Friday, December 19, 2008

Memo from Dan to "Once Upon a Time in America": What the Fuck's Up With the Dump Truck?

So I'm on board with the theory that the 1960's sequences in Once Upon a Time in America are just an opium induced fantasy going through Robert De Niro's mind back in the 30's. Anachronisms be damned, I don't care if De Niro would have no way of knowing about TV or the music of the Beatles. It works as a beautiful expression of De Niro's feelings of guilt, his conflicted feelings towards James Woods' character, his nostalgia, etc etc. It explains why one character doesn't seemed to have aged much in 35 years, while everyone else looks ancient. It explains why one character's child looks exactly as they did when they were young. And it explains why no explanation is given for what happened to De Niro during the 35 years the film skips.

I think it's pretty sweet that a 4 hour long gangster movie ends in ambiguity and mystery. Sergio Leone was a ballsy director. Still, I'm fascinated by some of the final images yet I can't piece together exactly what they might mean.

In the 2nd to last scene in the film, the final scene set in the 60's, old De Niro leaves James Woods mansion. It is night time, and he walks alone outside. A figure that appears to be Woods (although, according to the documentary on the DVD, is actually a double dressed as Woods) watches him.) Then a dump truck drives past Woods, and he vanishes. Something, it's not clear what, is being ground up in a thresher (or something) in the back of the truck. The truck drives off into darkness until all you can see are the tail lights. Then, the tail lights turn into the headlights of an oncoming car, which turns out to be an old tymey looking car like from when De Niro's character was a young man, and the people in the car seem to be of that era as well.

So most obviously, this could just be De Niro's fantasy breaking down, and his return to the real world. This is supported by the unexplained arrival of the old tymey car. There also appears to be an Asian-looking pavilion in the background, which could be representative of the Chinese opium den at which De Niro was getting high.

But what's up with the truck? Why does Woods disappear? Is he being ground up in the back? Curiously, the truck has the number "35" painted on it... the same as the number of years that the movie has supposedly passed over. Is it this fantasy being ground up? Something else? Is it the loss of his memories? The loss of his innocence?

For a movie about bad people, it's shocking nostalgic. But maybe there's a tinge of cynicism in the nostalgia. What do his memories represent, other than a brief escape from his misery? They are just an illusion, like the shadow puppets in the Chinese theater.

I think it's also a movie about movies. It starts and ends in a theater, and De Niro's escape from reality is not unlike our own when we go to the movies.

Also there's a pretty sweet part where they shoot Paulie from the Rocky movies in the eye, if you like that sort of thing.

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