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Once Upon a Time in America: An Experimental Epic

by Roberto Bartual

In one of the most emotive scenes of Once Upon A Time In America, Noodles (Robert De Niro) meets Fat Moe (Larry Rapp) after more than thirty years, to the stereotyped question from Moe "What have you done all this time?" Noodles answers: "Going to bed early", at the light of the tale of the childhood and youth of these now two elderly characters that we'll be later be revealed with ,neither Moe's question seems to be a cliche, nor Noodle's answer appears to us as a fatuous cultured quotation of the words that open A La Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust. Few times before such a reference like this had seemed to have come out with so much credibility from the heart of a fiction character rather than from the mind of the author that creates this character. In fact, Noodles response announces a character that not only has lost his time as in the Proust's novel but also that his present is a continuous reviving of the past, this memories that resound in the mind of the protagonist like the unending sound of a telephone and which at the end will result as obsessive for the audience as they are for him.

This form of fascination, of connection with the mind of a character, is achieved by Leone with an exemplary way in this his final film by means of a very complex narrative structure which he uses to relate three different times and of a tremendous poetic imagery which give place to one of the most impressive European views of America (the signification, not the country) since Kafka's Amerika.

Is this narrative structure the first thing that surprises in the film, the way Leone has to intertwine three temporal levels (childhood, youth and old age) that we can't be very sure which of the three times is the present for real, although logic indicates that it would be the nearer time, the old age, the final shot makes it clear that the present time for Noodles seems to be his youth. Nevertheless although the film's structure isn't original at all (Mankiewicz achieves in The Barefoot Countess to make a complex structure of a flashback inside a flashback, or in John Brahm's The Locket which achieves confusion with four chained flashbacks) the truly surprise is how much well it works in Leone's film, maybe because of the fact that the protagonist's insecurity to place the present time and the own insecurity of the audience bestow the flashback with a quality of actual experience and not only a simple remembrance.

This is achieved by Leone with the help of a series of poetic transitions among the three times with the objective of relating the different dramatic times to themselves and suggesting an internal continuity of the story and of moments of parallel feelings, overlapped; these transitions go from the purely visual ellipsis: an old Noodles guiding his trembling voyeuristic gaze though the gap in the wall to observe his beloved in the past and himself fifty years younger looking through the same gap (maybe the most powerful scene in the whole movie because of the high poetic temperature it achieves joining the images with the beautiful music in crescendo by Ennio Morricone and the obsessive melody Amapola), to that based not only in the images and music but in a third Eisensteinian meaning: the scene in which young Noodles is contemplating in the station the facade of the entrance to Coney Island and then gives way to a pull-back shot from the image of the old face of Noodles in the same mirror ,while the notes of the Lennon-McCartney's Yesterday are sounding in the soundtrack ,to the medium shot that shows how the colors on the wall doesn't announce the old amusement park anymore but a coarse advertisement of the Big Apple.

The difficult, although surprisingly clear structure that is used not to narrate with perfection a story, something that is secondary for the Italian director, but to make the audience commune with a sensibility, is the one that applied to a film like this which originally was conceived as a blockbuster (but relegated after it's opening to art & essay theatres in most countries) confers that status of rarity: the first, and probably unique, epic experimental movie.

The Poetry of Leone. Winners and Losers.

Pauline Kael saw Once Upon A Time In America as "a compendium of kitsch, but kitsch aestetiziced by someone who loves it and sees it as the poetry of the masses", maybe this is what makes different the type of poetry this film possess from others of more refined poetic elements, but not more valuable for that reason, like Dersu Uzala or Lawrence of Arabia. If the poetry is a whispering of beauty Leone whispers in a clearer, less soft, tone than the movies by Kurosawa and Lean, and gets nearer from what the great Charles Chaplin achieves in nearly all his movies: to transform in poetry that which otherwise we would consider sappy talking exactly the same language that the most refined forms of cinematographic poetry talks.

But nevertheless this form of poetry isn't as simple as it might seem at a first look, the same way the style of Leone has been developing from the effectual, rough cinematic tricks of A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More to the expressive complexity that achieves its culmination in Once Upon A Time In The West and this his latest movie, he learns to introduce much more concealed poetic elements and maybe for that reason more beautiful; Once Upon A Time In The West is the perfect example of this hidden poetry that reaches its maximum expression in the marvelous creation by Jason Robards of Cheyenne, the bandit with Aedipical complex that loves, not so much in secret, Jill (Claudia Cardinale) because she reminds him of his mother, a whore whom, as he says, his father, whoever he was, must have spent the happiest hour in his life.

