Once Upon a Time in America

I kinda hate gangster films. This isn't a new idea to me, but this film more or less crystalized what I hate about them. In short, gangsters are not Robin Hood. They do not rob from the rich to give to the poor. They do not empower the poor; they feed off of them. They do not fight injustice disguised as law; they simply treat the law as coincidental. The closest argument you have is that they gave immigrant populations recourse to power in a system that hated them, and that is certainly true. But you rarely see them wield that power toward anything but assimilating into the system in a backward sort of way. While some gangster films have tried to address some aspect of this, there's a Truffautian paradox present--now matter how elegantly these films address the negative side of organized crime, it will always seem glorious to some.

I'm not immune to this. Frankly, it's in my blood. My family is rich with stories about gangsters on my mom's side. Her mother was full blood Italian, and her parents were off the boat from Sicily, if I recall correctly (I might be a generation off). There are a lot of what I think of as "Great-Uncle Anthony stories." They always seem to be Anthonies or Jimmies. "Great-Uncle Anthony died at 40 under mysterious circumstances, despite being an accountant." That sort of thing.

My favorite, though, is a nice, tangential one. I can't remember the great uncle in question's name (he's not my great-uncle, either. He's either my mom's or her mom's great-uncle), so we're gonna call him jimmy. Great-Uncle Jimmy was a barber in New York in the '20s. Every once in a while, he'd get a call telling him simply, "Lucky's coming." He'd kick everyone out, close the shop, drop the curtains, and kill the lights. A limo'd pull up, and Lucky Luciano would stroll in for a shave and a haircut... in the pitch dark. Uncle Jimmy, of course, dreaded this, because who wouldn't be terrified of having a blade that close to Lucky Luciano's throat in the dark?

So this went on for quite some time, until one day, in an unrelated incident, old Great-Uncle Jimmy was mugged. Fed up with the "changing neighborhood" (a phrase I've always assumed was racially coded), he up and moved to Florida. Every month or two during his early retirement, a black limo would pull up by the house and someone in the car would make chitchat with him. Uncle Jimmy would make chitchat back, never prying too much about who was in the car. Well, of course, after some time, he got comfortable with it, and accidentally let slip that he had had a little trouble with the trash collectors. Not but a day later, the trash collectors stopped by to apologize for any inconvenience, and Uncle Jimmy never had another issue with them again. He made a point of never complaining about anything to the man in the black limo again.

is it true? I doubt it. Not in detail, anyway. It's grown and changed every time I've heard it. These stories are told in a way that is filled with delight at the gossip, the legend, the infamy. The name's probably not even right. But do I think someone in my family, on that side, had ties to organized crime? Absolutely. I've seen the old home movies. They look like a scene from The Godfather. It stirs my blood just thinking about it. The power, the spectacle, the glory of something so dark. The money I'll never have. The control of everything, from the shadows. Being able to say "fuck you" to the world because I'm rich and ruthless? It's a wonderful, vile fantasy that speaks to the most cruel, frustrated part of me. Which is why, of course, a moralistic asshole like me would hate gangster movies.

Because the spectacle makes the fantasy that much more appealing. Look at that scene after the four of them make the "kid's stuff" robbery. The vast party, the fancy clothes, the camaraderie born in gunfire and high risk. It's glitzy. It's beautiful. Sergio Leone knows how to make something look good. He's cool, like pop-art and jazz records. Look at that appeal to my frustrations as he shows us the dirty origins of these kids, growing up hard and fast on the streets, toying with the American dream of rising from rags to riches and having the power to stick it to everyone who ever fucked with you. Sure, in this story, there are ups and downs, but that's how a good story goes. The point is that they make it eventually, even if only briefly. Look at all that money in the brief case. Don't you wish you had that in your hands? Look at this film, this meandering, stylized masterpiece. Doesn't it look good?

Of course, Leone is smart. He knows what organized crime is. These boys that grow up to be boy-kings, they have dark sides. Noodles is a sick, violent man with little control. He can't stand not to get what he wants. He's as frustrated as I am, but he goes places and does things I can't or won't. He's a despicable creature who rapes two women, taking what they don't want to give him. The film has the nerve to suggest that one of them comes to like it, which is a moment that, no matter how stylish and powerful the film is, is going to tarnish it in my eyes. Max is a duplicitous bastard, too. His betrayals are twisted, and his journey is the most resonant with the idea of assimilation (even if it seems ultimately unsuccessful). He is the cancer of organized crime infesting the system; Noodles is the dream, the legend, the fairytale of it. He's the one who gains just enough to get out.

So Leone is smart enough to give us the contrast, to show us the poisonous side of it all. And then he's smart enough to show it's all a lie, a story, a myth. These small time punks are like all gangsters; they're dirty boys who do something stupid. There's blood on their hands, and they're doomed by their choices. But it's not enough. There's the spectacle, the grit, the adventure, the romance throughout, no matter how hard he tries. He has the musical cues set up to tell us when to be charmed, and the sudden violence to shock us. He has the ugly, satisfying revenge moments, and the amazing displays of extravagance (a huge coffin cake!). This is just like my family's stories; nothing in it should be appealing and yet it's presented in a manner that says "this is awesome." And it is. But that's why I kinda hate it.

December count: 51/100.

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