Friday, August 13, 2010

Genre attack: Spaghetti Westerns

I have been watching spaghetti westerns. These have included For a Few Dollars More (the last of the Dollars trilogy I hadn't seen), Duck You Sucker, Death Rides a Horse, The Great Silence, and Django. It's a worthwhile exercise in genre exploration... this is an amazingly homogeneous body of films, all drawing on the same tropes and archetypes, and after three or four, they all start to blur together. Incidentally, it helps me see why Leone is considered such a master of the genre: he brought the loner anti-hero to its apex in Eastwood (he's a stronger protagonist than Django, Silence, and Bill combined) and he also created some of the most distinctive entries in the genre. Duck, You Sucker breaks down the style Leone had established and rebuilds it in service of a revolution movie, a film whose characters inhabit a completely different ethical space from his earlier amoral Westerns. John, the Irish expat cum professional revolutionary, is an incredible hero, a unique voice among all these silent gunslingers.

I'm going to discuss Eastwood's character and Corbucci's directing a bit more, but first, a chart. In an effort to disentangle the undifferentiated heroes of the Spaghetti Western genre, I've broken them down into their essential character tropes, and I've charted them below. They all seem to have facial hair that's either scruffy and untamed, or perfectly clean-cut mustachioed. And most of the mustachioed heroes are played by Lee Van Cleef. Also, they generally seem to be working through some abandonment issues -- either taking revenge for the death of their family, or for the death of a lover. And despite their cracked cynicism, some of them manage to soften up and find love in the course of the stories. Obviously, for those who don't, I'm assuming their epic struggles have made them entirely incapable of it.

Let's compare our heroes.

Now, here's an important technicality... when a character once had a true love, but seems to be crippled by loss, do I count them as "Capable of Love" because they once managed it? Or do I call them "Incapable" because the possibility is henceforth ruined for them? I think I'm going to put them in the latter category. Thus, if the character has a check next to "Capable of Love," it means they find love in the course of their movie. If they have an "X," it means it's clear that love isn't really on their current agenda, whether it's because they've lost it (I'm looking at you, John Mallory!) or because they're just a cold-hearted bastard (*coughEastwoodcough*). If they seem nice enough but the topic just doesn't come up, they get a question mark.

It's notable that The Man With No Name is the only character with two red check marks, indicating in a roundabout way that he's the hero we learn the least about... despite the fact that he's in the most movies! This, among other things, indicates Leone's brilliance. He gave us one of the most interesting spaghetti western heroes, and one of the most compelling amoral cowboys, and he built the character from scratch, right there within the films. He didn't need a profound backstory or a tragic tale. He's a phantom, a thunderbolt, a ghost of the desert. He's inhuman, the fastest shot and the shrewdest player in every game. If he had psychology or personal motivation, he would be too human.

And he's not human. He's an outsider, through and through, the spitting image of the mythological trickster. He's obviously always after the money (those titular Dollars), but he seems to take just as much pleasure in confounding and confusing the people he interacts with, upsetting their images and undermining their assumptions. Whenever he's called upon to perform, whether by a frontier town tyrant or a comrade extending an open hand, he accepts and subverts, reverses the decision and its conditions, and generally screws up everyone's plans.

Sergio Corbucci is considered one of the masters of the genre, and though I wouldn't put him above Leone -- his plots are a little too fixated on the central theme of facile love and the revenge instinct -- I give him credit for pushing some aspects of the genre far beyond Leone. In particular, I'm impressed with Corbucci's riffs on setting. Django takes place in a mud-soaked alternative to the dry, dusty desert, a swampy wallow where the prostitutes mud-wrestle and stench and decay invades every safe space. This is interesting in itself, bringing a more tactile sense of incurable filth, but it's nothing compared to the stark tundra of The Great Silence, which was a bold film if ever I've seen one. At the same time that it participates in the spaghetti western genre tropes, it also confronts them, replacing the Mexican/Italian villain with an Aryan opportunist and substituting a stark, naked, frozen landscape for the dirt and sweat that gives the genre its archetypal tone.

The Great Silence is a harsh and beautiful movie, and before I finish my current entry, I'd like to praise it for a moment. The snow and titular silence pervades every relationship in the film. They all look at each other with a sort of frigid dispassion, and even the daring sexual relationship between Silence and Pauline feels vaguely strained and sterilized, though this gives it a razor-sharp intensity. The Great Silence also creates a strong, effective contrast between shelter and exposure... the snowy landscapes evoke the anxiety of coldness and emptiness, and the dark stony interiors feel temporarily safe, though always under siege. Silence isn't just the hero's rather cheesy moniker -- it's also a command that reverberates through the film. It's a movie about the forbidden corners of conscience and instinct, unspeakable acts committed in distant and echoic voids that stifle cries for help -- a fascinating cinematic achievement.

By the way, that crazy pistol Silence uses... that definitely exists. It's called a Mauser.

My final film in my spaghetti western series will be Once Upon a Time in the West, and after I check that out, I'll write a final blog entry about it.

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