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Elia Kazan, complexity monger

November 06, 2005|Richard Schickel | RICHARD SCHICKEL is a film critic for Time and a contributing writer to The Times Book Review. His new book, "Elia Kazan: A Biography," is out this month from HarperCollins.

THIS THURSDAY, the Los Angeles Film Festival will be playing a handsomely restored print of a 45-year-old film called "Wild River." There's a good chance you've never heard of the movie, a much better chance that you've never seen it.

Although the picture was directed by Elia Kazan, then a major American filmmaker, was produced by a major American studio (20th Century Fox) and starred Montgomery Clift and a particularly luminous Lee Remick, Fox at some point lost faith in the film, gave it a modest release in 1960 and, despite respectable reviews, let it die. Kazan was so disappointed by the way it was handled that he tried to buy the negative back from the studio and arrange an independent release, but he couldn't afford the price.

This is, putting it mildly, not an unusual situation. But in the case of "Wild River," it was exacerbated by the film's subject matter: It was about the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a topic of almost sublime irrelevance to audiences in 1960.

Who cared, a quarter-century after the fact, about the creation of the vast system of dams that tamed the Tennessee River, which almost annually flooded, carrying away millions of dollars worth of land, buildings, livestock -- not to mention people? Who cared, any more, that the TVA brought electricity to a seven-state region that had been nearly devoid of modern life's most essential power source? That was stale news.

And the ambiguous attitude Kazan brought to his story didn't enhance its melodramatic tension. Of course, lifelong liberal that he was, he believed in the TVA, perhaps the most successful act of civil and social engineering in American history. Those dams were mighty constructions -- it is said their individual masses were sometimes 12 times that of all the pyramids, that you could have buried 20 Empire State Buildings in some of their excavations.

But he didn't show any of that in his film. What interested him was the conflict between Clift's Chuck Glover, a TVA official from Washington, and Ella Garth (a magnificent Jo Van Fleet), who he was to remove from the soon-to-be-flooded mid-river island her family had farmed since the 18th century.

Kazan had known, and romanticized, these "hillbillies" since 1937, when he helped make a short documentary about them. He believed their simple traditional values required preservation. He was, by this time -- a few years after his "naming names" testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee -- a "complexity monger," as one of his severest critics, Peter Biskind, called him. But as he often said, we are obliged to make choices without being able to foresee all their consequences, which we then must live with.

Inevitably, the TVA, representing the forces of onrushing modernity, and backed by the full faith and credit of the federal government, must (and should) win this contest. That does not mean, however, that the passing of a culture, a morality, if you will, should go unmourned. Or unhonored, to the best of our abilities, in an ever-changing world.

The last shot of the picture shows an airplane, carrying Clift, his new bride -- Remick's Carol -- and her children flying over a gleaming new dam, heading toward a new life. It symbolizes the film's (and Kazan's) commitment to the concept of the greatest good for the greatest number -- and to the New Deal idealism that permanently shaped his life and, for that matter, my life.

Forty-five years have passed since "Wild River's" failed initial release. It could be argued that the TVA is even staler news now than it was. But I don't think so. For more than 30 years, the argument against "big" government has been drummed into our ears by the right. It is inefficient. It crushes the spirit of individualism. Yadda, yadda yadda. But there are some things only a strong, centralized government can accomplish. A rational health insurance system instantly springs to mind. The stern enforcement of environmental (and workplace) protections is another. Yadda, yadda, yadda -- again.

But those great dams abide. They are still the property of the U.S. government, and the money they earn goes to dozens of local governments and institutions. "The New South" -- no longer backward and benighted but an economically, socially and culturally vibrant region -- began in the Tennessee Valley.

At the time, its supporters always called the TVA a "yardstick" by which we might measure the effect of government on our better, as opposed to our meanest -- or Bushian -- selves. In that, it succeeded beyond anyone's dreams.

"Wild River" exceeded Kazan's highest hopes too -- as a film that, fully aware of the pain implicit in the process of change, continues to summon us to our lost social consciousness. And conscience.

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