extremely heavy items on his back, only to have it stolen by his first prostitute arranged by his longshoremen friend–thus continuing his poor choice of friends.

To make it up to Stavros, the longshoreman takes him to an anarchist meeting which is disrupted with gunfire and everyone, except Stravos is killed.  Taken for dead, Stavros is carted out of town. Fortunately, he falls out of the cart before being thrown over the cliff with the corpses.

Realizing he can’t work hard enough to make his passage, he turns to his uncle to arrange for a marriage to a “plain” girl with a wealthy father planning to leave her with her dowry as soon as they are married.

Finally, shamed by his developing feelings for her, he leaves before the wedding   He has found a wealthy benefactor who will take him to America, if he spends time with her on the voyage when her husband sleeps.

When they reach America, the deception is discovered, and he is to be sent back.  The young man who wore his shoes was also on the ship as an indentured shoe shine boy.  Although guaranteed a job in America, the young man has become very ill, perhaps with tuberculosis. When he sees Stavros’s despair at being so close to America just to be sent back,  the young man sets his shoes on the deck and jumps off the side of the ship.  Stravos is able to use his identity to make it to New York City.

The movie closes with his father opening an envelope containing $50.00 given to him by his mistress, then cutting away to a final picture of the victorious Stavros as a elated shoe shine boy.

The story was moving and solid, but Glallegis was not able to portray the conflicting emotions of the main character.  Through close up after close up, he looks exactly the same.  The portions of the script where he is allowed to smile happily, he is transformed.  Angst, torment, pensiveness, regret were beyond him.

The film won critical acclaim winning an Academy Award for Best Picture, but it must have been for intent, not delivery. The movie itself was heavily criticized on all fronts, except for its intent.  Filming this story was difficult for the director for many reasons.  He had obtained permission to film in Turkey, but when the government realized that it documented the massacre, they made the film crew and actors leave the country.  Kazan hid the shot film in new film canisters when the crossed the border, which was fortuitous because the film in the labeled cans were confiscated.

 

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Citizen Kane by Orsen Welles

Twenty-five year old Orsen Wells co-wrote, produced, directed and performed in what has been called the greatest movie ever, Citizen Kane.  From the opening moments when a broken gate, perching monkeys and an abandoned golf course frame a desolate mausoleum on the hill, to the dying man’s whispered words “rosebud” there is a feeling of slow decay, which is immediately contrasted with the staccato cadence of the newsreel which draws the audience through the life of Charles Foster Kane. The newsreel calls Kane the Kubla Kahn of Florida living in Xanadu the modern version of Kubla Kahn’s palace.

The show was controversial as was most of Orsen Welles budding career.  In 1936,at the age of 20, Welles and his friend and co-writer John Houseman set Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Haiti featuring all African American actors.  In 1937 clashing with their current performing group, they formed the Mercury Theater, named for the American Mercury, a magazine featuring many of the important writers of the time.  They were immediately successful in Broadway and then radio, performing the famous “War of the Worlds” in 1938.  Citizen Kane was his first movie, but it was almost banned before it was shown.

The story centers around Charles Foster Kane, a wealthy eccentric newspaper mogul who abandons his principals and is left friendless.  William Randolf Hurst a newspaper magnate took over the San Francisco Examiner from his father.  He is credited with beginning yellow journalism which is using sensational news which may or may not be true to sell newspapers.  He eventually owned over 30 newspapers and later added magazines.  He engaged lawyers to try and stop the film and refused to let any of his newspapers comment on it.  There are striking similarities between Hurst and Kane.  Hurst used his influence to draw the United States into a war with Spain in 1898, as it was intimated did Kane.  Kane ran for Governor and lost.  Hurst ran for mayor and governor of New York.

After the newsreel at the beginning of the story, the audience knows the details about Kane’s life, but before the reel is released the editor wants more.  He wants to know the real Kane.  He sends a reporter out to find out the meaning of the last words, “Rosebud.”  Through interviews and flashbacks, the viewer is taken back through Kane’s life beginning with a snowy day when his mother who was given a gold mine that was considered abandoned but was a producer, sends him, a eightish-year old boy to live in the city to be raised by the bank.  There is a hint at the father’s brutishness, but no explanation or warning was given to Kane. The movie skips to Kane as a young man ready to enter the business world.  He has millions of dollars and many companies due to the apparent brilliance and honesty of his legal guardian, but refuses to man them.  Instead he takes over a small failing business and takes aim at the large corrupt corporations and government entities around him by building it into a powerful entity.  He signs a pact of social conscience which his friend tucks away for a time when Kane may need a reminder.

In his determination to beat the circulation of the Chronicle, he hires the entire state of the Chronicle and then leaves town abandoning the paper, signaling the end of his idealism. When he returns from Europe, the newspaper staff was greats them with an enthusiasm he would have heartily embraced before he left two years before.  They had purchased a very large sterling silver cup with sentimental inscriptions.  However, he brushed through the office, handed a wedding announcement to one of the staff, grabbed the cup and went back to his wife waiting in a chauffeured carriage.  Becoming heady with his own power he runs for governor.  When he is exposed for spending time with a young woman, he loses the election and his first wife and son.  By the end of the movie he has burned through two wives and is alone in Xanadu the marble mausoleum he created for his second wife. From an open sharing personality to the overbearing puppet master that forced his second wife to perform a series of operas opening her to criticism and derision, the movie is a descent from socialistic ideas to capitalistic despotism.

In the original review in the New York Times it is stated that only Charlie Chaplin equals Welles when he wrote, directed and produced “The Great Dictator.”

