Splendor in the Grass

(Elia Kazan, USA, 1961)


1. Encyclopedia Entry 2003


From the first notes of David Amram’s intense score and the opening image of Bud (first-timer Warren Beatty) and Deanie (Natalie Wood) kissing in a car by a raging waterfall, Splendor in the Grass sums up the appeal of Hollywood melodrama at its finest: the passions repressed by society (the setting is Kansas 1928) find a displaced expression in every explosive burst of colour, sound and gesture.


Repression is everywhere in this movie, a force that twists people in monstrous, dysfunctional directions. Men are obliged to be successful and macho while women must choose between virginity and whorishness – as is the case for Bud’s unconventional flapper sister, indelibly incarnated by Barbara Loden.


Director Elia Kazan, like Arthur Penn, worked at the intersection of studio-nurtured classical narrative and the innovative, dynamic forms introduced by Method acting and the French New Wave. Here, collaborating with the dramatist William Inge, he achieved a sublime synthesis of both approaches.


The film offers a lucid, concentrated analysis of the social contradictions determined by class, wealth, industry, technology, moral values and gender roles within the family unit. At the same time, it is a film in which the characters register as authentic individuals, acting and reacting in a register that is far from the Hollywood cliché.


2. Notes from a 1982 Lecture


Splendor in the Grass sits astride two great decades of film style, the 1950s and the 1960s. We tend to think of style, reductively, as decoration, ornamentation, flourish, mere effects. Pure surface overlay, like a varnish. Even some scholars fight shy of the word, because of these enduring associations. When, in fact, style should imply form, expression, genuine and full substance.  This is why the common expression of “that movie is all style and no substance” is so stupid. Style is substance in cinema – or, at any rate, it can be, and often is. As Richard T. Jameson suggested in a sturdy 1980 Film Comment piece, it’s a matter of fiddly “style” versus real style.


Splendor in the Grass is a tremendous, positive example of real style. Kazan’s film is a melodrama; in fact, it is among the greatest screen melodramas. Melodrama is tied to a certain exaggeration – of traits, of forms, of emotions. It is often described as histrionic, and that can be a useful descriptive term, not an automatic put-down.


But histrionics is not only about what fictive characters do and feel. In melodrama, the entire film is an embodiment, an expression, of energy (see Thomas Elsaesser’s landmark essay “Tales of Sound and Fury” for more on this) – an energy that can go in many directions. In Kazan (as in Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli), the melodramatic style itself aims to unleash and unbind this energy, to provide an ultimately reflective and critical channel for it.


What is the thesis or argument of Splendor in the Grass? It concerns neurosis, somatisation, internalisation – a veritable energy crisis! The body is marked by the social problems existing outside of it, and then it convulses in hysterical reaction. This is a Freudian, psychoanalytic schema of the hysterical symptom (you can read about it in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Stuart Cunningham, and elsewhere). Such symptoms are a wild, unfocused, only half-rational expression of resistance to the ills, miseries and oppressions wrought by the social system (almost any existing social system!). This world is – to refer to Glauber Rocha’s Brazilian masterpiece of the 1960s – in a trance, in an uncontained, somatic flux. Michael Walker (in an unpublished draft) speaks of “the psychic interplay of inner reality and a whole culture”. Such is the terrain of much screen melodrama.


In Kazan (as in our lives), a nodal point of this process is sexuality: what is repressed inevitably returns, in a displaced or distorted fashion. Robin Wood has written much on this idea. Look, for instance, at how Splendor in the Grass plays on the literally “fantastic” possibility of parent-child incest. As a perversity that cannot be openly acknowledged or thought about, it emerges as a cry, a dare, a horrific apparition, as Deanie hurls the sight of her naked body at a scandalised mother, or Ginny drunkenly embraces her father. (Michel Ciment, in his entry on the film for the Casterman Dossiers du cinéma anthologies of the early 1970s, notes the material’s intriguing autobiographical elements: Kazan was as old as his central characters in 1929 and, at the moment he made the film, his children were in their early 20s. “These details would be negligible”, Ciment suggests, “if the work did not revolve around the theme of family, which is the central notion in the director’s reflection on the world”.)


The film portrays a society based on both drives and crashes – in a time of vast economic crisis and depression. The personal mirrors the social, while the social projects the personal. A key theme is the way that money debases and corrupts human feeling. Ciment notes that “it is surely not coincidental that Freud’s major work Civilisation and its Discontents is published just one year after the great fall of capitalism [i.e., the Wall Street Crash], a book in which humankind’s neuroses are viewed in relation to the renunciation that society demands of its people”. Ciment also extends the Freudian reference to its development in Wilhelm Reich and his 1936 book The Sexual Revolution, in which the authoritarian (patriarchal) family is described as “the conveyor belt between the economic structure of conservative society and its ideological superstructure; its reactionary atmosphere must needs become inextricably implanted in every one of its members” (p. 72 of Orgone Institute Press edition translated by Theodore P. Wolfe, 1945).


