In 2003, when I was visiting professor at the University of Maryland, I sat in front of the television one night in March to watch the ritual of the Oscar Awards that year, that long and boring ceremony that has so much of the glamor of magazines of the heart and so much of sublime mediocrity.He endured the long ceremony because he was waiting for his peak moment, when Elia Kazan was to receive the Oscar for her lifelong work. Some of the Hollywood stars in the theater seats complied with the motto of not standing up or applauding while others cheered for him. And I felt part of both sides.A part of me was telling me that someone who had denounced his companions before the inquisition court set up by Senator Joe McCarthy to pursue suspected leftists and communists as heretics, at the climax of the Cold War, was not worth even one wakefulness; and the other part kept me in the chair because he was one of the directors that I admire the most, from my distant years as an operator in my uncle Ángel Mercado’s cinema booth, in my hometown of Masatepe.
Politics and art
In April 1952, Elia Kazan appeared to testify before the Anti-American Activities Committee of the House of Representatives, which then spread terror among intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers, immediately after participating in the award ceremony for the Oscars of That year, he was nominated for the Best Director Award for A Streetcar Named Desire, a film I can watch over and over again with the fascination of the first day.The question about whether it is possible to separate politics and art is not the correct one in this case. At this point, when Kazan has ascended to the Olympus of the great filmmakers, his political biography matters little, and will increasingly matter less, where it appears that after being a member of the Communist Party he was disappointed with Stalinism, and reluctant to that his artistic ideas had to be directed and approved by some bureaucrat, he renounced his militancy.The real question is opened by confronting the fact that the owner of a masterpiece like Rat’s Nest had sat in front of an inquisitorial court to supply a list of his fellow officers, who fit in the mold prefabricated by McCarthy of subversive intellectuals. dangerous to the national security of the United States. And, worse the contradiction, when we remember that in his films he always exalted the freedom of the individual against the interference of the State, the same that Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller defended, that totalitarian interference that McCarthy, a fanatic, represented in a furious way.
Art and ethics
The conflict then arises between art and ethics, and not between art and politics, and it is there that I was divided between the admiration for Elia Kazan and the pain of the denunciation that Elia Kazan was capable of and that it is impossible to justify under any premise..How, then, can one accept that someone who was able to perform East of Paradise was previously able to ruin others of his own trade forever by denouncing them?
Pettiness vs. Greatness
The accused, actors, playwrights, screenwriters, cameramen, many of them poor immigrants like Kazan himself, never received a contract in Hollywood again.And he did not do it out of fear, as he himself confessed, but “on principle”, although at the same time he regretted the fate of some of his victims, among whom was none other than Dashiell Hammett, the great master of the novel black.He had “remorse for the human cost” produced, but he did not regret it because he considered “having done the right thing to protect his career and because he believed that otherwise it would have benefited the Communist Party”, and therefore had no guilt to atone for.Those who opposed that Elia Kazan received the Oscar that night for the work of his life, what they claimed were these ethical reasons, and not the excellence of his films, which is beyond dispute.
Is it possible to separate one thing and another, admiration and condemnation? I tried to do it then, in front of the television, and I couldn’t. I try to do it again now, when there is so much talk about the behavior of artists and the consequences of that behavior for their work, and I have not succeeded either.I would have preferred an Elia Kazan convinced that denunciation does not fit on any ethical scale nor can it be lived with. This was believed by Chaplin and John Houston, who went into exile, and Humphrey Bogart, who did not bow down either.That Elia Kazan, and not the one who sat in front of the rabid witch-hunting committee, but whose films I will continue to see with the same admiration, even if someone else happens to put them on a blacklist.George Steiner remembers Wagner and Céline, hateful anti-Semites. To Heidegger, “the greatest among thinkers and the meanest among men”, admirer of the Führer.“So, maybe our luck is not getting to know them,” he says. But being willing to defend that his works are essential and no one should either expunge or ban them.In one of his most emphatic reflections on the art of writing, Flaubert claims that his greatest aspiration was to disappear behind his books, and not the other way around, when the author’s personality and opinions or behavior become more important and well-known than his own literary work. Disappear behind a book, a movie, a painting.After all, if an author is swallowed by oblivion along with his work, the centuries will have nothing to say. But if the work survives with its own majesty, it is the one that will continue to matter to us.