Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Reds (1981)

Look up Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) in just about any guidebook to movies and somewhere in the review you’ll find the word “epic.” This undoubtedly has something to do with the film’s almost three-and-a-half-hour running time. An understandable error. How could you not call a 200-minute movie that spans five years, two continents, and one of the three most significant events of this century an epic? Well….quite easily as it turns out.

Aside from a handful of scenes of isolated figures wending their way across frozen wastes—scenes which critic Pauline Kael aptly labelled “Zhivagooey”—Reds is such a fine piece of work because it’s not larger than life. It’s an intimate drama revolving around the lives of four people whom we end up caring for quite a lot. The four people are John Reed, the American left-wing journalist who wrote the finest eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution (Ten Days in October)’, his lover, the journalist Louise Bryant; the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill; and Emma Goldman, anarchist and feminist. With a cast of characters such as this, one might have expected some over-the-top performances. Full of sound and fury, signifying Warren Beatty trying to be significant. A vanity project. Directed by Warren Beatty. Produced by Warren Beatty. Written by Warren Beatty. Starring Warren Beatty. The only reason I rented the movie was because I was looking for some flashy Russian Revolution footage I could use in one of my classes at school. I was hoping to fast-forward to some shots of Lenin and the Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace.

Instead, I liked the people I met. The real-life John Reed was a dedicated journalist whose passion for the truth took him from his hometown of Portland, Oregon, into the eye of several historical hurricanes: Pancho Villa’s Mexican revolt in 1914; the Paterson, N.J. and Colorado coal strikes of 1913 & 1914; World War I in Eastern Europe from 1914-15; and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. Caught up in the prevailing passions for social justice and revolution, he helped found the Communist Labor Party of America. Not surprisingly rejected by his homeland, Reed wound up working for the new Soviet government. Only thirty-seven years old, he died of typhus in Moscow in 1920.

A fascinating life, but what’s it like to be a part of it? Louise Bryant found out, and much of Reds is the story of two people trying to manage the almost impossible task of reconciling ideals of sexual freedom, intellectual independence, and political activism with a non-revolutionary affection for one another. A love which both are embarrassed to admit to because it smacks too much of the “bourgeois” values their Greenwich Village friends—people such as Goldman, O’Neill, Max Eastman, Isadora Duncan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lincoln Steffens, Margaret Sanger, Alfred Stieglitz— have rejected. As Reed heads out on yet another cross-country tour organizing labour for the “One Big Union [the I.W.W.]”, Louis Bryant ends up saying “The taxi’s waiting, Jack” one too many times.

Diane Keaton is excellent in the role of Bryant. Reds is as much her story as it is John Reed’s. How does a strong-willed, intelligent woman hang onto her own identity when she’s the companion of a man who lives in the center of a political whirlwind? How does a moderately-talented, not particularly political, person maintain a sense of self-esteem when all her acquaintances are passionately committed firebrands like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger? These people keep asking her what she does. Her answer—”I write”-might have been good enough back in Portland but seems sadly inadequate in New York’s radical scene. When Reed first asks Louise to accompany him to New York, she asks him, “What as?” Mistress? Concubine? Girlfriend? It’s a trial by fire, and it takes her a long time to answer that question for herself. My favorite scenes are those between Louise and Emma; the latter absolutely clear in her convictions and the former still so hesitant. At first, Goldman savages her, dismissing her as another of John’s casual conquests. Later, during Goldman’s bitter years in Russia, the two women take a truer measure of one another. Maureen Stapleton is utterly convincing as Emma; I want to know more about this woman.

Bryant’s and Reed’s ambiguous ménage must have taken its toll on some of those around them. Jack Nicholson has one of his best roles as Eugene O’Neil, an embittered man whose brief affair with Bryant drives his bitterness even deeper. This is one of Nicholson’s most understated performances, and for those of us who love O’Neill’s plays it rings true. O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, paid her own tribute to Nicholson. Estranged from her father since her marriage at 17 to Charlie Chaplin, she wrote to Nicholson that “After a lifetime of acquired indifference, the inevitable finally happened. Thanks to you, dear Jack, I fell in love with my father.”

Beatty’s film provides one more bonus. It’s punctuated by very brief commentaries by some thirty of John Reed’s actual contemporaries. All men and women in their eighties and nineties, the “witnesses” include such interesting figures as novelists Henry Miller and Rebecca West, historian Will Durant, and comedian George Jessel.

