Netflix’s “The Polka King,” an unlikely-but-fact-based dark comedy

The Polka King
Directed by Maya Forbes and featuring Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, and Jackie Weaver
Netflix, 2018, 1h 35m

This dark comedy is based on the tumultuous life of Polka band leader, Jan Lewan(dowski) (photo right).

Plot

Polish immigrant, Jan Lewan (Jack Black), struggles to achieve the American dream. His Pennsylvania-based polka band and Polish gift shop teeter on insolvency, but Lewan has BIG plans and devises a pyramid investment scheme in order to finance them. Many of his polka fans are lured by promises of a 12% return on investment. Lewan’s “empire” appears to be on the rise, but cracks soon appear in the foundation. Try as he might, Lewan can’t seem to satisfy his wife’s (Jenny Slate) insatiable expectations that come with their nouveau riche lifestyle. As some investors begin to cash out, Lewan finds it harder and harder to make ends meet. Federal agents finally topple the house of cards and Lewan is imprisoned for five years. During that period, his throat is slit by his disturbed cellmate and his wife divorces him. Lewan was released from prison in 2005 and is still liable for the $5 million dollars taken from investors.

Commentary

This film is both comical and sad. Director/writer Maya Forbes and writer Wallace Wolodarsky have done a great job of translating this unlikely-but-true slice of Polish-Americana to the small screen. Jack Black’s performance may seem a bit “over the top” to the uninitiated, but those familiar with the Lewan story will agree that he catches the essence of the naively exuberant polka band leader. “The Polka King” premiered on Netflix on January 12th.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Covetousness is a sin we don’t hear too much about, but it drove Lewis into prison and it drives us as well. There may not be a European American ethnic group that’s more Catholic than Poles. This movie is saturated with symbols of Lewan’s and Polish Americans’ ritual Catholicism. As part of his growing financial “empire,” Lewan began conducting tours to European cities and Rome/the Vatican. An example of the band leader’s naiveté is when he arranges his first excursion to the Vatican and pays off a church official with a suitcase full of cash to secure an audience with pope John Paul II for his customers. Maybe he wasn’t so naive after all.

Advertisements

Frosty Friday Potpourri

I usually have only one message each day, but today I have several, so I’m combining them all as Frosty Friday Potpourri. Take heart, I’m going to try to keep them very brief.

P.S. I hope all of you in the Northeast are managing to stay warm! It’s zero degrees here in Rochester, N.Y. today!


* The Catholic talk radio show that I usually listen to for information purposes is revamping its format to deal with all the “confusion” in the church, i.e., pope Francis, so I’ve had more time to listen to Christian programming this week. A few days ago, Ligonier Ministries featured podcasts of the eulogies for R.C. Sproul at his memorial service (see below). My heart was touched, especially by part 1, which includes comments from John MacArthur. Thank you, Lord, for R.C.! Please, we need more like him!


* Speaking of John MacArthur, I noticed J. Mac has three new books slated for 2018. Prolific writer, that J. Mac! I expect all three books will contain very solid teaching. Some believers say we should only get our teaching from God’s Word and our pastors, but your pastor is referencing solid Biblical resources all the time. Praise the Lord for John MacArthur who is one of the very few “nationally known” pastors who still takes a public stand against Roman error.

  • “Good News: The Gospel of Jesus Christ” (due 1/16/18). See details at Amazon here.
  • “The Gospel According to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament” (due 3/31/18). See details at Amazon here.
  • “Christ’s Call to Reform the Church: Timeless Demands From the Lord to His People ” (due 10/2/18). See details at Amazon here.

* On the icy drive home from work yesterday, I was listening to Catholic talk radio, and the priest-host was discussing the Catholic church’s teaching that it’s not only possible to successfully obey the Ten Commandments (impossible!), but that it’s absolutely required in order to merit salvation. The priest cited pope John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of the Truth,” see here), which reaffirmed the church’s unchanging position that successful obedience of the Ten Commandments is a requirement for attaining salvation. Huh? God and the Catholic church disagree on this point. God says through His Word that the Law was given to show we are helpless sinners in desperate need of the Savior:

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin…Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:20 and 27-28.

Are you going to listen to the pope and priests and continue trying to merit your way into Heaven or are you going to agree with God that you are a helpless sinner in need of the Savior?


