Remembrance of Things Past
Some thoughts occasioned by Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America
Gatsby believed in that green light, in that orgastic future which year by year recedes before us. It eluded us today, but that's no matter, tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further, and one fine morning...
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein believed that cinema was a hieroglyphic language whose medium was time. Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America would likely have enraptured the Russian pioneer, for it too is a procession of hieroglyphic moments whose plasticity is the plasticity of time itself, and the capacity for its reconstruction which only cinema posesses. It is less a gangster film or a piece of period homage than a dreamer's progression through the discourse of cinema, a rapturous evocation of images and glances, moments and memories. It is a film which exists in its stolen instants and the play of light across faces and lines. It is a magnificent failure as a genre piece and grandiloquent masterwork as a piece of cinema. The poetry it conveys is a poetry of loss, and perhaps that loss is not only the toll which the passage of time takes on its characters but also the loss of that very cinema itself, or, more precisely, the impossibility of that cinema; for the moment in film is always lost in the instant it takes form, and the totality of a dream can never match the power of that transient moment. In this sense, cinema is always in the process of death, always hurtling towards the silence and the darkness as the final frames disappear, and yet it is also, in own way, eternal, identical on each viewing, complete and never changing. How much Leone loved those moments of light before the return of darkness is clear to anyone who views this haunted film, and the yearning impossibility of remaining in that world is perhaps its essence, and perhaps we must see Leone as the entranced figure on the bed who we glimpse in the film's final moments in the person of Robert DeNiro, ecstatically smiling int he midst of his dream.
The first time I saw Once Upon a Time in America, I was repelled by its crudity and deeply attracted to its elegant sense of loss and yearning. As in all of Leone's films, this is a film both cruelly elegant and elegantly crude, whose characters are both appalling and tragic, and whose denoument leaves us perhaps more elusive than whence we came. In the person of Robert DeNiro's aging gangster, searching desperately through a world he does not understand for the skeleton key to an incomprehensible past, we are reminded perhaps of our own lost selves, of the lingering mysteries behind the forces which drive us forth into the world, and of the inescapable tragedy of the passing of time. We are reminded of the anecdote of Orson Welles, who wept upon viewing the butchered version of The Magnificent Ambersons, not over his mutilated film, but because, as he said: "Its the past, its over." This is worthy of remembrance, since this also became a mutilated masterpiece, at least in the America Leone so devoutly evoked in his film. And indeed, this film is populated by mutilations, by people wounded by a corrupted past and buffeted between a corrupted present and their own damaged selves. The violence the film so brutally evokes (far more brutally than in Leone's other films) bespeaks the brutalities of our existence and the tortured memories even of the most privileged, powerful and accomplished. It seeks to remind us, as Balzac did, that behind every great fortune lies a crime.
And these lost people speak to us through Leone's transcendant images, which seem to exist beyond even the frame of the film itself; an aged James Woods emerging from a red-hued window, Elisabeth McGovern's luminescent face shining in the moonlight, Robert DeNiro's smile glimpsed through the translucence of a bed curtain, shadows playing across the backlit screen of an opium den; like all of Leone's films, the dialogue is a superfluous detail, the work lives in its pictures, as do all great works of cinema. It is cinema as cinema, an assault on the elitist conviction of the superiority of the word, for we are drawn rather into a discourse with this montage, and our own cognition creates the film which lies in between the cuts and beyond the frame, and even the film's langurous slowness draws us forth into its dream and hypnotises us. Like Citizen Kane or The Conformist, it lives in its colors and shades, the play of shadows and light behind which are hidden the secrets DeNiro is seeking, and as it draws him inexorably forward it draws us forward as well, until that final moment when cars filled with ancient revelers, blaring Kate Smith at full blast shatters the very fabric of time, and the past and present become one, as they become one in the very moment of our witnessing the image and submitting to its mastery. and so we are all in that opium dream with DeNiro, smiling in ecstatic wonderment at the lost world which never was flashing before our eyes at 24 frames per second, grasping in futile love at that which only appears to have weight and substance but which, in fact, are merely flickers on the screen, speaking to us in their language of symbols and signs as we too, through the furrows of these hieroglyphs of light, are borne back ceaselessly into the past.