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Spirited Away

Spirited Away is a breathtaking animated film by Hayao Miyazaki.  Although it was produced by Walt Disney Productions, it has the beauty of a Japanese anime.  The movie is an allegory demonstrating how the need to accumulate possessions and greed can transform a kind, well-meaning person into a monster or pig.  In the movie, the main character, a young daughter named Chihiro helps the characters remove their excess, so they can return to their former selves.

Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is a beautiful story of a family that stumbles upon an abandoned theme park that houses a bathhouse where spirits go to regenerate.  Chihiro and her parents are traveling to a new home.  Chihiro is filled with apprehension and anger over the move.  When her father takes an uncharted shortcut, they find themselves in front of a tunnel that leads into the empty park.

Lured in by a delicious smell, her parents enter a food booth and unable to resist, they begin to eat.  Chihiro is fearful of the booth and worried about its absent owner.  She wanders to a bridge and stops in front of a very large bath house.  A young man, Haku, stops her before she crosses the bridge and tells her to run away, but when she returns to the booth to warn her parents, they have been turned into pigs.

She runs away, but finds water now fills the area she and her parents had crossed.  She watches as a ferry brings spirits to shore.  As they touch the ground their bodies materialize.

Haku returns and directs her to the boiler room.  He tells her that she must get a job before morning or she cannot stay to rescue her parents.  By confronting the witch that rules the island and runs the bath house, Chihiro secures a job, but must give up her name and become Sen.

She is befriended by a house maid also.  At the heart of the tale seems to be the idea that greed creates a corruption of the spirit.  This is illustrated first by the parents who become pigs when they can not control their greed and eat the food without permission.  Because it is food prepared for the spirits, her parents are punished by being turned into pigs.  The second manifestation of greed is the slime monster.

Chihiro is forced to help the smelly filthy monster because she is the lowest servant.  When she is bathing him, she discovers a “thorn.”  When the thorn is extracted with the help of everyone in the bath house, it turns out to be piles of items, including a bicycle, that had been eaten by the spirit.  When the junk was extracted, the slime monster turned into a powerful, but gentle river spirit.

The third example of how greed can transform good to evil was No-face, the gentle spirit befriended by Chihiro.  When No-face discovers that money makes him important, he eats the greedy frog, and begins to embody his attitude.  He demands attention by giving out gold for services.  He becomes a monster and starts to eat people.  When he asks for Chihiro she leads him out of the bath house.  As he leaves, he spits out everyone he swallows and returns to the kind spirit he was originally.

Even the baby changes when he helps weave the thread for Chihiro while he was a rodent.  When he returned to his original shape, he is kind and thoughtful opposed to the selfish tyrant he was before the adventure. Chihiro’s metamorphis began when she gave up her fear, first to help her parents and then to help Haku.

Haku, a river spirit that manifests as a dragon and a boy, is saved when she reminds him of his real name.  This seems to imply that all the characters that embodied the idea of greed or excess forgot themselves, but when they turned away from excess and purged themselves, they found their true spirits again.

The main character Chihiro draws us into her story and each of the diverse monsters and spirits are so well portrayed, we feel for them during their transformations.  When sweet No Face turns into an evil monster, we miss his kind spirit and are glad to see it return.

This movie works on so many levels.  The imagery is mystical and yet very simple.  Each spirit and character is well-rounded.  The story is interesting on its own, but the allegorical element makes it very moving.

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2001: Space Odyssey Revisited

I first watched 2001: Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick in the theaters when I was twelve.  I don’t think anyone could really visualize what landing on the moon would look like, although Kennedy promised we would have a moon landing before 1970.  We called it the “race to the moon.”  We were determined to beat the Russians.  The nations focus was on the construction of a space program that could produce a rocket capable of getting us to the moon first.

Most of us were infatuated with the idea of other civilizations.  We read Robert Heinlein and fantasized about outposts in space.  After reading Ray Bradbury, we would imagine what it would be like to colonize new worlds.  To us kids, it seemed like the transition into a time with space travel would be like a portal in which everything we knew would suddenly become futuristic.

For the adults, the scientific discoveries that would lead to space travel generated feelings of apprehension as shown in The Brave New World and 1984.  Advancements in artificial intelligence were met with guarded optimism as in the Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov published in 1953.

Space Odyssey was the first movie to put a realistic face on not only space travel, but an adaptive computer system that mimicked the mind.  Of course, George Jetson had been talking to his computer since 1962 in the popular futuristic cartoon, The Jetsons.  While the computer in Space Odyssey may have been a man and he was concerned with the welfare of the crew as is in the Jetsons, Kubrick must have watched the episode where the computers revolt after the mainframe computer takes offense at comments from the humans.

Scorsese noted the audacity and vision that Kubrick demonstrated when he segues from the time of early man to space travel when he throws the bone club into the air.  He also observes that Kubrick’s linking of the computer and camera was the dawn of modern film making.

This film is a first in so many area.  The first major film to have a computer that becomes a sentient life form.  The first to create a metaphoric presence as the alien life force. The first to show realistic space travel through the merging of front screen technology.

Kubrick was so successful that many feel he also faked the first moon landing.  The similarities between the 2001: Space Odyssey and the still and video shots of the actual moon landing as thought provoking at their least.  Of course, many in the government of the time felt that H.G. Wells was privy to top secret reports because of the similarities between the weapons in War of the Worlds and the atomic bomb.  For Kubrick being accused of recreating a moon landing because his show was so realistic is high praise.