* When I walked away from the Lord for an extended prodigal “season,” I had to fill the void in my heart with something, so I turned to researching my Polish and German ethnic heritages. Part of that experience included becoming knowledgeable about and, yes, even enjoying, Polish American polka music!* The polka scene had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s with performers like Li’l Wally Jagiello, Marion Lush, and Eddie Blazonczyk. Although “melting pot” assimilation has taken it’s toll on the genre over the last fifty years, there are still many good polka bands out there, you just have to know where to look.

Anyway, I was browsing through the newspaper last night and I noticed on January 12th Netflix will be premiering “The Polka King,” a movie based on Jan Lewan(dowski), one of the top polka band leaders of the 80s and 90s, who was sent to prison for five years for bilking investors in a Ponzi scheme. See website here. One generalization about Polish-Americans, they are as blindly Roman Catholic as the day is long. There may not be a European ethnic group in America that’s more firmly entrenched in its institutional Catholic religiosity.


*Want to try some polka music but don’t know where to start? The absolute best polka album is “Live Wire, Vol. 1 & 2,” featuring Dave “Scrubby” Seweryniak and the Dynatones, recorded live at the Broadway Grill in Buffalo, New York in 1982. See here.  


Stay warm my friends! The average temperature here in Rochester the past two weeks was 17 degrees, a heat wave compared to today.

Capture660Capture661Capture662

List: The Nineteen Films of Elia Kazan with Reviews

Over the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of rewatching and reviewing all nineteen films of one of America’s most influential directors, Elia Kazan (1909-2003). Whew! That was a fun as well as challenging project. Thanks to all of you who accompanied me on this “journey.” Below is a handy listing of all of Kazan’s movies and links to my reviews.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
A hopeful young girl grows up in a poor family racked by alcoholism.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/elia-kazans-first-film-a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn/

The Sea of Grass (1947)
A tyrannical rancher withstands the onslaught of homesteaders.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/kazans-sophomore-stumble-the-sea-of-grass/

Boomerang (1947)
An honest DA must fight the temptation of an easy conviction.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/25/director-elia-kazans-third-film-boomerang/

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
A journalist discovers anti-Semitism permeates American society.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/gentlemans-agreement-moves-elia-kazan-to-the-top-of-the-directors-list/

Pinky (1949)
A bi-racial nurse confronts bigotry in her small corner of world.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/kazan-examines-racial-bigotry/

Panic in the Streets (1950)
A medical examiner has only hours to stem a city-wide epidemic.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/nobody-in-the-streets-ever-really-panicked-but-it-made-for-a-catchy-title/

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A harrowing game of cat and mouse as a Southern belle descends into madness.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/i-thought-you-were-straight/

Viva Zapata! (1952)
The politically oppressed must resist the temptation of becoming the oppressors.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/%e2%99%abyou-say-you-want-a-revolution-%e2%99%ab/

Man on a Tightrope (1953)
This Red Scare propaganda piece was Kazan’s penance for having been a member of the American Communist Party.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/i-might-have-been-a-commie-when-i-was-young-and-stupid-but-see-now-im-all-about-the-red-white-and-blue/

On the Waterfront (1954)
Longshoremen rebel against their corrupt union and Kazan defends his HUAC testimony.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/you-dont-understand-i-coulda-had-class-i-coulda-been-a-contenduh-i-coulda-been-somebody-instead-of-a-bum-which-is-what-i-am-lets-face-it/

East of Eden (1955)
Two very dissimilar sons compete for their father’s affections.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/east-of-eden-the-gospel-according-to-two-atheists/

Baby Doll (1956)
Everyone’s seeking justice in this Southern black comedy.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/baby-doll-sometimes-big-shot-you-dont-seem-to-give-me-credit-for-very-much-intelligence-at-all-ive-been-to-school-in-my-life-and-im-a-magazine-reader/

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
A “ne’er do well” transforms into a populist Pied Piper.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/demagogue-in-denim/

Wild River (1960)
An elderly matron stands up to the federal bureaucratic steamroller.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/pushing-aside-the-little-guy-for-the-greater-good/

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Young love disintegrates under family pressures.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/elia-kazans-splendor-in-the-grass-hit-me-hard-when-i-was-a-young-teen/

America America (1963)
Kazan retraces his uncle’s journey to America.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/i-believe-i-believe-that-in-america-i-believe-i-will-be-washed-clean/

The Arrangement (1969)
A successful but frustrated advertising executive tries to find happiness.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/talk-about-a-mid-life-crisis/

The Visitors (1972)
The horrors of the Vietnam War come home to America.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/kazans-look-at-vietnam-on-a-shoestring-budget/

The Last Tycoon (1976)
A cutthroat movie studio executive meets his match.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/kazans-fade-to-black/

Kazan’s fade to black

The Last Tycoon
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Robert De Niro, Ingrid Boulting, Robert Mitchum, Theresa Russell, and Jack Nicholson
Paramount, 1976, 123 minutes

Film producer, Sam Spiegel, tapped successful playwright, Harold Pinter, and director, Mike Nichols, to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel, “The Last Tycoon,” to the screen. When Nichols bailed on the project, Spiegel desperately turned to his “On the Waterfront” director, Elia Kazan. “The Last Tycoon” would be Kazan’s last film.

