Thursday, March 12, 2009

East of Eden - 1955

I finally saw Elia Kazan's "East of Eden" this week, in the laziest, least cinematic way possible. No, I didn't watch it on an iPhone (good God!)--I saw it on my little TV, then on the computer to make these screen shots. Mr. Kazan would grumble at this. He was a theatrical/cinematic guy through and through and although he had never worked in CinemaScope before this film, he did a fine job of filling in that skinny rectangle from end to end.

And, as usual, he pulled really engrossing performances out of his talented cast. His big discovery was James Dean, of course. This is Dean's first film, and definitely his best. James Dean IS "East of Eden." You can't look away from his sensitive, tortured, yet mischievous and gracefully physical Cal Trask. Dean launches himself around the sets like a dancer, contorting in emotional confusion, leaping forward with his arms stretched wide, dancing like a buffoon in a bean patch, hanging onto a door frame for dear life while being dragged through a whorehouse. And it's all in the pursuit of his one desire: his father's love.

I never saw this film, although I'm a big "East of Eden" freak. I've read it four or five times. I always go back to the book every few years. I'm fascinated with the story of Cathy/Kate, who's such a finely etched portrait of a sociopath. She tears apart everyone decent in the novel, and even attempts to ruin her fellow sociopaths as well. She's ruthless, conniving, conscious-less, and pretty much pure evil personified.

The movie does away with all that--just tosses it out the window like a balled-up Kleenex, and focuses on the not-as-interesting parable of Cal trying to grab his father's attention--forget love; it ain't happening in this film. In Kazan's adaptation, Cal's father Adam is a real jerk wad, instead of a passionless emotional wreck, and as played by Jo Van Fleet, Kate is a tough dame and hard-as-nails businesswoman, practically a feminist.

Kazan wants us to "feel" for these people, but their central conflict, involving abandonment, homicidal rage, controlling behavior and emotional repression, doesn't add up to all the heavy drama we're supposed to be engaged in here. Even Steinbeck didn't know where his novel was going and had trouble ending it. So why make a film about the ending? Because of Dean: timeless, troubled, beautiful, annoying, charismatic James Dean. He almost makes the plot ring true.

Julie Harris is on hand as his brother's girl, who secretly is falling for Cal. They're both very modern-looking people, playing turn-of-the-century characters, but they work their method-acting charm and Kazan thoughtfully includes Burl Ives as the well-cast "voice of reason," and some really beautiful steam-engine shots as well. And now:

James Dean in East of Eden

-The 1981 TV miniseries followed the novel much more closely and Jane Seymour plays a horribly manipulative and wicked Cathy. Her performance made me want to read the book. So it's all her fault that I suffer from "East of Eden" OCD. And I see the 3-disc DVDwas just released LAST WEEK. Hooray for happy coincidences.

-Apparently a new film is in pre-production for 2010! Start mentally compiling your dream casts now.


Soup and Song said...

Wow, would you believe I've never read this book? A friend at work just brought me a stack of books to choose from and this one was in the pile, so I guess it's time for me to read it!

Anonymous said...

EOE is the next Steinbeck novel on my "to read list." I love the novellas he wrote earlier on, especially "Of Mice and Men", and "Tortilla Flat." If you're in the mood for some great light reading (these books are relatively short) I'd recommend them. I also heard his non-fiction "Travels with Charley," which he wrote in 1962 is equally enjoyable.

Lisa Mc said...

Thank you Anonymous. I've read a lot of Steinbeck's shorter works including "The Wayward Bus" (great characters but not a lot of narrative), "Tortilla Flat" and "Cannery Row." I've read some of his "The Log from the Sea of Cortez" and "Travels with Charlie"--both good reads.

I've never read "Of Mice and Men" partly because we had to perform scenes from it constantly in high school drama class, and I found it too depressing. "Grapes of Wrath" --now THAT'S depressing.

Steinbeck's depth-possessing characters always made me interested in studying my fellow humans and I think he got me through my 20s in one piece, though it's hard to explain why. I think his "God-like overview" of his narratives combined with his humble demeanor impressed me.