Friday, September 25, 2009

Elia Kazan's "East of Eden"

The movie came out in 1955, 3 years after the novel by John Steinbeck. It stars James Dean in his first major film role. Cal Trask, the black sheep, loves his father Adam (Raymond Massey) who favors the good son Aron (Richard Davalos) instead. When Adam's long-haul vegetable shipping venture failed, Cal Trask recoups his father's losses by speculating in beans. But Adam refuses to accept Cal's war profits. Cal hugs his father and begs for his love, in a scene melodramatic yet primal.

To take revenge, Cal tells Aron that their mother Kate (Jo Van Fleet), whom they believed dead, is actually living, and works as a madam. To escape the truth, Aron goes to war, and his departure causes Adam to suffer a stroke. Aron's fiancee Abra (Julie Harris), who transfers her affection from Aron to Cal throughout the movie, persuades Adam to show his need for Cal in order to save his son. This the father does, asking the son to get rid of the nurse and stay with him instead, and the film ends with reconciliation in the dark, sick room.

Beyond the obvious themes of sibling rivalry and generational conflict, the film is also concerned with the inhuman face of human goodness. Adam Trask is a good man. He is a fair wartime draft board chairman. He saves a German neighbor from a mob incensed by the loss of sons in the war. He rejects war profiteering. At the same time, he is also unable to understand his son's hunger for his love. His goodness is also cited by his wife as the reason why she had to leave him to be her own woman. If goodness is rightly unyielding, there is a wrong sense in which it is so.

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