Tuesday, September 01, 2009
The Greatest American
Movie Ever Made
"I could'a been somebody." One of the two or
three most famous scenes in American cinema.
FOLLOWING UP. Let me count the ways this is the best movie ever produced in Hollywood. Beginning with my own infallible personal test. I have loved, lavishly, a great many movies in my lifetime. I know a movie is good when I encounter it while flipping channels and fall into it, unable to break away to something else. But I'm a guy and eventually I reach a point where I've seen a movie enough and need either a long break or, well, don't ever need to see it again. There's only one movie that has never failed the "flipping channels" test over the long haul. This is it.
It's better than all the popular rivals that come out on top in surveys and polls. Repeated viewings take down all the greats. Citizen Kane ultimately becomes dry and gimmicky. Casablanca is, in the end, mannered, stagey. The Godfather is an emptiness that grows. (GWTW was never a good picture, only an imitation of one, the way the book was an imitation of literature.) Vertigo more Greek tragedy than Americana. Every picture finally fails the test; you can move on to something else. It's always too much this or that, arty, contrived, stylistic, heavy-handed, directorish, dated, slow, self-conscious, sentimental, pompous, actorish, suspiciously slick.
Except this one. They don't show it much anymore on television, and I'm always skeptical when they do because they're fond of trimming the violence of the final scene in particular, but it doesn't make any difference. I still have to watch it. Every time.
There has never been more talent amassed for an American picture (and all the other countries don't count, let's face it). Brando. Eva Marie Saint. Rod Steiger. Lee J. Cobb. Karl Malden (restrained from his penchant for overacting for once by director Elia Kazan), and a soul-scouring score by Leonard Bernstein. For perhaps the only time in his career, Brando is making the same picture everyone else is. (Kazan again.) And it really is his best ever performance, dumb, stubborn, vulnerable, endearing, and broken. but dumb-persistent and fine.
Kazan's direction. Masterful to the point of genius. In every scene he seems to be simply observing, almost eavesdropping close up, but the editing leaves you a little short every time, so there is no voyeurism, only that sense of glimpsing reality without being able to stay quite long enough anywhere to understand the lives you're visiting. You are always outside looking in, which is Terry Malloy's life, too, and the lives of so many of us, the spectator-accomplice in the world's nastiness that has repeatedly made him, and will again, its victim.
We encounter faith the same way he does, in isolated speeches and gestures, the unexpected heroism of a priest, the unexpected tenderness of a woman who is willing to trust what should not be trusted. All without a hint of the habitual Hollywood underlining that was bad before Kazan and has grown mysteriously worse in the age of Spielberg and Cameron. He has to make his own way, just like us, recognize a moral fork in the road without the divine cues Hollywood likes to provide, just like us, and he has to do it with a knowledge his naive moral tutors don't possess, the dirty viciousness of those he's being sermonized to oppose. His is the plight of the ordinary man forced to choose between the easy sophistry of do-gooders and the malignancy of the powerful villains he meets face to face every day. The decision he makes is far braver than the one the superior moralists in his life think they are asking for. He is a man entirely alone with an impossible dilemma, and whichever way he chooses, part of his own conscience will accuse him.
"I' ain't a bum, Edie."
(btw, is that the Andrea Doria leaving the harbor?)
All of this is the movie itself. It gets weightier when you look into the history of Elia Kazan. He made this movie for a reason. He had been a communist, a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party. He knew that the ACP was not a Hollywood affectation but an extension of the Soviet infiltration of America. He testified before Congress, and he did name names. This movie was his response to those who condemned him. There are times when it's morally right to inform on your intimates. He was right to testify. But he will never be forgiven. Like a cop who turns in his guilty partner. He crossed that thin bluered line, and he is therefore damned.
That's the only reason this movie does not sit securely at the top of all Hollywood lists of the greatest movies ever made. Elia Kazan was hated, is hated, and will continue to be hated as long as there are wifty lefties in the Hollywood community.
But a great movie is a great movie because it proves itself against the test of time. In my mind, it's the one movie I'd want every American to watch right now. Nothing else conveys the simultaneous obligations and dread of the duties of citizenship we are all facing at the moment like this movie. There is a power in charge and it controls almost every aspect of our lives. If we protest in any public way, we risk being pilloried, humiliated, branded with the worst possible labels. Almost all the by-products of standing up for a mere idea, the liberty that is our birthright, are considered bad by the powers that be. The smartest and most domineering of the elite which has usurped our place as guardians of American virtue stand ready to annihilate us for remembering the simplest possible postulate, that we are not subjects of the government but its boss.
The motivating idea is invincible. In practice, the standing up against the traitors and usurpers is damned difficult. There's every chance that you could get beaten half to death (i.e., lose everything worthwhile in your life) espousing simple truths. Look at the Town Hall folks who have been demonized by media stars making millions. Don't cross Johnny Friendly.
"I'm glad what I done to you."
Well. Do your own research. You tell me what movie is greater. Now. This is how hard it's going to get... soon.