On Once Upon a Time in America: There Is Only One Marcel Proust, and He Did Not Make Movies


In which The Gay Recluse remembers Sergio Leone.

Recently we watched the director’s cut of Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Lione’s epic Jewish/New York City gangster movie from 1984. When originally released in the United States, the producers imposed a chronological sequence onto the movie to shorten it, whereas Lione intended it to dreamily drift back and forth between three eras (roughly: youth, middle and old age) through the prism of one man’s memory.

There is much in the film to admire: Lione creates beautiful atmospheres in almost any context, and Robert De Niro is always a pleasure to watch. Even James Woods — who often bothers us — is well cast here, and his homoerotic obsession with the De Niro character is a compelling subtext.

There are problems, though! All of the childhood scenes are coated with an annoying sheen of nostalgia that makes them difficult to endure, so that while watching, we long for the return of De Niro & Company. Although at times brilliant — e.g., the Muzak version of “Yesterday” with exactly two words sung — the music too often crosses the line into a sort of dated kitch (two hours of Peruvian flute is perhaps one-hour and forty-five minutes too many?) that distracts from the unfolding story. Finally the Jewish component of the movie — primarily in the form of a few Yiddish phrases here and there, some Hebrew-lettered Lower East Side storefronts and a penchant for deli meats — did not really resonate for us. The problem is that there’s enough that (brilliantly) cuts against the grain of stereotype (namely, De Niro’s crushing melancholy and his opium addiction) that we are less forgiving of Lione when he succumbs to cliche.

The greatest flaw of the movie, however, is one that we’re beginning to suspect is intrinsic to the medium, i.e., the difficultly of conveying both the weight of memory along with its magic. Several times in the movie, Lione attempts to draw us into Proustian episodes of the “memoire involuntaire,” triggered by a range of objects and settings familiar but long lost to the De Niro character; ultimately, however, these transitions feel awkward and forced, and it takes several seconds for the narrative to recover from the jarring (but in the wrong way) effect of these memory sequences.

We are reminded of Visconti’s ill-fated attempts to similarly capture memory in Death in Venice, and are left to conclude that the novel is the best form to capture the subtle mix of real and unreal as we shift in and out of the present. For this reason, we don’t hold it against Leone that he failed where nobody else — at least that we know of — has ever succeeded.


One Response to “On Once Upon a Time in America: There Is Only One Marcel Proust, and He Did Not Make Movies”

  1. I love the flowers sprinkled in your post…so summery, mild and fresh in this drab gloomy November days in the northern hemisphere.

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