Once Upon a Time in America: Survivor’s Guilt, PTSD, and an Epic Bromance

Intro by Maria

On our next episode of Peculiar Picture Show, Brandon and I discuss the 1984 drama called Once Upon a Time in America, from Italian director Sergio Leone, who is most known for creating the “Spaghetti Western.” But this film isn’t a Western; instead, it tells the story of Noodles, a Jewish gang member played by Robert DeNiro, and his close friendship with the other members of his gang.

Now you might be thinking that my description sounds lame, and yes, of course the movie explores many other facets of life other than friendship, like romantic love, food love, and love of crime. A lot of love. But Noodles’s story of friendship, particularly with his bff Max (played by James Woods), is at the heart of this story.

During this episode, I also tell the story of why my nickname is “Noodles” while Brandon eats a pastry, Brandon gives background on the musical score, and we talk in depth about mental health issues, like survivor’s guilt and PTSD. All of these are in here, but you may want to also pay special attention to the amount of times that Brandon repeats the word “macaroni” or “noodles” after I say it. It’s actually quite weird and funny, and I tried to catch all the times he repeats this, so listen for that, but if I leave a few out, do send us a note to make fun of how we didn’t catch all of them.

So why don’t you relax, order yourself a $25 pastry, and slowly slip into the next episode of Peculiar Picture Show.

Show Summary

Overall Thoughts: A Sergio Leone masterpiece with heart, and an interesting setting

B — This movie was slightly intellectually light but had a lot of feeling; Sergio Leone is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve seen many of his Westerns.

M — It’s interesting that an Italian director decided to do an organized crime movie with Jewish gangsters as the subject, rather than the typical Italian mafia from an Italian director, but for me, Italian culture and Jewish culture can be very similar. Also, my nickname is “Noodles,” (B — “Noodles”) just like the main character, so I have to like this movie, right? Wait a minute—is this movie about me? AND FINALLY WE HAVE A MOVIE THAT HAS SOME FOOD IN IT!

Likes: Sergio Leone’s directing was a win, the focus on Jewish culture made this interesting

B — Sergio Leone is one of my favorite directors, and he really uses the medium by having little actor quirks or the music tell the story, rather than having dialogue drive the film, and you end up learning a lot about the characters; Ennio Morricone’s score was incredible. Hard to not compare to the Godfather II. This movie is refreshing because it’s a crime drama that speaks about childhood friendships—it is more heartwarming than the typical mafia film.

M — I thought it was refreshing to have a mafia film focus on friendship and loyalty; liked Jewish culture; liked non-linear storytelling and wouldn’t want to see the film told in a different way; fun to see what New York City is back in the day (since I am kind of from there).

Dislikes: An unwelcome rape scene and some underused women bog down a slow film

B — Hard to get attached these characters. Where the hell did the rape scene come from? I couldn’t figure out if the characters are misogynists or it’s the director or does it even matter if there’s no condemnation of the rape? The women in this film are severely underwritten

M — Agree with the rape scene coming from nowhere, and when we later see the victim, it’s as if the rape didn’t matter to her—it’s like whoever wrote the character had no idea how women react to this type of violation; movie is a little slow to say the least; ending was weird and ambiguous and didn’t really work.

Mental Health: Survivor’s guilt and the stigma around mental illness

Either Max or Noodles may be suffering from survivor’s guilt—a form of PTSD where a survivor of a traumatic event seems to think that he or she has done something wrong because others were hurt or even died from that traumatic event. Noodles perhaps is suffering from this since all of his friends died from a plan that he helped concoct, and he has to run away from his problems by leaving town and using drugs. Or it can be that Max is suffering from this, because Max faked his death while the others died. Additionally, Max is obsessed about being “crazy,” and he doesn’t want to be “crazy,” which can speak a lot about the dangers of mental illness stigma. But really, the person who probably would be suffering the most from these experiences is Deborah.

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
1.800.656.HOPE (4673), or use chat on their site

Next Episode…

Our next episode will cover Dog Day Afternoon!


B: He [Sergio Leone] is a great director in that he really utilizes the medium, and so a lot of directors will have great dialogue or perhaps great action sequences, but there are a lot of times where Leone just gets out of the way and lets little actor quirks or the music tell the story, and you just learn so much about these characters because he’s able to step back and not have every scene be jam-packed with dialogue.

B: This movie is more about how childhood friendship last forever—even when you don’t want them to, childhood friendships last forever. And that was a little refreshing to see in the crime genre.

M: The dynamic between Max, who is played by James Woods, and Noodles is very intense and really done well—almost like they are romantically involved with each other.

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