Well. wow. Reverberations are thundering around the cinephile world with this extraordinary news, especially given the connections between old and new media and all that such umbilical links could signal for the future. Here is some exhaustive context, and here is a glimpse of what’s in store;
Let’s start with a little story shall we, not a fairy story as the title of the film suggests, but a hard-nosed business story from the associated brutal corridors of local government. So, as some of you will be aware I commenced a new assignment recently, and as is the way of these things I also acquired a new ‘handler’ from the interim consultancy I’m working through (they’re based opposite Claridges in Mayfair so quite swanky I have to say). In this interpersonal world these consultancies do like to maintain the veneer of a human touch, so I met up with my new colleague (let’s codename him Q for ease of reference) for a chat and discussion of the current mission. Once the work stuff had evaporated I and Q got to debating other matters, the subject of hobbies and imminent weekend activities arose so inevitably the conversation turned toward the movies. ‘Oh I absolutely love gangster movies’ Q remarked, ‘Goodfellas and Casino are my absolute favorites’. ‘Well’, I respond, a devilish glint in my eye ‘then you’ll be excited to hear that I’m going to see the UK premiere of the newly restored 4K edition of Once Upon A Time In America this weekend?’ I beam. A slightly bemused Q offers a confused look. ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of that one’ is the muted response. ‘Really?’ I respond, with growing incredulity. ‘De Niro, Pesci? and Jimmy Woods teamed up in Sergio Leone’s epic masterpiece of the Jewish mob a decade before Casino’s triumvirate reunion?’ I counter. ‘Nope, doesn’t ring a bell’ is the humble reply. A self-proclaimed gangster movie fan whom has never heard of yet alone seen OUATIA? It’s inconceivable of course, and with my double agent antenna definitely being disturbed severe action is immediately required. The conversation stumbled on but clearly all was lost at this stage, thus I quietly tendered his wet-work retirement to our clandestine superiors before retiring to my club for cigars and a brandy nightcap.
The Badlands collective have done themselves proud again with another wonderful film event following the Harris Savides double bill from last year, and first up I’ve no real desire or inclination to expand much beyond my BFI screening review from a harrowing six years back which can pursue at your leisure. There is really only three, or perhaps four (if you’re being a mathematical purist) essential texts when it comes to the great post war American gangster film. First of all there is Goodfellas of course, then the first two Godfathers (which some count as one entity), and Once Upon A Time In America jostling for superiority in the pantheon. Sure there are other highly regarded films in the canon – The Departed, King Of New York, Scarface and the aforementioned Casino all leap to mind as potentially ambitious capos, but none of them quite achieve the same metaphorical plateaus of the American Dream forged as financial hoarding fulcrum, unimpeded by such trivial impediments as legality or morality, capitalism writ large as the defining social and political institution of the 20th century. From its fairy tale title Once Upon A Time In America holds this water but its killer punch are its deeper levels of sophistication and symmetry, it uses the genre trappings of the Warner Brothers crime pictures and the wider movement of film noir as the iconographic stand on which to hang its real hat, a haunting treatise on time, loss and betrayal within the lifespan of one shattered soul. It’s subjective stuff as I love all these films but with a .38 pressed to my head I’d probably opt for Goodfellas as my favorite for its pure relentless energy. But when you’re in a certain mood, on a lazy Sunday bank holiday say, well then immersing yourself in an epic four-hour and a half hour cinematic odyssey can bless you with criminally diverse dividends, especially with twenty minutes of resurrected material which elaborates certain sequences and broadens crucial relationships.
As you would imagine the 4K restoration was glorious, it still retains an element of grain to critically preserve that aura of a film recalled through a woozy gauze of a half remembered dream, as it tilts and sways through the childhood of early 20th century New York to the twin tower milestones of 1933 and 1968. Morricone’s haunting, simple melodic score brings tears to the eyes, that simple refrain echoing throughout Noodle’s wasted life and abandoned love, a aural character moment to equal the harmonica refrain in the sister film Once Upon A Time In The West. It’s an odd film as with the exception of Deborah there are no characters to empathize with or emotionally connect, as naturally over four hours and sixty years of one man’s life you’re destined to establish some sense of connection. In that sense Leone snaps you back to reality from the melancholic nostalgia with some shocking violence, particularly one of cinemas most harrowing rapes – and I mean ‘harrowing’ in the sense of emotional destruction not visual exploitation – which obliterates any ‘feelings’ we could possibly have for these selfish, violent, criminal bastards. It’s these designs that elevate America up to an operatic & metaphoric plateau, illustrated with those trademark Leone push zooms and extreme close-ups on those monolithic embittered faces, when his camera isn’t prowling through the architectural space to wallow in the lavish historical production design of the rasping Manhattan streets and speakeasys.
So to the matter at hand, the extra material, and to cut straight to the chase there is a full dissection here. There are a few standalone scenes alongside additions to existing sequences, primarily involving a Louise Fletcher appearance when Noodles visits the mausoleum of his betrayed comrades in 1968. Then there is more back-story to his meeting and relationship with Eve, the poor call-girl who is brutally executed in the opening scene of the picture, and perhaps most crucially in the final coda Wood’s futile final position is intensified with a scene featuring Treat Williams corrupt Union shill. Deborah is finally seen on stage in Anthony & Cleopatra, majestic in her life forged away from Noodles controlling interference, in a scene prefiguring the subsequent emotional reunion. Finally and perhaps most amusingly the great producer Arnon Milchan can be seen in a rare speaking role here – that’s quite another meta manipulation given his mysterious history, and the fact that this restored sequence directly references the grevious situation in Germany for the Jewish people during this 1933 set sequence of the film. All these scenes are glaring additions in terms of visual quality, they are imprinted within a degraded, translucent film-stock which add an odd pallor to proceedings, yet still cat-nip to us celluloid completests.