Reds won three Academy Awards, and was nominated for more than a dozen. This is very strange. It is, after all, a sympathetic portrayal of communists. John Reed had to leave the U.S. in late 1919 when he was accused of sedition. Is he kosher now because he’s been dead for a long time? Why would several multinational corporations help Warren Beatty pay for a movie whose main characters believed that World War I was fought only to preserve those same industries’ corporate profits? Have communism and radical socialism been marginalized to the point of harmless insignificance? Will an American ever make a movie like this about Fidel Castro? Will Dow Chemical, General Motors, and Philip Morris pay for it? Stay tuned, comrades.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

As I write this, I’m of two minds about Reds.  If I look at the film strictly as a biopic and a continent-spanning love story, I find it a splendid piece of work.  The film has a stellar cast, meticulous research, ground-breaking cinematography, an effective musical score, and award-winning production & costume design.  How could a team that included Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Maureen Stapleton, Edward Hermann, Jerzy Kozinski, Paul Sorvino, Stephen Sondheim, Vittorio Storaro, Richard Sylbert, Simon Holland, and Shirley Russell (among many others) not succeed in giving us something memorable?  Reds garnered 12 Oscar nominations, and deserved every one of them.  No one could question Warren Beatty’s passion for his subject matter, and there are some clear parallels linking Beatty’s own life with that of John Reed.  In the stormy relationship of Reed and Louise Bryant we have a classic story of two strong-willed, fiercely independent souls trying to hold their love together against the vast centrifugal forces of ideology, politics, ambition, and egoism.  That Bryant should have been at Reed’s bedside as he lay dying in Russia is proof positive that our passions can sanctify us as easily as they can damn us.  To watch Reds and not care about Bryant and Reed as examples of the best and worst in all of us would take a heart of stone.

If I were to watch the film again, it would not be for its politics or what it teaches me of history; I would watch it as a cry from the heart.  There’s a sublime moment in Reds when Ms. Bryant, drowning in a sea of Russian workers at a Bolshevik rally, watches Reed take the stage and against all probability electrify his at-first uncomprehending audience.  The expressions which play across her face show her thinking how this is the man she loves, the man whose idealism always carried him away from her, the man whose work overshadowed her own, the incarnation of the larger-than-life dream she’d longed to live but couldn’t quite realize.  She was right about all but the last.  Their relationship could have died right there, had she simply given in to resentment at Reed’s grandstanding and to bitterness at her own perceived failures.  It was probably a close call.  But by choosing to risk her own life to get to Reed—trapped in Russia, his health broken—Louise Bryant demonstrated that our lives can be as extraordinary as we will them to be.

I admire Warren Beatty for putting out a call for eyewitnesses who’d been around at the time of Reed and Bryant, and had contact with them.  These marvelous faces, and the stories they tell, become part of the film’s tapestry.  Beatty had some 2500 responses to his call, whittled down to the 31 witnesses who became part of the narrative.  That they are unnamed when on-screen, and shot against a pure black background, allows us to focus on their faces and their stories with no distractions.  On one of the DVD extras, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro talks about the special lighting and filming technique he developed for the film, and went on to use for the rest of his career.

I said two minds.  It seems to me that Reds fails as politics and history.  There’s no need to be surprised that Hollywood would produce an epic film about a Communist sympathizer—all one has to do is look closely at what Reds teaches us about the left-wing activism in the U.S. and the Revolution in Russia.  In the U.S., we see infighting between the American Federation of Labor and the IWW, and among leftist sympathizers in Greenwich Village.  We hear about strikes and listen in on disputes over politics and labor.  But at absolutely no point do we get any understanding that the unions and their Socialist supporters are actually accomplishing anything to improve the lives of American workers.  It’s all dialectics and grandstanding.  Men and women across America died for their unions and their fellow workers.  They faced off against local militia, police, and gun thugs hired by corporate power brokers.  They didn’t die in vain, but you’d never know that from the film.  As long as a film about unions and Communists and Socialist in the U.S. doesn’t actually insist that they achieved improvements in working conditions and the quality of life of ordinary Americans, corporate Hollywood doesn’t give a damn.  Had Beatty been making a movie about the successes of the American labor movement, rather than its ideological failings, he wouldn’t have gotten a dime.

In a similar vein, all we learn about the Russian Revolution is that it, too, was in the hands of squabbling ideologues who quickly abandoned any utopian principles they’d once had in regards to justice and democratic rights and an egalitarian society, trashing them in favor of a new tyranny.  The new order turns out to be as vicious as the old.  Those Reds turn out to be just fanatically bloodthirsty and devious as their enemies said they were.  The only mitigating factor mentioned was the encirclement of Revolutionary Russia by the hostile Western powers, and the attempted military intervention by those same powers.  Jerzy Kozinki’s portrayal of Grigory Zonoviev captures the fanaticism perfectly, and even anarchist Emma Goldman gets co-opted to slam the Revolution (she was genuinely disillusioned by what she saw in Russia at the time).  At no point is there any sense that Trotsky and Lenin accomplished anything beyond self-aggrandizement and terror.  This is exactly the message that every Red-baiting, Communist-hating Russophobe loves to see in the mass media.  I’m surprised they didn’t ask for a Reds sequel, with an even bigger budget.