Also in Once Upon A Time In America we find trails of this expressive subtlety in the treatment of an element repeated in this two Leone's films: the own image. It's of great poetic importance the role the mirrors have in this film, the first mirror of the movie is that of the already commented sequence of the bus station which Noodles sees his face of an old man reflected on to the sound of Yesterday (from which Morricone conveniently eliminates the lyrics with the exception of the first word: Yesterday, in order to make us recall the song and recognize that we don't remember the lyrics anymore) ;in a first moment the spectator could interpret the look of Robert De Niro as nostalgia of a lost youth, something that the music contributes to, nevertheless a repeated vision of the film allows us to interpret his gaze as a remembrance of the words the child Deborah told him fifty years back, but forward in the film, in front of a mirror like this: "Look at yourself in the mirror, Noodles" obliging him cruelly to face his reality, hitting him with her superiority as an unreachable beauty and as a person who will be able to succeed. The bitter gaze of this teenager Noodles in the second mirror is, in fact, the same gaze of the old Noodles although it is bare of that great heaviness caused by the burden of the years and the vital loathing; the gaze of the child Noodles is sad, premonitory of this other gaze, but with all the hopes of the youth.

There is, finally, a third mirror, the mirror of the last confrontation between Noodles and Deborah, the one which through they close the (in)communication started with the second one. After having raped her thirty years before Noodles enters the dressing-room of Deborah, now being a great star, who is sitting down in front of the large mirror of the boudoir. Noodles remains standing, distant, at a side of her, the faces of the two lovers reflecting in the mirror, hers with a beauty still patent, his brow old and tired; they don't look at each other faces, and when she, without words, tells him that she had already forgiven him, they can confront each other again face to face to discover that they cannot say each other anything anymore even though she loved him all this years.

To understand Noodle's character, and especially his relationship with Deborah and the feelings that lead him to rape her, is essential to have in mind these three sequences that give us to know the heavy burden his own image means for Noodles, that physical image which the child Deborah taught him to hate, a burden which nevertheless is released in his relationship with Eve, character by chance symbol of innocence and purity, who possess a material and reachable beauty. In other hand Deborah's beauty in contrast with Eve's is showed as ethereal and unreachable (but also a disguise in decadence as her last shot shows) ,affirmation reinforced by the final encounter: Deborah is playing the role of Cleopatra, which helps the spectator (and Noodles) to think of her as a stony being, of unmovable beauty, maybe a bit like a deity. In all of their encounters this beauty of Deborah makes him more conscious of his own image which she as a child had helped to impair ,nevertheless this burden seems much more credible in the contrast between Jeniffer Connelly (perfect example of an actress who have changed her greatness on acting for another kind of greatness) playing Deborah, anyway Noodles always carries the burden of the physical and moral inferiority (we must remember the moral lessons received from Deborah as a child, the reading of the Song of Songs which is at the same time a mock, moral lesson and daclaration of love, ...) in the face of Deborah.

A fact that is completely reversed at this final encounter, the mirror of the boudoir also forces Deborah to confront herself, her apparently timeless beauty is covered by a masque of maquillage which little by little she wipes out of her face during the conversation through the mirror allowing to see a face though still beautiful marked by the ages and also by the pain: it's then when for first time and with her aged face unveiled Deborah is sincere, she has got rid of her mask of illusory perfection to discover a being as vulnerable as Noodles. This reversal implies that the winners are discovered as losers (the same way which happens at the end of the film with Max), the line between one and the other gets completely blurred. This unmasking of the winners does not have a characteristic of triumph for Noodles ,also it doesn't implies the defense of the virtues of the protagonist (after all he is a thief, a killer and has raped Deborah) except maybe the virtue of honesty and the love he is still able to feel for Deborah and Max.

