Monday, June 23, 2008

They Call Them Millions

Words cannot express how thrilling the opportunity to see Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME AT THE WEST at the Academy in Beverly Hills really is. Billed as the west coast premiere of the new restoration, the night was made slightly better for me when I walked up to the box office, money in hand, and had a ticket handed to me with no payment required. Maybe someone had an extra that they left behind when they picked up theirs up at will call. Maybe the Academy somehow knew that my birthday was the next day and decided to give me a little present. Anyway, the woman rebuffed my efforts to pay and simply said “Buy somebody a ticket to a movie sometime,” before waving me off. Calling it a bargain doesn’t do it justice.

Large theaters like this one were made to show ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. That has to be said. I’ve seen the epic numerous times already, but watching it unfold this time on such a huge screen with that Techniscope imagery and unrivaled power of the Ennio Morricone score occasionally came close to bringing tears to my eyes. Not necessarily because of the story but because of the immense beauty of all the elements that Leone assembled into this unrivaled piece of art. Claudia Cardinale, that first shot of Henry Fonda, the crevices in Charles Bronson’s face that we see during those super extreme close-ups, Gabriele Ferzetti’s desire to see the Pacific, Jason Robards on top of that train car, Claudia Cardinale. It may only partly be about what “The West” really was but it certainly is about a love for the western, for all films, for Claudia Cardinale, that can’t simply be put into words.

The film was introduced by Barry Allen of Paramount’s Film Preservation and Archival Resources department who explained the nature of this restoration in some detail, making a point to state that this restoration had been done entirely on film, not digital. The version of the film shown on Friday night was essentially, as far as I can tell, the cut that I have been familiar with for several years now and have on DVD, though this print had no Paramount logos at the head or tail. There has been discussion through the years of cuts longer by just a few minutes or considerably more, but that was not the case here. It certainly remains longer than what Paramount released in 1969, but it’s no different from what has been seen and available in the past few years. So in terms of restoration we’re presumably talking about the actual materials, not any footage which has long been unseen. I don’t know if this is the way it should be, but this is the way it is.

Thinking about the nature of the narrative, I found myself paying attention to a sequence of events in the middle section and I know I’m not the first two point out some continuity issues here. When Claudia Cardinale’s Jill is confronted by Henry Fonda’s Frank, his appearance leads into a flashback at a cliff dwelling with him and Gabriele Ferzetti’s Morton. Or is it a flashback? In some ways it has to be, but I’m still not sure. Why this flashback at this point in the story? And exactly when does it flash back to? Before the start of the movie? Why are these characters in this location? Did Leone simply find it and decide that he wanted to film something there? Could this be a case of a scene that has a legitimate reason in the narrative but there is no possible place to put it? And as for the love scene between Jill and Frank that occurs at this point what is going on? Is it consensual? How does it convince her to sell the farm? It’s as if ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was subject to the sort of narrative jiggling that can happen in the course of a ‘normal’ film around the 70-minute mark, but the issues are amplified here due to the scope of the film in question. At this point in the narrative we need to get from B to C but maybe someone lost track of how we were supposed to get there.

Most curious to me is the long sequence where Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) discuss things at the Sweetwater ranch and determine that they need to start building the town. The more times I see it, the more it becomes apparent that it is the most blatant example of pure exposition that occurs in the entire film. The documentaries on the DVD mention that a great number of scenes, even some that had already been shot, were cut from the script in the middle of production and I honestly wonder if this section was the main result of that pruning. Maybe Leone wanted to present this information as elliptically as possible in other scenes drawn out over a longer period but there was just no time for it. And maybe he deliberately laid all this out as blatantly as possible in one specific sequence to give him the option of losing it if it wasn’t needed. Of course, the amount of information given here is unfortunately necessary for us to follow the plot—it seems to be the one time in the film where these characters, especially Harmonica, are actually making statements without being mysterious. Maybe it provides too much clarity for the dream feel Leone was no doubt going for, but sometimes these things need to make a little bit of sense. As scenes containing nothing but exposition go, it’s still pretty good. But it does a surprising amount of clarity considering how elusive everything around it can be.

And during the final section, I found myself really wondering about the dozens of men now working at Sweetwater, building the rails and the town. How much time has passed for this to happen? A day? A week? A month? It’s not clear how long it’s taken for Frank to ride from where we last saw him so I’m not sure any of those answers manage to make sense. And maybe no answer really matters. In some ways, the film is a dream, just as Claudia Cardinale declares at the end of the DVD documentary, “Cinema is a dream.” Getting to see this majestic film in such a theater is a glorious dream.

“I hope you’ll come back someday.”



Adam Ross said...

One thing I observed during my last viewing: Leone took great pains to show how busy everyone around the main characters were, in every corner of the screen in the town are people working and building things, paying no attention to the in-focus action. It may be his way of saying that nothing could stop the Western expansion, certainly not people like Frank, Harmonica, Cheyenne, etc.

Good to know it was restored, I remember the effort being announced a few years ago but nothing since. Now it's ensured that eventually it will be released on Blu-Ray, and a single tear will roll down my cheek as I stare at my HD-DVD player.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

That's a great observation about how the frame is used, Adam. There are constantly things going on, even if it's something way in the background, seen through a window, that lends the impression of things constantly going on around the story. And I hope that eventual Blu-Ray will look beautiful.

D Cairns said...

I'm convinced the only flashbacks in the film are Bronson's. The scenes at the Indian town are placed chronologically, but with a narrative ellipsis that leaves out how we got there.

I think Jill sleeps with Frank so he won't kill her, and agrees to sell the land for the same reason. Frank could just have killed her, but since she screws him he agrees to buy the land for a tiny price instead.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

What a remarkable experience this must have been...thanks for sharing it with us.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I can believe that Fonda's scenes are in chronological order, but something about this sections keeps on frustrating me. It certainly makes the most sense to look at Bronson's flashbacks as the only ones in the film. Your take on Jill's motivation here sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Thanks to all for the comments. It really was an amazing thing to see.