There’s something about the way we watch movies, all that dreaming in the dark, that gives them a pipeline to the subconscious. You never know when something – a mood, a moment, a gesture, a line – will jump that screen/brain membrane to tattoo itself onto the insides of your eyelids.
It could be a great movie, an okay one, a really bad one. It could even be a movie you’ve never seen.
That’s how it is for me and America America. When I first read that Elia Kazan had made a movie about a Greek and an Armenian who emigrate to this country from Turkey around the turn of the last century, a ghost of that story moved into some empty attic in my brain. In the years since, I’ve seen stills from America America, read what I could find about it, and hung a beautiful Polish poster of it in my living room. I still haven’t seen it, but I think about it far more than I think about hundreds of movies I have seen.
My Armenian great-grandfather, the family patriarch, sent my father’s family to this land of opportunity when Dad was 13. The old man wanted my father, who he doted on, to make something of himself, and he probably would have been pleased at the result: Dad got a good education, became a professor, and made a comfortable living doing work that he loved. But those gains came at a price, a severing of the past that must still ache for Dad sometimes like a phantom limb.
One summer, we were walking on the beach when he stopped in his tracks. “It’s strange to have to talk to my children in English,” he said. Suddenly I saw my childhood from his point of view. How odd it must have felt to watch his thoroughly American kids experience things he never had, to realize how foreign the tastes and sounds and experiences of his own childhood were to us.
My father never liked to talk about his past, and so, more than his boyhood culture or his family’s history, his legacy to me was the aching in his phantom limb, that immigrant’s sense of isolation.
I tried forging my own connections to what Dad called “the old country” in college, studying Armenian language and history, but academic lectures left me cold. I got more from art: Arshile Gorky’s paintings of his mother, Michael Arlen’s Passage to Ararat, Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, and the America America of my imagination.
Kazan was the kind of artist who I trusted to help me understand the world that both his and my father had come from. A co-founder of the Group Theater, which in turn launched the Method Acting revolution, Kazan was a great director of actors. The best of his work brims with energy, humor, and the resonant moments that can flow from even a hackneyed script when it’s acted with naked emotional honesty. And when he worked with writers like Budd Schulberg and Tennessee Williams, Kazan got close to greatness.
He also had a talent for capturing the feel of a particular place and time. On the Waterfront tackled corruption on the docks of New York City. Panic in the Street was a breakneck race through New Orleans, its plot a thin excuse to introduce a range of vivid, authentic-feeling characters and locations. A Face in the Crowd, a funny, full-blooded dissection of TV’s power to create demagogues, was so prescient in its understanding of that new medium that audiences pretty much tuned it out when it was released in 1956.
America America was Kazan’s most autobiographical film, one of the few he wrote as well as directed. It was also his favorite (“I don’t think it’s my best film,” he said. “It’s my favorite film.”) He based the story on the life of his Uncle Joe, an opportunist who came to this country on his own as a young man, showing the hardships that had turned a too-trusting boy into a too-tough adult.
“More than any of his films it achieves that simple and rather artless realism that was at the heart of his aesthetic,” wrote Richard Schickel in his biography of Kazan. But Kazan was after more than just realism. By emphasizing the essential elements of his uncle’s story while faithfully recreating a specific place and time, he said, he was aiming for “realism raised to the point of legend.”
Realism raised to the point of legend. I like that phrase. That’s a good description of the concentrated, complicated sense of melancholy I feel when I look at the mournful young man on my Polish movie poster. Since I don’t read Polish, the words across his face don’t get in the way of imagining the story behind that ineffably sad face. Even the movie itself doesn’t get in the way, since I haven’t seen it.
According to Wikipedia, America America has been on video since 1994, but it’s not easy to find. It was never in a video store when I’ve looked for it, you can’t rent it through Netflix, and I’ve never come across it in a revival theater or on late-night TV. But it’s beginning to feel a little perverse not to have seen it.
So I plan to be there next Wednesday, when it will be screened for a Princeton University film class. It’s time to see how the real thing compares to my dream.