Tuesday 2 February 2016

East of Eden (1955)

Øst for paradis
When I was a student in the nineties one of the cooler things to do in Århus was to watch art movies at the “Øst for paradis” cinema. I watched many memorable movies there (it still exists) and the place was really old school with none of the whistles and bells that became an integral part of cinemas during that decade. I never understood the name though. It translates to “East of Eden” and in my total ignorance I did not understand the reference. Until now.  

“East of Eden” is most commonly known as the first major movie James Dean starred in. It is also, but lesser known as, a terrific movie. As such I am surprised that it is not of the List, the only explanation I can see being that the other two James Dean movies, “Giant” and “Rebel without a Cause” are already there and three would be too many. That is a damn thin argument, but it is the only one I can find. Therefore I will add it to my list of movies that should be on the List and reward it with a review.

“East of Eden” is in some ways the opposite of “Rebel without a Cause”. It is a large movie, spanning a fairly long period, covering ground and a storyline with many elements, clearly an adaption of a book, whereas “Rebel…” was barely more than 24 hours and a story thin enough to be a short story. It is also a period piece where “Rebel…” was contemporary. The scale, threatening to become epic, is both a strength and a weakness. Weakness because I clearly sense there is a lot more in the story which is not told, background hinted at and gaps where something took place, the compromises movies always face when adapting a novel (in this case Steinbeck’s). But it is also a strength because it allows characters to develop and what is happening change them and that is critical in this movie. It is all about the characters.

This should not really come as a surprise. This is an Elia Kazan movie after all and he was more than most directors an actors director. All the principal characters are well rounded and allowed to develop, take a journey if you will, into something else and that transition is the real sell of the movie.

Very clearly this is meant as a Cain and Abel story, of a son vying for his father’s love and killing the loved one in the process. The fable is referenced so often and clearly during the movie that there is no doubt on that. However I am not so strong on Biblical fables, so I took another viewpoint (which may in the end turn out to be the same thing). As I see it this is about the conflict between what is considered right and what is really right. Or in a clearer phrasing: the conflict between adhering to rules for what is good and correct as opposed to recognizing other people, accepting and loving them for what they are. This may seem like the same thing, but they are radically different.

Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) is a California farmer who lives by the book, literally. He is good, does all the right things and adheres strictly to those. His manual is the Bible and it gives him confidence to know he is doing the right thing. Adam has two sons, Aron (Richard Davalos) and Caleb (James Dean). Aron is the good son who follows the same rules as his father and for that reason is his father’s favorite. Cal on the other hand frets under these rules. He is a rebel who goes his own ways and does not accept the rules as rules. Consequently he is bad. Not because what he does is so bad, but because he refuses to adhere to the rules.

Cal is constantly aware that he is deficient and unable to gain his father’s love. He suspect it is a trait inherited from his mother. Though presumed dead he finds her, now the wealthy proprietor of a brothel, and we learn than she too objected to the bondage of the rules Adam had set up. Adam preferred his rules to accepting and loving who she was and so she quit.

This somehow helps Cal and he sets out on a mission to win his fathers love. He works extra hard, devotes himself to support Adams dream and when that dream fails, to recover the loss. Cal is resourceful, but his project is in vain. He does not play by the book and so Adam cannot accept him. This reaches a climax with one of the most disastrous birthday parties in cinema history. Failing this project Cal in desperation opt for another approach and crashes the illusions Adam and Aron has built around them. It is dramatic and fatal, but it works. Finally he is through, but maybe too late.  

Aron’s girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris) is the one who can recognize other people and love them for who they are and she is the only one who sees Cal that way, although I suspect a few others, in particularly the Sheriff, in town do as well. In any case she becomes a counterpoint to the wall Cal keeps hitting.

What I really like here is how these people develop and how what they do lead them through this transition. Abra is growing up and her eyes open. Cal gains focus, Aron’s self-righteousness becomes more and more shrill until it is a crutch and Adam as the most extraordinary character struggles to escape his moral prison and understand his own son. This is all gold.

It is impossible to discuss “East of Eden” without talking about James Dean. He is very much the picture of James Dean here, at least I recognize so much of him from “Rebel…”. That is both good and bad. Clearly Kazan gave him free reins and so he does his things so much that he appears borderline retarded. I am not sure that is such a good thing. There is a little too much pent up emotion here, a little too raw a performance. It is clear to see why this made him iconic, but it is not always working for me. Dean is best when he is angry and less good when he is “lost for words”.

I liked “East of Eden” and I understand why it is a classic. What I do not understand is why the editors of the List did not see it that way.

Oh, and do look out for the most annoying nurse in cinema history.



  1. There was a good commentary on the DVD I watched. The film historian pointed out that that horrible nurse was actually the catalyst for whatever happy ending the story had. He also said that the movie tells only part of the story in the novel. I read a lot of Steinbeck back in college but I didn't happen to read that one. I think it's many hundred pages long.

    I'm with you on Dean. He has a tendency to go over the top that is mostly absent in Brando. I thought Kazan captured the time brilliantly. I like what you said about real good and bad and the appearance of good and bad. Or maybe they are talking about good and bad being constructs with most people somewhere in the middle?

  2. It always bothers me when a large novel is cooked down to feature length, especially if I have read the book. Probably why it bothers me less here, though there is so much more I would have loved to have known. That abbreviated feel is probably my biggest complaint.
    The discussion of absolutes is always interesting, but here I think it is whether or not you should let a codex decide what is good and right and proper and essentially run your life or if it is better to forget the codex and, yeah, accept that the heart matters more than the codex.

  3. I’ve actually been to the cinema Øst for Paradis. When I attended Testrup Højskole we went into Aarhus and saw Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. which was trippy :)

    I’ve seen East of Eden, which I liked but didn’t love. As you, I remember thinking the story had been condensed. For what it’s worth, the 600 page book was adapted into an 8 hour TV mini-series in 1981, I haven’t seen it though, so I can’t vouch for its quality

  4. I believe that was where I saw Mulholland Drive as well. I have not been there in, huh, 16 years though.
    Readiniig the book BEFORE watching the movie usually ruins it for me. Contact is a classic example. You know there is so much more and you really want it, but in all honesty it would probably sabotage the movie to make a litteral adaption. Only two cases where I can say it really worked was Das Boot and Lord of the Rings.

  5. Character development really is the strength of this movie and you have to look no further than Dean's character. He starts off really unlikable with the ice scene, but by the end of the film he's the only one who seems to have his head screwed on right and he's even sympathetic.

    1. I agree, the characters go through remarkable transitions. Cal goes from confusion to focus, while as you say everybody else looses theirs.