Friday, November 14, 2008

Film #92: Reds

Still pretty charming even now, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis arrived on TV in 1959. This black- and-white sitcom revolved around Dwayne Hickman as the girl-crazy title character, smitten most obsessively with blonde high school heartthrob Thalia Menniger (Tuesday Weld). And, for six episodes in 1960, on came this handsome dude playing Milton Armitage, Dobie's alpha dog rival for Thalia's attentions. This kid, named Warren Beatty, showed little promise of his future idiosyncratic rise through Hollywood ranks. But he would himself become the film industry's top lothario -- a 1970s tabloid favorite. And he would one day surprise everyone by winning a deserved Academy Award for his direction of a contentious, touching, money-losing epic centered on an avowed American communist--one of only three U.S. citizens buried in the Kremlin. With his detailed probe into the life of John Reed (the author of Ten Days That Shook the World, a snug, blow-by-blow spin on the 1917 Russian revolution), Beatty left some agog, others infuriated and others even simply somehow unmoved. But, then, nothing--not even 1967's boundary-smashing Bonnie and Clyde, which Beatty produced while going mano-y-mano with Warner Brother Jack Warner himself (who was angrily perplexed about the film's success)--has ever gone really according to plan for Beatty's movies. But so what? Time has spoken and, viewed now, Beatty's cinematic biography of John Reed reveals itself as an ageless and unique opus.

I now recall my grandfather, who in December of 1981 was real active in the bootlegging of video and audio cassettes (I think anti-capitalist Reed would've liked this). Being an avid fan of history, my Papa nonchalantly handed me a videotape recently shot (quite well) by a theater projectionist. He knew I was a precocious 15-year-old movie lover, so he happily let me watch the tape (as well as a bootlegged copy of Pennies from Heaven, which he vehemently despised and I still think is genius). Now that I recall, I pretty sure Reds was the first movie I'd ever watched on VHS and, to boot, my grandfather had given me an expertly transferred, letterboxed version. Actually, this is how I learned what letterboxing was; Reds looked better than any movie I'd ever seen on TV and I knew and felt it was because the screen was finally theatrical-movie-shaped.

At any rate, upon giving me this ill-gotten bootleg, my grandfather sniffed haughtily and said he didn't think much of the Commie movie. But I wasn't surprised by that, because we often disagreed about films. I didn't know it then, but each generation largely fails to understand the tastes of all others. Our particular, mercifully small schizm lived in my view that Papa was early-20th- Century-born and that meant he would never really get 1970s Hollywood-Renaissance moviemaking. I, meanwhile, was thankfully growing up with 1970s movies; the only other great times to grow up with the movies were the 1920s and the 1950s (and we're still waiting for another renaissance that I fear may never come). True to form, when Reds finished, I marveled inside at how my father's father could be so intelligent, yet so unthinkingly dismissive o this passionate movie. I then knew this schizm of ours wouldn't be disappearing any time soon (it still hasn't, I reckon). Also, strangely, to this day, and -- who knows? -- maybe because of my memory of this important TV viewing is still so positive, I still haven't seen Reds unspool onto the big screen. I fervently wanna correct that.

Before I popped this VHS tape Papa gave me into the bulky top-loading machine that was state-of-the-art back then, I had become tremendously excited about Reds through my favorite publication, Variety. Outspoken anti-communist and one-time Democratic-leaning Screen Actors Union head Ronald Reagan had just been elected to the Oval Office, so 1981 was exactly the wrong time for Beatty to be hawking such a movie. For that reason, before its release, Reds was getting a lot of press in the trades. Beatty had been working on the film since 1978, when he garnered four Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director (with Buck Henry) and Best Picture (he was the sole producer) for an fun, elegant remake of Heaven Can Wait (also a Beatty film ripe for re-evaluation). Remember, this was a feat that was only precedented by Orson Welles and Citizen Kane back in 1941! Plus Heaven Can Wait, unlike Welles' film, was one of the biggest box-office hits of the year. So everyone in love with the medium of movies was on the razor's edge, wanting to know all about Beatty's $35 million (now $130 million) filmic obsession. Movie watchers were almost to a man preparing for Reds to be a leaden boondoggle; in pre-release hype and upon-release acclaim, it was the Titanic of its day, but finally and immeasurably sooooooo much greater than Cameron's blockbuster, even though it took in about 1/100th of Titanic's box office cash.