Plot

Monroe Stahr (De Niro) is the ruthless, arrogant, production executive at a major film studio in 1930s-era Hollywood. He’s so successful he routinely flouts the studio president, Pat Brady (Mitchum). When an earthquake causes a flood on the lot, Stahr spots Kathleen Moore (Boulting) clinging to a massive floating movie prop; the head of the Hindu god, Shiva, and instantly falls in love with this young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife. Brady’s daughter, Cecilia (Russell), has a schoolgirl crush on Stahr, but he only has eyes for Kathleen.  A relationship ensues, but Kathleen attempts to break it off by leaving a note stating she’s engaged. Stahr won’t take no for an answer and pursues the enigmatic Kathleen at the expense of his studio responsibilities. When Kathleen telegrams him that she married her fiancé, Stahr is crushed. He attempts to vent his anger and frustration in a meeting with a union organizer (Nicholson), but succumbs to a forceful right hook. While Cecilia consoles the physically and emotionally battered Stahr, Brady and the studio board smell blood. Stahr is dismissed and takes one final, lonely walk through the lot.

Commentary

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished, last novel was inspired by MGM’s legendary, golden-boy producer, Irving Thalberg. Sixty-seven-year-old Kazan had not directed a film in four years, but he accepted Spiegel’s offer to direct “The Last Tycoon” mainly as an opportunity to move from New York to California so that his terminally-ill mother could escape the bitterness of another New York winter. Unlike his previous film projects, Kazan had no input into the script. There is very little about this movie that distinguishes it as a Kazan film.

There’s none better than De Niro in portraying a mafia goon, but he’s out of his league playing the sharp-as-a-tack Stahr, who must deftly orchestrate ten or twenty film projects in his head nineteen hours a day. De Niro lost forty-pounds in preparation for the role of the sickly executive. Boulting is so detached in her performance she simply can’t muster any interest from the audience. One of the few bright spots in this movie is Theresa Russell in her film debut. A number of screen notables make appearances including Tony Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, John Carradine, Anjelica Huston, and the legendary French film actress, Jeanne Moreau.

“The Last Tycoon” is a paper-thin story that generates little audience interest. While there are a few decent performances, it’s not enough to save this clunker. Kazan wrote later that he immediately knew he had a dog on his hands the day of the first private screening. Unfortunately, the great director finished his film career on this sour note.

There are no extras with the DVD.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Like the character, Monroe Stahr, and his inspiration, Irving Thalberg, Elia Kazan had also been one of the entertainment industry’s wunderkind “golden boys.” In the 1940s and 1950s, no other American director could rival Kazan’s combined standing in Hollywood and Broadway. But as Kazan became increasingly involved in autobiographical projects in the 1960s, audiences lost interest and his star began to descend. Kazan would finish his life writing novels for an ever-dwindling readership. He died in 2003.

Kazan’s rise and fall is another reminder to us that life without Christ is unfulfilling and ultimately, deadly. Kazan achieved great career success and was the toast of both coasts, but was also haunted by his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Atheist Kazan had remarkable insights into human beings; their strengths and especially their weaknesses. But he had no answers, only questions.

LTyc

Star Wars’ quasi-spirituality: Everybody worships something.

My wife and I were blessed to have our youngest son, son B, stay with us the last ten days. He’s an Air Force sergeant stationed down in Texas, so we only get to see him once a year. Both of our two sons are atheists, but son B is an especially hardcore scoffer.

Our oldest son, son A, who lives about 5 miles from us, planned a few family activities while his brother was in town, including all of us going to the movie theater this past Saturday night to see “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Argh!!! Some of you may think I’m a big movie buff because of my reviews of films directed by Elia Kazan, but going to the movies is actually one of the last things I want to do, ESPECIALLY to a “Star Wars” movie. Ach! I’d much rather watch paint dry on a wall than go see a “Star Wars” movie. Several times I privately shared with son B my strong reluctance to see the movie.

