Quite possibly the most tender documentary ever made about movies, A Letter to Elia is indeed a love letter—Martin Scorsese’s clip-laden mash note to his fellow director and friend, Elia Kazan, which screens this week as a New York Film Festival special event. But because Kazan (On the Waterfront, East of Eden) died in 2003, the doc can in some way be stamped as a letter never sent, which of course gives it even more power.
“It had to stay between me and [your] pictures,” Scorsese says more than once in Letter, co-written and -directed by Kent Jones, a critic-turned filmmaker and preservationist who has known the auteur since around the time of GoodFellas, and who now serves as executive director of the World Cinema Foundation, which Scorsese founded and chairs. The doc’s key philosophical tenet—a provocative one, particularly for those of us driven to say everything to our loved ones—is that you can’t tell an idol what he means to you. But you can show it—and Scorsese did, particularly in that other letter to Elia, Raging Bull.
“The mood of the film is very melancholy,” says Jones on the phone from the Telluride Film Festival, where Letter screened earlier this month. “It deals with the distance between admiring someone because you love their work and your actual human contact with them. Marty was friends with [Kazan] and also admired his films, and these were two completely different things.”
Scorsese, currently on the London set of his 3-D Hugo Cabret (another film about love, movies, and loving movies), wouldn’t comment for this piece. But he speaks plenty in A Letter to Elia—about his “stalking” East of Eden across New York City when he was a mid ’50s teen, about the “giving and receiving” transactions at the heart of cinephilia, and about Kazan’s fateful second appearance before HUAC in 1952, when he identified eight artists, including former Group Theatre colleagues, as communists.
“For Marty and me,” says Jones, “the question was how to talk in the film about the blacklist without making it the center of attention. We thought [a subtler] approach would work in part because, for Kazan, the blacklist remained a completely unresolved question. . . . In his autobiography, Kazan gives a dozen different reasons for why he did what he did. He apologizes in a dream to one of the people he named. That irresolution informed his movies and his solitude. In a weird way, it allowed him to break away from everybody.”
“I’m essentially an outsider,” Kazan says through the voice of Elias Koteas in Letter. “I had the intensity of my neuroses.” Good thing, too, at least for anyone who appreciates Kazan’s cinema, with movies like Panic in the Streets (1950) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) doing more than anything else to popularize method acting and a new realism of psychology and settings. Watching A Letter to Elia, one sees some of Kazan’s neuroses in Scorsese, as the younger man’s homage, conscious and unconscious, seems partly constructed to soothe an anxiety of influence.
But why is it, again, that Scorsese couldn’t come out and tell Kazan that he loved him so much?
Jones answers by recounting a friend’s brief encounter with Bob Dylan: “My friend goes up to Dylan and says, ‘You know, I just want to say to you that you’ve really changed my life. I don’t know who I would be if it wasn’t for your music.’ And Dylan just kind of looked at him, like, ‘What the fuck do you want me to do about it?’ Ultimately, there’s nothing Dylan can say. It is between [the audience] and the work.”
‘A Letter to Elia’ plays at the Walter Reade Theater September 27