Sunday, November 1, 2009
"The general heading of progress": Elia Kazan's WILD RIVER and the Tennessee Valley Authority
In 1937, the Farm Security Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority and a handful of other government agencies, commissioned Pare Lorentz to make a film about erosion in the Mississippi River, in order to raise awareness of the New Deal's resettlement program. The result is an epic Progressive doc, employing a gorgeous musical score and rhythmic "Whitmanesque" narration -- Lorentz referred to the film as an "opera," according to documentary historian Erik Barnouw. Narrator Thomas Charles intones, in the first person plural, a celebration of the damming of the river: "a series of great barriers that will eventually transform the old Tennessee in to a lake of freshwater pools, locked and dammed, regulated and controlled down 650 miles to Paduka."
(30 mins, available through the Moving Image Archive).
Wild River, the 1960 film which capped off the three-week long Elia Kazan festival at Film Forum, begins as a documentary in the vein of Lorentz -- a bewildered Tennesseean is interviewed on the tragic events of yet another flood and, through patriotism, Progressivism, and black & white footage of a deluged Tennessee town, the argument for the establishment of the TVA is set upright. However, as Kazan's film bursts into glorious color and narrative fiction, this sensible government program is slowly eroded.
Montgomery Clift, anxious and marvellously tanned in a tight grey flannel suit, is Chuck Glover, a TVA proxy in a small Tennessee town, sent to coax a firey octogenarian off her island farm. As he grows to admire Ella Garth's all-American tenacity, and begins an affair with her granddaughter Carol, Glover's authority is increasingly comprimised -- not least by the angry band of white Southern laborers (de rigueur for a postwar Serious Liberal Movie) who despise his desegregationist ways. Glover struggles to keep the Authority's work (a methodical deforestation of the river basin) on schedule before the water rises, and to find a replacement house that Ella Garth will approve of; Carol, widow and mother of two, works with new vigor to rebuild her abandoned honeymoon house (above the imminent tide line).
While the most apparent physical threat to Glover comes from the town's belligerent white men, Clift's character shrinks most, as supplicant and (once) as drunk, from the Garth women. When he first steps on the island, via rop-tow ferry, and climbs the hill to the steep-sloped house at it's peak, he's greeted -- or rather, ignored -- by four generations on the porch. Once he meets Ella Garth, Glover expends all his administrative energy in trying to please her, to find a proper house for her in the new development; to coax her off the island without the National Guard ("We can't use force!" is the imperative from the higher-ups.) Late one whisky-soaked night, Glover visits the island to pledge his devotion to Ella, who supresses a smile as he tumbles into the pumpkin patch and archly observes, "It's the first time I've ever liked you, Mr. Glover." Carol (played by Lee Remick, with high color on her cheeks and a determined crease between her eyebrows) is especially dominant. Kazan consistently shoots her larger than her male co-star, active and upright in the foreground while he slouches in the rear. Clift plays Chuck reticent and discomfited, the perfect well-behaved Northerner completely out of his element; he can't help but be dwarfed by Carol. When her house is rammed by a mob of angry locals, her first instict is to jump on their leader and bite his ear off; when she caresses her dead husband's shotgun in front of Chuck, her thoughts are obviously far from hunting geese.
Though not without its own naïveté, Kazan's film is responding with nuance and ambiguity to those dominating institutions of Lorentz's age, to Hollywood and the Tennessee Valley Authority. On the first level, there's the undermining of Clift as hero -- either as sexually desirable ("I'll leave, with or without you," Carol tells him) or as being able to fulfill the goals of the New Deal, to make Roosevelt's intentions felt anywhere but on paper. Is any man needed here? When Chuck first meets Carol and asks, consolingly, if Carol has a guy who can take her in when the river rises, she sarcastically retorts -- "Oh yeah, that's the answer to everything, if I got a fellow!"
On another level, of course, Wild River is seriously questioning the notion of the dam as good for America, as beneficial as the film of 1937 claimed. "File under the general heading of progress," Glover declares when his subordinates question directions from Washington. Lines like these are tinged with irony, but Kazan tops it all with the film's end shot. It's a moment that keeps this film from being heavy-handed, like a Stanley Kramer film, or even as tragic and critically acclaimed as earlier Kazan (maybe that's why contemporary critics didn't like it.) As Chuck, Carol and her children are flown out of Tennessee, they slowly approach the majestic dam, a giant chunk of concrete, monumental, a plug. A zoom mask comes in containing the dam in a laughing circle, ending the film not on true love, as this device is traditionally reserved for, but on a hilarious, profane wink: a giant, ugly thumb stuck up America's river.