Friday, August 27, 2010

Genre Attack: Westerns by way of the spaghetti

The Spaghetti Westerns have reminded me that the whole Western megagenre is concerned with the creation of myths. Whether John Ford realized it or not, his Ringo Kid and Ethan Edwards and Scar were made to be timeless, the embodiments of the wandering spirits of the frontier. Ethan’s emergence from the lonely prairie, and his final departure from society through an open door, are the stuff of icons. For most of the film, Scar is practically a whispered name, an invocation of evil; the Ringo Kid is a rumor come to life. This legacy provided the essential capital for the Spaghetti Westerns that came some thirty years later, trading as they did in nameless heroes and mythical villains: The Man with No Name, Silence, Django, Angel Eyes. The Sergio’s knew how to work with archetype and universality, those essential ingredients of mythmaking.

It’s only recently that the Western genre has become preoccupied with breaking down mythologies, rather than building them up. It may have started with the directorial work of Eastwood, whose later cowboys were less heroic than their distant forebears. It’s a noteworthy theme in 3:10 to Yuma, where the dangerous central villain, a notorious jailbreaker, gradually reveals himself to be a fallible, sympathetic human being. It’s also an important theme in No Country for Old Men: Llewellyn Moss is on the way to becoming a mythical hero, but at the moment of truth, his capital runs out, leaving only the mythical murderer. These used to be myths of redemption, after all… the Coens deconstructed them into Anton Chigurh, a myth of terrifying, unstoppable destruction.

Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is noteworthy in this context, as well, being a sort of reactionary Western, dissolving myth into the mundane and depicting a journey that ends in ambivalence. A slow-burning campfire of a film, Three Burials takes Plato's cave, the feeling of gradual ascent toward some sort of personal revelation, and imbues it with the hopelessness that comes with living in a perfectly imperfect, incurably impure world. It’s got the same oppressive feeling as No Country for Old Men, but Three Burials emphasizes the banality of the main character’s personal agenda, and so forks directly away from No Country’s heroes-of-the-frontier mythological drama. In this, Three Burials makes No Country--and virtually all other Westerns--look like common action films, full of unrealistic gunplay and contrived suspense. I’m not going to go disparage the classics or anything, but still, it’s a striking vision of how two different filmmakers can take the same attitude in two different narrative directions.

Or, more amazing, a single filmmaker, if he's brilliant enough, can take things in two directions all by himself. I'm referring to Sergio Leone, the star-child of the Spaghetti Western, and the inspiration for so much of the genre's later development. It's a credit to the guy that he revolutionized the Western with the Man With No Name, and created an absolute archetype... but it's even more brilliant, to the point of transcendence, that he brought the genre to completion in two different ways: first, as a culmination, with Once Upon a Time in the West, and second, as a send-up, with My Name is Nobody.

It's understandable that recent revisionist Westerns have had to go down the claustrophobic and understated routes, because after Once Upon a Time in the West, it's hard to imagine anybody taking another shot at the epic Western of frontier violence. The film is built around the vast American enterprise of manifest destiny, and the hole it carved in the older traditions of open space and Native American culture. It's about the American way springing up around that point of infiltration... complete with its ruthless capitalism, its social and ethnic diversity, its political vendettas, and its rugged individualism.

And within the context of this American myth, Leone creates a cast of mythological characters: "Harmonica," an ethnic outsider, weathered and solitary, and his counterpart, Cheyenne the bandit, whose gang has staked its claim to the prairie with guns and dusters. Claudia Cardinale's Jill McBain is the vengeful wife, the siren, the independent woman, a survivalist and an entrepreneur, at times resembling Scarlett O'Hara. Harmonica's background is the essential motif that links Once Upon a Time in the West to the whole tradition of Spaghetti Westerns that it maxed out. Each character has their own musical theme, and each has their archetype to uphold and their role to play.

But none of these protagonists can match Frank, the villain, for sheer screen presence. The bandit Cheyenne and the mysterious Harmonica make good on their archetypes, but it's Frank who creates his own legend, right there in the course of the story. He's almost a deranged father figure, with kind eyes and a winning smile, sweeping through the story and destroying lives... not for money, or apparently for loyalty, or even gleeful sadism, but simply because this is the person he was born to be. Leone makes it clear, with Frank, that the West is a fertile ground for tyrants to carve out their empires, and only the willpower of the American frontiersmen, driven by vengeance, will prevent this open space from becoming a wasteland of Franks. Interesting take on the subject, Sergio.

Of course, having brought the Spaghetti era of Westerns to completion in Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone would go on to turn it inside out and inspect its guts in My Name is Nobody (directed primarily by collaborator Tonino Valerii). Having mastered the art of myth-building, Leone was to use Nobody as a vehicle for interrogating and exposing those acts of mythologizing that he had become so good at. After all, Nobody isn't just the trickster figure, following in Eastwood's footsteps... he's also the young guide for the old generation of cowboys, orchestrating both the immortality and the departure/"demise" of his idol, Jack Beauregard (welcome back, Frank).

What's so cool about My Name is Nobody is that it satires the genre, but never loses its sense of respect (an virtue destroyed by the Friedberg/Seltzer comedies, but also preserved by the occasional Black Dynamite-type indie). The shot-glass shootout is among the coolest sequences in any Western I've seen, one-upping the hat-shooting scene from The Great Silence, using the same formula to create a joyous cinematic moment. And Leone/Valerii give shout-outs to their contemporaries, including a couple smirking tributes to Sam Peckinpah, who, by all accounts, should be the one showing his appreciation to the Italians.

Harmonica may be the pinnacle of a slope started with The Man With No Name, and Nobody may be the little flag at the top, but interestingly, the greatest Spaghetti hero might be a character tucked away in a different movie. This is the aforementioned The Great Silence, whose titular protagonist is the epitome of the Spaghetti Western enigmatic cowboy.

After all, Silence is a truly lonely, enigmatic warrior, the product of torture, tempered in the fires of vengeful rage... a motif he shares with myriad Spaghetti protagonists, like Man with Black Coat (For a Few Dollars More), Bill (Death Rides a Horse), and the great Harmonica himself (Once Upon a Time in the West). He has a weapon that nobody has seen before that can play a decisive role in a gunfight (his Mauser), a trait he shares with Django (the gattling gun), and with John Mallory of Duck, You Sucker (the explosives). Like Nobody and the main character from the Dollars trilogy, he has no name, except for the pseudonym determined by his hardship.

And if these things aren't enough, the striking, downbeat ending of The Great Silence provides the air-tight seal on Silence's claim to mythical status. I'll try not to spoil it for you. Needless to say, even if you're not a spaghetti western afficianado, you should try to see The Great Silence, a beautiful, sweeping, and epic Western experience, tempered in the frozen mountains of its unique wintry setting.

I could keep writing about this evolving genre forever... in every sentence, I'm torn between analyzing the troubling and complex themes of fatherhood and violence as a patriotic ideal, and waxing poetic on the beauty of these films, with their vistas and their alluring remoteness. I need to stop myself before I wander off on another tangent. For now, before the summer's end, I simply urge you to go see some more Westerns, the fires where American mythology is forged. Get thee to thy Netflix!

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