Rightwing Film Geek

Gangsters and Nothingness

“Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”
Henry Wilbourne, in the William Faulkner short story “The Wild Palms,” from “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem”

“Between guilt and nothing, I will take guilt.”
Maxim as reworded to apply to Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Italy/USA, 1984)

I saw this film, Leone’s last before he died in 1989, for the first time on the big screen last weekend at the gorgeous American Film Institute theater, where I had already seen two of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns — THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — earlier this fall.


Though it’s obviously great to see this masterpiece in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was actually one of the earliest case studies in the virtue of home video. After playing at the Cannes Film Festival at 238 minutes, the film’s U.S. distributors chopped it by 100 minutes and completely re-edited the film to ditch its complex 50-year flashback structure (some critics have even suggested that it all takes place in the opium-filled head of the central character) in favor of straight chronology. But at approximately 2:20, it was still too long and remote to appeal to younger audiences, and the savaging it got from American critics as incomprehensible meant that it had no shot at being a succes d’estime.

But when the film was released on tapes in the late 1980s, just as home video was becoming ubiquitous, Leone’s cut was the version released in the United States. What videotapes and discs did was to provide a reliable mass market for films after theatrical release. Thus some movies could get a potential second bite at the box-office cherry, and it made potential sense to go back and revisit bad box-office decisions with specials like Director’s Cuts (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA only grossed 1/6 of what it cost to make). What was done to the film was obviously a crime, but home video enabled the amelioration of some of the damage, giving Leone’s actual film a chance later to succeed or fail, to find its audience, a chance it might not have gotten otherwise. Roger Ebert called ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA “a murdered movie, brought back to life on home video.” And now, coming back full circle, some spiffed-up theatrical prints are making their way across the country, often in concert with those spaghetti Westerns that first made Leone’s name. And if you’re in a city where they’re playing — run, do not walk …

leone.jpgThe gangster film put Leone’s talent in a new light. He lost something in having to forgo the grungy pictorialism of his landscape- and face-dominated Westerns, but gained that much back in the kind of ravishing luxury more suited to the kind of movie he was making here — an intimate, elegiac opera.

Unusually, for a film that spans 50 years and looks like an epic on first glance, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is an interior psychological film, primarily about the guilt of one gangster (Noodles, played by Robert De Niro) over betraying his boyhood friends (the closest being Max, played by James Woods) to the police and having them die in the resulting shootout. The drama unfolds in three relatively short spans in the teens, early 30s and late 60s. But the chronological juggling is needed, because certain scenes have to take place in the order they do for emotional sense, not chronological sense (including the last, more anon). The film is fundamentally about what time changes and doesn’t change, and a chronological structure is too naturalistic for such a story.

The virtuoso opening sequence tells the basic plot, about Noodles’ betrayal (we don’t know why), the death of his three closest friends, his fleeing town with no money (we don’t learn the source of the money he’s picking up or why or how it disappeared) and as he sinks into a guilt-wracked opium haze, we hear loud telephone rings on the soundtrack. They continue long after we’ve gotten the point and learned that the phone is at a police desk. And that *is* the point. The telephone never stopped ringing in Noodles’ head. We flash to the late 1960s and Noodles getting a call to return to New York (he doesn’t know why), and then we mostly follow the principal characters as they grow from child delinquents into hoodlums and then gangsters (with some flashing forward to the late 1960s). Although it sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the original cut “it takes real concentration to follow … (but) is compulsively and continuously watchable.”


ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is full of wonderful moments, touches and grace notes — a young boy debating between flattering the neighborhood tramp with a cream cake and eating it himself, Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” a frisbee coming out of nowhere, the line “Noodles, I slipped,” Ennio Morricone’s mournful theme as played on a pan flute by Gheorghe Zamfir (yes … THAT Zamfir), the limo driver rejecting Noodles’ money and leaving him incredibly alone, Deborah closing the window curtain as the train departs, the dissolves between the Jewish neighborhood at various times … it’s all lovely and sad. When it gets to the late 1960s, we reach a revelation (SPOILER WARNING).

