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December 20, 2012

East of Eden

by Franz Patrick

East of Eden (1955)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Cal (James Dean) does not feel loved by Adam (Raymond Massey), his father. When he does something wrong, he is called “no good” and his actions, which are mostly nuisances, are labeled as evil but have to be forgiven because he is of the family’s flesh and blood. Cal feels the need to compete with his “good” brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), for Adam’s affections. Cal and Aron are told that their mother had passed away. But when Cal finds out that their mother (Jo Van Fleet) is, in fact, alive, his desperation to win his father’s approval deepens.

Based on John Steinbeck’s novel, “East of Eden,” directed by Elia Kazan, is moving because of its honesty in tackling the idea that maybe some parents really do love one child more than the other.

The first scene that really captures the strained family dynamics is at the dinner table when Cal is forced to read passages from the Bible. According to family rules, the only way he can be forgiven for his bad behavior is to read the words out loud. Cal is on the left side of the table, saying each word with contempt while the Aron and Adam sit on the opposite side, looking disappointed that Cal is making a mockery of the scripture. Since Cal is treated like a child, in a way, something inside him feels the need to adopt certain fixations. Without Dean’s sensitive and quietly confident performance, Cal might have looked like a fool because the character wears his heart on his sleeve. When he is happy, he dances as onlooking children laugh on the side; when he is sad, he throws tantrums.

The family’s friends and neighbors in the Salinas Valley dismiss Cal as “crazy” or “weird.” The only person who seems to bother to ask Cal questions about how he feels is Abra (Julie Harris), Aron’s girlfriend. My favorite scenes are the conversations between them. Although they eventually kiss, their relationship is not what can be considered as romantic. I thought what they have is more of a friendship between two souls with similar backgrounds who happen to find each other at the time they need each other most. Harris particularly wonderful in the role because her wide-eyed look matches Dean’s intensity; when he looks away, her eyes try to reel him in. And yet as interesting as it is to listen to what they have to say, the silences they share tell us plenty.

We all know that feeling when we catch ourselves sharing intimate details with someone we barely know. Prior to that moment, talking about our problems feels cathartic and we’re glad to have made a connection. But once that lightbulb in our head goes off, we shut our mouths and the situation begins to feel awkward. The ferris wheel scene captures all of these feelings with outstanding realism and air of acceptance, a great contrast against scenes between Cal and his brother as well as Cal and his father.

“East of Eden,” based on the screenplay by Paul Osborn, disappointed some fans of the novel claiming that the film alters and leaves out side characters and key events. As someone who has not read the book, I consider it to be a fully realized film. It has complex characters worth identifying with, the cinematography brings out the beautiful colors of the landscape, and it inspires me want to become a better parent once I have kids of my own.


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