There is an entire bodily code at work in Kazan’s film. Each character is typed by particular physical reactions to their social environment: squirming, hitting, falling, drowning, taking out frustrations in metal work (a memorable moment that startles some viewers). These movements can be fast or slow – they vary enormously in their nature and character, and that is Kazan’s gift as a director, to invent this variety of externalised, melodramatic gestures upon the basis of William Inge’s probably more naturalistically-pitched screenplay (cf. his work in the filmic adaptation of Picnic [1955], for instance).


What is film style for Kazan? The book Kazan on Directing offers many clues. Each character is typed, identified, placed, rendered significant within a total film system via all the signs they bear and which surround them. This system is founded on the following (non-exhaustive) list of elements: movement; décor (fitting into or clashing with it); costume; colour (note the blue in the final sequence); voice, its accent, pitch and rhythm (overlapping, whispering, shouting); the role of food (as prepared, consumed and refused); the human body (the father’s “crook leg”, for instance).


This extraordinary work on mise en scène – the 1950s legacy – extends to the use of the camera in its framing (through windows), and eventually even the editing; the various processes and phases of direction, from script input to final edit and mix, are interdependent, as Jean-Luc Godard argued back in 1956 (“Montage, My Fine Care”). This is cinematic classicism at its greatest, collective height of both craft and expressivity.


In screen melodrama, all conflicts are externalised, projected outwards, in a clash of formal elements – in that regard, melodrama is the natural successor to Expressionism in its historic German incarnation (and there is no lack of Expressionism in the work of émigrés to Hollywood including Sirk and Robert Sidomak). Kazan works, in this manner, on differences of class, of gender and of “sexual style” – as in the party scenes (see Barbara Loden’s role as Bud’s sister).


The narrative structure, too, is melodramatic. Splendor in the Grass is full of rhymes and symmetries between events, incidents, situations. We see this in the mirrored reactions, from the first half of the film to the second; in the way Bud’s mother complements (in structural terms) Deanie’s father; and in the twinned obsessions over money. On top of that, there is the motif of the double (for Deanie), and the recurring theme of transformation triggered via imagery (and sounds) of doorways, mirrors, and especially water: above the water is sex, below the water is death.


In Kazan’s work, there is a delicate relation between personal fulfilment and social engagement. Desires, taken as the most intense reality by those who live them, can turn out to be mere illusions. Life is compromise, an “arrangement” (the name Kazan gave to one of his novels, also adapted by him into a very fractured, ‘60s-style film) that is both necessary and tragic. Guilt, shame, remorse, regret, wilful self-scotomisation (blinding oneself to the truth): these are powerful emotions in Kazan (both as a person, and as an artist).


At the end of the film, what is really happening? It is a haunting, unresolved scene of fleeting “reunion”, long after youthful passions have been quashed, repressed and redirected by social pressure and individual choices. As Joan Crawford says in Johnny Guitar (1954), now there’s only “ashes”. Ashes – and memories, impossible to entirely erase from the unconscious. Again, the repressed is bound to return.


What is being given positive value in this scene, and what is being criticised? Is renunciation of desire a good or bad thing? It’s hard for any cinephile to remove from their minds the extraordinary glimpse of Bud’s wife, Angelina (Zohra Lampert, later in CassavetesOpening Night [1977]), now alone in the frame and the kitchen décor, and her pained silent, “Well, that’s how it goes” gesture. It is a gesture of resignation, a heavy emotion but performed in a light way – but resignation for what, over what? Settling to forever be second-best in someone else’s affections, their fungible-but-never-erasable, sentimental inner-life?


Also to be taken into any consideration of this overwhelming finale is the fact that nature – the poetically evoked (via Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”) “splendour in the grass” with its organic, universal life-cycle – with its associated theme of maturity (growing older, becoming wiser, etc.), is no less criticised by a film that is so insistently focused on such “socially constructed” aspects of experience and feeling. Where does human nature leave off and socialisation begin? It’s a tough question for us all to grapple with.


Ultimately, in Kazan’s crowning masterpieces (this and Wild River, 1960), we can gauge the immense intelligence inherent in that “decade of style” bequeathed by classical Hollywood in the 1950s. The intelligence is centred not in this or that reduced, abstractable, detachable “theme” per se – theme as “take away” message, proverb, bottom-line summary or whatever, which is a pitiful way to conceive this process – but in the energies that are embodied, and the complex ways the film can thus move us, both involving us and distancing us critically.


Kazan himself went in a contrary direction in the post-classical era. He embraced the cinematic liberations of the cosmopolitan ‘60s in America, America (1963) and the aforementioned The Arrangement (1969). His The Visitors (1972, written by his son Chris) is a tough, conflicted, low-budget, independently-made, searing report on the psyche of Vietnam-era USA. His final film, The Last Tycoon (1976) adapted by Harold Pinter from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, is partly a return to the classical style (and to the studio system he experienced first-hand), but within a modern Hollywood (the cinema of Martin Scorsese & co.) that has, in the meantime, become a very different beast. The film, at times boldly stylised and at other moments confused and legless, displays all the signs of this historic sea-change, as fitfully grasped by a director then approaching the age of 70. It’s a fascinating and strange adieu. Not at the height of his genius of art and craft mastery. For that, we’ll always have the brief but extraordinary period encompassing Wild River and Splendor in the Grass.

© Adrian Martin April 2003 / 27 July 1982

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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