Time can be uncanny. Here’s an example. 1917 was one hundred years ago. In some ways, it seems even longer ago than that. The Great War of the era is defined in part by its clashing of old school, marching artillery lines with the modern machine gun and the atrocities of trench warfare. It’s hard to believe this mashup was only a hundred years ago and not more. It’s much easier to believe that anyone living in that time could no longer be living now.
One of the uncanny things about Reds is seeing people who actually lived through this era reminiscing on screen. The film opens with a series of talking heads of very old looking people talking about the mid 1910s. These interviews are then scattered across the film, popping up again each time you’ve sunk back into the narrative and almost just forgotten about them. More than once, as a viewer you have to remind yourself this isn’t World War II that’s being discussed here, these people aren’t the remnants of the Greatest Generation. These are people with memories—most of them from the prime of their life—from half a century before then.
There are a few tricks of time going on here, of course. One is that Reds itself is over 30 years old. Another is that many of the interviews were shot a decade or so before then, when Warren Beatty had already started developing the film. But the interviews feel modern, with their consistent off center framing and sparse black background. They could be excerpts from a Ken Burns film. And it’s clear Warren Beatty is fascinated by these people, perplexed also at the power of them still being alive.
In a less ambitious film, these interviews would have been largely scrapped, perhaps hanging on as an opener or background for closing credit role, as in Up in the Air. In the hands of a director with less artistic control, they would have been cut altogether. It’s difficult to say what the effect of this would have been. In some ways, these interviews are really asides, and often unnecessary. We don’t learn any information about the people we see talking—not their names, not their stories, not even how they knew the film’s main characters. And the actual substantial information they provide about the characters in the film is very slim, and are usually details the narrative portion of the film goes out of its way to tell us anyway. But, for a few reasons, it’s also hard to say that if they were totally cut from the film nothing would be lost.
One reason is because Beatty is so experimental with his use of the interviews that watching them unfold is fascinating in itself. Regularly the interviewees contradict each other. One highlight is when one especially made-up and dignified woman prattles on about the way gentlemen used to treat ladies back then. This is smash cut against an old man—one eye seemingly forever squinted shut, one side of his mouth the only side that he bothers to talk out of—explaining that in his opinion, “people did just as much fucking back then as they do now.” Another highlight is when a montage of Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton’s characters playing homemakers is scored to an old man singing early pop tunes like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” The effect doesn’t quite work, it’s a little too jarring, but it’s captivating and you can’t help but admire Beatty’s courage for going through with it.
The real power of the interviews, though, seems to stem from Beatty’s own fascination with them. He is so fascinated by these people and so seems to enjoy watching them talk that he times the plot points of the film around these interludes. But his fascination seems to also be, in part, that these people actually knew the film’s characters and again and again remind him and us that these characters were real. We see the very famous and beautiful Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton on camera, making little to no effect to play their era [costume and production design be damned], but we have these interviewees reminding us Beatty and Keaton’s characters were real, they really did live during the Russian revolution. We see the very famous Jack Nicholson play the very famous Eugene O’Neill in the manner of an act two Jack Torrance, but these interviewees remind us that oh yes, there was something going on with Gene and Louise, no one could ever quite figure it out. Just as we have to re-frame our conceptions of these interviewees to remind ourselves that we’re talking about a time not just before the Great Depression but before the Roaring Twenties, so too these people re-frame our perspective of the characters. Yes, we have to remind ourselves, these were real people, even if their lives are being dramatized here. The power of the interviews is that they refuse to let us forget that.