Saturday, January 28, 2006
Once Upon A Time in Bay Ridge
So I finally figured out how to work the DVD player and sat down last night to watch Sergio Leone's gangster epic "Once Upon A Time In America."
I was still feeling a little under the weather so I figured I'd stay in, even though it was a Friday, and chill with Robert DeNiro, James Wood and God knows who else was running around the flick. I half-expected to see myself in some of the crowd scenes.
This was the fully monty version of the picture, all 3 hours and, hell, I don't know--45 minutes?--of it, told in the fractured sequence that the Leone had orginally intended. And what a piece of work.
My mother used to make this Italian vegetable dish that she lovingly referred to as "my mess" and that's how I feel about "Once Upon A Time In America." It's a mess and I can't get enough of it. I've got about a list of complaints to rival the Manhattan phone directory and I still love this movie.
Wandering plot lines, twisted dialog that sounds like poorly translated Italian and the lapses of logic are completely overwhelmed by the movie's undeniable power. This is a sweeping saga that sweeps, but never sags.
Say Hello to My Little Friend!
I actually met one of the actors who appears in the movie, a young man named James Hayden. He had starred in my friend's student film early in his career and when I met him he was co-starring with Al Pacino in "American Buffalo" at Downtown Circle in the Square Theater in New York.
It was Good Friday, 1982, I think, and my friend, Sal, myself, and one of Sal's buds, decided we'd wait until the show was over and go meet Jimmy. I wasn't eating meat because it was Good Friday, of course, but Sal had gone completely old school and wasn't eating food at all.
However, that didn't stop us from drinking. We went to a bar near the theater, got completely hammered on several rounds of beer, and made four-alarm fools out of ourselves as we played Pacman. Yes, you read right. This was the Eighties, after all.
For some reason I thought Sal was pulling my leg about knowing Jimmy, but when the play ended and the crowd was filing out, I followed Sal into the theater and watched as Jimmy got off the stage and gave Sal a first class bear hug. Dang, my boy was telling me the truth.
Then Jimmy took us upstairs to meet...Al freaking Pacino. I was still drunk and the lighting was poor, but I'll never forget this very small man, like the size of a jockey, approaching me and putting his hand out. Between the darkness and the suds I kind of missed his hand and I had to adjust my grip. But I did it, I shook hands with Al Pacino.
We followed him downstairs to the street, the ultimate hangers-on, where a small crowd gathered outside the stage door to express their admiration for Pacino's performance. He took off for parts unknown, while I went with Sal, Jimmy and several other people to a local restaurant for a late meal.
Facts Stand by Themselves
I recall sitting next to Sal's friend, who was engaged at the time, and listening to him trying to impress a woman at our table.
There are few things more torturous than having to hear someone else's line of crap--I can barely stand the sound of my own--but I managed to get through the evening. And I drove friends and family to distraction for weeks afterward bragging about my friend Al.
I never saw Jimmy Hayden again and then the next thing I knew he was dead from a drug overdose. It was 1983 and he was 29 years old.
He had a good part in the picture, working alongside the likes of DeNiro. Watching the film now, I try to imagine what his career would have been like if he had lived.
I remember when I first saw this movie, or at least a truncated version of it, back in 1984, at the old Fortway Theater on Fort Hamilton Parkway. I saw it with Lousie, my girlfriend at the time, a woman I thought at one time I was going to marry, and, as I look at my life now, I sort of wish I had.
Lousie was a local girl from the neighborhood, someone with a solid head on her shoulders and a very good heart. Me, I was an idiot. I had been involved with several freaks before I met her, like women who went out with me when they really wanted to be with someone else.
But Louise, she wanted to be with me. She loved me, believed in me. But that was back when I could not keep a relationship going, when I had a paralyzing fear of intimacy, and an over-powering urge to run away instead of facing my problems.
It didn't help that I was going through a battle with mononucleosis and then Epstein-Barr disease, and that I was seemingly incapable of holding a job for more than six months at a clip. And then I was hitting on everything else in a skirt didn't go into the plus column.
Every Little Breeze
Jesus, I was a mess back then, and, worse yet, completely unable to admit it. So Louise finally dumped me, and, only then, as stood on the front steps of her house, did I realize that I had lost so much.
She wished me well, and meant it. She told me she cared and advised me to get help, which I eventually did. But it was too late to get her back.
"Once Upon A Time in America" deals with loss and betrayal, and the unbelievably swift passage of time, where characters seemingly look over to find 30 years have slipped away.
The old Fortway theater is closed now and I haven't seen Louise since that night in, I believe, 1986. A lot of time has slipped away from me, too.
I see its the 20th anniversay of the Challenger disaster. I get so tired of hearing myself say things like, oh God, it's been that long since whatever event is being recalled. Makes me sound so damn old.
But I really do remember what I was doing that day in 1986. I had gone to a job interview, because as usual, I was out of work. This was the Eighties, after all, and I think this was actually the only time in my life I had ever been late for a job interview.
I remember getting dirty looks from the secretary when I came in 20 minutes late and while I waited to meet with the interviewer, I heard her say to someone in the outer office, "well, you were on time for your appointment." Unlike a certain little bald fellow I could mention.
I came home with my tail between my legs, knowing I had screwed up royally and my mother asked me if I had heard about the Challenger. I think the whole country had grown accustomed to the shuttle launches by then, so I asked, what about it?
Challenger, Go at Throttle Up
"It blew up," she said.
I couldn't believe my ears. Space shuttles didn't blow up. We were well beyond those early Cape Canaveral days, we had this space flight thing down pat. But clearly we didn't.
This was before the Internet and cable TV didn't have the hold on our lives that it does today, so I had to hear about the disaster the old fashion way: word of mouth.
I remember that horrible footage as the major malfunction exploded in front of the entire world. I'll never forget the reaction of the friends and loved ones of the astronauts who were watching as the Challenger turned into a fireball.
People were screaming and sobbing, and I believe a TV cameraman forgot about his job for a few seconds and embraced a crying woman with one hand while balancing his huge videocamera with the other.
I remember writing in my diary in those pre-blog days, noting that I had been so miserable and frustrated until I walked into the house and heard the news. Then I saw that life itself was and always will be more important than any stupid job.
Fifteen years later, when I was standing across the street from the World Trade Center as the planes slammed into the building, those words came back to me.
So all this time has gone by and these people have dropped out of my life. I never got married, never saw Louise again, my mom died, and even though Sal and I talked about making films and actually tried to get a few of them off the ground, I became a reporter and spent too many years chasing fire engines.
Today I took my first class in a four-week digital film course. So maybe I'll make that film after all. It may not be on the scale of "Once Upon A Time in America" but it's going to have all the flavor one of my mom's beautiful messes.