DAY EIGHT November 10, 2005
Richard Schickel Aims to Unleash Elia Kazan's WILD RIVER
by Brent Simon
The auteur theory, once controversial, has come to gain wide acceptance, but a frustrating number of acknowledged film masters' works remain out of print and/or unavailable to the average cinephile. Slowly but surely, however--with applied pressure from restorative-minded film historians, film critics groups and filmmakers themselves--a few studios (Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, with their vast libraries, chief amongst them) are starting to come around to the notion that the DVD format can accommodate older works and, indeed, serve as an important link between past and future filmmakers and cinema fans.
Last year director Elia Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD finally made it to DVD, and in early 2006 his 1960 drama WILD RIVER will break free on the digital format. Prior to that, though, movie buffs can enjoy a special screening of the movie--November 10, at 4:00 p.m. in ArcLight Theatre 10--thanks in large part to critic Richard Schickel, who will introduce the movie, conduct a Q&A in its wake and then head to The Loft at AFI FEST's Rooftop Village to autograph copies of his new book, Elia Kazan: A Biography.
The film, an American pastoral pitting tradition against modernity, stars Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick, and centers around a Washington bureaucrat charged with moving a family--and in particular its stubborn matriarch--out of an area scheduled for controlled flooding. Adapted from two novels by Paul Osborn, it was a movie that drew the short end of the studio publicity stick upon its initial release (Kazan actually tried to buy it back and release the film himself, but he couldn't afford the price quoted), and it remains, to Schickel, one of Kazan's seminal, vastly underrated masterworks.
"I remember seeing it on its first release and liking it even then. And then, when we did the television program about Kazan, he talked pretty volubly about it," says Schickel, referring to his lengthy, 1995 sit-down with Kazan that was among the last on-camera interviews the Oscar-winning director gave.
"That interview--which was enormously extensive--is one of the basis for the book, and it certainly... [helped] feed into my feeling that this is really almost an unknown masterpiece," he continues. "The movie, when it came out, was pretty indifferently released by the studio. They didn't know quite what to do with it, and there was and is the notion that it's a part of American history that people aren't very interested in anymore."
That issue was born of the New Deal, when WILD RIVER is set. "It's very austere in a way--a fairly simple story against the backdrop of building this great series of dams that became the Tennessee Valley Authority," says Schickel. "And one of the things that's important about the movie, looking at it today instead of 1960, is that there's always talk about big government being terrible and inefficient and a waste of the people's money and all that--but here is this shining, glorious example of big government doing what only big government can do, and doing it with enormous success. And here's what it did--it stopped the annual flooding of that river, which carried away literally millions of acres of land, not to mention people. It was an annual tragedy. It also brought electricity to a region that had never had a kilowatt of electricity. And I think there's a lesson in that. There's some things that government and only government can do, and this movie makes that point."
WILD RIVER also falls at an interesting place in Kazan's canon. Like many of his films, it takes as its center a controversial social issue, but it's the raw immediacy of the human relationships in the foreground that give the movie its emotional heft. "It seems a very important film," concurs Schickel, "because by this point in his life, Kazan had ceased to be any sort of ideologue. He had abandoned communism. He was still--as he remained until his dying day--a sort of feisty, liberal spirit, but he also had become very conscious of the fact that we make choices in life, and any choice we make has often hidden consequences that we can't predict."
"He put it to me very simply: he said, 'If you marry one woman, that means you're not marrying another woman,'" recounts Schickel with a laugh. "And the woman you marry may or may not work out for you, but it's possible that there's another woman that you've never even met that would've been better for you. But you just don't know that. We make these--how to put it--existential choices, and then we have to live with them. That was a very important part of his philosophy of life as it evolved by the time that he was making this movie."
While happy about WILD RIVER's impending DVD release (Schickel also oversaw a restorative re-edit of Samuel Fuller's THE BIG RED ONE), he remains wistful and even a bit perturbed at the unexploited glory of the format. "They are a great instrument for bringing back extremely worthwhile films that have fallen out of the public's mind," he says. "To me, that's the great thing about DVD--not putting out last summer's release three or four months later. That's nice, and I guess people want to have those movies in their libraries, but the real cultural importance of DVDs is precisely the re-release of films like WILD RIVER."
BACK TO DAY EIGHT