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NYFF 2010. Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones's "A Letter to Elia"

A Letter to Elia, a personal appreciation of Kazan that Martin Scorsese's co-written and directed with Kent Jones, has screened in Venice, Telluride and New York and will be broadcast tonight on PBS. On November 9, Fox will release The Elia Kazan Collection: 15 films, five of which — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Viva Zapata! (1952), Man on a Tightrope (1953), Wild River (1960) and America, America (1963) — have never before been available on DVD, plus Letter on 18 discs.

In today's Los Angeles Times, Susan King calls up Scorsese in London, where he's working on a 3D adaptation of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And here's her how-do-you-do: "Letter to Elia is actually much more about you than Kazan." Scorsese: "In a way, it evolved into the film that you saw. Originally, we were going to make a film about Elia Kazan — his work, his importance as an artist and all that came with it, emphasizing the creative aspects of his life. As we started to make the picture and put it together, we thought, 'Should we discuss all the films, should we go through the entire career? What about the theater?' I was too young to see the theater; I didn't even know about it. And so ultimately, when we started to put it all together, we looked at it and I said, 'What am I saying here that hasn't already been said or couldn't be explained and analyzed by others, particularly film critics, writers who are great admirers of his? What am I adding that's different?' Ultimately, it came down to the two films and the power of art to change people."

At Hammer to Nail, Nelson Kim quotes Scorsese from the doc on those two films: "On seeing On the Waterfront [1954]: 'It was if the world I'd come from mattered. The people I knew mattered.' On East of Eden [1955]: 'I thought that I was alone — that it was just between me and the movie... [I had the feeling] that the people making the movie knew me maybe better than I knew myself.'"

"The doc's key philosophical tenet — a provocative one, particularly for those of us driven to say everything to our loved ones — is that you can't tell an idol what he means to you." Rob Nelson in the Voice: "But you can show it — and Scorsese did, particularly in that other letter to Elia, Raging Bull. 'The mood of the film is very melancholy,' says Jones on the phone... 'It deals with the distance between admiring someone because you love their work and your actual human contact with them. Marty was friends with [Kazan] and also admired his films, and these were two completely different things.'"

"Like Scorsese's My Voyage to Italy (1999), this brief lesson from everyone's favorite moonlighting film professor briskly guides viewers through Kazan's career, stuffing subjective confessions of fandom into its heart-shaped box for good measure," writes Time Out New York's David Fear.

"The genius who made A Streetcar Named Desire [1951], On the Waterfront, East of Eden and Splendor in the Grass [1961] was something of a brute in personal and professional relationships and bore the brand of a Judas after naming names during a Congressional inquiry into Communism in the film business," the Oregonian's Shawn Levy reminds us. "When he was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, the prize was met with protest, including famous faces sitting on their hands in the very auditorium in which the show was held.... Scorsese, who actually presented Kazan with his Oscar that tempestuous night, doesn't shirk discussion of Kazan's decision to be a cooperative witness in a witch hunt, but he is chiefly concerned with the Kazan's art, which, undeniably, will endure longer than his life."


At the NYFF, Letter screened last week with America, America, "which was loosely based on the story of [Kazan's] uncle's late-19th-century emigration from a village in Anatolia, where Greeks and Armenians were being viciously persecuted by the Turks, to America." Chris Cabin in Slant: "The film's alternate title, The Anatolian Smile, points to a face that Kazan often made in photographs — a mark, Kazan said, that masked the rage of all Mediterranean minorities that had lived under the Turks' oppressive rule. All of Kazan's films, as Scorsese expounds, were cut stylistically from a personal enclave but the story told in America, America could be traced through the molecules in his blood."

Do read David Ehrenstein's comment on that piece, by the way.

Meantime, Letter prompts DK Holm to look back at his own admiration for Kazan in the Vancouver Voice: "Amid the hagiography and close analysis, there was a red flag, however, Robin Wood's essay, 'The Kazan Problem,' which asked, tendentiously, why Kazan only made two good movies (The Wild River and America, America). The late critic's objection to Kazan was his bombastic side, his visual soap box oratory. While acknowledging Kazan's sensitive work with actors and his sense of decor, Wood finds that Kazan can't often distinguish good script from bad and his films are often derailed by extreme and vulgar final fourth's, as in East of Eden and Splendor in the Grass. 'One even considers sending him to Stanley Kramer for lessons in tact and reticence,' Wood wrote. For my sins, as a kid, I liked some of Kramer's films, but that's because Kramer's films are easy to understand and don't confuse the viewer with complex mise en scène or interesting narrative effects. If Kramer is lower on the scale of directors who traffic occasionally in social cause movies, then Kazan is in the middle, and Nicholas Ray is at the top."

Official site. Earlier: Reviews from Venice and Telluride. Image: Kazan on the set of Panic in the Streets (1950), courtesy of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

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