Each new American Masters broadcast, when it debuts on television, tends to receive a hero's welcome. The potential for heroism on the part of a biographical documentary may, of course, seem limited, but their astuteness and attention to detail does put them on a level above. Produced by New York City's Thirteen/WNET and distributed by the Public Broadcasting Service, the show has for 26 years told the life stories of creators of all types, American-born and otherwise, who have made an impact on U.S. culture. Last month, we featured Woody Allen answering thirteen unusual questions from Robert B. Weide, director of the series' recent Woody Allen: A Documentary. That episode stirred up quite a flurry of admiration, as did the more recent Inventing David Geffen, a portrait of the entertainment industry titan directed by American Masters creator Susan Lacy — which you can watch free at PBS.org.
And that's not the only one. Any self-respecting fan of American cinema will want to watch the program above, A Letter to Elia. It showcases a quality often cited as one of American Masters' great strengths: its matches of subject and documentarian. In this case, we get the life of Elia Kazan, director of classic pictures like On the Waterfront and East of Eden, as described by Martin Scorsese, director of such promising candidates for classic status as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The documentary examines not only Kazan's life and work but Scorsese's relationship to it, and from there, any young artist's relationship to art itself. PBS has also made freely available their broadcasts on Johnny Carson, Jeff Bridges, Charles and Ray Eames, and quite a few others besides. If the culture of a country as vast and young as the United States of America remains difficult to pin down, it certainly isn't for American Masters' lack of trying.
Various episodes have been added to our collection of 500 Free Movies Online.