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Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Monday, June 12, 2006

It's Chinatown.

I bought a new DVD of "On the Waterfront" largely because it was one of the few DVD's in the store that offered Chinese subtitles. "Waterfront, Terminal Situation" is the film's title in China. I bought it along with another Chinese-subtitled movie: "Arab Lawrence." starring "Peter Australian Tour" as T.E. Lawrence(!) Anyway one of the bonus features on the DVD was an interview with Elia Kazan. A number of Interesting contradictions surround the making of the film. Not the least of these is the mystique surrounding Sam Spiegel, the producer. Spiegel, it appears, was the man everyone loved to hate. It should be acknowledged that it was Spiegel who pitched the film to the studios and got it made, after Daryl Zanuck dropped it saying America was not interested in longshoremen. It was Spiegel who got Brando, after first having signed the kid from Hoboken - Frank Sinatra - for the part. The way Kazan remembers Spiegel is ambivalent to say the least. He says:

In came this terrible terrible guy that I'm very fond of now named Sam Spiegel. And he was down on his uppers. He was broke- he had trouble He needed something that paid him produce and so forth, but, he also needed something to do.

He may be very fond of him now, but old men often mellow in their feelings toward each other. Kazan went on to redeem himself in the eyes of Hollywood, and Spiegel went on to produce "Bridge on the River Kwai", "Arab Lawrence" (haha), and a sizable chunk of "Ben Hur." That kind of resume tends to make hatefulness mellow into orneriness, and sonofabitchiness soften into eccentricity... at least in memory, and in those days apparently Spiegel could be very ornery. In the interview, Kazan claims the screenwriter Bud Schulberg wanted to go to New York and kill Spiegel., while Kazan fought with the producer about everything, throughout the shooting. The famed minimalism of the taxicab scene ("I coulda been a contender") he said was not a stroke of directorial insight, but a last-resort technique made necessary by Spiegel's total failure to provide a proper set. All they had was the back seat and an interior shell of a taxi. Spiegel apparently "forgot" even to provide the rear-projection apparatus. So they put venetian blinds in the rear window and rigged some flashing lights to simulate passing traffic, and just let the two actors - act! It was all they could do. That or cancel the shoot. By this point in the shooting schedule Brando and Steiger both knew their characters, and they could perform the scene with conviction. Kazan uncharacteristically waived aside all credit for the brilliance of the scene, saying there was nothing to direct: he just let the two men sit there and exercise their craft. He says it was simply Bud Schulberg's script that shone through unfettered, and burned the moment into film history. The director he claims he had nothing to do.
That isn't strictly true however. Someone had to keep a rein on the talent. In his autobiography Brando claimed the taxi scene was improvised, but this turns out to be false. Brando did start improvising, and Rod Steiger followed suit, but Kazan warned them sternly "Stop the shit!" and they stuck to the script after that.
Kazan says the film is about redemption: about a mixed up kid from Hoboken with a troubled conscience, who meets an innocent Roman Catholic girl (Eva Marie Saint) and is redeemed by the relationship. In the interview, Kazan says "What could be more basic than that?"

When he [Brando] plays those scenes with her [Eva Marie Saint] I'm broken up, I break up. Ah...ah...that one person should need so much from another person in the way of tenderness and all that. We all do, don't we, we all marry- hopefully marry or hopefully hook up with some lady that's gonna make us feel- we're ok and we're better and all that. We search for it and we want it and crave it and all that and sometimes it happens and sometimes it happens for a while and something in that basic story is what stirs people; not the social political thing so much as the human element in it.

Is that not a succint definition of what the Course calls a special relationship? But whatever Kazan felt about the redeeming virtue of relationships, we glimpse another side of him in the foreword to the film which claims that the “film will exemplify the way self-appointed tyrants can defeated by right-thinking people in a vital democracy" That larger purpose of course is mostly grandstanding and political posturing. It is well known that Kazan a couple of years before had given evidence to senator Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC. He was quite widely perceived as a "canary" among the Hollywood community, whose "singing" had cost many of them their careers. His allegorization of the HUAC in the form of the "hearings" in "On the waterfront" and his "redemption" of protagonist Terry Malloy (Brando) who gives evidence before the hearings is probably supposed to demonstrate that speaking the truth is not necessarily selling out, and it can lead to the downfall of tyrants.

That does raise as many problems as it solves though. First it does nothing to address the more fundamental question of what is wrong with a society where tyrants can rise to power in the first place. This is an aspect of the illusion which plays a large role in world affairs. As I write this, the current "evil" tyrant is Iran. Probably tomorrow it will be someone else. Second, the gang against whom Malloy testifies are a group of local buffoons -- the gang that couldn't shoot straight. They fall all over each other, speak in cliches, and generally behave as if they wandered onto the set accidentally from a neighboring cartoon comedy production. One critic wrote that their "headquarters," a ridiculous wooden shack on the waterfront, looks like a "clubhouse for the Hardy boys." Bringing down that particular dynasty did not seem that difficult. One call from their mothers to come home and wash-up for dinner would have achieved the same result.

Anyway don't let me leave you with the impression I experience it as anything less than a great movie. I think like most such memorable works it survives and transcends, despite the circumstances, not because of them. The muddled confluence of ego somehow achieves form and solidifies. What results has a life of its own. One can dig up enough dirt to tarnish anything that shines... but still it shines on. We cannot change it. "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."