The jewel in the crown of one of the years core cinephile events was the appearance of Elizabeth McGovern for an all too brief Q&A, as I understand it she lives in London and is wrapping up her contribution to the final season of Downton Abby. Naturally the debate was framed around that legendarily ambiguous ending, of whether Leone ever intimated that any of the more modern portions of the film are occurring in Noodles opium addled head, rendering all the 1968 material as an internal, cinematic fever dream. McGovern patiently explaining that these sorts of discussion simply don’t orbit how films are actually made, as on a day-to-day process you are working on and solving scene after scene on an individual progressive basis – hitting the marks, experimenting with lines, formulating figure movement, turns of the head and flashes of the eyes – rather than deliberating on the holistic scope of the film as a wider engine of its technical, component parts. She also beautifully remarked on just how moving it was to see the restored film at Cannes in 2012, nearly thirty years to the day from when it was released, sitting with De Niro, Jimmy Woods and Jennifer Connelly. When it arrived at the scene where Deborah meets Noodles again after three decades of film time (the best scene in the film incidentally) she turned to see De Niro sat next to her nearly three decades on from the 1984 premiere, some weird meta-film world ouroboros which digests back on Leone’s lamenting hymn to time lost. I love the movie, although I don’t think these additions are essential, its more like the Apocalypse Now redux – fascinating and interesting to peruse, but the original cut still works best in balance of storytelling pace and pathos. I’m pretty sure that America would be in my all-time top thirty if I ever deem to construct such a list, that ambiguous finale immortally transcendent on the screen, the scene even playfully starting on an image of shadow-play and artifice. Wiser souls than I have noted the ingestion of the narcotic can be seen as sacrament, a purging of the soul for the treachery he has just unleashed on his childhood friends, before that turn to the camera frosted with a sepia soaked veil, before that Mona Lisa, indeterminate smile. Sheer poetry, the final scene frozen in amber from one of the all time great filmmakers;
Being a BFI member is a bit like being in the mafia isn’t it? Once a year they open the books, consider which soldiers have been diligent and respectful little earners and garner them with a little treat – a ‘made’ man members only tour of the BFI restoration centre and archieve in the chilly foothalls of deepest Hertforshire. This is where some of the nations audio-visual treasures are held and the painstaking pursuit of reel by reel, frame by frame restoration is conducted, such as this 1927 picture which was recently commissioned for this years London Film Festival;
A dozen or so of us were walked around the complex with tour guide in hand meeting and chatting to the technicians and boffins who preserve and the hundreds of years of material which have been collected since 1935 when the institute was established. We got to see close-up the machines that photograph the negatives one frame at a time for digitial archival purposes and computerized restoration, the soundsmiths who remove the hiss and clicks of sonic degradation (yes, the recent Nolan sound backlash came up and we all had a little chuckle), and the man who may well have the best job in the world – upon instruction it’s his job to watch and log every film in the collection for a future retrospective. For example, say the BFI want to curate a season of Dame Maggie Smith, as is currently in play at the Southbank. He receives a phone call and it’s his job to consult the archive, to collate and project every 16mm, 35mm, 70mm or whatever print and assess what is a solid enough condition to be presentable, a process which he explained watching a mere 81 of Dame Smith’s films, providing the curator with the essential information of what he could and couldn’t include in the programme. So, essentially, watching films in your own theatre all day and getting paid for it. Sweet.
Naturally I found the whole place fascinating, just a sideways glance in one of the examining rooms had film cans labeled up as The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp, or the AFI’s print of Vertigo, glance another way and there was a reel from Brainstorm or Three Colours Blue. I think the area that got the most ‘ooohs’ and ahhhs’ was the special materials room where some of the ephemera of film culture was also catalogued, archived and held in trust, this is the unit which manages the film posters, the scripts, the film related personal effects donated to the institute. We were given sight of Peter Sellers childhood diaries, a final leather-bound script of Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Carol Reed’s pencil annoted shooting script to The Third Man, and Lee and Cushing’s written contracts for The Curse Of Frankenstein. Oh and the original storyboard book for The Empire Strikes Back, complete with scribbled questions about camera moves and SFX choices and solutions to certain sequences. Suck it neeerrrrdddssss……
So yeah, pretty much film nerd heaven, a terrific session which I’m glad to have finally attended. Maybe one day they will open the main archieve to the public over in Warwickshire, that’s where the hundreds of thousands of prints and material is held in effectively a giant fridge, for the benefit of future generations when that old fashioned recording medium of celluloid will seem as archaic and amber as Mary Pickford or Theda Bara are to today’s generation. If you’re interested in any of the debates around digital versus film shooting or archival practices then again I heartily recommend Side By Side, a terrific documentary which lays bare all the current debates and discussions of where film culture is shifting from one phase to the next……that is, if we can even call it ‘film’ anymore….