New York 2014: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA And The Importance of Preservation

Contributor; Toronto
New York 2014: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA And The Importance of Preservation
Post-production wiz, Walter Murch, in his book, In The Blink of An Eye, devotes a chapter to what he refers to as a film's DNA. He essentially says that a film can only be what it was meant to be, much like a human or chimpanzee are the products of their organic DNA. The human and chimp DNA may be genealogically similar, but they are nevertheless organically assembled to create the creature nature meant for them to be. You can try to splice their DNA to create a sort of cross-specie Humanzee, as Russian scientist Ilya Ivanov attempted to do in the 1920s, but ultimately, a chimp is a chimp and a man is but a man.

To Murch, the same can be said for a film that is shot with a specific vision in mind, but is later compromised in post-production by studios aiming to broaden their reception through implementing unorganic commercial appeal in the editing room. This practice, as Murch describes, amounts to "a human-being film that someone tried to turn into a chimpanzee film, and it came out being neither".

There is no example of humanzee editing more cinematically blasphemous than the initial American release of Sergio Leone's final masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America.

Sadly, the cut released in 1984 was anything but a masterpiece on account of Warner Brothers' refusal to release Leone's edit, which clocked in at over 3 ½ hours and presented its epic narrative with an aesthetic distaste for linear chronology. The brothers Warner, missing the point of Leone's unconventional presentation of time, instead released a bastardized cut that reordered the film into a 130-minute abomination that left critics scratching their heads at what became of the film's immense promise.

It's one of the great tragedies of cinematic history that Leone would never live to see the proper release of his director's cut 20 years later and the vindicating, belated worldwide response to the tune of, 'Wait- this is Once Upon a Time in America?!'. But even that cut, released on DVD in 2004, wasn't quite the full picture.

Twenty-two minutes of footage have since been unearthed to provide further missing pieces that are more than a little substantial to the story. In 2012, a brand-new cut incorporating these scenes premiered at Cannes, where James Woods, in his introduction to the screening, remarked that Leone died of a broken heart. And though the cut that screened at Cannes was regarded as revelatory, it was unanimously agreed upon that the condition of the unearthed scenes, brought to the surface through found work prints, was so poor that the preservationist team would have to go back to the lab for another two years.

Now in 2014, 30 years after the film's notorious mis-release, the lost footage is in as good a shape as it's going to get, which is sadly still far from tiptop. The footage remains easily distinguishable from the rest of the film due to its poor quality, which at least makes the additions glaringly obvious.

Nevertheless, the scenes were not meant for the cutting room floor and offer a revelatory lesson for the essential importance of film preservation. As numerous historical misadventures have proven, art can disappear if history isn't careful. Watching the 30th anniversary of the film at the 52nd New York film Festival, where Robert DeNiro, James Woods and Treat Williams were present to pay respects to the masterwork, I was haunted by the hypothetical thought that this cut might never have been.

To touch on the film itself, as numerous other cinema writers concluded in their belated, almost posthumous recognition, Once Upon a Time in America is a rare operatic masterpiece - an epic in scope demonstrative of what the medium is capable of in the hands of a poetically-minded storyteller with his thematic sights set on nothing short of time itself. What Warner Brothers failed to understand is that retrospect is as much the subject of the film as crime, if not more so.

In this sense, Once Upon a Time in America can be seen as the Citizen Kane of gangster films. Not because Citizen Kane is a blanket term for masterpiece, but far more specifically, because Orson Welles and Leone were like-minded filmmakers with a shared interest in ambition, friendship, and what becomes of such things when time washes away the past, leaving only irrepressible memories of rosebud.

Leone may also have had Kane in mind in his use of ingenious transitions, often employing visual jump cuts to signify the passage of decades. Of course, no one took Welles' visually symmetric flash-forwards further than Kubrick, who probably set some sort of record with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which jumps the span of Earth's entire lifetime, minus the 13 years that have passed since the film's hypothetical future.

Somehow, Leone one-ups both films in offering an intricately woven presentation of time that expressionistically does justice to the way memory actually works. But more breathtaking still is Leone's poetic orchestration of scenes.

Early in the film but late in the story, DeNiro's character, Noodles, returns home to the ancient streets of his youth that in the succeeding 30 years have only in existed in the annals of his memory. While the contents of these memories aren't yet made clear to the viewer, when Noodles sees his old friend Max, Leone is able to effectively communicate a lifetime of weight without so much as a word of dialogue. This is a filmmaker capable of capturing moments words cannot. If this isn't proof of cinema as a language unto itself, nothing is.

But for every man powerful enough to be considered a true visionary, there is another man powerful enough to stop him. In Warner Brothers' decision to 'restore order' for their presumably dimwitted American audiences, this scene was placed in its linearly accurate position in the third act. In their estimation, the gravity of Noodles' return to New York was now earned. Little did they realize, they were cheapening the voice of an artist, thus depriving American audiences of an invaluable entity.

Though it's indeed heartbreaking that Leone never lived to bask in the belated appreciation of his finest hour, with last week's BluRay release of the fullest version of his work, history can once more take a hard look at the fallibility of art and the high stakes of preservation.
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James Woodsnew york film fest 2014NYFF 2014Once Upon A Time In AmericaRobert DeniroSegio Leone

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