I first wrote about Elia Kazan’s America, America in 1971, at the time of our Kazan retrospective; in 1977 I did a program note on the picture for our Films from the Archives series; and I also had the opportunity to interview Kazan twice during that decade for publication. Then, in 2004, we had a memorial screening for the director, which I introduced, at our temporary MoMA Film location at the Gramercy Theater. My opinion of the film as his most personal, and possibly best, work hasn’t changed much in all that time, and my comments here draw on these previous assessments.
The book America, America was the first of a series of popular and generally acclaimed novels that Kazan wrote later in his life, as filmmaking and fundraising became more demanding. It is based on the actual experiences of his uncle and his adventuresome trip to America, which eventually brought Elia and the rest of his family from Anatolia to the Statue of Liberty. I think one point of reference for the film is John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, photographed by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Long Voyage Home). Kazan had, of course, filmed his friend John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, with James Dean. Ford was Kazan’s hero and colleague at Twentieth Century-Fox in the 1940s, and I find many parallels between America, America, photographed by Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool, Bound for Glory), and Ford’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel. The films share starkly spectacular black-and-white photography, a picaresque structure, an emphasis on family as the fundamental human value, and a quasi-religious belief in the enduring myth of America. Ultimately, in the character of Stavros, Kazan also acknowledges his roots in the exotic primitiveness of classical Greek culture, the eternal mystery of which we can never fully understand.
Like his other “god,” Jean Renoir, Kazan is a masterful portrayer of human frailty. Stavros, ambivalent and sometimes amoral, is “washed clean” only by his arrival in America. The real-life Kazan is his nephew, but the director has a gentler side reflected in the character of Stavros’s friend Hohanness. The ultimate achievement of America, America does not lie in its extraordinary narrative or its eloquent imagery, but in the emotional resonance of Stavros’s human experience. Kazan tells us: “He saved himself.”It is the story of tens of millions of our own relatives who saved themselves, and us. My paternal grandfather deserted the Czar’s army to reach Ellis Island in 1904. He never learned to read or write English, but his descendants all benefited from his journey into the unknown. Our ongoing headlines about “undocumented aliens” tell us that the story of America, America has not ended. Still, as is repeated at the end of the film, “people waiting.”
Regarding Kazan, permit me to quote from my introduction to our first interview, in 1972, which was ended unceremoniously by him (“Come on, go. You’ve got enough for a fucking interview.”):
He is perhaps the archetypal New York intellectual of his generation. He has succeeded in a fistful of art forms. He has dabbled in politics, and he has gotten its angry fist smashed in his mouth. He has never made and never will make a deathless masterpiece of the stature of The Rules of the Game, which he so admires. Kazan’s films have too much of the frenzied smell of crotch and armpit about them to attain the sublimity of vintage Renoir. Yet, the two men are not so far apart as it might seem. Renoir may put it lovingly, while Kazan ejaculates, but both men know that in the end, we are little more than tender lumps of protoplasm, vulnerable—almost pitiable—but able, in off-moments of drunken gaiety or melancholic sobriety, to experience that most godlike of human feelings, able to be touched by another shivery soul.