Tuesday, October 03, 2006

NYFF: Remembering Reds

In advance of its DVD debut next week, from Paramount Home Video, the New York Film Festival is screening Warren Beatty's Reds tomorrow evening. To further commemorate its 25th anniversary, the Village East theater in Manhattan is playing the film for a week, beginning this Friday.

Pretty middlebrow for the festival as it is today--hard to believe but in 1981 the NYFF got away with showing that year's eventual, and inferior, Best Picture winner, Chariots of Fire, which would be hooted off the screen if it were to be revived--and soapy and "Hollywood" in sections, the "interesting but wildly overpraised" (Leonard Maltin) Reds is still worth revisiting. Following up the audience-friendly Heaven Can Wait (1978) with a costly 200-minute drama about early 20th century radicalism and Bolshevism took fire in the belly for Beatty, a spark that has only flickered in subsequent features (I'd say the big problem with the much-scorned Ishtar is that, with the passing of time, it's a minor, throwaway disappointment, and not a major flop a cult can rally behind, like Heaven's Gate--one Columbia will assuredly not be celebrating on its 20th anniversary next year). The movie, framed with its novel use of elderly historical "witnesses" to comment on the tale, looks back wistfully on idealism and broken dreams; I suspect the supplement-laden DVD, a form Beatty has only just embraced, will have the same effect on viewers, taking us back to a Hollywood yesteryear when a Reds could buck the corporate system and get made.

My mom took me and one of my friends to see Reds when it played at the defunct Rockaway Townsquare Mall cinemas in New Jersey, in early 1982. Given that it bogs down in fiery speeches from time to time, and is short on physical action (big movies still get made, just not quiet, more intellectually challenging ones) it didn't have the same effect on my teenage consciousness as did, say, Raging Bull or Dressed to Kill, which mom also took me to see. But it made me want to know more about its subjects and personalities, and when a walking tour last year took me past John Reed's old haunts in Greenwich Village I could once again hear Diane Keaton's Louise Bryant warbling "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard." I carried that tune around in my head for years after seeing the film (once at the theater, several times, if only in parts, on cable), and it was nice to have it pop back into my memory bank. Beatty, Keaton, Jack Nicholson (as a gimlet-eyed Eugene O'Neill) and Maureen Stapleton (an Oscar winner as the feisty Emma Goldman) are all aces (the last cast to be Oscar-nominated in all four acting categories) and I'm sure time has not dimmed the lustrous, Oscar-winning images DP Vittorio Storaro summoned for Beatty, who also claimed a statuette for his direction.

"It's rather a sad movie, because it really isn't very good," sniffed Pauline Kael, a Reds-baiter. But it's rather good enough. I'd go with David Thomson: "Still a fascinating picture with passages of greatness."

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