East Of Eden : The James Dean Story

On February 8 , James Dean would have  turned 88. its very hard to imagine Dean as an old man. He was the eternal representation of youth in turmoil  and  immortalized in that form, due to his death at a young age.

 


East of Eden was his first and eventually his last released film before his death. His other 2 films, Rebel without a cause and Giant were released after his death.I consider Eden to be his best film and best film character that was closest to his real persona  . The other two has its virtues which i would get to in some other post , but Eden was a great film in its own right . He is more famous for Rebel but it is less a movie, more famous for the James Dean persona and Giant is a more of  an epic George Stevens Soap opera albeit tastefully done.

East of Eden is directed by the great Elia Kazan. He was coming from back to back masterpieces in A streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront etc that had made Marlon Brando a superstar. His original idea was to cast Brando in Dean’s part , but later decided to go with newcomers for the film. The film was a change for Kazan who upto that time had made movies in Black and white  and mainly centered in urban locations. This is his first color film shot in cinemascope. This is also the most visually exciting film that he has ever made. Kazan ,who is from theater, is known more for his direction of actors than the visual quality of his pictures. he adapted this film from his friend John Steinbeck’s best selling novel of the same name

 

Eden is  the kind of film that nobody makes anymore. Its a  pure drama set in rural Salinas and Monterrey.  Its very dense, and deals with a lot of complex issues. but a lot of these remain as subtext , while the overall film remains very simple, which is a hallmark of all Kazan films. The film is set in  the year 1917, when America was just about to join the first world war. the turmoil happening in the world is reflected in the turmoils happening  in the Trask family . This shows the epic overview of the movie, where the micro feeds on the macro and vice versa. Even though one does not include films like East of Eden in the category of epic films, its more profoundly mythic, possessing  an epic scope, than a lot of the  so called epics . And just as in the first world war, the conflict in this film is between Old world puritanism and new world modernism. Puritanism represented by patriarch Adam (Raymond Massey)  who has fixed believes about right and wrong , good and bad etc,.. and modernism represented by Cal Trask(Dean)   who is open to all kinds of experiences (Just like Dean was in his real life)  and doesn’t believe in strict demarcations..From this ,emerges  brother-brother conflicts. Husband wife conflicts . The film (and  Novel)  is a modern retelling of the biblical Adam & Eve , Cain & Abel story, But it goes deeper into Greek Mythology , stories of Oedipus and Medea and all with themes of Son stalking his mother. Mother abandoning husband and children and pursuing her own free will etc.

Kazan uses the wide screen  brilliantly, in both indoor and outdoor shots,  to convey the  several layers of conflict that exist in the film . The pristine landscape is shown to be invaded by  modern vehicles like trains and automobiles  . Cal is frequently seen to be travelling  between his father and mother by train.There is an elaborate joke about the starting of an automobile involving Adam. Finally it is by train that the elder brother Aron, who is Adam’s pet ,leaves the country to fight a war in Europe. The most intense emotional conflicts are shot from a slightly twisted elevated angle to show the spectre of unease and tension that haunt the family. About three decades later, A Director like Brian De Palma would make this his signature framing style for tense scenes

 

 

The above clip shows the central conflict of the film (and the world , at the time when the film is set, as well as the time when the film was made). The younger generation thirsting for the love and approval of the older generation, while the old still wrapped up in their own self righteousness , own values of puritanism refusing to connect with them.For Adam, Cal is a bad boy because he resembles his mother ,who had abandoned him and the family, and has now unbeknownst to him is a brothel madam. Cal engages in some war profiteering to help his father tide over a financial crisis. But Adam refuses to accept the money as a birthday present as it is made from an immoral act.The scene is a turning point in the film. Cal becomes  vengeful after Adam refuses to acknowledge his efforts  . In sheer spite, he  exposes the worst kept family secret about the mother , first to brother Aron and then to his father , with tragic consequences.As in the case of all puritans, hypocrisy is deeply ingrained  in Adam’s character. He had lied to his children that their mother is dead. In truth , she had left him because she couldn’t take his idealism any further. She is a free spirit and she chose to go her own way. But Cal finds out the truth about her existence.The film begins with Cal following and finding his mother’s new residence. He confronts her later , only to find her unrepentant and proud of her current existence.The disclosure of the family secret breaks Aron’s heart and he decides to leave the place by joining the army., something he had sworn he would never do. Aron’s actions lead to Adam suffering a paralytic stroke and he is bedridden. The film ends with Adam being nursed by Cal and father and son finding an emotional connection  for the first time in their lives. The film can be considered a ‘growing up’ movie for both father and son. Son coming to terms with hsi insecurities , his jealousies and becoming a man and the father growing out of his cocoon of hypocritical puritanism and accepting his son for what  he is. So After  2 hrs of emotional conflicts, the film ends on a note of  reconciliation

 

The above scene also represent what was best and worst about Dean’s acting.Dean’s idol was Brando . The biggest criticism he faced for his performance in this film was that he was simply copying Brando. but today , you realize that the criticism was wrong.. Brando was very much a static , focused presence. while Dean is practically all over the place. jumping , hopping ,always moving around. Brando would never let his energy dissipate and would keep it concentrated , using his hands and props to convey a lot. This film would have been very different if Brando had played the lead role.For all his aversion to acting Brando was a very well trained actor.Brando would have never pushed the above scene to the extend  that Dean does here. The final break down and crying looks a little out of place with the rest of the scene and character . It was improvised by Dean on the spot and Raymond Massey’s reaction as Adam is genuine. In contrast to Brando  Dean  didn’t have much technique, it was more energy, attitude and instincts. You could never imagine Dean growing up and playing Vito Corleone. But Dean is perfect for the film that Kazan made here. he not only presents an interesting contrast to both his father and brother, but his freer attitude towards acting complement the free attitude that Cal has for life.  His mystique coupled with his volatile nature  (both on and off screen)  pumps intrigue and energy into   Kazan’s more classical  filmmaking style. Kazan had a tough time handling Dean on the sets, but their collaboration did lead to a very fine performance and  film.

 

The film came out in 1955 and made Dean an instant star.But he couldn’t savor the success for long  Dean would die in a motor accident later that year , after giving his final shot for Giant . Post his death , he would go on to become a legend and a pop cultural icon, inspiring other icons like Elvis Presley and Steve McQueen.

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