Monday, June 23, 2003

Once Upon a Time in America

Just saw this for the first time and since its purported to be something like a great movie, I think its worth commenting on. This was the last film by the Italian director Sergio Leone, who's mainly famous for making hard-edged reimaginings of American genre films - specifically Westerns - and launching Clint Eastwood's career. All of his movies were Westerns except this one, which is a gangster film. Or rather, its an epic, bloated, convoluted commentary on the gangster film as a genre and, it seems, all of American genre cinema. It apparently took twenty years to get made and, given that the running time is nearly four hours, it was clearly intended by Leone to be his masterpiece, his great cinematic statement. Judging by the film's cult following, some movie fans consider it not only Leone's masterpiece, but damn near the greatest film ever made. Personally I thought the thing was an unholy mess, but considering I'm still thinking about it two days after, it probably merits a bit more discussion than that.

First, the good things. This is a movie that's been worked on. Leone obviously lived with the film for a long time before it was actually shot. Every frame is lavished over with a care for detail which I've seen only in the films of Kurosawa. The cinematography is extraordinary, very carefully and opulently done, but not over the top, understated in a way which has become unusual in today's film world. I have something of a weakness for Italian cinema, and one of the reasons is that you can see that the people who make Italian movies love movies. Their films are lavished over, etched out with a passionate exactitude, you can almost feel the joy taken in the art of cinema by these guys.

The film is also structured in a very artful way. It is essentially set in three time periods. The 1960s, in which an aging gangster played by Robert DeNiro is brought back into contact with the ghosts of his past, the 1910s, where he is growing up as a young punk on the Lower East Side, and the 1930s, the heyday of his gangster life, which comes to a shattering halt in a spectacular act of betrayal (I'm really trying not to give away too much plot here, the film is worth seeing in a state of ignorance as to its twists and turns). The opening sequence in particular, which jumps across several scenes in a beautifully executed montage, all in the head of DeNiro's opium-addled character, is a wonderful piece of editing. This playing with time - and the passage of time is the major theme of the picture - is the one thing movies can do which no other art form can, and Leone really goes for it in this film, its full of inventive transitions and ingenious twisting of the chronological narrative.

But the best thing about the film is the score, by regular Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone. I've actually never really cared for Morricone's memorable but otherwise shallow music, but this film is of a different order entirely. Its mostly pointless to discuss music in prose, so I'll just say that Morricone's work here is nothing short of breathtaking, for all intents and purposes it is the film, the movie cannot exist seperate from it. The music has a kind of desperate, yet utterly unfullfillable sense of longing and loss, a melancholy sadness that breaks your heart, especially in the film's later scenes.

And this sense of loss, of the heartbreak of the passage of time, is what I liked most about the movie. At certain points it has a downright poetic quality, a sense of the irretrievability of the past that I've never seen executed so artfully and with such effectiveness. The film, perhaps because its so long, has a real sense of time, of the inner soul of an old man looking back on a past he can never retrieve. The only film I can think of with a comparable sense of loss is The Magnificent Ambersons, especially the long walk back to the Amberson mansion and Welles's narration about how George has finally gotton his comeuppence, "but those who had so sorely wished for it were no longer there to see it..." I don't think there's anything more heartbreaking than the passage of time, and that sense of tragedy really lifts this film up to a loftier perch than your average gangster film.

All that being said, the movie has a lot of problems. More than anything else, the movie is despicably, reprehensibly violent. I've got a pretty strong stomach but a lot of this film is straight up cinematic sadism for no good reason that I could see. In particular, the movie revels in violence against women, sexual and otherwise. There's two or three rapes, plus some serious beating, shooting, and killing in other nasty ways. All the women in the film were either whores, nymphos or ice queens who end up raped. I understand Leone was accused of misogyny when the film was released and I'm afraid there's no real defense against that. There's certainly some realism in the way the women are treated in the film, but some of the scenes are obviously contrived and deliberately exploitative and it mars the film badly. Not the least because it introduces an air of shallow vulgarity into what is otherwise a very elegantly shot and constructed film. It doesn't jive with the whole feel of the movie, and it hurts the film badly.