I expected one thing when I took in the picture's first images. But I got something so much more. Reds begins not with a glittery image of Beatty or one of his fellow stars, but with starkly-photographed documentary footage of elderly people desperately trying to dredge up their memories of Jack Reed. At 15, I had never before seen old people look so handsome on film. And the creaking, ancient tones of their voices were so superlatively captured--my God, the feeling of first seeing Reds now once again surges through me. These seniors were, according to the final credits, The Witnesses. I now want to pay tribute to them by discovering who each of them were, to the best of my ability (thanks to the good people over at Wikipedia). Among them:

* Roger Nash Baldwin (founder of the ACLU)
* Andrew Dasburg (painter and former lover of Louise Bryant)
* Will Durant (Philosopher, historian, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of the 11-volume The Story of Civilization)
* Hamilton Fish III (the grandson of Ulysses S. Grant's Secretary of State and, in 1981, one of America's oldest-living Congressmen; he's the one that humorously speculates as to whether Reed was a Communist)
* Adele Gutman Nathan
* Blanche Hays Fagen (these are the two ladies filmed together who are so, SO amusing in their comments)
* Dorothy Frooks (Author, publisher, military figure and actress)
* Hugo Gellert (Illustrator and satirist)
* George Jessel (Legendary actor, singer, songwriter, radio star, movie producer, and "Toastmaster of the United States")
* Henry Miller (Writer of Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, The World of Sex, Nexus, Plexus, and Sexus; the one-time lover of Anais Nin, he's the one that says, of course, "You know, I think there was just as much fucking going on then as there is now, only then, there was a little bit of heart to it.")
* Scott Nearing (Conservationist, peace activist, educator and writer)
* Adela Rogers St. Johns (Journalist, novelist, and screenwriter)
* Dora Russell (Feminist and progressive campaigner; second wife of Bertrand Russell) and Rebecca West (Feminist and writer) (they appear together in the film)
* George Seldes (Investigative journalist and media critic)
* Jessica Smith (Editor and activist)
* Arne Swabeck (American Communist leader)
All, and more, appear as themselves, eyes shining brightly as Beatty, behind the camera, implores them to remember anything, anything at all about John Reed and his lover Louise Bryant (their bare recollections at the beginning feel like a long-dormant engine being revved for the first time in an age). In the 25th anniversary DVD commentary (one of the best commentaries ever recorded), Beatty says that he filmed hundreds of hours of interviews with these historical figures, starting in 1979; some of them were long dead by the time his epic finally hit the theaters.

The Witnesses act as a buoyant Greek chorus for this gargantuan story that follows John Reed from his rabble-rousing as a 1913 Greenwich Village journalist to the beginnings of his love affair with ambitious Oregonian journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), whom he met upon visiting his mother in Portland in 1916. It's Reed's relationship with the insecure Bryant that's at the center of Reds, and the boundless sensitivity with which it treats this clearly passionate love affair is what makes the movie the enduring epic that it is.

Bryant, smitten with Reed, follows him to New York, where they quickly become an item among the Village intelligentsia. But, as portrayed in the movie, Bryant feels overcome by Reed's progress in this arena. The fact that she's inexperienced and barely been able to make an NY dent with her writing becomes a big bone of contention between the two, and the subject of a few monsterously raucous scenes where they literally spar about their relationship, their ambitions, and their politics, always at the same time. Reds impresses with these scenes that gallantly balance heady subject matters while driving home the enormous emotion with which these two artist/journalists were grappling (Reed once proclaims "Louise, I love you," to which she replies "No, you love yourself! Me, you FUCK!")

