There is a moment early in Reds where, on the soundtrack, we hear a voice – a real voice, a witnessing voice, a voice of truth – listing names of notable people from the past. In the image track, to accompany this, we see a series of old, sepia photographs of these same people. Except that, when we get to the final name of famous playwright Eugene O’Neill, the sepia photograph is a mock-up or sleight of hand – not an actual photo of O’Neill, but Jack Nicholson wearing a characteristic frown, bearing all the weight of the drama that is about to unfold. The film can now pass onto its historical re-creation – or rather, its historical re-writing – with the photo coming to life and Nicholson playing his part in the fiction.
Already suggested, in the consideration of this brief moment, is the long and elaborate commentary that could be made on Reds. That commentary will indeed be made in articles and statements, angrily denouncing the film for its pretensions to historical truth, and the tricks it uses in an attempt to fool us in this regard. Reds is a film that starts with words, with spoken memories – with traces of the past as they are recalled by a group of old revolutionaries. From there, it presumes to unproblematically show that past, transparently present this history of the famous writer and socialist John Reed (played by the director-writer Warren Beatty). And, even if the voices, as they persist, sometimes waver, sometimes disagree, sometimes contradict each other, sometimes admit to lapses and gaps in their knowledge … the image never wavers, the image is true, the image knows.
But what does it know? That’s not a bad question. And the answer will come, again with a certain anger, a certain sarcasm, from those who feel it necessary to say: Reds is just another fiction, another bankable story – or rather, a calculated compendium of several stories. A love story between suffering intellectuals, played out against the spectacular backdrop of the Russian Revolution; a film weighing the personal, with all its tenderness and angst, against the political with all its brutality and coldness. The timelessness of love against the transience of revolution: so is Reds just another Dr Zhivago (David Lean, 1965), another A Small Circle of Friends (Rob Cohen, 1980), another Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)? Reds is just radical chic, just bourgeois entertainment, just an old-fashioned Hollywood movie? You’re going to hear a lot of these comments from a lot of people, if you haven’t heard them already. So let’s move on, past them.
Sure, Reds is a fiction film, and it may be rather short on both solid historical information and sound political theory – but fiction is fiction, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Reds pretends to be the truth. It’s not the truth, but then again I can’t nominate an alternative film that would be able to give you that truth. So forget truth. As for the film itself, some of it is very appealing in a strange, termitic way; there’s a certain charm that creeps up on you, that seeps through and lingers. It is quite static and slow, and the love story is merely a series of amorous connections and disconnections, arguments in rooms, fleeing in streets, reunions on train platforms. All very classical, almost rigidly so.
Reds is a movie that, by its end, has created its own internal, narrative history – its own memory, with well-trained appeals to our perception of that memory. Once you’ve lived through the duration of the film, you’ve been set up for the pathos, the emotional significance of small details like a waiting taxi, or a ceiling fixture hung too low, or a dog sniffing at the bedroom door of lovers. It’s all calculated, but not disagreeably so – for, as in Beatty’s fine portrayal of Reed, there is a lack of slickness, an openness, a bareness that admits to all the games being played.
Reds, in a strong American tradition, is about charisma, authenticity, rightness. Reed is portrayed in a privileged relation to these qualities – linked with his ability to write, to shape language, to convey the truth. “You don’t rewrite what I write!” is his tag line, first to a hack editor on an American newspaper, later to his robot-like superiors in revolutionary Moscow. Even in love, he is always right. Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), on the other hand, is almost always wrong – it is she who leaves, she who misinterprets, she who makes a scene of her defenses – and it will be her place, finally, to come to Reed, to help and support him, to write with him. This is the reflection, no doubt, of a certain misogyny and subtle anti-feminism pervading the film.
Love against war, the personal against the political, the self against the mass – why do we always pose the problem like that, in fiction as elsewhere? Reds is another contribution to this non-debate that forever ties us up. The argument finds its most vivid expression in Nicholson’s rendition of O’Neill. He stands for interiority, the human tragedy ceaselessly played and replayed in the head, the beautiful but fatal gamble with human emotion as be-all and end-all. And, in fact, he gets some of the best lines, which are precisely against politics – against the sham, the pose, the delusion of politics. He offers love, because love is all there is. But maybe not – because the film finally deserts him, leaves him alone and inert with his all-too-human sense of the tragic.
Perhaps Reds, too, deserts politics – finding, at the deathbed of a great man, its final reason for having told itself: a wonderful individual, a tribute to an immortal spirit. That’s when Reds vanishes from the screen, and from history, into private and collective memory alike – a memory that, these days, can hold only so much.
© Adrian Martin 19 February 1982