Wednesday, March 10, 2010

1961: Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan)

1961: Splendor in the Grass (Elia Kazan)
I guess most of the time I'm a little skeptical of movies, music, even people that incessantly wear their heart on their sleeves.  The emotions can become so loud they threaten to squash everything else in their way, including thoughts and perspective.  I also have come to realize that, like anything else, there are ways to cheat in film.  Want to make someone cry?  Just throw on some particularly heartfelt music.  Want us to think what you're doing is cool?  Use an extended scene of slow-motion.  And the list goes on of course.

I imagine the above are all criticisms that could easily be lodged against this film (or most of Kazan's career for that matter).  But, as they say, the exception makes the rule, and this film completely cuts through any prejudgements I might have.  

Simply put, I find Splendor in the Grass to be one of the most moving, emotionally devastating films I've ever seen.  Along with Holiday, it's my favorite film about the pressures of conformity.  And, as I've said before, it's in a small group (Gertrud, Letter from an Unknown Woman, A Place in the Sun, The Shop Around the Corner, and Casque d'or) of my favorite love stories of all time.  The wonderful ending would also find a place in my top ten.  

Does it cheat?  Probably.  Does it wear its heart on its sleeve? Definitely. But do I care?  Here, not one bit.  

Other contenders for 1961: A good number of gaps this year.  These include:  Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, John Ford's Two Rode Together, Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, Ermanno Olmi's Il Posto, Anthony Mann's El Cid, Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, Samuel Fuller's Underworld U.S.A., Pietro Germi's Divorce, Italian Style, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's West Side Story, Jack Clayton's The Innocents, Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman is a Woman, Michelangelo Antonioni's La notte, Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Accatone, Jean-Pierre Melville's Leon Morin, pretre, and Roberto Rossellini's Vanina Vanini and Viva L'Italia!  I need to re-watch Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim at some point as I have struggled with it in the past.  I also need to revisit Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad and Agnes Varda's Cleo de 5 a 7  as it's been too long since I saw either to know where they would place on this list.  Of what I have seen, there's really no close runner-up.  But I do really like Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Jacques Demy's Lola. And I love Robert Rossen's The Hustler and J. Lee Thompson's The Guns of Navarone.

10/12/10 I watched Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman is a Woman.  Not absolute top-tier Godard in my book.  Full of some incredible moments and Godard's usual vitality, inventiveness, and playful spirit, but also quite tedious at times.  But Karina is beautiful as ever.

4/9/11 I watched Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three.  Manic, slapstick Wilder that's really not my thing.  But if you like this sort of film, this one's probably top shelf. 

4/18/11 I watched Anthony Mann's El Cid.  Mann is one of my all time favorite filmmakers.  What I admire most about him is his ability to simplify and to create moments of great psychological weight.  The latter in this epic is still present, however I think the format (the epic) works against Mann's strength of paring down and abstracting elements to their most essential.  

4/21/11 I watched Luis Bunuel's Viridiana.  I'm still not sure how I feel about Bunuel.  He's undoubtedly a very skilled director that achieves his desired intent.  However, I'm not sure I really connect to his sensibility. He seems to like the absurd and the ugliness of humanity, almost more than the beauty.  This one ultimately left me cold, although I can see where it might have inspired some Kubrick and even some films like Five Easy Pieces.  

4/22/11 I watched Ermanno Olmi's Il Posto.  Has the look of an early French New Wave film, but it lacks the verve and spunk of the French films from that period.  Strong performances, and a somewhat interesting look at the end of adolescence.  But all in all, I found it a little too ponderous, and not natural and flowing enough.   

4/22/11 I watched Jack Clayton's The Innocents.  A strong, disturbing film with some tremendous performances from Deborah Kerr and both child actors.  Ghost stories are not my thing, but there's no denying that Clayton demonstrates great control and a great ability for creating atmosphere and discomfort.  Flora's screams have to rank up there with the most disturbing, visceral moments in the history of the medium.  

4/22/11 I watched Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly.  I'm still relatively new to Bergman's work, and his "God trilogy", although interesting to me, I'm not sure I fully understand (or at least fully connect to, as it's not one of my own chief pursuits).  But Harriet Andersson is breathtakingly beautiful, and her acting deep and affecting.  And although some of the moments can feel slightly distant and elusive, I do respect Bergman's ability for crafting cinematically balanced works.  An art film, to a T, but certainly one to admire. 

