The director of On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan, participated in the House Committee of Un-American Activities’ witch-hunt of communists in the entertainment industry, and the movie is thought to be a response to the criticism he received from his colleagues afterward. The protagonist of On the Waterfront, Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) chooses to turn in the corrupt members of the union to which he belongs, a not-so-eerie parallel to Kazan’s participation with the House Committee of Un-American Activities – almost as if he used the movie to justify his actions. The movie promotes the idea that morality transcends personal friendships and that immorality is “un-American.” The “morality” in the battle between the HCUA and alleged communist filmmakers is relative, meaning it relies on the views of the people that sustains it rather than an appeal to some higher authority (like God), meaning the underlying philosophy of the film is simple: dissent itself is un-American.
We sat down with the Cleveland -born icon, 66, to chat about his extraordinary career, his thoughts on the evolving digital world, and surprising details about a historical epic that landed his writing in Playboy and will soon be broadcast as an FX miniseries.
First, tell us how you got your literary start.
“I was born in Ohio to a truck driver and a housewife. I played every sport and read every book I could get my hands on and knew at the age of seven that I wanted to be a writer. In 1971, I hitch-hiked to San Francisco to join the “Beat” poets, but I was 10 years too late, so instead I founded the Santa Cruz Poetry Festival, the nation’s largest literary event, with Ken Kesey and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ten years later, I went to UCLA film school and promptly sold five screenplays. I published a highly acclaimed San Francisco noir mystery, “Bohemian Heart” in 1993, and in 2004, my opus, “1906: A Novel” became a best seller and sold to Hollywood after a bidding war between Dreamworks and Warner Brothers. Since then, I’ve written the screenplays for all my books.”
What I find most interesting is the fact that documentaries are generally considered more “truthful” than biopics even though the documentarian has more tricks at their disposal to trick the audience into believing their message. Also, many documentaries are created with an agenda in mind, leading me to wonder why people don’t question their accuracy as much as they should. Outside of the cinematic style—one being creative non-fiction, the other a documentary—I don’t see a difference between Oliver Stone’s approach to Nixon and Michael Moore’s approach to Bowling for Columbine—both narratives are an alleged search for “truth.” But, there is a core difference that leaves me wondering if auteurs like Michael Moore should be held to a higher standard of fact checking.
The structure of a medium shapes the content it conveys, sometimes unintentionally. Take the advent and success of Netflix, for example. The company began as a DVD-by-mail service, saving film aficionados a trip to the local video store (and ultimately killing off that business model completely). Then, as the age of immediacy progressed, Netflix began offering its movies on demand service, giving audiences instant access to wide variety of movies and television shows.
Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is oft referred to as an anti-war, anti-military propaganda, but I believe the film isn’t “anti” anything – it just is. Full Metal Jacket takes us through the process of war – how one becomes a soldier, the mindsets they most adopt (or drop) to survive, the merciless battlefield and the dissolution of identity in war. We’re shown these aspects of war without too much bias on the auteur’s part, and the audience self-reflects and projects its own fears and desires onto the film.
I’m more of the “maintaining artistic integrity” type, meaning that historicity means less to me than style and the final theme conveyed by the story. My colleague, however, sees my viewpoint as “misleading.” She believes that audiences expect a truthful story when watching any kind of movie with real-life historical roots — even if it’s obviously historical fiction. Personally, I believe that’s a fault of modern society, that we’d pretty much accept a film’s depiction of a historical event without question, and the artist should have the creative license to do what he or she pleases. Oliver Stone is notorious for changing the facts of historical events for dramatic effect, as seen in Nixon, Stone’s 1995 account of Richard Nixon’s personal and political life.
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a tantalizing, yet disturbing analysis of primal human desire, ultimately concluding that all people, in some form or fashion, consciously or subconsciously enjoys afflicting and receiving pain as a method of self-growth through destruction. The protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont, is first depicted an unwitting participant in this cycle. He’s thrust into the mystery after finding a severed ear in an empty parking lot. He takes the ear to a detective, just as any “normal” person would do.
At this point, the story should end – Jeffrey’s completed his role as a responsible citizen, but his curiosity gets the best of him and he ends up breaking into the home of Dorothy Vallens, a dubious woman implicated in the case of the severed ear. Jeffrey’s just taken his first step into the world of masochism. Despite the fact that curiosity is a deeply ingrained function of the human psyche, Jeffrey knew this situation couldn’t end well. Despite the dangers, Jeffrey willingly engaged in this dangerous behavior, thus inflicting the mental pain of worry upon himself. Outside of the obvious, is there a big difference between Jeffrey’s behavior and the self-mortification of the flesh that some religious priests willingly undergo? At the core, both actions are the same.