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May 16th, 2007

On the Waterfront (Old American Films)

I appear to be developing this thing for old American films. I have a real thing for the black and white films of the fifties and sixties, for example.

I am, by no means, an expert of the era, and I'm not going to go round and claim to be. I figure that time has stripped back some of the shit that was made during the era and left me with a cleaner bubble to tour, though no doubt a lot of good stuff has been lost, too, of course. Yet still, as much as I dislike blanket statements about the state of film and literature, modern American films are really not doing it for me of late. I suppose that's to be expected when one of the most 'important' directors of the last twenty years has turned out to be the pro-war and racist Steven Spielberg, whose films insult me on such a deep, deep level that no detour in a paragraph to point this out is too far for me to go. The danger, however, when I do this, is that I will dissolve into a long rant about how much of a negative influence he has been on American film that, really, I simply won't talk about a film I like. So I will stop. Right now. But if someone makes a Steven Spielberg is a Pro-War Racist and Fuck Him and His Shitty Films t-shirt, consider me down for one. If it's worth saying, it's worth saying on a t-shirt.

Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, however, was a film that was released in 1954, and should you not have seen it, no doubt you will have seen the scene where Marlon Brando, playing ex-boxer Terry Malloy, is sitting in a cab with his brother, Charlie (Rod Steiger), and says, "I could've had class. I could've been a contender. I could've been somebody."

It's a good line, though somewhat diluted by its repetition throughout pop culture, and some people might be surprised to learn that it is said as Charlie takes Terry to a meeting with the corrupt union bosses, where they plan to kill him. Charlie is trying, in that moment, to convince his brother not to speak out against the corruption and, with his confusion and anguish finally gaining voice, Terry asks him why he didn't look out for him more, why he didn't protect him, and why he didn't act like more of a brother. In response to this moment, Charlie does, indeed, perform his brotherly duty, and the rest of the film's narrative happens in response to this one action.

I guess I have jumped around on explaining the film, but I figure, really, most people are familiar with it. If you're not, the premise is that, Terry, a washed up boxer with a relationship with the union, arranges a meeting between a Joey Doyle and union boss, Johnny Friendly, which results in Doyle being thrown from the roof of a building. Unaware that this had been planned from the start, Terry struggles with the guilt of this act, and the growing realisation that Friendly's corruption on the docks is kept by keeping men desperate, and by terrorising those who would speak out against it. While he is on the inside of it, Terry, now thirty, and nobody, is also slowly realising that he too has suffered at the hands of Friendly, mostly in his boxing career. This realisation is further influenced by his interactions and growing attraction to Edie Doyle, the sister of Joey, and by Father Barry's campaign to righten the docks. As a film, On the Waterfront captures a certain moment in American history, and it is difficult to argue that it is anything but anti-union in its stance, and it can even be further argued that its elevation into such an important position in American cinema represents an ideological point of view from a certain part of America that aimed to break the hold of unions in the country. Or, perhaps not. American union history is certainly not my strong point. However, it is difficult to watch the film and not view it as an act of propaganda, even as it is, by its own rights, a very watchable and fine film, made so entirely by Kazan's tight direction and Brando's fine performance--and also by performances by Lee Cobb, Pat Henning and others (I suppose people will add Karl Madden, but I've always found Madden to be a somewhat flawed actor, myself).

My mention of Spielberg, so aimlessly caustic earlier, can come back here. Whereas a film like On the Waterfront is no more politically motivated than Saving Private Ryan, though albeit with different motivations, since Spielberg is concerned with portraying World War 2 as the Last Good and Righteous War Against Villianous Cowardly Germans and With Heroic Ordinary Men... wait, wait, wait, getting carried away, again. The point I am trying to make is that, even though both films have an agenda, there is a sweetness, a manipulative use of emotion in Spielberg's film (this is perhaps Spielberg's strongest influence on American cinema) that is not in Kazan's On the Waterfront. The final moments, when Brando, battered and bruised, walks in to the docks to work does, yes, work on the emotions of the viewer, and aims to influence them in relation to the power and triumph of the individual, especially over corrupt mob bosses, but by placing the moment on the back of Brando's Terry, by rising him, finally, to be someone, Kazan ties the moment to the character at the centre of the film that the viewer can, if he or she wishes, chose to ignore the political statement being made. No viewer is given this choice in any Spielberg film. You are, from the moment any Spielberg film begins, being manipulated emotionally for his political purposes--you can not watch Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List and not feel yourself being manipulated, preached too, and ultimately fucked over by these films and the mind behind them...

...and I'm getting caught up in that hate again. I just don't know what comes over me. Spielberg, red flag. Why is he still making films?

Anyhow: what I can say is if you haven't seen On the Waterfront, it's worth the time. Brando is quite fine in it. I prefer the Kazan/Brando A Street Car Named Desire, simply because it's more complex, and layered, but you can't go wrong with either film.