Noodles has been invited to New York by a “Secretary Bailey,” a Cabinet member and successful businessman who is on the verge of losing everything in a widening corruption probe (imagine Richard Nixon in June 1974). Only Bailey is actually Max, who really wasn’t killed in the shootout whose memory has consumed Noodles’ life. Instead, Max fooled Noodles into betraying him and their two friends, so Max could make a clean break, take the group’s stash, and start life anew — respectable and able to climb the greasy pole of success. Now, to avoid exposure, Bailey is offering Noodles a chance at revenge by killing him. “I took your money, I took your girl, all I left you was 35 years of grief over having killed me,” “Secretary Bailey” tells Noodles.

noodles.jpgBut Noodles doesn’t bite, refusing to look back at Sodom. Partly, he doesn’t want to turn into a pillar of salt, but also because he can’t have the 30 years back. There is no redemption or undoing the past, because the past is what has made you what you are. Throughout the scene, Noodles refers to him as Secretary Bailey, not Max, and pretends not to know any of the back story. It’s as if he would rather live as he has for the past 30 years — a guilt-ridden ex-gangster — than look back. “It’d be a shame to see a lifetime of work go to waste,” Noodles tells Max. He’s referring on the surface to “Secretary Bailey’s” achievements, but he’s also referring to himself. His last 30 years would have been a waste if he were to acknowledge having been conned by taking vengeance on “Max.” Between guilt and nothing, he’s taking guilt.

In some ways, the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME resembles the last scene reversal in MEMENTO — both have a man prefer the delusion he can live with to an empty, meaningless truth. But it’s also the opposite — in the later film, the last scene turns Guy Pearce’s character Lenny from victim to agent (even if it’s the agent of his own self-delusion); here, Noodles says agency and autonomy isn’t worth it to him. He’s turning his back on the most fundamental of Today’s Virtues — being your own man and leaving the past behind.

As a result, the last shot of the film justifies the complex, jump-around-in-time structure. It’s a full-facial closeup of a young adult Noodles smiling after retreating to an opium den, taking a hit, and rolling over under some netting, and it’s the film’s emotional punctation even though it takes place 30 years before the final dramatic scene. De Niro’s expression and all the ambiguities contained in it *are* what the film is about. In fact, I was kinda mad at Leone for only holding the shot for a few seconds before superimposing the credit crawl. That image needed to be held for an unnaturally long time (30 or 40 seconds at least, whatever is needed to call as much attention to itself as the telephone rings at the start do). And then fade to black.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

What liberal media?

CBS News has, for the last two nights, sullied its newscasts (if that were possible) with reports on child abuse among home schoolers. Yet, if you actually listen to or read the transcripts of the two-part series, available here (Day 1) and here (Day 2).

The teaser at the top of the Web site home page, next to D-n R—-r’s mug shot breathlessly blurts out: “Abusive parents sometimes hide in our unregulated home schooling system.” Well, yes, I suppose. And they also hide in our unregulated housing system. And travel on our unregulated highway system.

Now, it is certainly theoretically possible that there is a higher rate of child abuse or child murder in home-schooling families. And if there were figures suggesting or proving such a correlation, that would obviously be a legitimate news story. But you will comb these pieces of CBS “journalism” in vain for any such figures, even bogus advocacy numbers, that could even begin to suggest it. In fact, near the end of part 2, we get this: “But it’s hard to know how widespread abuse might be because the government doesn’t keep track. It doesn’t even know how many children are taught at home in this country.”

cbs.jpgWell, whoop-de-doo. In other words, we don’t even know if there’s a story here, but we’re still gonna report it anyway.

This is pure, undiluted journalism-by-anecdote and journalism-as-prejudice-stoking and audience-stroking — the liberal equivalent of conservative tales about welfare queens driving Cadillacs. It’s like Tales from the Crypt, only not as campy. See the Manhattan and Georgetown cocktail partiers scare each other (booga, booga) with dark stories on Halloween night of the “unregulated” things they hear go on in the red states, and what you can learn if you drag a $100 bill through a trailer park.

Just for fun, let’s try this method of “journalism” with … hmmm … the Springfield, Ore., school shooting. Kip Kinkel killed two classmates and wounded 25 others after murdering his parents, both schoolteachers. Would focusing on that angle (the killer’s home situation and his being raised by two schoolteachers) ever be done, well, actually … PBS did focus on this shooting in a Frontline episode here. There is even a section called “blame” section here focuses on video games, music and guns (all perfectly plausible contributing factors), but couldn’t it have centered around his family situation and how schoolteachers raise children to become killers? In fact, I’ll bet it’s hard to know how widespread children of teachers becoming killers might be because the government doesn’t keep track. It doesn’t even know how many children schoolteachers have in this country.

