Nether Regions 01.05.10: America, America
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Stathis Giallelis, Linda Marsh, and Gregory Rozakis
Until his death in 2003, Elia Kazan remained a very controversial figure in some circles due to his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But with time, efforts like On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and other films will continue to stand tall, while the rest fades away. He made his most personal film, and also his own favorite in the early 60’s. It was called America, America, and he adapted it from his own book, loosely based on the life of his uncle. The filmmaker wanted an unknown actor for the lead; one whom audiences would see for the character portrayed rather than be clouded by the familiar face of a celebrity. Kazan had auditions in various countries, but ultimately chose to go right to Greece, where he was born.
Stathis Giallelis had a dream of immigrating to America and working with his idol, Director Elia Kazan. That was fulfilled when he was selected for the lead in America, America. Giallelis was 22 at the time of production, and he had the responsibility of carrying the entire 174 minute picture. How ironic that Gialellis’ role was that of Stavros, a young boy whose dream is to travel to America in search of a better life. The lives parallel almost too perfectly, proving that Stathis was born to play Stavros. Giallelis would not go on to have a prosperous career in cinema, but this brilliant performance has survived…barely, and with luck, more people will have the opportunity to see it in the future.
Kazan’s closeness to this project is evident from the very beginning, as his voice introduces and closes the film, which is unusual, but gives the film an instant depth that is difficult to attain. The story begins in the 1890’s where Stavros Topouzoglou lives in an impoverished village in Turkish Anatolia. He witnesses the fierce oppression of the Greeks and Armenians by the Turkish authorities. The first scenes have Stavros chopping away at blocks of ice on a mountain with a co-worker, which must then be wheeled via wagon to the town to be sold. They are stopped and questioned by a Turkish military figure, who freely takes the amount of ice he desires until he realizes that he knew Stavros’ friend. He then promptly orders his troops to load the stolen ice back onto their wagon.
|Stavros looking intensely
at his mother.
The dream of Stavros to venture to America seems impossible. His family has little money to spare, and he is constantly feuding with his father on who he spends time with. Even his grandmother tells him he will stay in the village until he dies, just like his father. Finally his father gives in, and agrees that the family should be moved to Constantinople (renamed Istanbul in 1930). Stavros will move there first and work in the carpet business for his father’s cousin. Stavros is entrusted with every valuable his family owns including money, jewelry, and hand woven blankets. And so begins Stavros’ long and arduous journey, which is met with deceitful thieves, prostitutes, unhappy wives, and wealthy fathers looking to have at least one of his daughters married.
I had the privilege of seeing America, America on the big screen during a Kazan festival held at the Film Forum in New York City. The sole screening was packed, and I sat in the very front row looking up for three hours, plus a Q&A afterwards with two of the stars. Many would assume this would be tiring and uncomfortable, but nothing could be further from the truth. My eyes were glued to the screen for every single mesmerizing minute. Kazan’s direction is that of an epic, but with heart and soul. It also contains equal parts that of a docudrama technique, but not excessively so, and with a refined stroke. America, America is a grand and gripping saga, one that deserves more attention.
The first thing viewers need to remember is that Stavros comes from a man’s world. America, America features a lot of scenes involving controlling males, and says a lot about how women were treated. Take Stavros’ mother, who never hesitates to scold him for not having shoes, or being away too long, but when her husband demands she leave the room, she obeys immediately. This is given a serious tone initially, but later, when Aleko Sinnikoglou is introduced, the father of Stavros’ fiancée, the domineering presence and orders are a source of comedy. But compare the wives with Stavros’ grandmother, whose husband has died, and observe the difference in attitude. She is a strong willed woman, who tells Stavros exactly what she feels despite his immature fits. But did she always behave this way?
The priceless belongings of his family do not stay in his possession very long. He is transported via raft to an area that will lead him eventually to Constantinople, and his escort quickly attempts to steal a few items as the raft approaches land. Another schlub witnesses this and instantly sees an opportunity. His name is Abdul and he saves the day by beating up the thief and earning Stavros’ trust. He then uses Stavros’ kind nature against him by gradually selling his valuables. Stavros learns early on during his quest that he must be able to fight for his life if necessary. In their final riveting exchange, Abdul describes the Turks as “primitive” and the Greeks as “civilized sheep.” Kazan crafts Abdul as a silly and sneaky character, but he knows precisely when to shift gears and unveil the vicious side of the man who followed Stavros around.
Stavros asks what he needs to get to America upon arriving in Constantinople, and an American replies bluntly “money.” He finds out that he needs 110 pounds for the boat trip, and he elects to do this the old fashioned way: by working hard. It turns out his uncle’s carpet business receives few customers, and without Stavros’ money to help the business, the amount of buyers will not increase. Stavros then takes multiple jobs, going on little food and sleep, which eventually catches up with him. A kind middle-aged man tells him he has two choices of how to obtain the required funds: steal it or marry into it. His uncle happens to live near one wealthy family, which has 4 single daughters waiting male suitors. In one of the funniest sequences that contains no dialogue, Stavros transforms himself from a poor laborer to a sophisticated young gentleman, complete with three-piece suit, slicked hair, and mustache.
|The rare VHS cover|
Stavros begins courting Thomna Sinnikoglou, and proceeds to negotiate the amount she will bring with her to the wedding. For a journey that has been wrought with betrayal, loss, and body aches, it was wonderful to have Stavros catching a break with a rich family. This is both the most comical and moving portion of the story. Easily the most memorable sequence of the film has the father, Aleko, describing what Stavros’ future will hold after his marriage. He rambles on with this until he tells of Stavros as an old man, and then asks “What do you think of that?” His face shows a boy who is clearly in over his head. At the same time, Thomna inches closer to his chair, stealing glances out of the corner of her eye. It is a magnificent scene where a lot is occurring, and Kazan stages it masterfully.