About the only political target that Beatty does nail is President Wilson’s about-face regarding America’s entry into World War I.  I wish I could remember more of what I’ve read about how and why this all went down.

Watch Reds for John Reed and Louise Bryant, and to honor the work of the cast & crew.  Watch the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin to get a feel for the Revolution from the inside.  Then go out and do some reading to get the bigger picture.  Start with Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, in an annotated edition that corrects some his factual errors.  The book is an extraordinary eyewitness account, endorsed by Lenin himself.  Then find yourself a couple of solid histories of the Russian Revolution (I’ve included some suggestions above).  I don’t have a specific book on the American labor movement to recommend, but the works by Howard Zinn and Oliver Stone mentioned earlier provide a new perspective.

A final note:  Reds is an excellent example of cinema’s imaginary geography.  Very little of what you see onscreen takes place in the actual locations.  English locations substitute for American ones, Finnish locations for Russian ones, Spanish landscapes for Middle Eastern ones.  As Beatty points out in the commentary, all that’s needed to fool the audience are a few seconds of legitimate footage (such as a shot of New York’s Flatiron building) to suggest the scene.

Three short excerpts from John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World:

‘No more resolutions!  No more talk!  We want deeds—the Power must be in our hands!’  Let these imposter delegates leave the Congress!  The Army is not with them!”

The hall rocked with cheering.  In the first moments of the session, stunned by the rapidity of events, startled by the sound of cannon, the delegates had hesitated.  For an hour hammer-blow after hammer-blow had fallen from that tribune, welding them together but beating them down.  Did they stand then alone?  Was Russia rising against them?  Was it true that the Army was marching on Petrograd?  Then this clear-eyed young soldier had spoken, and in a flash they knew it for the truth…This was the voice of the soldiers—the stirring millions of uniformed workers and peasants were men like them, and their thoughts and feelings were the same….”


Smolny was tenser than ever, if that were possible.  The same running men in the dark corridors, squads of workers with rifles, leaders with bulging portfolios arguing, explaining, giving orders as they hurried anxiously along, surrounded by friends and lieutenants.  Men literally out of themselves, living prodigies of sleeplessness and work—men unshaven, filthy, with burning eyes, who drove upon their fixed purpose full of speed on engines of exaltation.  So much they had to do, so much!  Take over the Government, organise the City, keep the garrison loyal, fight the Duma and the Committee for Salvation, keep out the Germans, prepare to do battle with Kerensky, inform the provinces what had happened, propagandise from Archangel to Vladivostok….Government and Municipal employees refusing to obey their Commissars, post and telegraph refusing them communication, railroads stonily ignoring their appeals for trains, Kerensky coming, the garrison not altogether to be trusted, the Cossacks waiting to come out….Against them not only the organised bourgeoisie, but all other Socialist parties except the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, a few Mensheviki Internationalists and the Social Democrat Internationalists, and even they undecided whether to stand by or not.  With them, it is true, the workers and the soldier-masses—the peasants an unknown quantity….


Imagaine this struggle being repeated in every barracks of the city, the district, the whole front, all Russia.  Imagine the sleepless Krylenkos, watching the regiments hurrying from place to place, arguing, threatening, entreating.  And then imagine the same in all the locals of every labour union, in the factories, the villages, on the battle-ships of the far-flung Russian fleets; think of the hundreds of thousands of Russian men staring up at speakers all over the vast country, workmen, peasants, soldiers, sailors, trying so hard to understand and to choose, thinking so intensely—and deciding so unanimously at the end.  So was the Russian Revolution….

Movie Information

Genre: Biography | Historical Epic | Romance | Drama
Director: Warren Beatty
Actors: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Hermann, Jerzy Kosinski, Maureen Stapleton, Paul Sorvino
Year: 1981
Original Review: October 1996


“David Lynch should be shot”: Looking back on the madness and chaos of “Blue Velvet” and Ronald Reagan’s 80s


Dennis Lim’s brilliant critical overview of one of the most controversial films in the modern canon.  Blue Velvet was described by J. Hoberbman as “a film of ecstatic creepiness,” given a one-star rating by Roger Ebert for its “sophomoric satire and cheap shots,” labeled “one of the sickest films ever made” by Rex Reed, and named the film of the year by Christian Century.  This is a film one has to watch at least twice—the first time to get over the shock, the second time to start to start coming to terms with what the movie’s doing to your head.  This article is an excerpt from Lim’s book, David Lynch: The Man From Another Place.  I don’t often feature reviews here, but this one’s a standout.


100 Years/100 Shots


This montage was put together by Jacob T. Swinney for the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.  Here’s his description:  “A journey through the past 100 years of cinema–the most memorable shot from each year (in my opinion). While many of these shots are the most recognizable in film history, others are equally iconic in their own right. For example, some shots pioneered a style or defined a genre, while others tested the boundaries of censorship and filmgoer expectations. If anything, I want this video to be a reminder as to why we all love cinema so much.”  Also included is a full list of films used.


The Cohen Film Collection


From the website’s introduction:


“Cohen Film Collection: The Rohauer Library is a world-renowned collection of rare movie classics. Long acclaimed for its immensity and entertainment value, this esteemed collection of over 700 titles spans 75 years of the cinema’s most dynamic eras. This unique screen treasure was amassed by Raymond Rohauer (1924–1987), the former film curator of the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art in New York, who devoted his life to collecting these distinguished films.

Rohauer was born in Buffalo, New York, and moved to Los Angeles when he was a teenager because of his passion for the movies. Starting his collection as a youth, he went on to found the Society of Cinema Arts, offering events and regular screenings of experimental, classic and foreign films at the Coronet Theatre and the Riviera-Capri Theatre. These venues played an important role in educating film students and filmmakers in Los Angeles about early cinema history. Later, Rohauer established partnerships with Buster Keaton, Mrs. Harry Langdon, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and others for the distribution and restoration of features and shorts.

Cohen Film Collection: The Rohauer Library is the successor in rights (in most cases, all rights throughout the world) to the listed motion pictures of Buster Keaton, D. W. Griffith, the films of Marcel Hellman, Herbert Wilcox, Pendennis Films, Ltd., the Paramount short film library and others. These exclusive licenses and contracts bring to the Collection original nitrates, camera negatives, prints and other materials unavailable elsewhere, to assure the best prints possible.

Under the stewardship, and guided by the vision of Charles S. Cohen, plans for the systematic preservation and restoration of the many classics in this unique film library will ensure that they are available to be enjoyed by generations to come. Through strategic partnerships with the most prestigious archives in the United States and abroad, film titles will be selected on an ongoing basis to undergo complete digital and, where appropriate, photochemical restoration, so that the best possible versions of these historic and entertaining films are available across all platforms of delivery. In addition to the treasures contained in The Rohauer Library, Cohen Film Collection will augment its library through the acquisition of classic films from around the globe in order to offer an ever-growing selection of the classics in world cinema.”


When I last looked at this website, the first four entries in the catalogue were Fred Waller’s A Bundle of Blues (1933), Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman (1964), Douglas Sirk’s A Scandal in Paris, and Benoît Jacquot’s A Single Girl (1995).  I recall reading an article about Richard Rohauer’s work in film preservation many years ago.  I was impressed, and I can see him as the subject of a future Seldom Scene article.

Films Worth Talking About:

La femme de l’aviateur, The Decline of Western Civilization, Pour la peau d’un flic, Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate), Ragtime, Reds, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Elephant Man, One From the Heart, Diva, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Man of Iron, Das Boot, Pixote, Gallipoli, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Mephisto, My Dinner With André, On Golden Pond, Quest for Fire, Excalibur, Stalker, Atlantic City, An American Werewolf in London, Scanners, Clash of the Titans, Time Bandits, Pennies from Heaven

The Bigger Picture

Films:  The first three films of Sergei Eisenstein: Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (Ten Days that Shook the World) (1927); Vsevolod Pudovkin, The End of St. Petersburg (1927); Matewan (1987); Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)




BooksTen Days that Shook the World, by John Reed; Emma Goldman, Living My Life; Six Red Months in Russia, by Louise Bryant; A People’s Tragedy, by Orlando Figes; Russia in Revolution, by S.A. Smith; October, by China Miéville; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Oliver Stone, The Untold History of the United States

The Word on the Street

“Frustrated that Marx had ruined all the fun by stating that Russia would be the LAST country in the world to attain Communism (due to its economic underdevelopment), Lenin, Trotsky and (American)hack poet-turned-revolutionary John Reed decide to skip all the intermediate stages and jump right to Utopia. How? Through a conspiratorial dictatorship that enslaved Russia in the name of the peoples’ rights. You get to see Warren Beatty (Reed) moon over Communist theory while justifying murder and genocide in the name of humanitarianism. Weee! At the end he wonders: “Was all the killing worth it?” That’s a real bit of editorial license. The real Reed had no doubts and was a true believer in Lenin’s bloody tactics to the end. One of the finest of Hollywood’s love notes to murderous Communist dogma.”  [seamus39]


…the strength of “Reds” is to care about people more than ideas (which even Communism failed to consider), to portray the men and the women who believed that Communism was the closest ideology to justice and humanity, with the fairest view on the world, while America’s democracy was poisoned by liberalism and money.
Which leads me to my favorite line from the film, one I even used it for my own purpose: “what is WWI all about?” “Profits”. I admired Reed’s accurate answer but then after a second viewing, I realized that countries also fought for intangible elements such as ideals and prestige. And I’m not sure that Communists were all reason and practicality. When Reed confronts Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino) to determine which of their parties deserves to represent the Komintern, their debate is less a conflict of ideas than a battle of egos, as we’re not even supposed to grasp the little subtleties that separate them. And that’s the intelligence of “Reds”: provided it’s a historical drama, it doesn’t teach history but shows people making it and being made by it.  [ElMaruecan82]


Fans of the film should consult Rosenstone’s biography of John Reed (‘Romantic Revolutionary’) and his chapter on his involvement with and objections to elements in ‘Reds’ in the book ‘Visions of the Past’. This Biopic is an interpretation of a life- as with films like ‘Patton’ it takes a rather small period of the protaganist’s total life experience- running from roughly 1914 to Reed’s death from typhus in 1920. The film charts Reed’s major experiences- his coverage of the First World War and the Mexican War of 1916 is shown- though the major achievements are his ventures into the complexities of American Socialism and American-Communism and his eventual experience in Russia/Soviet Union. The main aspect, the stalwart element throughout the film is his love affair with Louise Bryant- which is where the film begins and ends. Rosenstone believes this may have been a concession to Hollywood audience- but I think it puts the human and greater-backdrop into context.

‘Visions of the Past’ censures much of Beatty’s “twists of truth” and the filmic conventions of compression and dramatic-symbolistic interpretation. This is not a documentary and this is not the actual John Reed. This is a biopic film, starring Warren Beatty playing ‘John Reed’. If you want to read about the real thing- try ‘Romantic Revolutionary’ and Reed’s masterpiece ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ (which, ironically, came in for criticism regarding Reed’s fictionalisation of the events of the Russian Revolution!- see the introduction to the Penguin edition by AJP Taylor). Remember historians have a vested interest in their interpretation- which by placing into lineal order in a history (non-fiction) book they are placing into a narrative form.

Various anti-commies have objected to this film as it depicts Communism- well, at the time, this development from Marx/Engels 1848 Manifesto seemed liberating. Many intellectuals pondered on a new collective, non-Capitalist world- which was sadly a utopia that was unattainable. The Russian experiment failed- Beatty alludes to the flaws and Stalinism in the speech which the Party retranslates towards their own ends towards the end of the film. The Russian Revolution was an ideal- the workers of the world uniting- which considering the treatment meted out by the likes of Henry Ford was a good thing. This message is still relevant- as ‘free market Capitalism’ means market dominance for Superpowers, poverty for others- the persistence of a constant underclass and the eradication of Union Rights. There are as many flawed ethics to Capitalism as Communism- the arms trade (Reagan/Bush to Hussain, the US-sponsored coup in Chile-Cambodia-El Salvador- a policy which continues up to the failed one last week in Venezuela).  [Mr Jason]


At the end of the movie, just before Reed dies (or just before Bryant learns Reed dies), she drops a cup she was taking to get him some water, as he lay on his death bed. A small boy picks the cup up and hands it to Bryant. The boy, perhaps 4 years old, returns to his seat, smiling at Bryant. Earlier in the movie, when Reed was diagnosed with kidney disease, he asked his doctor if that would affect his ability to have children (the answer was “no”). The closing scene with the boy is meant to call that to mind. In other words, after all of his trials, Bryant sees the child, and the moviegoer gets the message — Reed and Bryant have effectively wasted their lives. They’ve wasted their lives (more Reed than Bryant) striving for their beliefs, which in the end turn out to have been painfully naive. What they missed were multiple years in which they could have been together in bourgeois happiness. (The movie repeatedly shows Reed and Bryant’s happiest moments as being precisely those where they were together, in America, living a middle class or lower middle class life — making dinner, playing with their dog, or making love.) And what they missed because of Reed’s misplaced revolutionary fervor was the opportunity to have children and raise a family together. In short, they missed the basic point of life, and only realized it too late.  [jeff_dm_lorton]