4/24/11 I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's Accatone.  My first experience with a Pasolini film, and since it's his debut, seems like a good place to start.  I was probably most struck by how much an influence this must have been on Mean Streets.  Seems to be a key film for Scorsese's breakout work.  Also, very interested to see how Pasolini is taking the neorealist tradition and pushing it into something far more self-conscious (his extreme close-ups and interest in the zoom).  Without yet seeing anything else by Pasolini, I would simply call him gritty, decadent, and darker than De Sica or Rossellini.  

4/26/11 I watched Michelangelo Antonioni's La notte.  I like the way Antonioni lets people wander through his frames.  And I like the way he has a real feel for jazz from the period and lets it rolls around in the background of some of his scenes.  But there's something quite bloodless about the work and no real gift of release or transcendence by the end.  All in all, pure admiration but almost never really felt.  

5/5/11 I watched Allen Baron's Blast of Silence.  It's an extremely interesting actor-director noir.  I feel like it's a lesson in how voiceover can be too much and overwhelm a picture.  But Baron plays one of the most convincing hitmen I've ever seen, and his ability to convey angst and loneliness are masterful at times.  

6/18/11 I watched Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's West Side Story. One of the first things that jumped out at me is how much it seemed to influence both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish.  I would love to hear Coppola discuss this.  Most of the music is quite memorable (doesn't hurt having Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim as collaborators), and some of the choreography quite lively and striking. My biggest complaint is that the action and emotions sometime seem a little flat.  All in all though, one of the the grandest and most vital musicals ever made.  

5/12/13 I watched Blake Edwards' Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Hepburn is pitch perfect as the irresistibly dynamic yet damaged Holly Golightly. Edwards brings it all a real touch of class - exquisite wardrobe, painterly colors, patient cutting, and a smooth camera that glides around almost never calling attention to itself.  There's more depth and truth here than I recalled from my first viewing nearly twenty years ago. And a sadness emanating from Hepburn/Golightly that is all too similar to several of the women I have met in my life.    

7/21/13 I watched Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut's Une histoire d'eau.  An important historical document with Godard's voice already well evident.  Not an incredibly entertaining film but a must see if you are a New Wave completist.  

1/1/16 I watched Samuel Fuller's Underworld U.S.A.  Fuller's strengths - his constantly roving, expressive camera and his hard-hitting sensibility are at the fore while his weaknesses, such as a heavy hand creating believable romance and intimacy are hardly, if at all, noticeable.  Clearly an influence on later great works such as Carlito's Way and an argument as good as any that the noir cycle did not end with Touch of Evil in 1958 but was still going strong well into the sixties with important and powerful entries such as this.    

1/17/16 I watched John Ford's Two Rode Together.  I was happy to finally see this film that always seemed to be playing in Parisian theaters.  I guess it isn't unusual for Ford.  It is corny yet smart, entertaining yet artistic, expansive and intimate.  This film has some interesting thoughts about dealing with one's past and would be a great double feature with The Searchers to cue up a conversation around Ford and whether or not he was a racist when it came to the Indians.  

11/7/17 I watched Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's Chronicle of a Summer.  I have long known that Godard was a big fan of Rouch but this is the first of his films I have seen.  It is extraordinary.  It breaks the fourth wall in more sophisticated and interesting ways than Godard ever did and serves as the template for the docu style Godard would take into Masculin Feminin and several of his other films from the period.  A number of the scenes are magical including the long take of Marceline walking as the camera moves farther and farther away from her and watching the father impart mountain climbing lessons to his more risk-averse daughter.

11/23/18 I watched Jean Rouch's The Human Pyramid.  A very pure Rouch work but not as interesting as some of his other films.  

4/7/20 I watched Jean Eustache's Une soiree.  His first short in the version I saw was without sound.  It did not have great interest other than an opportunity to see some of Eustache's first filmed images.  


  1. Jeffrey, I have not seen “Splendor in the Grass” in way too many years to comment though I recently recorded it off TCM and plan to get around to it again, subsequently I cannot say much about it but your thoughts make it enticing.
    I have to go with “The Hustler”, though “West Side Story” gives it a run for the money as my favorite musical of all time. I selected “The Hustler” for its four excellent performances and the excellent location shooting. Fast Eddie Felson is one of Newman’s best characters a classic 1960’s anti-hero. Rossen was a tough, hard-hitting, pull no punches writer and director. “Divorce, Italian Style” is a brilliant satire that I love dearly. As a kid, I loved “West Side Story” and must have gone back to the theater four or five times to see it “One, Two, Three” is maniacal Wilder, not as great as some of his others but still great and with Cagney!!!

