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Topics - Don Rogers

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Once Upon A Time In America / The OUATIA Writers
« on: December 05, 2006, 05:14:29 PM »
In trying to figure out what happened in -- and to -- Once Upon a Time in America, I started fishing through the IMDb, looking for clues that would give insight into the film’s long writing process. I can’t say that this long post (Warning: Really Long) answers any of my questions, but I did find what I think is some interesting stuff. Read it if you’re interested.

Besides Leone, IMDb lists five other writers for the project, plus one more who went uncredited. That’s not counting the pseudonymous Harry Grey, who wrote the source novel “The Hoods”. This is, it need hardly be said, an unusually large group, and that could account for some of its shifts in tone, and what I see as its gaps in continuity. For such a large team, it’s remarkable that except for OUATIA, I don’t see any films that any of them wrote in English. (“Additional Dialog” writer Stuart Kaminsky does have a few other English-language writing credits; there’s one more if you count him.)

The writing team’s other credits show that they represented very different sensibilities. Leonardo Benvenuti and Piero De Bernardi were a team that wrote mainly popular Italian comedies, most without much pretense to high Art. By contrast, Enrico Medioli wrote a number of art-house epics up through the mid-70’s for director Luschino Visconti. The much younger Franco Ferrini wrote logic-defying horror thrillers for cult director Dario Argento. The uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi was the only one with experience in the gangster genre, and the only one who had previously worked with Leone, but he also had the least distinguished career overall.

Meanwhile, the ghost of Franco Arcalli hangs over the script, seeming to cast “The Curse of 1900” over the production.


Once Upon A Time In America / OUATIA and other troubled epics
« on: December 05, 2006, 12:30:30 AM »
On its initial US release, OUATIA was cut all the way to 139 minutes -- at well over two hours, still not a short movie, but a full hour and a half shorter than what we have now. I haven't seen that truncated version, but by all accounts it's nowhere near as good as what we have now -- choppier and harder to follow, with characters that seemingly appear and disappear out of the blue. What we have now, at almost four hours, is a very long movie by almost anybody's standard. Some think the film would be better if it were longer still (there are rumors, I think unfounded, of a six-hour version). Maybe, but I doubt it very much.

The meta-story of OUATIA is that of an acclaimed director with an epic vision for a film; but the studio failed to recognize the greatness of his vision, and so stupidly hamstrung the director, cutting the film against his wishes. This is not just the legend of Sergio Leone's OUATIA: it is also the story of numerous other films, some of which I like very much. It is the story of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, all the way back to perhaps the defining granddaddy case, Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). Von Stroheim's silent magnum opus was originally shot and edited -- not merely planned -- as an eight-hour film, but his studio chopped the film back to just 140 minutes (by coincidence, almost exactly the running time of the butchered original version of OUATIA). The studio then committed the ultimate sin: it destroyed the 70% of Greed that it had removed.

The difference is that even the radically cut, 140-minute Greed is a generally acknowledged masterpiece, whereas the 139-minute OUATIA is a generally acknowledged abortion. I believe the OUATIA we have now really is something close to a "director's cut". That doesn't mean that there weren't some extra scenes that the director hated to leave out, but you could say the same of just about any artistically ambitious film.

At its current, very long, 229 minutes, Leone had enough time to include a charming but dramatically unnecessary three-and-a-half-minute scene of a child gradually deciding to eat a pastry. Now three-and-a-half minutes doesn't sound like much ("Hey, 210 seconds, some people can hold their breath that long!"), but it's an eternity in screen time. If you doubt me, try re-reading the first sentence of this paragraph over and over, for the next three-and-a-half minutes.

And that's far from the only example of 'wasted' screen time in OUATIA. It's one thing to have unusually long pauses in a violent scene like a shootout. It may be considered manipulative (even masturbatory), but there is an exquisite, agonizingly drawn-out tension in the silences just before the violent climaxes of Leone's most popular films. It's quite another thing to have a lot of unusually long pauses in scene after scene of conversation; for me at least the result is an exquisite, agonizingly drawn-out tedium. That happens much too often here for my taste. When I rewatched this film recently, I frequently had to resort to the fast-forward button -- God help me, I was wrong, I know, but I just couldn't take it any more.

