Friday, May 21, 2021

Cannes 1984: Twice Upon a Time in America

Our favourite text of the Cannes 1984 series (Laurent and Sri).

Twice Upon a Time in America

Wenders recounts that during a recent trip to Osaka (Japan), he discovered a “Wim Wenders fan club”. They had only seen three of his films but they wanted to know everything about him. “I had the feeling,” says Wenders, “that distances were abolished, that Osaka was the suburb of another place, which itself was… It’s incredible to what extent cinema is a country, a family, a language.”

Leone discovered that there was a mythology about him in the USA, that UCLA students in California have dissected his films. “They have analysed the final duel in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly frame by frame, just to understand the play of glances!”, laughs Leone who, ever since, has believed in youth’s love for cinema.

By a lucky and objective coincidence, Paris, Texas and Once Upon a Time in America, two of the most eagerly awaited films of the 37th Cannes film festival, succeeded one another this weekend. And since they are both beautiful films, not only did they not disappoint but they also reminded festival goers (tired, blasé, sometimes sinister) that they too were a large fan club of eternally spotty-faced teenagers. With a lot of seriousness, these two films brought a lot of pleasure. You could see yourself in the mirror they held. The applause that welcomed Paris, Texas right from the opening titles is a clear sign. It’s cinema that’s coming home. Which means that we drop by America once again. It’s only logical; the dialogue between the Old and the New World can have no better mediators than these two: Wenders and Leone. 
America for them is always at the beginning. Sergio Leone wanted to make Once Upon a Time in America even before Once Upon a Time in the West. He kept at it for fourteen years. And if De Niro plays the role of Noodles, it’s because Leone had already talked to him about it when the little-known actor played in Mean Streets! This persistence is somewhat heroic: from obtaining the rights for Harry Gray’s memoirs (The Hoods), to Grimaldi, the Italian producer, acquiring them, to then buying them back from Grimaldi (when the latter was about to give up on the project owing to financial difficulties). Leone even took the Americans (Arnon Milcham for Alan Ladd Jr.) to court before showing the film. 

And this is just the part of the legend that can be told, the admissible tip of the iceberg: the genesis of Once Upon a Time in America had become a myth even before the shooting began (lasting eight months, in various places in Rome, New York, Montreal, and costing close to twenty million dollars).

As for Wenders, he didn’t spend fourteen years wanting to make Paris, Texas, but when he began painting, before shooting films, he took inspiration from the deserted landscapes of the Westerns that he had enjoyed as a child. “I was somewhat indebted to this landscape,” he says today. It’s strange how cinephilia is related to debt. Did the Cannes audience feel it? In any case, it applauded the first shot of Paris, Texas: a camera flying low over a Fordian canyon. It’s magnificent. 

But there are two Americas: real and imaginary. It is the place that makes it possible to dream, but also the corner of reality that dreams crash into. Even Leone’s. Once Upon a Time in America is not the film he had dreamt of and, if the version seen at Cannes is the one closest to it, the US version will be the one furthest away from it. Leone hopes to show the entire film one day, on television. You can’t sell Americans a European view (even one struck by wonder) of their mythology without risk. “Over there, I am respected,” he confesses, “but not liked”. Why would they like him when he tells the story of two losers in a scrambled chronology, when he sets his story in the Jewish community of the Lower East Side of the 1920s, and especially when he “invades America” with his 45-member Italian crew? Unions didn’t like him and the wily Leone had to play their rivalries against one another, pay American technicians to remain idle, and be criticised by the press for doing so (“Reagan wrote articles against me, so did Ted Kennedy…”).

Unions were a problem for Wenders too. Paris, Texas is the first Franco-German co-production filmed in the USA. He has had to pay teamsters to do nothing and face threats of strike.

For in the end, it’s time that decides, i.e. duration. Leone originally intended the film to be shown in two parts (4½ hours in total) before he was told that it is impossible in the US where no film is longer than three hours. With a heavy heart, he agreed to cut one hour, but it was still too long. Today, the film is in the hands of Warner Bros., ready to be edited all over again (it will be a carnage) and Leone is ready for another trial (and to remove his name from the credits). To be dependent on the US market is tragic. Wenders knows about this since he was employed by Coppola on Hammett. This (naturally bitter) experience is now behind him. 

It’s a never-ending paradox. On one hand, Leone as well as Wenders have a vital need for America, as if even the most universal stories were credible only when they unfolded there. On the other, they have a vital need for Cannes (or the Osaka fan club), awards and reputation which are their only currency when confronted with the American idea of the market of images. This contradiction is inexhaustible. Wenders lived in the USA, today he prefers traveling across the country, without settling down. “America fascinates me,” says Leone “the more I know it, the more I like it and the more I feel light years away from it.”

Why do they need America so much? Big question. Leone is an Italian filmmaker who has never filmed modern Italy, but has Italianised everything that has passed in front of his camera. Wenders is a German filmmaker for whom Germany only inspired meandering, melancholic and meteorological stories. “In France, in Italy,” Leone told me in Paris, “there is only France or Italy. In America, there is the whole world.” “In Europe,” he added sourly, “there are no contradictions any more, only the bitter logic of survival”. To Benito Craxi who encouraged him to make a film on Garibaldi’s life, he answers: no, because he would then have to make “Once Upon a Time There Was Italy,” but since Italy still hasn’t come into being, it would be “Once Upon a Future in Italy”. Is Europe already too jaded, or perhaps not furious enough, to really produce stories (other than cultural ramblings)? Wenders clarifies that a “story” is quite different from a “succession of events”. He has no problems stringing events together, but not so with telling a story. 