So Saturday morning, my wife and I, our two sons, and oldest granddaughter had breakfast at Donuts Delite, Rochester’s legendary donut shop (see here for my review). I had the usual; a cup of joe, two giant slices of breakfast sausage pizza, and a vanilla crème-filled donut. The best! Son A then announced he and son B would go Christmas shopping and then call my wife and I to meet them at the movie theater later that evening. Argh! I definitely didn’t want to go and deliberated in my head how I was going to get out of it. The only hiccup was that my wife and I had previously asked son B to attend church with us Sunday morning, not exactly something at the top of his hit parade. Would son B strategically use my refusal to see “Star Wars” as an excuse for him not to go to church the next day? Yes, he certainly would. Time passed and it was getting late and I thought I might be spared “Star Wars” torture, but son A called at 6:40PM to say he had bought tickets for the 7PM show. Ach! Double ach! But I bit the bullet and drove to the theater without voicing an audible complaint.

Once at the theater, we sat through several previews and I noticed some of the upcoming movies had a pronounced “spiritual” theme including “A Wrinkle in Time” starring New Age high priestess, Oprah Winfrey. Then came “Star Wars.” Ach, “Star Wars!” It’s a cultural phenomenon! People soak it up like religion. And it is religion for them. There’s lots of references to good versus evil and the hazy “force.” People will willingly subject themselves to every new chapter of fictional “Star Wars”-spirituality but cannot sit still for one second under Gospel preaching. But I don’t get freaked out by “Star Wars” and its quasi-spirituality. The lost flail around trying to make sense of the Universe. The never-ending conflict between bad-guy First Order villains and the good-guy Rebels aided by the nebulous “force” appeals to them much more than the Biblical way of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. The lost definitely worship at the altar of entertainment. It’s spiritual blindness. After 150 very long minutes, the final credits thankfully rolled.

Yes, son B did attend church with us the following morning without nary a protest and he got to hear an excellent message on salvation in Christ. Thank you, Lord! Was there a crack in his hard heart? We pray the Lord continues to work in the hearts of our two boys.

Postscript: If you’re a Christian and a casual “Star Wars” fan, my apologies. I can enjoy and even cull spiritual lessons from the films of atheist director, Elia Kazan. Perhaps you can do the same with “Star Wars”?

Kazan’s look at Vietnam on a shoestring budget

Elia Kazan had been one of America’s most celebrated and influential film and theatrical directors in the 1940s and 50s, but by the early 1970s, after the financial failure of five of his previous six movies, he could not find backing for a new film project written by his son, Chris Kazan, which explored themes regarding the unpopular Vietnam War. Kazan opted to film “The Visitors” himself on a shoestring budget using a 16mm camera.

The Visitors
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring James Woods, Patricia Joyce, Steve Railsback, Chico Martinez, and Patrick McVey
United Artists, 1972, 88 minutes

Plot

Bill (Woods) and Martha (Joyce) and their infant child live in a Connecticut farmhouse owned by Martha’s domineering father, Western pulp fiction writer, Harry (McVey). They are not married and their relationship seems to be somewhat strained.

Two visitors, Sarge aka Mike (Railsback) and Tony (Martinez), show up at the house unexpectedly. They had served together in the same platoon with Bill in Vietnam, but Bill had testified against them at a court martial for wartime atrocities. The pair had been released due to a legal technicality after having been imprisoned for two years and had driven from Kansas to Connecticut to find Bill. The intentions of the visitors are unclear and Bill is nervous and fearful.

Harry stops by for a visit. He’s an overbearing redneck who enjoys the company of the two manly guests as much as he openly despises his daughter’s passive boyfriend.

As the night progresses, Martha learns from Bill the details of the wartime atrocity, which involved the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl, and she angrily confronts Sarge. While she abhors him, she is also strangely attracted to his aggressive demeanor. Bill breaks things up and attacks Sarge. A fight ensues and Bill is beaten to a bloody pulp. Martha is also attacked. The visitors leave, satisfied that they have meted out justice. After Bill regains consciousness, he asks Martha if she’s all right. She just stares back at him with silent contempt.

The moral of the story: It was bad enough to see the violence of Vietnam on the television screen, but it was something altogether different when it crossed over your threshold.