Stathis Giallelis and fellow newcomer and co-star Linda Marsh, who plays Thomna, rarely display how truly green they were as performers. As Stavros’ true intentions make their way to the surface, they share an extremely delicate and heartfelt moment together. For many moments, the two are speaking to each other while turned away from one another. It was a strange way of having them unburden themselves, but it was effective. Linda Marsh is extraordinary as a naive and shy young girl who sees Stavros as her only chance to satisfy her father and lead a new life. Her turn is subtle and cautious, but outstanding and meaningful to how Stavros changes over the course of the film.
America, America is saturated with unforgettable supporting performances. Elena Karam is terrific as his mother Vasso, doubtful of her son being handed such a large responsibility. Gregory Rozakis is marvelous as Hohannes, a young Armenian Stavros helps during his travels. Katherine Balfour is also captivating as another woman Stavros encounters. But the show is stolen by Paul Mann as Aleko, the father of Thomna wishing to give his daughter away to a fitting young man. His robust stomach is puffed out and he strides through the many rooms of his mansion with a commanding and irreplaceable energy that warranted an Oscar nomination.
With such a long running time, it is amazing that America, America is paced as superlatively as it is. Kazan balances the action, drama, and humor like a genius puppeteer. He eliminates any notion of weariness or dullness by infusing the story with all the qualities a sweeping epic should have. With so few resources to fine tune the reels, Kazan shipped the footage every day to America where Editor Dede Allen took the shipment and assembled it into the finished film. Among that footage were captivating black & white shots from cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who met Kazan’s ambitious direction with superb handheld scenes and awe-inspiring shots from one on top of a mountain peering down at a sprinting Stavros across the desert. Manos Hatzidakis provides a stirring score that compliments the abilities of the rest of the crew by swelling at the proper times and not triggering the audience to feel a certain emotion at a certain point.
America, America is a story about destiny and fate, about what the future already holds for you, and how striving to reach your dream can shape and change the way you carry yourself. It shows that sometimes the easier path is not always the better path to achieving one’s dreams, and the lack of theatricality and clichés in communicating this was stimulating. Most importantly, it speaks about how each immigrant has their own tale to tell. The production had its share of ups and downs. Kazan had disagreements with various members of his crew, and even changed his mind on whether or not particular scenes should be included or cut. Ultimately, the themes, messages, and ripe character development are intact, and still relevant after all these years. He made the right decisions, and the result is entrancing.
Some might not fall in love Stathis Giallelis’s turn. To be honest, the brooding could have been polished a bit, but he is the core, the nucleus of America, America, and he lures the viewer along every step of the way. He walked away with a Golden Globe for his monumental and powerful depiction, but his roles became fewer and fewer, and his final appearance was in 1983. Under the guidance and determination of Elia Kazan, Stathis locates and conveys his own strength and determination through Stavros. Kazan’s adeptness of honing his casts contributions and unearthing the best they have to offer has never been more apparent than in America, America where he takes so many youthful performers and makes sure they faithfully translate to the screen how personal and important this project was.
Kazan triumphs in basically every conceivable way. America, America was nominated for 4 Academy Awards in 1964, and only emerged victorious in one category, for Gene Callahan’s art direction. It has never been released on DVD, and this article was written in hopes that someone can read this and make that happen.
Final Rating = 9.0/10.0
The Heartbreak Kid – Still Out of Print
Homicide – Now Available
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV) – Still Out of Print
The Stepfather – Now Available
The Stepfather 2 – Now Available
Phantasm II – Now Available
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – Both Available on 3/30/10
If you have not checked out my Top 10 Best and Worst of 2009, please do so by clicking here. Not everyone was thrilled with my choices. Oh well. There are plenty of critics and bloggers out there who will adjust their lists with picks so everyone loves them, even if they are not the person’s favorite. Go read those lists. I will address a few of the comments though. All the Star Trek and District 9 supporters spoke up. I loved Star Trek, but not enough for it to make my best of the year. Sci-fi had better efforts. As for District 9, I thought it was average, and a bit overrated. It was entertaining, but nothing more. One person said I should have included Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen since I chose G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. Aside from simply thinking one was better than the other, the two have a major difference. One took itself too seriously, and the other did not. In my mind, the former makes G.I. Joe worse.
By the way, for updates on all the movies I am seeing that I have not written full reviews of, you can consult my blog, which should soon be lighting 411 on fire with hits. View it by clicking here. I plan on adding other random thoughts on CDs, plays, and other topics that float into my head as well.
-Thanks to Jeremy Thomas for my banner.
“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount