Film

A Life at the Movies

 By Joe Castrovinci

If you are a movie fan and of a certain age, you may remember the days before streaming when we went to stores – actual buildings made of bricks and mortar – to rent a videotape or a videodisc that we took home to watch on our TVs. 

Yes, we are talking Blockbuster.

The box you carried home had a paragraph or two explaining the plot of the movie. San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District is home to Cary Pepper, the person who made a living writing many of those descriptions. 

If you rented a lot of videos back in the “old days,” it is possible that Pepper was the writer you read more than any other. 

“I made a good living from that work,” Pepper said. “I loved every minute of doing it.”

Blockbuster bit the dust long ago and took with it Pepper’s career of writing movie descriptions. But his love of film is stronger than ever. Today, he is channeling it into teaching students about the movies and directors he loves most. In the past, he has offered courses on legendary directors Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. In June. he turned his attention to five films by another giant of the world of cinema: Elia Kazan.

The course is being offered through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) here in San Francisco, which offers classes and activities for people ages 50 and above.

“Many of Kazan’s films mirror what was going on in American history and culture when they were made,” Pepper said. 

Kazan immigrated to the United States from Turkey, and the fact that he and his family were born elsewhere may help explain why he had a finger on the American pulse.

Pepper’s class will look at five Kazan films that define great cinema, offer unique insights into the director’s adopted country, and give him a place in the pantheon of movie greats: “A Gentlemen’s Agreement,” a groundbreaking look at antisemitism; “On the Waterfront,” where the focus is on corruption; “A Streetcar Named Desire,” one of the greatest plays ever written by an American; “East of Eden,” which retells in a modern context the story of Cain and Abel; and “A Face in the Crowd,” which focuses on the meteoric rise of an opportunistic media star who is ultimately destroyed by his ego and arrogance.

“Antisemitism was more or less a given in the U.S. prior to ‘A Gentlemen’s Agreement,’” Pepper noted. “There were firms where Jews could not work, neighborhoods where they could not live and hotels where they could not stay. “‘A Gentlemen’s Agreement’ didn’t change that, but it did bring this issue into the mainstream of American film.”

Great as these films are, they describe only part of Kazan’s unique gifts because he also had an astonishing ability to identify great actors and give them enormous breakthrough roles. For many people, Marlon Brando is synonymous with “Streetcar” and Stanley Kowalski. For people who know Andy Griffith from TV, viewing “A Face in the Crowd” is seeing him in a whole new light.

Kazan also helped bring the method school of acting onto the American screen, most vividly through the work of Marlon Brando, who delved deeply into his characters and sought to “become” them rather than just “act” them. 

Kazan co-founded the Actor’s Studio, and cast his films from among its students, many of whom were unknowns at the time.

“In my OLLI class, we’re going to look at how Kazan marshalled these three forces – powerful themes, great actors, and a unique approach to acting – to create some of the great films of the 40s, 50s, and 60s,” Pepper said. “Our class meets six times and I’m asking students to watch each movie before we meet. I’ll spend the first half of each class talking about that week’s movie, followed by clips from the film.”

Pepper also plans to devote one class to Kazan’s controversial 1952 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, an act that has shaped how many people view him to this day. 

For more information about Cary Pepper and classes and other activities offered by Osher Lifelong Learning, go to olli.sfsu.edu/sfnews.

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