Commentary

Kazan stated in an interview that “The Visitors” was an “anti-war picture,” and that it was about “the price of the Vietnam War on the soul of the American people.”  While the production quality is unsurprisingly low given the budget constraints, the rising tension between the characters is palpable. Railsback’s character is especially convincing as a coiled cobra patiently waiting to strike its victim. The script was loosely based on a portion of Daniel Lang’s book, “Casualties of War” (1969), which also inspired Brian De Palma’s same-titled 1989 film.

Like the Bill character, Kazan had also testified against his friends at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1952 when he named the names of former associates of the American Communist Party. While I haven’t read of Kazan having ever been physically attacked because of his testimony, he was widely ostracized by liberals on both coasts until his death in 2003.

The shoestring-budget movie was filmed at Kazan’s home and property in Sandy Hook, Newtown, Connecticut (yes, THAT Sandy Hook where 20 elementary school children and 7 adults were massacred by a disturbed young man in 2012). It’s unique among all of Kazan’s films because of its extremely basic, no-frills production quality. “The Visitors” had an extremely limited release. Of all of Kazan’s nineteen films, “The Visitors” is the only one not on DVD, but it is available as a VHS tape and through Amazon streaming.

Additional thoughts from a believer

The United States’ protracted involvement in the Vietnam War wore down the resolve of the American people. By the time Kazan made “The Visitor” in 1972, the nation had had enough. In 1973, America ceased military operations in Vietnam. South Vietnam eventually fell to the North Vietnamese-led forces in 1975.

The First World War was proclaimed to be “the war that would end all wars.” International organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations were established to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts. But conflicts and wars continue. As the Bible says, the hearts of men are desperately wicked. Individuals have a difficult time maintaining harmonious relationships let alone nations. The only lasting peace comes through a relationship with the Lord, Jesus Christ. Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.

picture-65

 

Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed The World

I’m a bit behind on my reviews, so I’m going to keep the next several somewhat brief.

Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed The World
Directed by David Batty, narrated by Hugh Bonneville, and featuring Padraic Delaney as Martin Luther.
PBS, 2017, 120 minutes

I missed this docu-drama when it aired on PBS back in September as part of the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so I recently ordered the DVD. I enjoyed “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed The World” quite a bit. It’s clear that this was a low-budget production and written with a wide audience in mind, but it surprisingly tells Luther’s story quite accurately, including the reclaiming of the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Multiple sound bites from the most powerful Catholic clergyman in America, cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, are included in the first half of the film. Dolan concedes that the Catholic church was exceedingly corrupt at the time of the Reformation and he praises Luther for his zeal. However, he makes sure to point out that some monarchs supported Luther only as part of an effort to usurp territory held by Rome. No debate with that, but leave it to Dolan to draw attention to the temporal sidebars of the Reformation rather than to the spiritual battle of whether man is saved by Catholicism’s false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit or by the Biblical Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. The film does focus on the moment when the Holy Spirit used Romans 1:17 to enlighten Luther to the Gospel of grace.

“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

I’m not altogether pleased with the title of this documentary. It infers that the Gospel was Luther’s “idea.” Rather, Luther, along with others, recovered the New Testament Gospel that had been buried under layer upon layer of ecclesiastical ritual, tradition, legalism, and ceremony.

Praise the Lord for Luther and all the Reformers who were used by the Holy Spirit to return the church to the Gospel of grace. I’m definitely going to watch this film again. Order from Amazon here.

Postscript: Catholics should have absolutely zero objections to Martin Luther and the Reformation at this point because their current pope says even atheists can merit Heaven if they follow their conscience.

Talk about a “mid-life crisis”!

The Arrangement
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr, and Richard Boone
Warner Bros., 1969, 125 minutes

Following the release of his previous film, “America America” (1963), director Elia Kazan turned to writing fiction. His semi-autobiographical novel, “The Arrangement,” was surprisingly the highest-selling fictional work of the year when it was published in 1967. Kazan adapted the novel to the screen two years later.

Plot

Middle-aged Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas) is a successful advertising executive living a very comfortable, upper middle-class lifestyle with his wife, Florence (Deborah Kerr), in a sprawling California home complete with servants and an in-ground pool. But Eddie secretly despises the “arrangements” and compromises he’s made in his life and unsuccessfully attempts suicide on the highway. While recovering, Eddie has flashbacks of his unsatisfying career and of the young, outspoken, co-worker, Gwen (Faye Dunaway), who goaded him to follow his own desires and who he partnered with in an extramarital affair. Following his recovery, Eddie reluctantly returns to the job he hates but finds he cannot tolerate it and surrealistically buzzes the company office tower in his private plane as his final parting shot.