It’s long been Leone’s dream to narrate the siege of Leningrad and the two million that sacrificed their lives there. Is it because there are more stories coming from the East? Evidently so (see Skolimowski and Zulawski this year). Or because in the East, even in its putrescent state, there are still myths? Evidently even more so. Wenders, for his part, has an Australian project close to his heart. That’s only logical: it’s a country that emerged from nothing, therefore fit for myths. 

Both know (Leone always did, Wenders does more and more) that a story (in the banal and technical sense of a script) is a poor thing when it doesn’t stem from a myth that has imploded (or exploded). And since myths from defeated countries (Italy and Germany with its Macisti and Übermenschen) were also defeated, only the myths of the victors remain available. “What is useful in the long run,” Wenders told me in Paris, “is to believe in myths and not question them.” This is why we must drop by America (even at the risk of being ragged). This is why Paris is in Texas and not in France. 

“A man comes back. It took him a long time. He was in an unknown country. He comes back from the dead, like Ulysses. And this man, believed to be dead for four years, appears in the desert. He doesn’t speak. But he has a goal, we can feel it. He wants to find something again. First, he finds his brother who helps him find his son, and with the son, he begins to search for his wife, and he tries to recreate his family again.” That’s the story of Paris, Texas as summarised by Wenders (written with the probably decisive help of Sam Shepard). Now, imagine Harry Dean Stanton in the role of the “man” (Travis), and around him, Dean Stockwell as the blond child, Nastassja Kinski and Ry Cooder’s music. Let them roam everywhere, from Los Angeles to Houston, on the road or in the Mojave Desert. Immerse them in Robby Muller’s lighting and Wenders’ mise en scène (which, yes, you already like) and you have a very beautiful film whose beginning, incidentally, reminds us of Sergio Leone. 

In Leone’s film too, an old man comes back (from Iowa to the New York of his early years, so from faraway) to get over with a story that he thought he was the hero of, before the story left him behind. 

Once Upon a Time in America is the tangled tale of two petty Jewish criminals from the Lower East Side over a century: Max (James Wood, very carnal) and Noodles (Robert De Niro, very nuanced). They are inseparable, more than they think. When Max, in a bout of self-destruction, gives in to the violence that comes with power, Noodles betrays him to save him from the worst. Then Noodles disappears, anonymous and defeated by his gesture. But when he comes back, much later, like a Henry James character or a Shakespearian ghost, he discovers Max isn’t dead, but he too is a defeated man, albeit a rich, powerful and corrupt one. 

Now, add three hours and forty minutes of action, plot twists, bravura set pieces, a moving chronicle of Jewish New York at the beginning of the century, then the classic episodes of prohibition, with speakeasies and shady unionists, time passing strangely on the faces of women, an opium den as epicentre of this story full of dupes and fury, a decked up De Niro, magnificent and hunched over, and you have Once Upon a Time in America, another very beautiful film.

Myths, Mircea Eliade explained, are almost always stories that answer the question: how does something (or someone) come into being? Ex nihilo. How does it return from nowhere? Leone’s and Wenders’ heroes return from nowhere. There is a “hole” in their lives: four years for Travis, more than thirty for Noodles, a total of thirty-four years of which we will know nothing – an “absence to themselves” that forces them to rebuild everything, patiently. 

For we are no longer in the era – a rather naïve one in hindsight – where it seemed so desirable and so easy to “demystify” everything, starting with America. We don’t even believe psychoanalysis to be our last means of getting a grip on ourselves, thanks to our neuroses, to myths (Oedipus and company). 

A few years ago, we would have analysed Travis’ itinerary (a prodigious Harry Dean Stanton) as a puzzle-like reconquest of the ego in struggle with a repressed id and an inhibited superego. Wenders would have probably done it too. That was Kings of the Road. That was Once Upon a Time in the West (the great flashback, “keep your lovin’ brother happy!”). Stories of traumas and cures that unfolded like testimonies of patients undergoing analysis, with digressions (opera, wanderings) and ellipses. Knowledge about myths is useless today. What alone counts is the desire to lay out stories propelled by their myths. And there, we can say that Leone sums himself up and breaks free and that Wenders gathers himself and has a lot of fun. 

Let’s return to their films in greater detail later. For now, let’s talk about them as we have found them: together in the same festival. Creative stylists, Leone and Wenders quickly found a “form” that was the spontaneous answer to essential questions that they couldn’t yet ask. Questions about myths. Once Upon a Time in America is less brilliant, picaresque and pyrotechnical than the first Spaghetti Westerns. The hour edited out is cruelly missing. The actors are not all good. The central section (the 1930s) is slightly banal. But there is something that we were wrong to think Leone was incapable of: recreating a period, a risky genre if there was one, that he masters with unexpected freshness, transforming each object into a character, daring to reference Chaplin, filming a New York never seen before – especially by Americans. As for the modern section (the 1960s), I will only say that the scene of Noodles’s return toFat Moe’s restaurant is worthy of Ford. 

And Wenders manages the tour de force of transitioning, almost seamlessly, to linear storytelling, progressing step by step, neither boastfully nor vainly, of using his style instead of being led by his style, and of managing to film “the right things with a wide angle” (Leone’s words). And wide angle is not a question of format. It is the privilege of a filmmaker sufficiently confident of his know-how to hazard a few steps in a direction that he was avoiding until now. For Wenders, the pitfall was always women. He has never really known what to do with the women characters in his films. In Paris, Texas, if the relationship between the father and the son is perfect, making Jane (Nastassja Kinski, formidable) the object of the quest is one way of solving the problem (even if the much anticipated peep show scenes are a bit disappointing). In front of her, there is finally a man “with a goal” and who storms ahead. 

In the beginning, finally, there is desire. Well, Wenders remarks: “Americans are very good when it comes to moving in a single direction.”

First published in Libération on 21 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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