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East of Eden

for East of Eden

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

We recently watched the movie version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our main motivation for renting the movie was to see the village of Mendocino as she was captured on film in 1954. Mendocino exteriors were used to represent Monterey circa 1917, and if you’ve ever been to Monterey and Mendocino you’ll wonder why anyone, let alone an acclaimed filmmaker, would do such a thing; and if you’ve never been to Monterey and Mendocino you won’t give a hoot.

Directed by Elia Kazan from a putrid screenplay by Paul Osborn, the movie is a big mess, though the first half-hour of the film does feature some neato shots of the village in a time before many of the streets were paved and when there were still several buildings on the south side of Main Street. The space now occupied by Out Of This World was a bank in those days and a scene takes place therein, a scene in which, incredibly, two different women who own whorehouses are congratulated by the teller for their “nice deposits” and for being “in the right business.”

Wooden planks cover the stretch of sidewalk just west of Gallery Books that sixty years after the film was made still slopes steeply down to the street, several unmoving people with fishing nets occupy an alley near Crown Hall, and James Dean sits on the curb in front of where Dick’s bar is today, that hallowed curb unchanged since those famous buttocks lingered there.

Indeed, seeing James Dean traipsing along Main Street sporting a 1950’s hairdo and wearing 1950’s clothing (when the story is supposed to be taking place in 1917) is beyond surreal. Historical and geographical veracity meant nothing to these filmmakers, so if that sort of thing is important to you, avoid this movie. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing our village appearing so sunny and empty, vacant lots abounding—the population of Monterey in 1917 imagined by the filmmakers to be hovering somewhere around twenty-nine.

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.” John Steinbeck from East of Eden

East of Eden, the movie, is very loosely based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s verbose allegorical novel that reimagines the myth of Cain and Abel, among other things. Steinbeck said of his novel East of Eden, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

As much as I love Steinbeck’s short stories and some of his earlier novels, I fear his writing powers were on the wane when he wrote East of Eden, an overblown, preachy, poorly edited work, brimming with moralistic platitudes Steinbeck previously spared his readers.

“Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Much has been written about James Dean’s performance in East of Eden, largely because James Dean only made three movies before he died in a car crash at the age of twenty-four, after which he became a cultural icon, his name synonymous with disillusioned youth. The bad reviews that greeted his performances when he was alive were quickly forgotten and replaced with posthumous raves and a posthumous Academy Award for his role of Cal in East of Eden, an award that says much about our idolatry of the dead and little about Dean’s acting ability.

“When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I am curious to know what James Dean was aiming for with his performance in East of Eden. At the beginning of the movie, he seems to be imitating a petulant five-year-old trapped in the body of a Hollywood heartthrob. A few scenes later, he exhibits symptoms of brain damage resulting from a severe blow to the head. And then he acts like a sullen idiot who, despite his mental deficiencies, knows more than anyone else in the movie. Did Dean and Kazan hope to portray Cal as emotionally damaged as a result of his father telling him his mother was dead when she was really alive and making nice deposits in Mendocino, er, Monterey? Was Dean forever falling silent and doing crazy violent things to show the effects of the father, played in monotone by Raymond Massey, never loving his son? Or was Dean just a cute guy with nothing much to say?

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The real star of the movie is the prototypical girl-next-door played by a relentlessly upbeat Julie Harris. Talking a mile-a-minute, bathed in golden light whether day or night, she strives valiantly to make up for the movie’s massive deficiencies with rivers of earnest blabber about good and bad, love and hate, truth and lies—and she does so in scene after scene with her face about four inches away from the adorable mug of James Dean. Indeed, so close are their faces in dozens of scenes, that when Julie and James finally kiss, I sighed with relief that the inevitable collision was a fait accompli.

“Perhaps the less we have, the more we are required to brag.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The movie East of Eden begins with something called Overture. We know this because overture is spelled out in huge letters that clog the center of the screen for several minutes and obliterate the lovely shot of the village of Mendocino (ostensibly Monterey) seen from the south side of the mouth of Big River Bay. Yes, while cloying pseudo-modern 1950’s orchestral music sets the scene for 1917, a giant graphic turd—OVERTURE—hangs in the sky and blocks our view of paradise. And so the stage is set, the style and pace of the movie established, the trouble about to begin.