As Florence wonders WHAT is going on with her suddenly unhinged husband, Eddie is summoned to New York City to be with his ailing father (Richard Boone). He also uses the opportunity to visit Gwen, who had moved to the Big Apple primarily to get away from Eddie. Although Gwen has a new boyfriend, Eddie is undeterred. Meanwhile, Florence chases Eddie to New York to keep close tabs on her unpredictable husband.

Eddie sneaks his father out of the hospital in the middle of the night according to his wishes and brings him back to the old family homestead. The old Greek is suffering from dementia and insists Eddie take him to the bank for a loan to restart his rug business. At the house, Eddie has painful childhood flashbacks of his domineering and abusive father.

After the family absconds with the father and commits him to a nursing home, Eddie walks in on a meeting with Florence and her lawyer, Arthur (Hume Cronyn), as they draw up divorce papers. Eddie is arrested after setting fire to the old family home (symbolizing the extirpation of the painful childhood memories) and being shot by Gwen’s jealous boyfriend. Eddie is subsequently committed to a mental institution where he’s satisfied to stay, but Gwen prods him into leaving and moving forward with his life. The father dies and the family gathers at the cemetery; Eddie and Gwen are together while Frances appears to have found a new provider in Arthur.

Commentary

While the film is not completely autobiographical, it does draw very heavily on the director’s life experiences. Kazan later wrote extensively on his troubled relationships with his father, his first wife, Molly Thatcher, and his spirited mistress and second wife, actress Barbara Loden. He had also experienced a bit of a personal, water-shed crisis after becoming extremely dissatisfied with his role as a theatrical director while desiring to be a writer.

Kazan admitted later that alpha-dog, Douglas, was all wrong for the part of troubled Eddie. His take-charge personality could not be concealed from the camera. Dunaway is bit over-dramatic as the strong-willed mistress. Kazan originally envisioned Barbara Loden playing the part of Gwen, which would have equated to the former-mistress-turned-wife portraying herself. Boone is spot-on as the overbearing father and Kerr is okay as the painfully long-suffering wife.

Kazan employs a number of questionable techniques in this film which serve as distractions. There’s some cartoonish “Ka-pow” graphics straight out of the then-popular Batman television show. The conflicted Eddie is made to debate his successful and sales savvy alter-ego within the same scene. Adult Eddie is present as an observer in flashbacks to his youth. There’s also plenty of flashy editing that was “cutting edge” hip in the late 60s.

“The Arrangement” was not well-received by the public. Kazan later blamed the film’s failure on some missing key elements from the novel that had to be left out of the script for brevity’s sake. This film has only a few redeeming qualities, but Kazan fans will appreciate the many references to his own personal life, which he elaborated on in great detail in his fascinatingly candid 1988 autobiography. “The Arrangement” was one of the first films dealing with “finding one’s true path,” a theme that would later preoccupy Hollywood. The 2007 DVD offers no commentary although the trailer and an interesting but short promotional documentary are included.

Additional thoughts from a believer

We’re all aware of the fabled, “mid-life crisis.” We’ve seen others go through it to some degree and, if we’re old enough, we’ve seen it in ourselves. A person reaches their forties or fifties and is confronted with their mortality. They ask themselves, “Is this all there is to life?” After working hard for so many years to please others by conforming to family or societal expectations, some resolve to please only themselves with the remaining time they have. Sometimes they go to sadly comical, stereotypical extremes like the 55-year-old guy who buys a high-performance, red convertible sports car and dumps his wife for a 30-year-old girlfriend.

The protagonist in “The Arrangement” is suffering through a “mid-life crisis” on steroids. Will he find true and lasting happiness and fulfillment as a struggling writer living with his former mistress? Me thinks not. Much of “The Arrangement” reminds me of the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:1-2). Without Jesus Christ as your Savior, life is empty, life is meaningless, life is hopeless. Accept Christ as your Savior. Christ can save you from the coming judgement for your sin and give your life everlasting meaning in Him.

Kazan went on to write five more novels, but none would reach even a fraction of the popularity of “The Arrangement.” He began divorce proceedings against Loden in 1978, but dropped the suit when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was followed by terminal liver cancer.

Trivia: “The Arrangement” is actually something of a sequel to “America America.” Eddie is the nephew of the protagonist of the 1963 film, Stavros Topouzoglou. In “The Arrangement,” the much-older Stavros is shown covetously eyeing the shoes of his dying brother, eliciting memories of the importance of a pair of shoes in the earlier film. Grizzled actor, Richard Boone, who portrayed Douglas’ father in the film, was actually six-months younger than his co-star.

