By Keith Uhlich
Dir. Warren Beatty, U.S., Paramount Pictures, 1981
Interesting to consider that Reds very closely followed the debacle of Heavenâ€™s Gate and was in gestation for a good many years prior (reports say that multihyphenate auteur Warren Beatty began shooting interviews with the filmâ€™s â€świtnessesâ€ť as far back as the mid-seventies). Itâ€™s as much a bloated work as Ciminoâ€™s, decidedly uncomfortable in its own skin (with master-class cinematographer Vittorio Storaro once more forced to visualize, as in Bertolucciâ€™s The Conformist, his collaboratorâ€™s highly dubious sexual/historical whims), though it inhabits a quite fascinating and uneasy space, alternating in tone between Me Decade navel-gazing and empty Eighties excess. Best not to go into Reds expecting anything but the most superficial insights into its social movements of choice: early 20th-century Americaâ€™s bohemian culture and the correspondent Bolshevik uprising in Russia. Beatty pitches everything at the same tenor, illustrating artistic and political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic as a series of perpetual, unintelligible shouting matches. The case could be made that heâ€™s attempting immersion in distinct milieus, but for that to take, Reds would have to be something other than the Warren and Diane show.
â€śProfits.â€ť Thatâ€™s the first and only word out of journalist John Reedâ€™s (Beatty) mouth at the Portland, Oregon, liberal club meeting that opens the film. And boy, does that turn on Diane Keatonâ€™s sassy and defiant fellow writer Louise Bryant! Soon enough, theyâ€™re in Bryantâ€™s apartment making (to paraphrase Pauline Kael) Zhivagoogly eyes at each other over midnight-to-morning cups of coffee: neurotic Annie Hall squaring off with smirk nâ€™ smarm John McCabe about the price of Borscht in St. Petersburg. Memorize this scene well, because itâ€™s repeatedâ€”with little variationâ€”over the next three hours, crinkle-faced fighting followed quickly by chiaroscuro fucking, often with a cute and curious puppy dog thrown in for Asta-anthropomorphized reaction shots. A low-hanging chandelier replaces the comic canine when the duo travel to Russia, and itâ€™s there that Beattyâ€™s preference for dissociative tableaux reaches its Dovzhenko-lite apex in a frenzied sequence which cross-cuts between the October uprising and the reignition of the Reed/Bryant libido (ten days that shook the world, indeed!).
Thereâ€™s a whole second part to go, of course, detailing Reedâ€™s slow disillusionment with the increasingly dictatorial Communist movement. Suddenly, Reds the wacky romantic comedy (complete with a jaw-dropping kitchen-on-fire dinner scene better suited to Nora Ephron) morphs none-too-convincingly into Reds the globe-trotting tragic romance, and the eleventh-hour self-seriousness makes one long for the pleasures of the filmâ€™s Provincetown section, where Jack Nicholson effortlessly shows up Beatty as the always-tipsy playwright (and Bryant beau) Eugene Oâ€™Neill. Bryantâ€™s ice-queen cometh flirtations with this moony, misbegotten milquetoast would have made an infinitely more interesting movie of its own, one that Beatty undercuts when Oâ€™Neill reappears for no other reason than to act as go-between, facilitating his former loverâ€™s neva-happened trek across the Finland ice floes to rendezvous with Reed (off on an equally strange interlude at a Lean-cut Middle Eastern outpost) and, finally, to keep vigil at his deathbed.
Throughout, Beatty sprinkles a series of talking heads interviews with the above-mentioned â€świtnesses,â€ť Reed and Bryantâ€™s social circle compadres who are unfortunately denied any onscreen identifiers (and therefore leeched of their own identity) outside of a massive main credits scrawl. Only Henry Miller, no surprise, makes much of an impression, his observation that â€śthere was as much fucking then as there is nowâ€ť perhaps the only logical explanation for the existence of what amounts to little more than a left-leaning pretty boyâ€™s distended, black book ramblings.