IF I HADN'T SEEN SUCH RICHES, I COULD LIVE WITH BEING POOR
It's with a strange irony that I move from my breathless rant of the last post to a mention of the film I watched this evening, Elia Kazan's 1963 epic America, America. Its place on my to-watch pile was a fortuitous coincidence, due back to the video store tomorrow. It seems to be a forgotten film, less heralded than much of Kazan's filmography, despite its personal meaning for the filmmaker. He wrote and directed it, as well as narrating, telling his audience in the opening that he is about to relate a story that happened in his own family.
It's sad that in this time of feverish, blind patriotism, our feeling of fervor for our country is expressed by Jessica Simpson in a stars-and-stripes bikini.
As appealing as Simpson's body might be, it only reminds us of why the United States was established in the most comical of reasons: "Here, boys, this is what you're fighting for." Or the sort of image we've presented to the world as some kind of rinky-dink reward for the American Dream. Perhaps this is what Kazan's hero, Stavros (Stathis Giallelis), would be searching for, along with apple pie and baseball.
Except Kazan's uncle wasn't that shallow, not as Kazan saw it. Yes, there was an attraction to the awesome skyline of New York City and the fancy clothes the men wore in the magazines that made it over the ocean, but they weren't really the thing Stavros was after. As a Greek citizen living under the thumb of Turkish rulers in the late 1800s, Stavros saw America as freedom, as a place to escape the persecution and poverty that dogged his family. If he could only get to Long Island, he could work and bring the rest of his clan over--and that's exactly what he did.
It's fitting that, except for a couple of final scenes in New York, the action takes place entirely in Greece and Turkey. It's all about the journey. By 1963, we all knew that the American Dream was not exactly as we dreamt it. In reality, Stavros was taken advantage of from the start, and he most likely encountered more poverty and prejudice--but this comedown didn't negate the struggles he went through to realize the image of America he saw in his head. It took him a lot to get here--at one point, he ticks off the ordeals he has endured, including being beaten, robbed, shot, and left for dead--and in that was the essence of the American Dream so many "native" Americans had (and have) lost sight of: it's the road you travel that matters, it's how you get up that hill. It doesn't matter where you come from, because everyone has a shot to get there.
There are many people living here today that would be good to be reminded of that so they might look back down the road and see where it was they've come from. All of our families immigrated at some point. (One can't help but chuckle and remember the irony of the Native Americans in Scorsese's Gangs of New York cursing all the foreigners mucking up the land they were born to.)
As an aside, there is an interesting speech that Stavros' father (Harry Davis) gives his son before he leaves home. In it, he notes the humiliations Stavros has seen him suffer in order to survive. He says he can endure them because he holds his honor inside, and no one can take that away. This image is later recalled when Stavros swallows his last six coins on the road to Constantinople rather than let an opportunistic travelling companion steal them like everything else. Then the words themselves return when an American millionaire tries to prevent Stavros from ever stepping off the boat onto U.S. soil. He questions the things Stavros has done to get there, and Stavros insists that the man who began the journey is still inside of him. It seems to me this could be a defensive note on Kazan's part. Having been marked with the stigma of ratting out some of his fellow filmmakers to Joe McCarthy and his goons on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, Kazan could be writing Stavros' defense of himself to be his own, the artist insisting that despite what he did, he still knew who he was.
Current Soundtrack: Audio discussion between critic Richard Corliss and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson on Heaven Can Wait DVD
Current Mood: contemplative
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2005 Jamie S. Rich