The ugliest part of these reports comes in part 2’s bid to blame home schooling for the Andrea Yates murders. Exqueeze me? Baking powder? Of the five children she drowned (Noah 7, John 5, Luke 3, Paul 2, and Mary, 6 months), only one was definitely school-aged, so her family’s home-schooling decision could have burdened her only slightly beyond what a woman with that many children would have if the family choose public-schooling. And how many other contributing factors *were* there in her case — post-partum depression, living in a trailer with that many children, being on powerful prescription drugs, only just out of a mental hospital. All this was widely reported at the time, and led to quite a bit of “I can see how all that would drive her to this” sympathy on her behalf (rightly or wrongly). But we’re now supposed to believe that this is an example of Home Schooling Syndrome. Puh-frickin-leez.

I carry no brief for home-schoolers — I am single with no children and am a product myself of public and Catholic schools. A few are a bit fruity in that “Protect Our Children From The Atheist ATF And Their Black Helicopters” way. But those CBS pieces were so sloppily done, such a failure measured by the basic canons of journalism, that the only way a prestigious news network could publish them would be an expression of naked prejudice. Just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not persecuted.

I deliberately didn’t address the substance of the charges, the details of the cases, and the home-school regulation schemas in the states in question because all that is simply beyond my knowledge. Further, I didn’t need to know them to realize how slipshod the smear-by-anecdote story was. Well, there are now some rebuttals on the merits here and here, although you need to go down a little to get to the meat of the latter article’s details. Also near the end of this article, columnist Zan Tyler quotes a 1979 Supreme Court decision that already rejects the implicit reasoning in the CBS piece — that state regulations on all parents are justified merely on the basis that some abuse their children.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Actors do good

My friend Mike D’Angelo has an excellent take on the minor brouhaha (likely will need scroll down after Oct. 20) erupting over the Motion Picture Association of America’s ban on the distribution of screener tapes of movies still playing in theaters. The practice, a widespread custom in the Oscar campaigns of recent years, is perceived as giving the smaller films from boutique studios a way to make up for their narrower distribution. It’s a way for the film and its makers to get noticed and make its own case. But the MPAA has banned the practice for its member studios, citing concerns about piracy.Mike’s piece may even become obsolete in the next few days, as the backlash from within Hollywood is growing. Both Reuters and the Associated Press had articles Tuesday about a protest ad being taken out by some of the industry’s biggest stars, including Sean Penn, Keanu Reeves, Sissy Spacek and others in Wednesday’s Daily Variety and the Hollywood Report. A similar ad was taken out last week by some of American film’s most-prestigious directors, including Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. The Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild have also expressed opposition.

All this opposition could be having its effect. Daily Variety (link requires subscription) reports in Wednesday’s editions that the heads of the seven major studios behind the ban have scheduled a conference call with MPAA chief Jack Valenti. Perhaps this cockeyed ban will go down in history as the New Coke of 2003.

Nobody should intrinsically care about whether Academy members can get free tapes or discs. But, as Mike points out (and I have even less of a dog in this fight than does he, a pro critic), movie fans should know about this because Hollywood awards affect what films Hollywood makes. The less chance that small films from boutique studios like Miramax, Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight et al have of getting awards, the less chance the filmmakers have of convincing financiers that they could be profitable, and thus the less chance they will be made at all. No FARGO, no THE PIANIST, no FAR FROM HEAVEN, and go on down the line through some of the best American movies of the last ten years. And *that* matters.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Something I missed about MATCHSTICK MEN

lohmancage.jpgPro-life blogger Emily Peterson sees a critique of abortion in MATCHSTICK MEN, something that had completely escaped me. (Warning: Spoilers coming)

My initial reaction to her note was: “I’m assuming your argument might roughly go along the lines of ‘you always wonder how the baby you killed would have turned out’ — except that in MATCHSTICK MEN, this emotion is what gets Cage’s character into trouble, no?”

Emily’s take is a bit different than that and relies on the film’s coda being considered a happy ending, something I rebelled against narrative-wise, and Cage’s wife telling him that she had miscarried their child after they split up, a detail that I now remember, but had slipped my mind. Essentially, she’s saying that he’s able to settle down and put the con man lifestyle and his psychiatric problems behind him, now that he knows what happened to his unborn child. It’s an interesting subtextual take.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment