just some disconnected thoughts on warren beatty's hot'n'horny 1981 historical epic
look, maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t. i just felt like i needed to replenish this space with something, so.
It’s always winter in Reds, even when it isn’t. It’s always winter, and someone is always arguing, someone is always plotting, someone is always unhappy—no, someone is always dissatisfied, which is not unlike unhappiness but is not the exact same—someone is always longing, someone is always toiling away against their raging discontent. It’s always winter, and everyone is always in long shirtsleeves, under a shabby jacket or sweater that looks like it could come apart at the seams at any moment or wrapped in a fur coat that has seen better days, lips chapped and eyes tired and skin pale, dull, and dead.
Reds is, on the most basic level, a movie about history. The passion project of Warren Beatty, who co-wrote, directed, and starred, it is a historical epic about journalist and communist activist John (Jack) Reed, the radical movement in early 20th century America, and his journey to Russia to document the Bolshevik revolution. But it’s also a love story; intertwined is his affair with and marriage to Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton, who is so spectacular in the role that it is infuriating to watch with the knowledge that she is now making movies like Poms), an aspiring—floundering—artist/writer/bohemian who eventually comes to work alongside him as a fellow activist-journalist. Oh, and Jack Nicholson pops in as an incredibly, illegally, hot Eugene O’Neill, just to add a little more drama to the already overflowing pot.
It is the I hope this email finds you well in these trying times of movies, a movie about people trying to shift the narrative in a positive direction in real time who operate in a state of idealistic denial about just how bad things really are and how much harder they will be to change. But because Reds is a movie not just about history, which is something that has already happened, it is just as much about the way history is remembered. Filtered through the lens of late-70s America where the progressive agenda had failed once again, we already know the outcome of Reds. We have lived through those trying times, have read about those trying times, and have lived through many more that followed. We know that these are real people and not just fictional characters, that the events in the film happened and aren’t just fictional plot points, and yet, we watch anyway, somehow hoping that we’ll get the Hollywood ending we want each time.
The thing about history is that everything is history in some sense, though our present lives are often split into times in which we know we are living through it—it being something big, something monumental, something we know will be chronicled and remembered and studied in the times to come—and the times in which we are willfully ignorant, the times in which we think everything is fine, uneventful, maybe even good. And, of course, this is all a lie, too. Even the perceived good times tell us something about who we are in the ways in which we decide what counts as a good time, the ways in which a good time for one group of people might not be a good time for another. The thing about history—and about Reds, too, as we learn through all the talking heads featured—is that history does not have the benefit of the present tense. It is not the act of standing next to someone and seeing the same thing happen and having a shared understanding of it. History is the past tense, history is memory and interpretation, all the ways in which what we all saw can be misremembered and misconstrued and twisted by each and every one of us, at times in a way that it no longer resembles what we once lived through at all.
Reds is like winter in that it is an excessively long movie, stretching across three hours, with no end in sight. We know it will end, of course we do, but we implausibly think it will go on forever. By the time it reaches intermission an hour and 45 minutes in, you wonder how it could possibly wrap up in a succinct second act.
Early in the film, there’s a brief stretch set in summer, but it comes and goes in fiction just as quickly as it does in life, and even then, their white linens aren’t sparkling and crisp so much as dingy and wilting; not even the temporary warmth can solve Jack and Louise’s problems. The little happiness they find while summering on the shore can’t last. It’s fleeting and fading, it won’t even make it through the season, threatened by Jack’s premature departure for political work and the presence of Jack Nicholson’s brooding and bitter Eugene O’Neill. There is no carefree summer fun in Reds, even when it tries at it. The discontent of winter is all consuming. Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton are almost always confined to small, muted spaces, in rooms with low ceilings and too much furniture to feel anything but cramped, working and fighting and fucking with nowhere else to go. Although it was a visual choice by production designer Richard Sylbert intended to show how big their characters were in their world, watching now, I don’t get anything out of it other than claustrophobia. I don’t get any historical symbolism from it, just the cold and unrelenting reflection of present circumstances reflected back.
When I started writing this essay, it was the dead of February, the time of year when it seems like it has always been winter and will always be winter and our bodies will never know warmth or sunlight from any source other than our SAD lamps ever again. It’s now spring, or near spring, at least. The fake March spring is just outside my window, a string of 60º days that make me believe everything is fine and normal again, even though nothing is normal right now, even though I know the warmth is just a fluke, just a tease before cooler, more seasonable temperatures yell “syke!” and make their cruel return. But even when spring comes for real, and summer after, I will still be looking over my shoulder, still reminding myself that it can’t last forever, that winter is always coming, that there’s always a catch to anything good.
Let’s just state the obvious: Reds is, objectively speaking, the hottest movie ever made. It’s impossibly horny, absolutely saturated with desire that is only made more horny by the fact that there’s not even that much fucking in it. Really, there are only, like, two sex scenes, maybe three, and it’s a stretch to even call them that, just some dim lighting and suggestive advances before cutting away. Instead, the dial is turned up to the highest possible frequency of sexy without showing actual sex and stays there, often leaving our want completely unfulfilled. It’s the promise of fucking that makes it hot. The threat of it, even, the will-they-or-won’t-they of it all.
