Simply the Worst: Elia Kazan's "The Arrangement"

By robbiefreeling | REVERSEBLOG: the reverse shot blog September 16, 2011 at 3:30AM

One of the challenges in talking about the “worst” film in a director’s oeuvre is that that notion is often bound less to subjective definitions of “good” and “bad” art (another, even fishier kettle of fish) than to a sense of personal defensiveness that acolytes can project simultaneously toward the filmmaker and (unconsciously?) toward themselves. Thus, a film maudit can become an irresistible dare to anybody who believes he or she can stand by anything from a beloved auteur, in the process lionizing themselves as truth-tellers allied to the misunderstood artists they’re defending. It is, to momentarily slide into personal admission, a temptation I’ve in the past seldom resisted. My own evaluative classifications of cinematic highs and lows have swung wildly over the years, starting out with stolid, rather middlebrow mainstays of quality (“Is the plot realistic? Are the characters believable?”) and swiftly giving way to the siren call of the kind of dogmatic auteurism that famously led an exasperated Dwight Macdonald to write that, to the young Cahiers du cinéma critics, “Homer nods, but apparently Hitchcock never.” Though it certainly remains director-centric, my focus has hopefully evolved enough to be able to differentiate between an instance of a neglected effort ripe for reappraisal and a perverse case of turd polishing.
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One of the challenges in talking about the “worst” film in a director’s oeuvre is that that notion is often bound less to subjective definitions of “good” and “bad” art (another, even fishier kettle of fish) than to a sense of personal defensiveness that acolytes can project simultaneously toward the filmmaker and (unconsciously?) toward themselves. Thus, a film maudit can become an irresistible dare to anybody who believes he or she can stand by anything from a beloved auteur, in the process lionizing themselves as truth-tellers allied to the misunderstood artists they’re defending. It is, to momentarily slide into personal admission, a temptation I’ve in the past seldom resisted. My own evaluative classifications of cinematic highs and lows have swung wildly over the years, starting out with stolid, rather middlebrow mainstays of quality (“Is the plot realistic? Are the characters believable?”) and swiftly giving way to the siren call of the kind of dogmatic auteurism that famously led an exasperated Dwight Macdonald to write that, to the young Cahiers du cinéma critics, “Homer nods, but apparently Hitchcock never.” Though it certainly remains director-centric, my focus has hopefully evolved enough to be able to differentiate between an instance of a neglected effort ripe for reappraisal and a perverse case of turd polishing.

Or has it? A recent viewing of Elia Kazan’s largely forgotten 1969 drama The Arrangement had me wavering between fanboyish reappraisal and head-slapping censure as it oscillated from courageous to ridiculous and back. I had chosen it for this symposium based on its negative reputation among reviewers of that period (though critical opinion has in the subsequent decades slowly begun to turn around) and on my own hazy memory of it as an aging provocateur’s trashy, misguided attempt to groove along with shifting times he never quite understood. Revisiting it, I found a different film. Read Fernando F. Croce's entry in Reverse Shot's "Simply the Worst" symposium.

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