Speaking of nuns in crisis!

 

Only a few days ago, I had posted a message about a Catholic nun who was thrown into a tizzy by the changes of Vatican II. See here. I see that an independent film is being released today (on a limited basis) that shares a similar theme with, no doubt, a different outcome. “Novitiate” tells the tale of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young Catholic woman who enters the nunnery in 1964. This is during the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), when the Catholic church was making drastic changes to its procedural window dressings. The Mother Superior (Melissa Leo) runs the nunnery like a Marine boot camp and tolerates nothing less than absolute submission and obedience. “Faith” for these young nuns is a grueling ladder, with each step hoped to be leading ever higher to “holiness” and merited salvation. Self-mortification is not only encouraged but demanded. As Vatican II eases some of the rigors of religious life, the Mother Superior and other nuns experience a jolting crisis of faith. Their self-identity is totally bound up in their order’s extreme asceticism. The council’s abrupt changes pull the chair completely out from underneath them.

As an ex-Catholic who grew up in the 1960s and attended parochial grammar school, I can attest to the significant changes wrought by Vatican II. The nuns’ garb changed from starched medieval habits to matronly jumper dresses. We had previously been taught that all Protestants were going to hell, which was changed to the teaching that those outside the church would be judged according to “the light they had been given.” Huh? The mass was said in English rather than Latin and guitars and religious folk songs replaced organs and hymns. These changes caused great consternation among the laity, but even more so among the religious. But despite all of these alterations in form, the major Catholic doctrines remained unchanged. Catholicism’s false gospel of sacramental grace and merit remained.

I understand that this film addresses lesbianism in Catholic convents to some degree (which would explain the R-rating). There are those who will find that off-putting, but the reality was that “celibate” convent life did foster sexual deviancy. The many autobiographies of ex-nuns published by Protestant publishing houses in the 19th and early-20th centuries lightly touched upon the sexual deviancy that was rampant in convents, but Catholic spokespersons at the time dismissed all the accounts as pure fiction. After decades of scandalous headlines, few would defend the notion that “chastity” was adhered to in convents, seminaries, and rectories. Those places were clearly hothouses for deviant immorality. I can remember back in 7th and 8th grade how one of our nuns, Sister Maryann, subtly introduced approbation of same-sex relationships into her English literature classes. One not-so-subtle example was the fiction novel she assigned over the summer following 7th grade that dealt with homosexuality. The nun was noticeably on the masculine side and appeared to us students to have an unusually close relationship with one of the other nuns. I was only a kid at the time, but I was no dummy.

“Novitiate” is being released today on a limited basis. It’s scheduled to open at Rochester’s home of artsy films, The Little Theater, on November 24th.

This post is not an endorsement of the film, because I obviously have not seen it yet. But I’m posting this as a heads-up for those who are curious about the doggedly militant brand of Catholicism that I grew up in the first ten years of my life. The attached trailer is not sensationalistic. This was the Catholicism I knew as a young boy.

In the film’s trailer, the distraught Mother Superior asks a poignant question:

“The church gave me my work, my community, even my identity, and now the church is trying to invalidate all that, saying none of it matters. So my question is, what is it that really does still matter?”

Ah, great question, Mother Superior! Excellent question! And sometimes in real life the Lord does have to pull the carpet out from under us in order to get our attention. Friends, religious legalism and ceremonial ritualism don’t matter, not even one small bit. None of us are good. None of us can merit Heaven. But Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Do you qualify? Repent of your sins and reach out to Him in prayer. Accept Him as your Savior by faith alone then ask the Lord to lead you to an evangelical church in your area that teaches God’s Word without compromise.

I am a Catholic. Why should I consider becoming a Christian?
https://www.gotquestions.org/Catholic-Christian.html

Film Review: ‘Novitiate’
Film Review: ‘Novitiate’

“I believe, I believe that in America, I believe I will be washed clean.”

America America
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Stathis Giallelis, Lou Antonio, John Marley, Paul Mann, and Linda Marsh
Warner Bros., 1963, 168 minutes

After directing fifteen films based on the ideas and scripts of others, Kazan worked up the nerve to write the screenplay of “America America” by himself. The movie loosely chronicles the immigration of Kazan’s uncle to America.

