Friday, June 5, 2015

Twice upon a Tuesday

Once upon a time, I wrote this post about how I planned to use my Tuesdays at home, when I have only my still-napping 17-month-old son to look after, to watch some of the epic movies that have eluded me because of their epic length.

Now I've followed the 166-minute Sergio Leone movie mentioned in that post with the even longer 229-minute Sergio Leone movie I watched this week.

And so I've taken down two more of the movies listed in this post of films I was most embarrassed about not having seen, with very similar titles. And I have my long-movie Tuesdays to thank for that.

Once Upon a Time in the West and now Once Upon a Time in America have bookended a number of other epic movies I've bested during the past three months. During this period I've also finally seen Dr. Zhivago (197 minutes), The Bad Sleep Well (151 minutes) and The Great Dictator (124 minutes), and finally rewatched The Sound of Music (174 minutes). It's been a period of great classic cinema.

And speaking of great ... who knew how great Sergio Leone was? The two Onces have really floored me. They have both fallen just short of perfect star ratings on Letterboxd (4.5 apiece), due largely to some nitpicking that seemed significant enough to preclude them from receiving the highest possible score. But they have each qualified as a major surprise for me, and it has everything to do with my previous perception of Leone.

One of the reasons this guy has gotten a bad rap from me was because I considered him synonymous with the term "spaghetti western." I'm not an aficionado of the western genre, so I figured this phrase could only be a derogatory way to refer to westerns made by Leone and other Italians. In fact, I've determined that it's probably more of a judgment-free description of their Italian origins, and possibly affectionate. But because it's so politically incorrect, it would never have been coined today -- even if it was coined by an Italian journalist. That left me thinking it couldn't help but be a disparaging term. It suggested to me that Leone and his countrymen who worked in the genre churned out gunslinger movies made on the cheap, and that the Ennio Moricone scores that accompanied them were the winking auditory embodiment of a certain acknowledged kitschiness.

Now that I've seen the two Onces -- there's a third that is known more commonly as Duck You Sucker or A Fistful of Dynamite -- I should probably get to the movies that would have convinced me of Leone's import as a filmmaker if I'd actually seen them years ago, like most cinephiles did. That's the Man With No Name Trilogy, a.k.a. The Dollars Trilogy, a.k.a. A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I actually credit myself with having seen A Fistful of Dollars, but I feel pretty skeptical about whether that viewing actually occurred. At the very least I would need to see it again to prepare for the later two, even though I understand their plots relate to each other only in superficial ways.

And as it happens, I have a good opportunity to do this, as my father-in-law just got these movies from his girlfriend for Christmas -- either this past Christmas or the one before that, I can't remember.

Whether I'll watch them on a long-movie Tuesday, or catch them with my wife during traditional evening hours, remains to be seen. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is nearly twice the length of A Fistful of Dollars, and my wife is no good with long movies, so that may give me some idea.

Well hey, I'll be on this schedule at least until January ...

I don't want to get into an in-depth critical analysis of Once Upon a Time in America, but a few quick thoughts while we're here ...

1) This movie is epic with a capital E. The length alone isn't the direct indicator of that, though I suppose it allows the thing that is. I sat there slack-jawed as nearly the entire first 30 minutes of this movie is dialogue-free. That doesn't mean that no one speaks, because they do from time to time. But the whole first 30 minutes pass without any expository dialogue to really let you know what's going on. Those 30 minutes also include a long sequence scored by the incessant ringing of a telephone. Some of the stuff Leone is doing with sound and editing here is some of the most captivating I've ever seen, establishing once and for all something that I pretty much knew from Once Upon a Time in the West -- this man is an auteur with a capital A.

2) For some reason I had it in my head that this movie was from the 1970s, closer to the making of West. And so it was with some amount of surprise that I noted that not only Downton Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern, but also Jennifer Connelly, are in this movie. I thought both must be much older than I think they are, but then I realized that the movie was made in 1984. Duh. Connelly is a wee little 12-year-old, and adorable.

3) This movie seems to have been structured on The Godfather Part II, with its heavy usage of two different timelines (not to mention the similarity of the setting). Strangely, I find this movie more compelling than The Godfather Part II, even if that is considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that when I watched The Godfather Part II, accidentally watched the second disc before the first one. A source of incredible embarrassment, which would be even more embarrassing if my wife had not been watching with me and had not also failed to realize that we were watching the wrong disc first. I will rectify this eventually ... especially since I actually bought this movie at a garage sale about four years ago. I have yet to watch our copy.

4) So what keeps it from being a five-star masterpiece? At the midway point it was definitely that. I think a couple decisions in the second half left me cold, including withholding footage of what actually happened on the night that both opens and closes the movie. Maybe some of that is available in the even longer 251-minute version of the film. There is supposed to be a 269-version out there, but I'm kind of wondering if anyone has seen it.

5) I hate when so many versions of a movie exist, because you never know when you've really "seen" the movie -- the definitive version. Well, after this viewing I'm really glad I didn't somehow come into the possession of the 139-minute version that was savaged by critics in the U.S. The studio panicked about the long running time and cut out a number of scenes, plus ordered the remaining ones chronologically, which I now know would have totally destroyed the impact of the film (especially those captivating first 30 minutes). At least I appear to have seen the one that is considered by most people to be the "real" version of the movie.

Now that I've tackled a 229-minute film, maybe I'll use next Tuesday -- ALL of next Tuesday -- to watch Shoah, the 1985 documentary whose various versions run between 503 and 613 minutes.


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