The unmasking as something natural in the human being and not as a poetic justice imposed by the author, of the winners showing their defeat, is something very common in the work of Leone (the railroad tycoon in Once Upon A Time In The West ;Henry Fonda in the same movie: the cold killer who manages to get whatever he wants but who is also vulnerable to the mystery that appears from his past; the three characters in The Bad, The Good And The Ugly where nobody is just only one of those things,...) as well as it is frequent this concern with the own images, the opposition of the internal with the external (note that it is an element that appears whenever in his films appears the feminine element: Jill/Deborah), element that was much better achieved in Once Upon A Time In The West by the contraposition of Claudia Cardinale / Jason Robards; it is enough to remember the fabulous reply Jill splits at the face of Cheyenne: "You can call your friends, lie me down on the table and have fun with me if that is what you want. After a hot bath I will be the same as before." and the subsequent close-up of Jason Robards with that expression on his face showing the bitterness for his self perceived inferiority in front of Cardinale; ... and how much hidden poetry there is in that scene in which Jill tells him that he is a handsome man, maybe knowing that he has to die.

At the respect of the already commented scene of our film in which the child Noodles spies Deborah through the gap on the wall (voyeurism as a medium to avoid facing with the loved person by the insecurity the physic produces) Carlos Aguilar comments in his book about Sergio Leone (1) the possibility of an autobiographical element: at what extent is it not the same Leone the one who spies the customary starlette in her dressing-room back in his young times.

The fact that this particular scene had a correspondence with another similar in the real life of Sergio Leone does not matter so much as that in the relations Noodles-Deborah and Cheyenne-Jill he is giving us a sincere confession of his own insecurity in his relations with the females, maybe with a somewhat pathologic bitterness, maybe with a touch of misogyny, but sincere in any case; a confession that until he filmed Once Upon A Time In The West he had tried to evade leaning in rather sly and cynical vein which had popularized with his spaguetti-western. It's needed to note that this confession works much better in Once Upon A Time In The West than in Once Upon A Time In America because of the complexity of his attitude towards women in that film; it is not only the platonic and bitter love, although sincere, of Cheyenne to Jill (Noodles and Deborah) but also the desire of sexual possession of Frank (Fonda) to Jill (that also we can observe in the raping of Deborah) and the desire of Harmonica (Bronson) to manipulate her.

Leone reveals then, his attitude towards women in many levels: honesty, love and adoration (mixed up with an aedipical association in the case of Cheyenne), in a first level; contempt and anxiety of possession to calm the repressed sexual desire, in a second level; and at least, a will of manipulation for the consecution of some objectives, in a third level, much more visible in Once Upon A Time In The West. Nevertheless this first level of honesty and tenderness towards women is the one which dominates in the work of Leone as opposed to Hitchcock who without giving up to open his soul sincerely to the spectator (Vertigo, Notorious, there is less honesty in Marnie) the sexual desire and the misogyny are the things which are more powerful, not enough of course to hid the tremendous romanticism there is all around. The same way Leone opposes to Buñuel, keeping distances with the cruel cinema of which the Spanish filmmaker and the English are masters, to choose a path of a different romanticism.

The Lost America.

With Once Upon A Time In America Leone concluded the trilogy he started with Once Upon A Time In The West and extended with the irregular Duck, You Sucker! (film whose French title: Ille Etait Une Fois La Revolution - Once Upon A Time The Revolution is much more revealing and preferable than the original title), triptych he used to show his own vision of North-America: through the world of the west, through the Mexican revolution, and through the America of the emigrant. A vision that as we have commented before has some parallelism with Kafka´s Amerika ,two works that without having similarities neither in thematic (the America of the gangster opposed to the America of the worker) nor in the narrative form (the interior voyage of Noodles opposed to the exterior travel of Karl Rossman) nor in the tone (the pessimism of Leone opposed to the optimism (!?) of Kafka) they coincide in being two different visions but from the same point of view of the European emigrant.

This way of contemplating America from the outside is what gives sense to the truly theme of the film: the lost dream of the emigrant, the same way Kafka shows us the perversion of the ideals of the emigrant, the corruption of power and the opulence with a Karl Rossman facing all this obstacles trying to perpetuate the European dream of prosperity, Leone does not seems to keep any hope in the recovering of that corrupted dream.

