Let's talk about "Once Upon A Time In America."
This was Sergio Leone's last film, and it's certainly a crime epic like no other. At 229 minutes long, it has plenty of time to really let you get to know these characters and their lives. There are several stories going on at once - in the 20's, the 30's, and 1968 - but, in a sense, they're all the same story. This is a story about money and violence and corruption and that age-old American ideal of "getting ahead," no matter what the cost.
It's a masterful film, if you have the patience for it (you'll need patience both for its length and for its uncomfortably explicit content). And it has a lot to say. One theme in particular stands out to me, so that's what we'll discuss here.
Let me briefly retell a scene from the film that I think encapsulates Leone's message about America. One of our protagonists, a young man named Patsy, buys a five-cent cupcake at a local bakery to bring to a girl named Peggy (the five-cent ones are the most expensive cupcakes they have - only the finest for Peggy!). Peggy, you see, is rumored to sell sexual favors for cupcakes. Peggy's mother answers the door and tells the boy to hold on for a few minutes, so he waits in the hall, trying to be patient.
After some deliberation, he slowly unwraps the delicious, expensive cupcake - maybe out of curiosity at first. Maybe he'll try just a little of the icing. No, better have a larger taste. And of course, after a manner of minutes, he has greedily devoured the whole thing. He was too impatient to trade it; he wanted gratification immediately, even if through sugar instead of sex.
Peggy emerges, and Patsy hastily hides the remains of what he had eaten. "What do you want?" Peggy asks.
"Mama says you were looking for me."
"Oh yeah, no, the guys told me that, uh-"
Patsy hesitates for a moment. "I'll come back some other time," he says.
After weeks of buildup and sexual curiosity, our protagonist had decided to cave and give into gluttony at the last second. It's like the Stanford marshmallow experiment all over again. What does this scene say about Patsy? And what does it say about the other characters in Leone's epic final film? And, most importantly, what does it say about us? What does it say about America?
In exploring that question, it's worth noting that Patsy's sexual curiosity wasn't just an interest in the schoolyard rumors about the idea of sex, or about the merely sensuous experience involved. I believe Patsy was curious about connection and intimacy. He wanted sexual "gratification," yes - but more than that, he wanted to know what it was like to be that close to another human being. He wanted to understand what was so special and forbidden and pleasurable about that sort of intimacy.
But he gave it all up for a cupcake.
And this theme is everywhere in the film. Consider another striking example. Throughout the film, our main protagonist ("Noodles") is in love with a woman named Deborah Gelly. We are meant to believe that he has cared for her his whole life. We consider his affections genuinely deep. When others around him treat sex like a game, or a drug, or a transaction, he says things like "I'm not that kind of guy." When he meets up with Deborah after several years, and takes her to dinner, he pleads with her to be part of his life. She says no: she wants to go places; she wants to achieve something; she wants to know everything. She asks, "doesn't it make sense to have plans?" His response is melancholy: "yeah, it does. What about me? Am I in any of these plans?"
And then, in what's probably the most distressing scene in the film, Noodles rapes Deborah in the car on the way home from the date. It's shocking, not just because of its content but because of its context. We in the audience feel betrayed; we thought better of Noodles. We thought he cared about Deborah. We thought he truly loved her. And maybe he did. But in a moment of desperation, when she's about to leave town for good, he gives in to his lusts and panic and he sacrifices genuine intimacy for immediate gratification. It's like he sells his soul for a cupcake.*
And maybe that's the problem with America, at least according to Sergio Leone. Americans have a lot of priorities and values, and they don't always line up nicely. Sometimes, like in Patsy's and Noodle's case, we have conflicting ideals: we want truth, but trade it for comfort; we want beauty, but trade it for profitability; we want reason, but trade it for convenience; we want love, but trade it for money. We over-prioritize progress, results, and achievement - at the expense of relationship and connection.
This compromise of ideals always leaves us with a hollowness and superficiality that would have been avoided if we had worked hard enough. Self-actualization takes hard work. Relationships take hard work. Intimacy takes hard work. Becoming a good person takes hard work. But when we don't feel like doing that hard work, we find something else, some replacement, to fill the void. We fill ourselves with promiscuity and drugs and money and "success" instead.
We claim to be serving one ideal, but we give it up for another. Just like Patsy said he was climbing that staircase for some sort of sexual enlightenment, but settled for a sugar rush instead. And just like Noodles waited his whole life for the love of a woman, but settled for lust instead. We do the same thing. We pretend to value unity, while we segregate ourselves to death;** we claim to value family, while we work ourselves to death.***
We sell our souls for cupcakes!
*It's probably worth noting here that there's a big difference between what Patsy does and what Noodles does. Patsy gives up sex for a cupcake and Noodles gives up genuine emotional intimacy for sex. I'm merely trying to draw a parallel between the two incidents because I believe they are both strong examples of characters who wanted something that was important to them on a deeper level, and then gave it up for something that was important to them in a much more shallow kind of way.
However, I'm not saying that Patsy was necessarily wrong (or worse off) by eating a cupcake instead of entertaining a whore. Certainly it can be argued that his gluttony saved him from all the potentially unpleasant effects that fornication could have had on his soul, his psyche, and his outlook on women thenceforth. The purpose of my example is not to glorify the sex he would have had; I am only trying to acknowledge the glorified idea of sex that was in his mind. That idea, in all its adolescent glory, was something he was willing to sacrifice for a cupcake. That's significant.
**When I say we "segregate ourselves to death," I am referring to a kind of ideological segregation within our country. Left versus right, Conservative versus liberal, Religion versus science, et cetera. We set up walls and we put each other in boxes and we pretend the "other side" doesn't have anything worthwhile to offer us. This is dangerous and prevalent (in its religious context specifically, I've addressed this "us and them" mentality at length on my blog).
***I'll write more on this in a later article.