November 20, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

by Vadim Rizov

Once Upon a Time in America

[The "complete European release version" of the film screens in a new DCP restoration at NYC's Film Forum from November 23 - 30. For tickets and info, click here.]

Just as the Fistful of Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West inflated standard Western plot beats through durational gravitas, Sergio Leone's 1984 Once Upon a Time in America—as the title explicitly signals—lends mythological heft to the normally fleet Prohibition gangster genre. Like 1939's The Roaring Twenties, it's about American economic outsiders climbing to success with illicit booze, with former partners becoming enemies: there, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart; here, David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and Max Bercovicz (James Woods). Just as in 1949's White Heat, events are often determined and underpinned by its antihero's sexually misdirected energy: in Heat, Cagney's devotion to his mother, and in America, Noodles' lifelong inability to win over Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) frustratingly climaxing in a brutal rape just before the intermission.

Once Upon a Time in America

De Niro is eerily, vacantly enigmatic, a blank cipher whose sudden violent actions are eruptions of male screenwriter id. (Six Italian men, to be precise, whose attitude towards female characters/informed consent is objectionable; acceptance of this is a prerequisite to enjoyment.) Recreating 1920s Lower East Side Manhattan as a sort of Hasidic megalopolis, America's most compelling sequences are the childhood hour making up the bulk of the first half. Young De Niro is one Scott Tiler, while Woods’ kid surrogate is Rusty Jacobs, both goggly-eyed and youthfully over-emphatic. Around them, fabulously choreographed crowds swarm, with Noodles and Rusty often lost in bustling streets. The streetscapes are spectacular, even when interrupted by rude hijinks—the literal pants-down humiliation of a bullying police officer—closer to Italian sex comedy than anything generically American. Like the overwhelming misdirected extras in Jacques Tati's 1971 Playtime (which takes the same approach in a nebulous urban future), mass movement is more compelling than the individual's, a broader social story told through sheer aggregated detail.

These images seem seriously indebted to The Godfather, Part II's sequences of young Michael Corleone creeping over Manhattan rooftops. They were shot twice over: first in constructed sets in Rome, then in Williamsburg on streets modified with fiberglass and set decorations to mirror those abroad. The latter shoot—documented in a deeply entertaining 1983 New York magazine set report by Joe Klein—had Joe Litto (in charge of the transformation of South 8th and Bedford Ave.) explaining the scope and necessity of this twice-over set expense: the lumber for this 6-month operation alone cost $100,000, all for the sake of "perspective [...] you can shoot down the street, which you can't do in Rome." Besides perspective, they got the Manhattan Bridge, the dwarfing backdrop for the nearly comically excessive Grand Guignol bloodletting ending adolescence. One member of the gang—a piping flute-player, no less—is shot down, and Noodles takes revenge with a knife. Jailed as a child actor and emerging as De Niro, Noodles' intermittent, sexually-fueled flare-ups take up nearly as much time as shoot-outs and double-crosses.

Once Upon a Time in America

The elegiac pacing more or less successfully covers up for the often grotesque, sub-majestic dramatic events. How compelling they are will largely depend on your willingness to be smothered by Ennio Morricone's gorgeous but admittedly heavy-handed score, which often sets the tempo for the actors' movements. The characters' Jewishness largely acts as an excuse for young Deborah to declaim the "Song of Solomon"; ethnicity doesn't take any serious role in its characters' lives. There's a sense of an "America" conjured by outsiders, one slightly off from its recognizable cinematic sources. Bit players with convincingly organic vernacular dialogue break through this retuned interpretation, including Burt Young as a thuggish henchman (muttering "Life is stranger than shit" between mouthfuls) and Joe Pesci as his usual strutting self. But most of the cast spouts dialogue that seems directly translated from Italian without native speaker input.

Once Upon a Time in America begins and ends in an opium den; everything that happens after this point in the non-linearly-presented timeline may be a hallucination. Besides introducing this narrative ambiguity, De Niro's stupor mirrors the viewer experience. America's pacing pleasures are narcotic, creating a strong sense of time passing, crucial for endowing the final flashback montage with recalled resonance for patient viewers. Crudities and all, America earns its scope.

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Posted by ahillis at November 20, 2012 3:15 PM