Noodles, who lives the present in function of a sensibility in the past is the representative of some romantic ideals that are understood whenever they are opposed to the attitude of the peripheral characters, is much similar to the character Woody Allen played in Manhattan : Isaac Davis . The parallelism between these two movies such different as Once Upon A Time In America and Manhattan ,further than the circumstantial anecdote that the two movies are located in the same city (although Leone's New York doesn't exists, it's the ideal America, while Allen's is an internal landscape in the mind of his protagonist), the two films presents the fight of a character against the superficiality that has been established. So then Manhattan can be understood ,like Leone's film, as a rejection of the contemporaneous culture and cinema, an attempt by the protagonist to impose his own perceptions of that ideal Manhattan. It's not in vain that these two films have brought us two of the most beautiful images of this city that the cinema has given, that two Brooklyn Bridges: one of a hazy black and white, the other: ominous background of a lost childhood.

If the peripheral characters of Once Upon A Time In America are capable one, of leaving her love for an empty career; the other of betraying his friends to thrive, Noodles, the same as Isaac Davis, is capable of facing his destiny, conserve that values in decadence which each time have less value in the transforming America and finally, conserve an integrity the others have renounced to.

The posture towards politics and rationalism, counterpoints of this values and sensibility, is clear in Leone and coincides in many points with that of Kafka. Where there are rules there is corruption and that rules end to lose all sense and they turn against the purpose they were created for, coming to the absurd. All the representatives of the established order: the policeman who pays the services of a teenager and "confiscates" the watch stolen by a young Max and Noodles, the official Aiello who only stays up for his own capitalist interests, or the syndicate leader Treat Williams who "soon will be stretching dirty hands", are presented as corrupted or corruptible, predictable and vulgar (Aiello again who cries the hell out of him when he realizes that his son, perpetuator of his name, has been conveniently substituted by another girl more) .

Similar situation as the one that happens in Amerika and in general in all Kafka's work, the existence of rationality, a discipline, they often only hid a rigidity in the way of thinking of these characters that gets concealed under a false masque of responsibility. The substitution of the values by these superficial elements provokes an emptiness within the person and as a consequence a lack of integrity. Then by facing those characters that haven't lost their ideals (Karl Rossmann, Noodles, Isaac Davis) to these others the absurd is produced (the transformation in a beetle of Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis , the arrest of Joseph K.for an uncertain crime, or the repudiation of Rossmann by his uncle in Amerika)

This confrontation so characteristic in Kafka is also present is Once Upon A Time In America , such way that Max can't understand that Noodles will not kill him at the end, and following that opposition is when we get to perceive a second reading much more interesting than the one of "a romantic story of gangsters" which is referred in most of the commentaries regarding this film.

This second reading is based in the meta-cinematographic qualities of the film, the narrative understood as allegory of what is been happening with the occidental culture and by extension with the so called "cinematographic industry". The same way as all the previous films by Leone, good or bad have been guided by a tremendous love to the cinema, demanding in numerous occasions intertextual elements to the spectator, the title of the film could be read as "Once Upon A Time In The American Cinema" and we could observe the film as a question opened to the audience referring to the occidental culture: Why there isn't place for the sensibility anymore? ; Why is not possible now the searching of our own values? ; Why have we ceded to the subordination to pragmatism?. Coming to the end of the film Leone is unable to give himself an answer to these questions he has made, but he manages to flee from turning the film into a lamentation of the lost romanticism, teaching us that the existence of people with memory is still possible.

Also this reading states the vision of the film as pure meta-cinema: the association of Noodles with Leone admits the interpretation of the film as a speech about the difficulty of making a film. The impossibility of Noodles to give sense to his surroundings takes us to the classical postmodernist problematic of the impossibility of the author to make a work of art; we have to remember the period of more that fifteen years that took to Leone to make this film, period which he had to spent sheltered in publicity, highest expression of the artistic will subordinated to the commerce. It's difficult to ensure the conscious intention to introduce the "problematic of the director", but a fact to consider seriously is the spatial proximity of the most representative referent: Federico Fellini and the admiration the director of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly professed to his country-fellow, nevertheless it has always been observed a progressive tendency towards hyper-realism and an especial penchant for the surrealism in Sergio Leone. The undeniable is that Once Upon A Time In America, as well as all his films, is a paradigmatic example of cinema within the cinema as long as it implies a declaration of the artistic and moral values by the director and as a consequence ,the same as Woody Allen in Manhattan, a rejection of the occidental pseudo-culture based in the narcissism and the cult to the self: a declaration of love to the cinema, the kitsch and the innocence.

An elegy for an art, the cinematographic art that Leone is seeing vanishing, an elegy for a land of opportunities we have lost, which neither exists in America anymore, that mental country of hopes, nor in another place. But the memories remain.





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