Friday, January 9, 2009

Once Upon A Time In America (1984, Sergio Leone)

Movies in general are twice as long as they need to be. Movies today, 2.5 to three times as long. Once Upon A Time In America is at 3.5 hours exactly as long as necessary, and was cut down to less than half that length upon release. I've never had a film so long fly by so quickly. This is epic in both senses of the word - length and breadth of story - and fully justifies itself.

I've also never seen a great film so neglected despite its reputation. The title alone evokes greatness on a superficial level, being a "Once Upon a Time" film by Sergio Leone. The runtime being sliced in half upon the original release may have crippled it the most, though Ebert publicized the fact the European release was untouched and therefore comprehensible. Many critics' lists have mentioned it over the years but there's never been a serious movement to rediscover it.

1984 wasn't a good year for a serious and sprawling portrait of America anyways. The era of Spielberg and Lucas was still going strong and although the studios hadn't yet given up entirely on movies for adults, the average moviegoer might have discounted a gangster movie starring Robert De Niro with the verdict of been-there-done-that. And then have gone to see Ghostbusters, The Terminator or Temple of Doom.

Ten years earlier The Godfather became a classic in its own time. Had Once Upon a Time came out that year instead, it probably would not have because there isn't as much macho dialogue to quote. De Niro barely says a thing. Most of his performance is in his eyes, as a wistful old man. Almost all the dialogue is left up to the noisy kids whom De Niro's character and his friends used to be.

The weight placed on the child actors must have been another point of contention with the studio, any one of the kids gets more screen time than James Woods and barely less screen time than De Niro himself. They're also fantastic, convincing not only as turn of the century children but as doppelgangers for their adult counterparts. The whole film wouldn't work without them. Young Jennifer Connelly was a better actress as a child than the actress playing the adult version of her character ever was.

Ennio Morricone is more versatile than anyone gives him credit for, aping bittersweet Jewish violins just as well as he aped Carpenter-synth in The Thing two years earlier.

Leone can tell a story in a single shot just by slowly zooming out from one focal point. If people had already lost their attention spans for great films of this scope, and studio heads were already validating them, maybe its better he didn't live to see how much worse things became. As a monument to a lost era of American life, its construction also memorializes a lost excellence in filmmaking.

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