Friday, July 27, 2018

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Italy / USA, 229 minutes
Director: Sergio Leone
Writers: Harry Grey, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone, Stuart Kaminsky, Ernesto Gastaldi
Photography: Tonino Delli Colli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Editor: Nino Baragli
Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Burt Young, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Joe Pesci, Louise Fletcher, James Hayden, Darlanne Fluegel, Larry Rapp, Richard Bright, Jennifer Connelly, Scott Schutzman Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Brian Bloom, Adrian Curran

Director and cowriter Sergio Leone's final film as a director (and his first in 13 years) initially looks like a departure from his earlier movies. In many ways Leone's whole career was about departures. He reinvented the Western in the '60s as an operatic, lugubrious, and explosive play of set pieces, composed as artfully as anything by Michelangelo Antonioni, and incidentally lending cinema history a title trope in Once Upon a Time in the West that hasn't been used up yet. Not only did Leone ape that title for this movie, but many others have used it since as well, with memorable "once upon a time" pictures for Mexico, Anatolia, Rio, Mumbai, China, and more (including next year, from Quentin Tarantino, Hollywood). I still haven't figured out what it signifies exactly, beyond a certain dreamy fairy tale yet cynically knowing epic nostalgia, with violence.

If Westerns are about the impulse to get further and further from civilization, about Huck Finn's eternal yen to light out for the Territory, then Once Upon a Time in America is about the first stop that immigrants from Europe made on the quixotic journey and the place where many of them pulled up and stayed, the teeming ghettoes of New York and other Eastern cities at the turn of the century. The story involves four youths who come of age with approximately Prohibition, three Jews and a Pole (approximately) who fight for social position in New York with Irish and Italians ahead of them in line and WASPs entirely out of reach (except, sometimes, their women). They commit petty crimes, battle for turf, and eventually graduate to bootlegging. It sounds like a typical gangster picture, and indeed as a marathon it sits comfortably next to the first two Godfather movies and Goodfellas. But it's a Leone picture and also strays at will into just plain weird stuff.

I think what most sets it apart from other American gangster pictures is that Leone, perhaps as an Italian national, can more naturally grasp the details of the outsider status that is imposed so forcefully on immigrants and refugees—now and since forever. Yes, on the one hand, as anyone who has given it a second's thought surely understands, the US is a nation of immigrants by definition. The only ones with rightful claims are Native Americans, and even they may not have been here as long as, say, the Chinese in China. And yet the virulent hatred that we see of immigrants and refugees today is not new in America either. It's as if it were all some kind of hazing ceremony that occasionally grows toxic and must be cauterized: a process of getting to this country (how hard that was and is remains woefully miscalculated), and then surviving for a generation, with or without formal citizenship, until your kids and grandkids can in turn begin to argue for closing the door on further immigration.

The four principals in Once Upon a Time in America—Noodles (Scott Schutzman Tiler and Robert De Niro), Max (Rusty Jacobs and James Woods), Patsy (Brian Bloom and James Hayden), and Cockeye (Adrian Curran and William Forsythe)—make their way by brute force and guile, until the end of Prohibition changes the playing field. Sometimes they fall—they go to jail or even die, and eventually they turn on one another. One undergoes a notably unlikely transformation, but that's not seen until the end. They are always outsiders. They feel it painfully and close ranks to create their own inside where they are accepted. Money, as always, changes everything, for better and for ill.

It's a long picture and arguably muddled, with the settings shifting about among (approximately) 1920, 1933, 1967, and points between. As a classic movie in good standing now it also comes in many versions and with a sad story of box office failure. It got a standing O at Cannes in 1984, did not find much success in general release, and endured cuts to try to get it down to a more manageable size. But Once Upon a Time in America is not manageable—its best quality is that it is an unruly beast making its own rules as it goes, like the characters. Noodles, for example, in later life is a connoisseur of opium, if not an addict. One theory of the film indeed is that the whole thing is an opium fantasy. Another example: for no particular reason, a jewelry store insider, Carol (Tuesday Weld), is an unabashed nymphomaniac and masochist. Women are treated badly in all parts of the picture but Carol seems to like it, which is confusing. More: the soundtrack includes Rossini's "Thieving Magpie" (reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, you have to think deliberately) and schmaltzy versions of "Yesterday," though the bulk of course is another swooning score by Ennio Morricone.

At nearly four hours, the length of Once Upon a Time in America is something it shares with the Godfather movies and Goodfellas. But it's not that hard for me anyway to sit for it. In many ways it appears slow and aimless, but Leone's art as a director is such that I enjoy seeing him work out things like the look and feel of New York a hundred years ago. Much of the movie is about the characters, and the circle of characters around them, slowly and patiently putting together the portraits in all their complexities and dead ends. Some of it is preposterous but that's often when the movie is most entertaining. As a vision of the superpower America, it's right on the mark and few others are much like it, even the second Godfather movie, which also tells the immigrant's story. It makes me grieve all the more for Leone's unfinished project of an adaptation of Harrison Salisbury's The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, which would have been his vision of the superpower Russia. As I am an American, Minnesota born, and generally sympathetic to all things American, I'm glad Leone got to us first. He got a lot of things exactly right.

1 comment:

  1. Once upon a time I loved this movie but it's also one of those old faves I've been afraid to see again. Partly for fear I'll learn I found some of that misogyny you mention sexy. Mostly, though, it's b/c I've grown so tired of the gangster story, I know that ending. I've been afraid it won't move me the way it once did. But the immigrant story you talk ab remains curious to me and so relevant to right now. No question America has treated immigrants badly forever, demagogged the issue w/ violent persecution, etc, and will probably continue to find new terrible ways to do so (like separating families, etc) in the future. But the worst abusers of immigrants in America all along have been racist white nationalists, nativists; basically, Trump's base. I don't know how long they can rule the country? (I thought it was already too late for them at a national level.) And now I don't know if they combine w/ other RWNs in Europe and Russia, as they are trying, how long they will be able to fuck shit up globally? But I do know their relative numbers are shrinking. Populations of non-whites (including whites who reproduce with non-whites) are growing much faster and that appears to be an irreversible fact of our demographic future. This is a great threat to white racists, of course, but isn't really a threat to anybody else. And it's definitely good for immigrants, if undoubtably some cold comfort right ab now.

    So that's how your write 'standing O'? i think i've always avoided it for fear I didn't know how it was supposed to go?

    Morricone's theme music is some of his best, or at least his most melodically beautiful work.