Secondly, for a movie that puts a high premium on realism in terms of look, in terms of story a lot of it is totally ludicrous. The plot is mostly window dressing for the cinematography and it has so many holes that its almost impossible to follow. In a movie with a fractured narrative its natural for there to be some confusion as to plot, but in this case the lack of believability is a serious problem, and only made worse by the nonchalance of the filmmakers in regard to keeping a coherent story going. There's also a lot of digression into unnecessary subplots (there's one with a police chief played by a very young Danny Aiello that is ridiculously stupid and should have been cut) and unbelievable situations which seem to be played for laughs but are often more cruel than funny.

For me, the most disappointing aspect was the fact that this is one of the only major gangster films made about Jewish gangsters. The Jewish mob was as big and influential as the Italian one for a good part of the first half of the last century, and there's a great film just waiting to be made about figures like Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Lepke, and the rest, but this one isn't it. First of all, its painfully obvious that, while Leone has done his research, there's major gaps in his knowledge. There's a street scene in the first half of the film with a sea of Hasidic Jews going to synagogue. Leone gets everything, right down to the different hats and coats worn by the different types of Hasidim. Then about a minute later, a character announces that everyone is going to synagogue for Passover. No one goes to synagogue for Passover, you have a seder with your family. Its a massive gaffe and its not the only one. This probably doesn't matter to the average watcher, but I had a lot of trouble suspending my disbelief after that. Basically, Leone's mobsters are Italians (they're all played by Italian actors or WASPs) who occasionally say a few words in Yiddish. There's no sense of them coming from a Jewish culture or a Jewish milieu, there's no feeling of the broader world they come from, the way The Godfather is saturated with the Italian-American experience. I also disliked that Leone resorted to often-ridiculous fictions when so many of the great true stories of the Jewish mob have never been told. There are extraordinary legends out there which would be perfect for the movies and Leone used none of them. He should have done his homework.

Most of all, however, is the film's pacing and length. This film is immensely long and often excruciatingly slow. Clearly, Leone wanted a measured, dreamlike pace to the film, but often the effect is not elegance but boredom. Perhaps, having waited so long to make the film, Leone couldn't bear to cut a single frame of it. I have no idea, but at nearly four hours, this has to be one of the longest movies I've ever seen, and unlike Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather, there just isn't enough here to justify that kind of running time. The thing moves at a snails pace, and while sometimes it is quite effective, at others its simply an annoyance. The drawn-out sound cues - which seem to have become semi-legendary among fans of the film - really are that irritating, there's a famous scene where DeNiro stirs a cup of tea for what seems like a half hour. All you hear is his spoon scraping the tea cup for an excrutiating length of time. The only excuse for that is pretentiousness or laziness, neither is particularly admirable in a filmmaker.

I have to say in the end that I remain ambivelent. I tend to like films that are ambitious, even when they fail, and this is definately a hugely ambitious movie. Its worth sitting through at least once, if only to look at its gorgeous pictures, and some people seem to have an unhealthy adoration for it, so maybe you'll be one of them. There has to be something to be said for a film that causes you to expend a half-dozen paragraphs explaining why you didn't really like it. I had a similar experiance with Gangs of New York, which I now think is a great film, so perhaps I'll revise my opinion after a little more thinking. But I doubt I'll be able to get past my major objections, the violence in the film is totally indefensible, and the thing is, unquestinably, bloated beyond all recognition. Its a giant, unwieldy monster of a film, but it has moments of truly extraordinary cinema. Particularly at the beginning and the end it manages to lose that adolescent brutality which mars its center and become something deeply melancholy and sad. Whatever one may say about it, it is a haunting film. It stays with you. And that, at least, is saying something.


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