restricted access Choreographing Emotions: Kazan’s CinemaScope Staging
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lisa dombrowski Choreographing Emotions Kazan’s CinemaScope Staging E lia Kazan’s philosophy of directing was quite simple: the director’s job is to arouse emotion in the viewer by“rendering psychology into behavior, into action.”¹ Most critics and historians have focused primarily on one method through which he achieved this goal: his knowing , manipulative, and inspired work with actors. It is not surprising that Kazan is lauded more as an actor’s director than as a visual stylist. His early years as an actor; his long career as a director in the Group Theatre and on Broadway; his central involvement with the Actors Studio and the teaching of the Method; and the impressive list of actors whose stars were launched via their work with Kazan—Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Lee Remick, among others—all testify to his tremendous ability to understand how best to elicit the desired emotion from a performance. On the other hand, Kazan’s visual style was less consistently vibrant, as he himself admitted; his films can appear more a series of individual experiments than a unified body of work marked by recurring stylistic traits. Nevertheless, sustained attention to Kazan’s visual style—particularly his excellent work on location—is long overdue. Beginning sporadically in Boomerang! (1947) and progressing through Panic in the Streets (1950), Viva Zapata! (1952), and On the Waterfront (1954), we see Kazan embracing the tools of cinematic staging beyond conventional scene coverage and cuts into close-ups. Twentieth Century-Fox launched CinemaScope in 1953, and the newwidescreensystemenabledKazantoexpandonhisearlystagingexperiments in a more systematic way. His two CinemaScope films, East of Eden (1955) and Wild River (1960)—both shot in rural locations—demonstrate the range of visual strategies Kazan utilized to express character conflict and emotion through widescreen staging and editing. Precise staging in depth, aperture framing, and dynamic movement between the foreground and background appear in both intricately choreographed long takes and more 164 lisa dombrowski conventionally edited sequences, boldly highlighting relationships between characters and their environments. This careful organization of spatial and graphic relationships within the frame links Kazan to a long line of visual stylists intent on crafting a cinema based in images rather than words. Kazan first internalized the role of staging in visual storytelling when he was at Yale University School of Drama. In his autobiography, Kazan describes an important lesson he learned from Alexander Dean, the professor of directing: “Dean taught directing as an art of position, picture, and movement. The stage positions and movements told the story of the scene and the relationship of the characters; in this way, behavior, feeling, and dramatic conflict were suggested. . . . The director’s job was to contrive a kinetic pattern that told what was happening. The actor, as a vehicle of expression, was not to be relied upon. The stage picture, as it developed, told the event.”² Position, picture, and movement—beyond simply dialogue and the actor’s performance, these were tools the director could use to clarify character relationships and emphasize dramatic conflict. When Kazan began directing at the Group Theatre, he felt Dean’s example gave him a leg up on his peers, who considered the job simply a matter of coaching actors. He vowed to achieve what Dean taught him: “the shaping of scenes and the manipulation of the positions and movements of actors so that the stage pictures revealed, at every moment, what happened, . . . My work would be to turn the inner events of the psyche into a choreography of external life.”³ This was a goal Kazan brought with him when he started to direct films. But he quickly found himself falling into a pattern whereby he blocked actors “moving in and out of dramatic arrangements just as I might have done on stage, with the camera photographing them mostly in medium shot,” and occasionally cutting into a close-up for emphasis.“In every difficulty, I’d rely on the spoken word rather than a revealing image.”⁴ Kazan approached Panic in the Streets as his opportunity to place a new emphasis on crafting a pictorial cinema, one in which stories are told through pictures and editing rather than through dialogue. In particular, he begins to stage action across multiple planes during extended takes, using precise movement and compositional cues to direct the viewer’s gaze. It is a visual strategy he adopts again in Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront and extends in new directions in East...


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