All this, too, is history reimagined, history heightened for dramatic purposes. Hollywood is full of beautiful people pretending to play normal people. Virginia Woolf-ing oneself into Oscar bait wasn’t as much of a thing when Reds was produced, and Reds is full of exceedingly hot people not only portraying average-at-best looking people, but acting as though in real life they, too, were unbearably hot. Beatty once explained that he got Nicholson to play the part by first asking him for advice. “I told him I needed someone to play Eugene O’Neill, but it had to be someone who could convincingly take this woman away from me,” he said. Nicholson immediately replied, “There’s only one actor who could do that—me!” None of them look even remotely like their real life counterparts—hey, that’s showbiz, baby—but if they weren’t aggressively attractive, the love triangle would fall flat. In real life, Jack Reed possessed none of the handsome, playboy good looks of Warren Beatty, who even manages to be hot when (spoiler) dying of typhus. Beatty’s Reed may be the beta version of a Hot DSA Fuckboy, but IRL Reed looked more like Baby-faced DSA Virgin, if I’m being completely honest here. He may have, historically, been a playboy, but it’s the real life Eugene—who radiated hot professor energy—who could take me from Jack in a second. Of course they both need to be hot—ridiculously, superhuman hot—on film for any real tension to occur.
In the film, as in real life, Bryant and O’Neill have an affair when Reed leaves to cover the 1916 election, and things get complicated, as things are wont to do in films. He’s a real person, but he’s also, in the frame of the film, a plot point. It’s more appealing to remember the more salacious and exciting parts of someone’s life, but that often means bending the truth of history to fit our desired portrayal of it. In real life, Bryant and Reed considered themselves to be free love intellectuals; her affair with O’Neill was less of a high stakes love triangle and more of a, um, throuple. History is a lot more entertaining when attractive people talk like this, but it’s not actually real.
I think I saw Reds for the first time as a freshman in college. I say think because I don’t really know for certain. A combination of forces at hand—I was a film major, and had the entire campus library and independent video store’s catalogue full of films unavailable through my then-only suppliers (Blockbuster, TCM, and the county library system) that I’d been longing to see for years at my fingertips—meant I watched a lot of movies that year. So many that the ones I can only really remember truly, wholly, vividly are the films that completely bowled me over or the ones I viciously hated. If I really did see Reds then, it must have been met with too much ambivalence for it to fall clearly into either category. I don’t really know if that is the real truth, or if that narrative is what my brain wants me to believe is the truth. I am just as subjected to the failures of memory as the film itself.
All I know for certain is that I didn’t truly see Reds until Thanksgiving two years ago, over a long weekend I spent holed up inside my apartment alone and finding that the time by myself wasn’t as relaxing as I thought it would be but was instead rather lonely, so I filled up every conscious waking hour with the television on. The longer the movie, the better; Reds seemed like an obvious choice. I was immediately, for lack of a more eloquent way to put it, obsessed. By the time the weekend ended, I had watched it two times more.
In the year 2020, when it was always winter, even when it wasn’t, and I was always in a state of discontent, I watched Reds at least eight times—or, roughly, once a month—that I logged. I’ve written about this before, but I spent more of the past year on comfort films I didn’t have to pay too much attention to than I did with “good” films in the Criterion Collection or profound new genres that would make me think. Somewhere, Reds became the perfect kind of comfort film in that it didn’t make me feel bad about watching yet another comfort film. I don’t know how anyone could call Reds comforting, least of all me. It’s long, it’s brutal, there’s death and despair and a lot of complicated intellectual and political jargon thrown around. But in between all that, there’s the foundation of a modern boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back, boy-and-girl-find-themselves-swept-up-in-the-1917-Revolution plot at play. That Reds is at once about five different movies made it the best kind of in-between film to watch during These Times; I could think or I could not, simple as that. It could be whatever I wanted it, or needed it, to be.
Early in Reds, there are a string of scenes in which Jack’s intellectual friends ask Louise what it is she does for a living. She’s out of place in their bohemian New York crew, no longer a big fish in a small pond like she was in Portland, no longer special, just average, mediocre, even. “I write,” she answers as they immediately turn away or dismissively say “good for you” before moving on to a new subject, only having asked her out of politeness rather than genuine interest. When people care enough to ask her more, she can’t really explain it. She writes about “everything.” What she’s working on now is “impossible to describe.” I have never so fiercely related to a character more.
I’m working on a book right now—which is why these dispatches are and will be so few and far between—that should be easy to describe, but somehow I find even that simple task a challenge. It’s a biography—but not a stuffy one, I’ve been quick to add. It’s cultural criticism. It’s a mystery and detective story. It’s a love story. It’s history. It’s history reinterpreted. It’s everything. It’s impossible to describe. Just like Reds.
If you liked this and want to read more about Reds, I highly recommend Peter Biskind’s lengthy, juicy, delicious Vanity Fair piece on it from 2006, which I have to reread at least once a month to replenish my serotonin levels.
If you have not seen, you can stream Reds on pretty much every major platform.
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