In New York, Bryant begins a cuttingly combative relationship with Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). This stern, commanding actress delivers an astounding performance as Goldman, the avowed feminist and at one time Communist sympathizer who holds a low opinion of Bryant's intellectual abilities. Goldman, ironically against her truest personal beliefs, demeaningly and unfairly sees Louise as another of Reed's air-headed "girls," denying her the chance to excel that Goldman's long been fighting for all women to obtain. But Reed, deeply in love, sees so much more in Louise (which makes him more of a feminist than Goldman!!). Always in search of new horizons, she and Jack abandon New York and take up with a band of beach-combing artisans in Providencetown, MA. There, Bryant begins a friendship with Reed's best buddy, playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson). As Reed is off beginning his political "career" most of the time, much to Louise's disconcert ("Taxi's waiting, Jack..."), she turns cavalierly to the adorous alcoholic O'Neill for romantic comfort. This dynamic provides Reds with some of its most electric moments--Nicholson's few scenes with Keaton are tremendously involving (Nicholson was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his few minutes here). When Reed returns to Massachusetts, lonely and in need of his lover (who needs him, too), O'Neill is devastated, and his emotions overspill in vivid fashion. ("If you were mine, I wouldn't share you with anybody or anything," he says. "It'd be just you and me. We'd be the center of it all. I know it would feel a lot more like love than being left alone with your work.")

It's here that the marriage of Reed and Bryant takes over in Beatty's screenplay with Trevor Griffiths. Their retreat into upstate New York leads to a swell domestic life. But Reed cannot abandon his political hopes; his need to affect the world with more than his writing commands his passion, so much so that he has to abandon romance and agree to being the Communist Party's American representative on the Russian Comentern, just as the country's break from the Czar is taking hold. What he finds overseas--and what he is disappointed by, both with and without Bryant as companion / collaborator--forms the largest portion of this uncanny 3hr16min film.

After I joyfully finished with Reds that first time, I was in a cloud-touching daze, the sort of which always seizes me after seeing a monumental movie. Beatty's work instantly represented the sort of history lesson my teachers never even touched on in class, and I was immediately suspicious that much more alluring events were going on in the world than I was being let in on. It was here, I think, that I garnered my lifelong interest in REAL history--not that crap to us shoveled out of tired textbooks, but the kind of history that sparkled with humanity, love, sex, longing, and death. Since seeing Reds, I have been a voracious consumer of historical fact, which I am convinced goes in directions that no fiction can replecate (I very, VERY rarely read fiction; I get what fiction I take in from movies).

Reds, nominated in 1981 for a then Ben-Hur-tying record of 12 Academy Awards (which only Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King and Titanic have matched)--pops with mammoth factual figures. Besides the obvious, there's V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Woodrow Wilson, early Libertarian and editor of The Masses Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann), hard-hearted Bolshevik #2 man Grigory Zinoviev (played by Being There author Jerzy Kozinski, whose scene lecturing Reed while consuming a scurvy-fighting lemon and onion sticks surely in my memory), and Industrial Workers of the World founder Bill Haywood, played briefly by Dolph Sweet. Then we have Gene Hackman as one of Reed's magazine buddies, Paul Sorvino (apoplectic as a rival communist representative), the rarely-seen George Plimpton as a slimy New York editor, William Daniels as another harried communist activist, and cameos by M. Emmett Walsh, Kathryn Grody, Cheers stool-warmer John Ratzenberger, and Max Wright (better known as the dad on Alf). There are a lot of familiar faces in Reds.

Wow, there's so much I love about this movie. How Keaton, being called out on her reconciliation with Beatty, nervously pours Nicholson's O'Neill another scotch, spilling it on the floor ("Your abilities as a bartender seem to have gone downhill," O'Neill sneers). How Stapleton--1981's Oscar-winner for Best Supporting Actress--quickly reconsiders her opinion on the commitment of Keaton's Bryant upon seeing her in Russia, as Bryant lovingly comes to Jack Reed's aid (there's an on-screen embrace between Stapleton and Keaton that's unexpectedly touching). How the tipsy, red-faced Gene Hackman appears out of nowhere to give Reed hell for abandoning journalism. How George Plimpton flusters about while trying to get Keaton in the sack. How Beatty's Reed and Stapleton's Goldman have a firey debate in Russia on the worth of Communism as it's being perverted by the maniacal Lenin.

And this: I was not aware of this until I heard Beatty's rare DVD commentary, but Reds was filmed in London (and many more British locales), California, New York, Massachusetts, Finland, Sweden, and Russia; I find this spectacular (just imagine the nightmare it must have been editing this movie--I wager the original cut was six freaking hours long). I find it funny when Keaton--who, given her character's transformation, really delivers the film's most fetching performance--defiantly responds to FBI agents barging into her Croton-on-Hudson home (veteran character actor R.G. Armstrong gruffly states he's looking for "agitators," to which Keaton replies "Well, why don't you look around and see how agitated you get?"). I cherish the gentle, unobtrusive background music by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (his only movie score) and jazz legend Dave Grusin (On Golden Pond, My Bodyguard, The Milagro Beanfield War). And I will never, ever EVER forget how the film's final ten minutes first easily wrestled tears of romance, joy and sadness from my eyes.

