Not at all a conventional biographical documentary, Martin Scorsese’s and Kent Jones’s “A Letter to Elia” is instead an intensely personal and deep exploration of the essence of one major filmmaker by another. Keenly analytical in its appreciation of how Elia Kazan achieved such dramatic power in his best work, the hour-long piece movingly achieves special status in the way Scorsese uses the occasion to offer a penetrating slice of emotional autobiography, one man revealing much about himself through his affinity for another man’s cinema. Launched at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, this singular film will be shown as part of PBS’s “American Masters” series on Oct. 4.
Those anticipating “Letter” as an excuse to revive the never-ending furor over Kazan’s name-naming to the House Un-American Activities Committee will be a bit frustrated, especially as it was Scorsese himself who presented his artistic hero with his controversial honorary Oscar in 1999. You can’t discuss Kazan for three minutes without the blacklist coming up, but this film uses it as way to help explain the indisputable change and improvement his HUAC testimony triggered in Kazan’s work. “This was the moment a director became a filmmaker,” Scorsese says here, not as an excuse or justification, but as a psychological observation about emotional cause and artistic effect.
Scorsese and Jones are far from the first to notice this connection, but they have the special advantage of being able to present crucial scenes and moments, mostly from “On the Waterfront” and “East of Eden” and sometimes again and again, to buttress Scorsese’s penetrating insights and bolster his case. Immaculately dressed, standing in an office and quietly speaking at about one-third his normal speed, Scorsese recalls how, in his early teens, he used to “stalk” Kazan’s films from theater to theater, seeing them each more than a dozen times and reacting with profound emotion to the stories’ elemental issues, particularly as they grapple with family and brothers (both “Waterfront” and “Eden” centered on a “good” and “bad” brother and Scorsese has a seldom-mentioned older brother).
Kazan’s long, turbulent life and career could easily have filled a two or even three-hour documentary, so it’s striking how “Letter,” after a very long gestation period, came to bore down on the primal. Beginning with scenes from “America, America,” Kazan’s “first completely personal film,” in Scorsese’s view, the documentary immediately establishes its subject’s immigrant status—”I’m an outsider,” he says in an old interview– an identity with which Scorsese feels an ardent kinship.
The coverage of Kazan’s momentous theater career and early Hollywood success (“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is singled out) provides just enough to give the uninitiated their bearings. Calmly, the specifics of Kazan’s two appearances before HUAC are laid out—the first uncooperative, the second at which he provided eight names—as are his disastrous publication of a self-justification and subsequent pariah status among many former friends. Nothing new here.
But this is where the documentary goes deep. With the use of a pristine print, Scorsese zeroes in on what made “Waterfront” so special to him as a young teenager—the presence of locations and working-class faces he recognized from real life, the codes that locked social and family clans together and the ruthlessness with which betrayal was punished, the sensitivity to painful conflict between brothers, the yearning to articulate one’s feelings and escape the vicious circle. “I was living through the film,” Scorsese reflects as he vividly conveys the common experience of finding an emotional outlet in the movies that it is impossible to have with family during adolescence.
Despite being set in what was, for Scorsese, the alien world of rural California, “East of Eden” seems to have possibly cut even deeper, so galvanizing are its dramatic displays of conflict among father and sons and the mother who is a whore. With both films, Scorsese’s appreciation is two-fold, both that of a a young and very impressionable viewer, then as a filmmaker with a keen knowledge of technique.
After touching gracefully on “Wild River” and “Splendor in the Grass” and then coming back full circle to “America, America,” “Letter to Elia” concludes with Scorsese recounting his thwarted attempt to become an assistant on Kazan’s “The Arrangement” and the friendship that blossomed in later years. As rewarding as this may have been, the younger man (who will be 68 this year, older than was Kazan when he directed his final film, “The Last Tycoon”) acknowledges the limitations of this sort of mentor-protege relationship, concluding that, “Maybe you learn more from the work than the man.”
Given how passionately this “Letter” advocates for Kazan’s ability to make highly personal films within a commercial context, the great irony that emerges from the documentary is that Scorsese himself has ceased doing the same himself. Which was the last Scorsese feature that felt at all personal? In my book, the last fully successful one artistically was “Casino,” released 15 years ago. “Bringing Out the Dead,” in 1999, was indisputably shot through with themes meaningful to Scorsese, centrally the need of the main character to find salvation through saving lives. But perhaps that film’s failure was sufficiently discouraging to move the director toward the more grandiose productions he’s subsequently undertaken, films of varying quality but, the Oscars for “The Departed” notwithstanding, not the sorts of things that made him the most admired American director for more than 20 years.
For quite some time, then, Scorsese’s personal passions and enthusiasms have been channeled into his documentaries, not his dramatic features. His first two major documentaries about the cinema, “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies” and “My Voyage to Italy,” were surveys shot through with personal insights. “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan” thrived on Scorsese’s enthusiasm for another artist and his great feel for music and ’60s New York, while “Shine A Light,” a concert film featuring The Rolling Stones, felt more like a technical exercise.
But “A Letter to Elia” cuts closer to the bone than anything Scorsese has done since the 1990s; by mixing the authenticity of his initial emotional response to Kazan’s films with his vast cinematic erudition, and by deciding to largely jettison the usual documentary baggage of archival footage, interviews with associates and Hollywood history factoids, Scorsese and Jones have been able to concentrate nearly all their attention on that which is of the greatest value in Kazan’s work and to throw an intense spotlight the man’s complexity and distinction as an artist.