Martin Scorsese’s loving documentary about director Elia Kazan is more than a simple biography. An intimate companion to the 1995 four-hour epic A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, this 60-minute portrait, co-directed with Kent Jones, tells us as much about Scorsese himself.
Packed with clips from Kazan’s movies and archive interview footage, it explores Scorsese’s relationship with Kazan’s films both as a teenager and as an older man. Effectively a monologue from Scorsese interspersed with occasional voiceover quotes read by Elias Koteas, this is a childhood reminiscence, a brief summary of Kazan’s career and a poignant contemplation of what cinema can mean to us.
Kazan was an immigrant from Anatolian Greece, an experience depicted semi-autobiographically in Kazan’s America, America; Scorsese was from an Italian immigrant heritage, albeit born in NYC, so there was some identification. But more immediately, Scorsese saw his own environment in Kazan’s films. Kazan’s approach to dialogue, realism, location and particularly the expressive truthfulness of ‘The Method’ would be incredibly influential, but in the fifties nobody had seen that before in the movies. Scorsese recognised films like On the Waterfront as his New York neighbourhood. These movies offered both realism and an escape.
Famously, Scorsese wanted to become a priest before changing tack to make movies. Here he reminisces how, as a solitary child in a rough neighbourhood, he found sanctuary in both the church and in cinema. He explains the profound impact Kazan’s East of Eden, a film he would see repeatedly, following it from cinema to cinema, always going alone.
A Letter to Elia is also concerned with how our relationship with film changes with time; the movie stays the same but we change. The young Scorsese found personal significance in the emotional immediacy of East of Eden; as a film director his view is now more sophisticated. He has learned to appreciate how the film was assembled, the lighting, camera positions, movement and sound design; a series of choices to express conflicts and emotions.
The documentary illustrates this using a pivotal scene from East of Eden, where Cal reveals a cruel truth to his brother Aron. We’re shown the same sequence twice. The first time is when Scorsese discusses its complex emotional impact on him as a youth. Later, we’re shown the same scene again and Scorsese silently invites to notice Kazan’s directorial choices, the techniques that support the emotion. Its an effective moment, giving us enough space to almost see the scene through Scorsese’s eyes, both now and then.
It’s a pleasure to view clips from Kazan’s filmography. Although it features the ‘hits’ (On the Waterfront, East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire), we also spend ample time with lesser known films including his debut A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Boomerang (1947), Panic in the Streets (1950), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Wild River (1960) and America, America (1963). They made me want to see them all.
The documentary also serves as respectful attempt to rehabilitate Kazan’s tarnished reputation. No documentary about him could skirt around Kazan’s ‘friendly testimony’ to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. The evidence he gave led to eight actors and directors being blacklisted, destroying careers; many never forgave him for what was seen as an act of betrayal. Kazan himself had been a member of the Communist Party in the thirties, but by then had long left it. Scorsese acknowledges this but doesn’t seek to judge or excuse Kazan. He just offers a warm and very personal appreciation of what Kazan’s films meant to him.
Scorsese eventually got to know Kazan the man, they became friends and Scorsese recollects their meetings and conversations with affection. And much later, when Kazan was given a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars in 1999, it was Scorsese who was with him on stage, lending fond support to a man that many still held in suspicion.
Kazan would die four years later, and Scorsese’s Letter to Elia is a sophisticated appreciation, expressing the personal importance of both the man and his films. It’s a fascinating film essay that belies its apparent simplicity, a thoughtful rumination on our relationship with the movies. By the end, I was moved by Scorsese’s love for these films and the man himself and left wanting to see more.