    #1 The Hustler

    West Side Story
    Divorce, Italian Style
    Splendor in the Grass
    One, Two, Three
    Guns of Navarone
    The Innocents
    The Pit and the Pendulum

  2. Thanks, John! I love THE HUSTLER, too, and couldn't agree more with everything you said about it.

    THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is another one I still need to see.

    Thanks so much, John. Always great to have you here!

  3. I tell you this. To me, Natalie Wood's performance in this film is the reason God invented movies. I find her work, and the whole film, to just be unbelievably haunting and moving. It's easily one of my favorite films and I hate that a real proper special edition hasn't been released. Great pick Jeffrey, probably my favorite so far.

  4. Thanks so much, Jeremy! I love all that you say here and couldn't agree more. This film when I finally saw it (only in the last few years or so) completely snuck up on me and blew me away. I agree with you. It's the real deal.

  5. West Side Story (Wise/Robbins)


    La Notte (Antonioni; Italy)
    Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais; France)
    Splendor in the Grass (Kazan)
    Il Posto (Olmi; Italy)
    Mother, Joan of the Angels (Kawalerowitz; Poland)
    Viridiana (Bunuel; Spain)
    Une Femme est Une Femme (Godard; France)
    Accattone (Pasolini)
    Leon Morin, Priest (Melville)
    Lola (Demy; France)
    Through A Glass Darkly (Bergman; Sweden)
    Jules and Jim (Truffaut)
    The End of Summer (Ozu; Japan)
    El Cid (Mann)
    City of the Dead (Horror Hotel) Moxey
    The Innocents (Clayton)
    Pigs and Battleships (Imamura; Japan)
    Siberian Lady Macbeth (Wajda; Poland)
    The Hustler (Rosen)
    Victim (Dearden; UK)
    101 Dalmatians (Lucke)
    Yojimbo (Kurosawa; Japan)

    WEST SIDE STORY, which vies with Kern's SHOWBOAT as the greatest Broadway musical of all-time, certainly makes in spirity, choreography and operatic score the greatest film musical of them all. For me it is one of the greatest films of the 60's from any country in any genre.

    You choice here of SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS is a superb one, as I have always argued that this may well be Kazan's masterpiece, a position that few seem to embrace. But I am with you here in a big way Jeffrey as it's an emotionally devastating work, and one that surely rates as one of 1961's best films.

    A number of other great films from this year appear on my list here.

  6. Sam, I still need to see WEST SIDE STORY! In some of my circles, there seems to be a stigma attached to it, and I think that's what has prevented me from seeing it all these years. But I will rectify that soon.

    I love hearing that you're also a fan of this Kazan.

    Thanks, Sam!

  7. I have a copy of Splendor in the Grass, but still need to find the time to watch it. Now I'm really looking forward to it.

    My pick for this year has to stay Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS. Without any blood or gore, Clayton achieves a near perfect horror/thriller. Just great filmmaking.

    I also want to put in a good word for Billy Wilder's Cold War comedy ONE, TWO, THREE. It's one that I saw for the first time a few weeks ago and loved. James Cagney is brilliant in it.

  8. Jeffrey, Splendor in the Grass is the sort of film I've long considered not my kind, but so many people praise it so strongly and persuasively that I'll have to look at it sometime. Of your gaps, I recommend El Cid above the rest as Anthony Mann's masterpiece, followed by A Woman is a Woman and Divorce Italian Style. I think I've seen Marienbad and Cleo more recently than you have and they rank high for me, as does Yojimbo (of course) and Pigs & Battleships from Sam J's list.

  9. Dave, thanks! I'm happy that I gave you a little nudge to give SPLENDOR a look.

    I'm looking forward to seeing THE INNOCENTS and ONE, TWO, THREE. They're now both in the queue.

    Thanks, Dave. Always great to have your perspective!

  10. Samuel, I'm happy to hear that you'll give SPLENDOR a look at some point. It 's really not the sort of film I usually like either.

    I'm excited to see EL CID, as I already like so much of Mann. Ditto for the Godard. PIGS & BATTLESHIPS is another I still need to see.

    Thanks, Samuel. Always great to hear from you!

  11. Another one I haven't seen. This is a year where no big #1 contender stands out for me, but I have a lot of love for Cleo From 5 to 7, Last Year in Marienbad, One, Two, Three (I've rarely laughed harder), The End of Summer, La Dolce Vita and Through a Glass Darkly (though it's the least of the so-called "God" trilogy).

  12. Thanks, Ed! I'll be curious to hear how this one strikes you.

    Always great to hear from you. Thanks, Ed!