And, perhaps most of all, I adore Vittorio Storaro's varied, incomparable photography--the gentle pastels of the Providencetown scenes; the harshly-lit Communist Party debates; the reds, yellows and tans of Greenwich Village; the blinding snow whites of the Finland sequences (which led to some critics unjustifyably comparing Reds to David Lean's fine-but-still-inferior romantic/historical epic Doctor Zhivago); the expansive Lean-like vistas following Reed's escape from a demolished Communist train; and especially the colorful, black-backdropped footage of The Witnesses (that's the first thing that I think of when I think of Reds, and the inclusion of this invaluable documentary footage is what provides it an edge as one of the cinema's finest products). Storaro possesses the starriest career one can hope for, acting as lighting master for Italians Dario Argento (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, The Spider's Stretegem), Bernardo Bertolucci (1900, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky) and Francis Coppola (Apocalypse Now--for which he also won an Oscar in 1979--and the misunderstood One From The Heart). But his first movie for Beatty--this non-Italian, for whom he also photographed the blazing colors of Dick Tracy--eclipses his stellar former works. With Reds, you get to see EVERYTHING that Storaro can do. And it is an unrivaled gallery of achievement.

I've made my case (and I could continue on and on). Even if you don't like Warren Beatty (as a lot of movie lovers say they do not, which I can understand), Reds accomplishes what few historical films do-- even the undisputedly essential but sometimes confusing and intentionally distant Lawrence of Arabia. Beatty and company take you around the world, to another time, putting you there, in the mix, while clearly explaining serpentine political notions through the prism of complex human emotions. Reds entertains with a parade of Hollywood big-shots, but not so much so you fault it. And it takes a fresh bent on history, writing large a little-known historical side-story--one that unfolded very much as portrayed (another historical film rarity). I think--I know--Reds is a masterpiece. I realize that M-word gets bandied about a lot, but here it truly applies. Even while watching it as a voracious 15-year-old, I was sure Reds deserved that prized moniker. If you haven't seen it, you really don't know what majestic things movies can do for your soul.


Joel Bocko said...

An epic, passionate review of an epic, passionat film.

I saw this film I guess about 7 years ago and for some reason, I didn't like it very much. Which is odd because I love epics, love history, and am fascinated with the history of the left in particular (though I remember thinking at the time that the film was too sympathetic and forgiving towards Reed's ideology, at least until he gets to Russia). Somehow though the movie left me kind of cold and with a bad taste in my mouth.

Your review has made me want to see it again, urgently, and I suspect that even if it doesn't become one of my favorites, I'll enjoy it much more a second time. There's just to much there for me personally to like.

Thanks & keep it up.

Dean Treadway said...

I think it's one of those movies that benefits from a second viewing, for sure. It's good to know who all the players are first, so you can pay attention to the details of the screenplay. I think the movie portrays Reed as upset with himself that he left his truest loves behind--Louise and journalism--in favor of trumpeting a political ideology that was good-hearted, but doomed from the start, since it failed to take into consideration the human desire for power.

Anyway, thanks for the comments! I think you'll like it now, especially in the new DVD version.

Dean Treadway said...

Also, MovieMan, I encouage you to watch it, read my review again (they, too, get better on second viewing). Then I'd be interested to know what then are thinking about REDS. I hope it's a positive reassessment, but I'll respect as much as I already do if it is not. Love THE DANCING IMAGE!

Anonymous said...

The two women interviewed together are Dora Russell and Rebecca West.

Anonymous said...

I just found this review and I couldn't agree more with, well, every part of it. I love Reds more than I can really explain. I throw it on Netflix every night before I go to bed. There's something about the first half of the movie -- I can't articulate what it is -- that I absolutely adore. I think it's a largely undervalued film, mainly because no one has ever heard of it. It's not a movie I ever remember seeing in the video store as a kid. I didn't come across it until Netflix. I'm glad I finally did find it.

Dean Treadway said...

VICTORY! Thank you!