I don't know exactly what Leone left out, but I suspect it was more of the same. Leone had plenty of screen time to tie up the loose threads of his story, if that was his object. Even at almost four hours, characters still seemingly appear (Eve) and disappear (Frankie Minaldi) out of the blue. Treat Williams as James Conway O'Donnell manages to do both. Burt Young as Joe somehow got -- what, third billing? -- for a part that, onscreen, consists of little more than a cock-insurance-and-bull story joke and a one-second Moe Green impersonation. The script's final act implausibilities, which I won't belabor here, were not going to correct themselves with another two hours, or six, of additional footage.

Most of my complaints about OUATIA on the IMDb boards have been about this or that aspect of its plot's unlikelihood, but that's not really my main objection. It's the pace. I love The Big Sleep, whose plot is so tangled even its director, Howard Hawks, and its screenwriter, William Faulkner, famously couldn't make sense of it. I love Brazil, even though parts of it don't pretend to make much sense; Brazil explicitly even has the it's-all-a-dream plot twist that is OUATIA's last, unbreachable line of defense against charges of incoherence. What's the difference between those movies and OUATIA? It's that those movies move, while too often for me OUATIA just stands there, looking and sounding pretty.

I know lots of people, probably most posters on this board, love the film's slow pace. I admit it does give the viewer lots of time to appreciate the film's strengths: Oscar-caliber cinematography and production design, an excellent cast and score. But for me that's not enough. Heaven's Gate had outstanding cinematography and production design, too, but a poor story.

Once Upon A Time In America / My problem with Eve's death
« on: December 01, 2006, 03:24:59 AM »
[This is copied from my post on the IMDb board, before it evaporates altogether. Modified 12/10 to restore formattiing lost in translation.]

The first person killed in the movie is Noodles' girlfriend Eve. She comes into her darkened apartment and tries the light switch, which doesn't work. She then makes her way over to her bedside lamp, which also won't turn on. She tries tightening the bulb; this works.

She then notices something odd: a couple of dark brown spots on her sheet, next to her pillow. Pulling down her bedcover, she discovers something ominous: the outline of a man, drawn with bulletholes in her mattress. She barely has time for this to register when the silence is shattered, as a man smashes a photo of her boyfriend with his pistol. It turns out that there are three gunmen, they are looking for the boyfriend, and they aren't nice at all. After questioning Eve briefly but roughly, one of them screws on a silencer and summarily shoots her twice in the chest, killing her.

This scene is similar to the slaughter-of-the-innocents scene near the start of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. It is well paced, immediately and effectively setting up a suitable mood of danger.

And yet... On second viewing, there is something faintly ridiculous about it. That bullethole outline -- there are over 80 gunshots in the mattress. (Go back, hit Pause and count.) The outline is well-drawn, for a dot-to-dot, and the shots line up neatly, about four inches apart each. Presumably one of them has gotten good at this rather exotic craft form, or perhaps he brought along a pre-drawn paper pattern. That way, they could all chip in on the project, which must have taken several minutes, at the very least, to execute.

And when they were done with the outline, after working unnecessarily in the light, making needless noise, wasting dozens of bullets, and pausing to reload who knows how many times, what had to happen next? That's right: They had to make the bed. You can almost imagine the dialog:

"Ooh, won't she be surprised when she sees this?"
"I'll say. Very ominous, this is."
"Yes... quite chilling. You did a marvelous job with the head."
"Well, it was your good idea."
"I always say, an idea is only as good as its execution."
"This is better than the jack-o-lantern we shot a picture into, the last time."
"Ooh, yes, so much better. That was messy, wasn't it? This is so much... neater. Oh, no need to tuck in the edges too tight."
"Right. We want her to be able to get the full effect right away."
"Now we put the pillow right... here..."
"And we're done. You guys go get into your hiding places, while I unscrew the light bulb."
"Don't you just love surprises?"
"And isn't it nice that Mr. Minaldi lets us express ourselves creatively on the job?"
"Ooh, yes. But wait, s-h-h-h, I think I hear someone."

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