Once Upon a Time in the 20th Century

Jennifer Connolly in Once Upon a Time in America

In this new year of 2020 I have come to the calculation that I have lived 75% of my life in the previous century. It was one where my mother bought ice from the street for our icebox and I had no idea what a telephone was.

Now I have a digital camera, a heated toilet seat, a rear view camera in our Chevrolet Cruze plus burn-your-butt-seats for cold days. And would you believe the steering wheel warms up, too?

These late 20th century innovations and the many in this one very quickly take over and you have no idea how you managed without them. I tend to avoid our ground floor guest bathroom because I am not used to the shock of a cold seat.

While I never walked miles to go to school I do remember that in kindergarten we had short siestas. I also remember that in that Buenos Aires kindergarten the then famous Argentine quintuplets (three girls, two boys) the Diligenti quintuplets were in it and also in the first grade. They separated them after that in individual schools for each one of them.

This boy in kindergarten had two desires. One was to play the wood blocks and not that boring triangle in the class band. The other was that I really liked María Fernanda (one of the quintuplets) so whenever I could I would hike up her skirts. What would be done to me if I were that little boy in a Vancouver school? Would I be sent to counselling?

I was thinking of that last night when my Rosemary and I watched Sergio Leone’s 1984 film Once Upon a Time in America inTCM. Because it goes back and forth in time from the moment our hero (anti, too) Robert De Niro is an early teenager there are many moments that I could associate with my Buenos Aires youth.

But I will digress and state that it is only recently that I came to conclusion that film which started in the early 20th century is no less an art form than opera, ballet, modern dance, painting, sculpture, theatre and music (although this 77 year old man would deny rap to that lofty pantheon). And like all art it challenges and it is not often easy to understand it.

The idea that film is a relevant and important art form hit me hard last night as Rosemary and I marvelled at the almost-difficult-to-understand back and forths or to suddenly listen in a film of Jewish, Bronx punks in the 20s and 30s, a Muzak version of Lennon & McCartney’s Yesterday. How many in this century would know what Muzak is?

To be precise the film left me uneasy and Rosemary slept badly as she ruminated and all those flashbacks.

It left me troubled at finding pleasure in remembering that events in the film coincided with those of mine. I was 10 when an American girl of similar age and her mother came to visit my mother. I was told to play with her. Somewhere in this I have the memory that she asked me, “Do you want to see it?” And I did. That moment has an identical incident in Leoni’s film. I smiled (sort of) as the scene brought memories of a young boy a few years past hiking skirts in kindergarten.

Then our principal protagonist Noodles watches the lovely Jennifer Connelly dance ballet through a little hidden window in a kitchen. It seems that Connelly’s protagonist is aware of the spying so in the end she changes and moons.

Obviously there is an attraction between Noodles and Connelly’s Deborah. And to me it was perfectly understandable. I was attracted to women at a much younger age.

Connely’s eyes are so beautiful that you almost do not notice that she is in fact only 12. Should one not look? It was 6 years before that Louis Mall’s Pretty Baby shocked the world with Brook Shields who played a young child prostitute when she was 13.

It is at this point that I would like to wonder if any of these two films or another The Night Porter would be made in this century? Would they be toned down? What would feminists say?

In Once Upon a Time in America the women are raped, assaulted, hit and told to shut the fu.. up. I wonder what Elizabeth McGovern would say now about the rape scene in the back of an automobile?

Could any younger people (than this old man) watch these films without flinching? Is it important to see such films?

While the women in Once Upon a Time I America do not fare well, other men, not the gangsters, might have treated them with respect. Is it respectful to open the door for a woman?

In short how would our present day culture treat Leoni’s film?

It was 20 years ago that on a trip to Buenos Aires I told my nephew (he is 2 years younger than I am) that I could not understand all those huge billboard featuring women in bikinis advertising toothpaste (I guess I already had a Canadian approach to this sort of thing). His quick reply was, “Are you gay?”

I have a niece, also in Buenos Aires, who is a strict and devout Roman Catholic, She is 23. She is going to a Catholic university and is studying history of art. Is she eventually going to have a problem balancing her faith with the art she is being exposed to?

Is it possible for a 77 year old man to put himself in the shoes of Noodles and watch that 12 year old dance without feeling guilt? The scene takes me back to a youth when I did not comprehend things then as I do know.

It was in that 20th century where we could call a woman a nymphomaniac but there was no equivalent epithet for a man. I was warned by friends when I started a relationship with a lovely Argentine girl (in that century we could call women girls) that I should watch out as her mother was a nymphomaniac.

It would seem that in this century only Sally Mann can look at boys and girls (her children) as boys and girls in cusp of being adults because she happens to be their mother. A father would be crucified.

Link to: Once Upon a Time in the 20th Century



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Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at:http://t.co/yf6BbOIQ alexwh@telus.net