Plot

With the Armenian and Greek minorities facing increasing intolerance and persecution in 1890’s Turkey, the Greek Topouzoglou family sends their eldest son, Stavros (Giallelis), from their small village to Constantinople in the hope that he can establish the family in the relatively safer environs of the city. But Stavros secretly dreams of immigrating to the mythical America, with its promises of security and prosperity. Along the journey to the city, the naive and trusting Stavros is robbed of his family’s cherished possessions by a comical Turkish rascal (Antonio) and arrives at his cousin’s rug store with only the clothes on his back. Stavros balks at his cousin’s scheme to marry a wealthy merchant’s unattractive daughter and begins working as a lowly hamal (porter) to buy passage to America. After months of back-breaking toil, he is robbed of his savings by a prostitute. Stavros associates with a group of anarchists and is nearly killed in a government ambush. He returns half-dead to his cousin and disingenuously agrees to marry the daughter of merchant Aleko Sinnikoglou (Mann). Stavros has feelings for the plain Thomna (Marsh) and is tempted by the comforts of domesticity, but won’t be swayed from his goal. The middle-aged wife of one Sinnikoglou’s wealthy customers takes a shine to young Stavros and arranges for his ocean passage to America as her traveling “companion.” When her husband learns he’s been betrayed, he tries to have the young Greek returned to Turkey, but Stavros takes the identity of a deathly-sick Armenian friend (Gregory Rozakis), who voluntarily jumps overboard so that Stavros may realize his dream. Stavros arrives at Ellis Island and kneels down to kiss American soil. He shines shoes in New York City with a passion, saving his hard-earned coins in order to eventually bring his family to America.

AAA
Stavros (Stathis Giallelis) is tempted by Thomna (Linda Marsh) and her family to remain in Constantinople and enjoy the pleasures of domesticity

Comments

Kazan based his novel, “America America” (1962), and the subsequent film adaptation on the journey of his uncle, Joe Kazan, who had a cameo in one of Kazan’s early films; “Boomerang.” Kazan moved the filming to Greece because of Turkish censorship. The breathtaking black and white cinematography was done by the legendary Haskell Wexler. Newcomer Giallelis’ performance at times borders on the amateurish and his broken English is occasionally undecipherable, but his facial expressions are wonderfully dramatic. The 22-year-old Greek actor had to learn English for this role. Kazan employed a large number of weathered native non-actor extras who sharply contrast with the professionals of Kazan’s Actor’s Studio. Linda Marsh breaks your heart as the rejected bride-to-be and deserved an Oscar nomination. Paul Mann is outstanding as the domineering but big-hearted future-father-in-law. The film won an Oscar for Best Art Direction and was also nominated for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

“America America” was Kazan’s favorite film. It’s extremely long at almost three hours, but I would have a hard time deciding which scenes to cut. This is a wonderful movie, an epic testament to the courage and determination of our immigrant ancestors who sought the freedoms of America. They pined for an America where they heard the streets were literally paved with gold and where they would be “redeemed” and washed clean (of the injustices of the old homeland), as Stavros says in the film. However, after they arrived in America, many immigrants found the conditions in the late 19th and early 20th-century urban sweat shops and tenements to be as oppressive as conditions in the “old country.”

Warner Bros. finally released this film on DVD in 2011. Film historian, Foster Hirsch, provides an informative and infectiously enthusiastic commentary. Kazan would go on to complete the trilogy of Stavros’ epic tale with the novels, “The Anatolian” (1982), and “Beyond the Agean” (1994). Spoiler alert: In his later years, Stavros becomes disillusioned with America and yearns for the old homeland.

See one of the trailers for “America America” here.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Kazan directed “America America” when he was 54 years old. Once the celebrated “golden boy” of Hollywood and Broadway, the despised, friendly-witness of the 1952 House Un-American Activities Committee would direct only three more films. Like “America America,” they would all be commercial failures. Kazan always felt uncomfortable as a Greek immigrant outsider in Hollywood’s illusory world of homogenized glamour. With this movie, Kazan embraced his ethnic roots and, in a certain sense, tried to come to terms with his strained relationship with his deceased father.

Everyone who doesn’t know the Lord has a spiritual void they seek to fill. When I walked away from the Lord for many years, I tried to fill the vacuum by reading many books about my ethnic heritage. It became an obsession. Millions of Americans log into Ancestry.com every day to try to determine exactly who they are in this rootless society. In the end, it doesn’t satisfy. The only Rock and sure foundation is the Lord, Jesus Christ. If He is not your personal Savior, you don’t have anything.