November 21, 2010

The Wee Small Hours With Sergio Leone


(Author’s Note: as I frantically try to cram twenty years of accumulated crap into too few boxes in order to move, I thought it would be appropriate to run a column with a Thanksgiving theme. Since I don’t have any of those, here’s this one.)


Every few years the mood hits me at the right angle and I dig out my copy of Once Upon a Time in America, directed by the great Sergio Leone. Leone is best known for his Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars, but in what would turn out to be his last film, he crafted a four-hour gangster epic that spans some sixty years in the lives of two street punks from the Lower East Side who grow to become very powerful mobsters. It stars the usual suspects—Robert DeNiro, James Woods, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Danny Aiello—along with Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, and a very young Jennifer Connelly.

Upon its release in the States in 1982, the film was mangled by distributors. It was hardly an uncommon practice when U.S. distributors were presented with a complicated film (or Gojira). In this case they feared (and rightly so) that American audiences, accustomed to simple, straightforward, undemanding stories, would be confused and frightened by the film’s shifting time frames and unanswered questions. The fact that it was four hours long didn’t help matters, either. So the distributors chopped up the film and rearranged the scenes in chronological order. In the process, they also lopped it down to a zippy two hours and fifteen minutes. The result was a film that was even more confusing than the original. But it was a lot shorter, so I guess that’s something. After a universally negative response, the studio finally relented and the film was pieced back together as Leone had envisioned it.

The restored director’s cut, if you have the patience to pay attention, is both elegiac and brutal, a mythic, hyper-stylized portrait of New York through the Twentieth century. Every time I put it on, those four hours fly by faster and faster, and every time, I can’t help but recall the very first time I saw it.

            It was 1985, and I was living in a grubby little apartment in Madison. My friend Grinch was renting a room in a trailer home on the other side of town. I think it was a trailer home anyway—it was sitting in the middle of a parking lot behind some other buildings, and was up on cinderblocks. He lived there with, as I recall, two women I never met, a dog, and a cat. They also had a TV, which was a big plus in those days. And not just a regular dumb TV, but one with a cable connection as well. That was almost unheard of, at least among people I knew.

            Normally I didn’t care about the TV or the cable—I had too many other things keeping me busy. If I wanted to see a movie, I went to the damn movies—there were enough film societies on campus that I could find three or four decent screenings every week.

            Then one day Grinch told me that the director’s cut of Once Upon a Time in America was going to be airing on the cable that night. The four-hour version had received some limited theatrical distribution, but I’m guessing the closest it ever got to Wisconsin was some art house theater in Chicago. So when Grinch asked me if I wanted to come over and watch it, I gave him an unqualified yes.

Now, there were a few things I should’ve paused to consider before telling him I’d be there, but never did. First, it was January, and the weather people were saying the temperature that night was going to be flirting with ten below zero. Second, Grinch and I both had a Latin test the next morning at 8:30 (yes, we both took two semesters of Latin for some reason). And third, the broadcast didn’t begin until 3:00 a.m., meaning the film would wrap up about an hour and a half before the test.

            None of that mattered—all that mattered was that I was finally going to have a chance to see Leone’s masterpiece. Home video was still a fairly new idea at this point, and VCRs were still expensive gadgets. More often than not, if you wanted to see a film, you had to work around someone else’s schedule, no matter how insane that schedule might be.

            That night I grabbed a few hours sleep, got up around two, put on my boots, hat, scarf, gloves, and heavy coat, then headed out into the empty Wisconsin night for the four mile walk to Grinch’s place. He tended to move around a lot, bouncing from apartment to apartment. I’d never been to this place before, but Grinch was particularly proud of it, given that his rented room matched the description of Raskolnikov’s room in Crime and Punishment.

            We used to get a lot of snow in Wisconsin, and when we did it stuck around—it didn’t melt away after three hours the way it does in New York. We could usually count on having a decent amount of snow on the ground from early November until April. By January the banks along the roads had grown to seven or eight feet. The blanket left on the streets and sidewalks had been packed dense and thick by the foot traffic and the plows. At that hour, it all glowed under the moon and the streetlights, and once the temperature dropped far enough below zero, it squeaked and crunched underfoot like Styrofoam. It wasn’t slippery, though, no matter how smooth it had been worn. Once you get below zero, something happens to the coefficient of friction. I put my hands in my pockets, my head down, and walked.

            At 2:30 on a weeknight, the whole town was absolutely still save for the light, frigid breeze in my ears and the crunching underfoot. I followed the train tracks through the valley of snow to the other side of town. Once I reached his neighborhood I veered away from the tracks and began looking for the trailer. It didn’t take as much aimless wandering as I expected. Some, but not as much as I expected. Grinch’s directions were good, and once I got close enough all I had to do was listen for the punk rock and look for the one place with the lights still on. I crept between two dark buildings to the parking lot in back, thinking as I did so that there was no way I’d be able to find the place again, let alone find my way home. There in the parking lot was the trailer up on the cinderblocks. The windows were glowing and I could hear the muffled hardcore coming from inside. It was only when I reached the top of the rickety steps and knocked on the aluminum storm door that it began to seep in just how profoundly cold I was.

            Grinch opened the door. All the lights in the place were on. It didn’t strike me as strange that all the lights would be on at three in the morning, but I’d already forgotten the time. There was no sign of his roommates, though I guessed they were asleep. Trying to sleep anyway, with all that racket. I took off the coat and the scarf and the boots, and dropped myself on the couch. The place smelled like dog. All trailer homes seem to smell like dog. My fingers were itching, as were my ears. While Grinch went to grab a couple of beers, the dog and cat chased each other around the cramped and crooked living room.

            He returned clutching two tallboys and handed me one. He turned on the TV, found the channel, and for the next four hours we barely said a word. Most of the time we were running wild in the streets, harassing people, or breaking things. It was an odd quiet few hours, sitting there watching the story of Noodles and Max play out. I tell you, there’s no better way to appreciate Once Upon a Time in America than sitting on a couch in a trailer, drinking a couple of tallboys at three in the morning on a cold, cold winter’s night.

            There might be a few other movies I’d be willing to walk that far at that hour in the cold to see, but not many, and to this day some twenty-five years later, I’m very glad I did. The film and that night has stayed with me. The Latin test we both failed the next morning, I’m happy to report, has not.


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