all according to the law: the great silence (1968)

 

The Italian film industry during the mid-to-late 1960s was cranking out Westerns at a prodigious rate, a trend that started after the box office success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.  That movie was a gritty, ecstatically violent remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which was loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest), and it made an international star out of relatively unknown actor Clint Eastwood.  Hundreds of so-called spaghetti Westerns flooded the market over the next few years.  Many of them are excellent–Django, The Big Gundown, A Bullet for the General, to name a few–and they rank among the greatest Westerns ever made, especially Leone’s subsequent contributions to the genre–For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West.  But none of them can match the darkness awaiting you in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 classic, The Great Silence.

“I’m going to shoot every one of these people here,” a bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski) states near the end of the movie to Pauline (Vonetta McGee), before he does just that.  Pauline’s husband was killed by Loco and she hires a mute bounty hunter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to avenge his death.  Although Silence is a lethal killer and exudes a sexy coolness that was de rigueur for any antihero worth their leather chaps in those days, he’s sauntered into the wrong movie.  He’s doomed.

Corbucci’s world is dominated by corruption–the Utah town where the story is set is ruled by bounty hunters and venal authorities.  The majority of the townspeople–men like Pauline’s husband–have been branded outlaws because they’ve had to resort to stealing food to survive, which is why so many bounty hunters have swarmed into the area… business is a-boomin’.

Silence is a man of violence.  He makes his living off the blood of others, but he avenges the poor and is anti-authoritarian, another strong plus for any proper gunslinger in the age of rock ‘n’ roll.  John Wayne–who during the same time always represented larger-than-life father figures and men of the establishment–was square.  Duke represented the hardhats and Nixon’s Silent Majority.  He was your dad.

Silence, on the other hand, was who young guys wanted to be and who everyone wanted to be with.  He was lean, sharp, and European.  Trintignant was French and decidedly cool.  Arguably even cooler than Eastwood’s Man with No Name character.

But not even Silence could get out of Corbucci’s movie alive.  Evil is not vanquished.  There’s not even room for an ambiguous finale, a stalemate where Silence and Loco are allowed to go their separate ways, each the hero in their own narratives.  Silence dies, Pauline dies, the townspeople all die, and Loco and his men ride off to destroy the lives of others for another day.  Loco even plucks Silence’s pistol from his cold dead broken hand and keeps it for himself.

It sounds like a movie you’d never want to see unless you were a complete masochist, right?  It’s certainly not for the timid, but The Great Silence is also a movie of frail beauty and melancholy, something that you can’t really say about a lot of spaghetti Westerns.  But it’s not a particularly beautiful looking movie, despite its striking snowbound, mountainous setting.  The typical dusty and dry Almeria locale seen in countless Italian Westerns is gone.  Corbucci filmed in the Dolomites instead, isolating his characters in ice and snow, effectively stripping the movie of duels in the sun and horse chases across cracked earth.  Even Ennio Morricone’s score is plaintive and haunting, removed from his usual operatic majesty.

Then there’s Kinski.  A fixture in spaghetti Westerns, Kinski shines darkly here like never before.  At least, I’ve never seen him in anything that rivals this black-hearted bastard of a character.  It’s simply one of his finest performances, though not one sans humor.  Kinski’s eyes flash with secret wisdom throughout and there’s a moment of modest brilliance when a character shoots off his hat at one point and Kinski flicks back his head, his hair whipping back away from his eyes, as if to show that it was no big thing.  Even under pressure, he was going to remain unscathed.  Fearless.  And that as an actor, no indignity was going to seep into him.  Vonetta McGee and Trintignant are marvelous, as is Frank Wolff (an American character actor who worked plenty in Italian features, usually as a bad guy) who plays the local sheriff, the only decent authority figure in the movie.

The Great Silence has a lot going for it, despite its unapologetic nihilism.  It lacks the stylistic finesse of Leone, but its ruthless butchery of Old West mythology and its critique of unbridled capitalism and authority is spot on.  Perhaps not the kind of movie you want to pop on for a night of escapist entertainment, though it’s certainly satisfying and one of the great spaghetti Westerns.

The video at the top is a little homage I put together.  Another one of my experiments.  Hope you enjoy it.

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chaos cinema and the sorry state of the modern action movie

Action movies have been undergoing a major transformation over the last decade or so, altering how physicality is captured on screen, and deviating dramatically from the conventions of what we commonly understand as classical Hollywood filmmaking. The way audiences absorb these images is arguably changing as well–our eyes are adapting. We can’t see fast enough. But what is it that we’re seeing? Anything beyond the surface?

What is at issue here is the idea that through the use of random staccato cutting, jarring and seemingly mindless use of close-ups and shaky camera movements, and a bullying manipulation of sound to stranglehold the senses, the modern day action movie less resembles a motion picture than it does a commercial—sensory overload with only a superficial acknowledgement of dramatic conflict and resolution to stitch the brawny money shots together.

The directors who are consistently castigated for the use of these techniques are Michael Bay (Armageddon, Bad Boys, and the Transformers movies), Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Domino, and Unstoppable), and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Green Zone). However, the trend is far-reaching and the list of culprits long and growing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fast cuts or the use of handheld camera to convey disorientation or verisimilitude. All filmmaking is manipulative, whether we’re talking about the modest yet profound grace of a naturalistic movie like The Bicycle Thieves or the orgy of furious pixels and aural cacophony that fuels most big budget commercial action movies. But while the technological advancements have juiced up the surface pleasures of movies like never before, offering audiences a mainline of numbing thrills to help distract one from thinking about how poorly written and constructed the dramatic elements truly are, they become more and more irrelevant in terms of story and emotional resonance. The over-the-top cartoon violence of the sugar pop Shoot ’em Up looks childish and stupid in a way that Oldboy–a movie that contains one of the most kinetically exaggerated yet impressive action sequences of the last decade–never does. Oldboy, which is pure melodrama, is invested in its characters’ plights in such a manner that it resonates deeply with emotional depth. Its slick style is not intended to alienate the viewer, but force us to engage deeper with it, something that Bay or Scott or the director of Shoot ’em Up, Michael Davis, aren’t capable of. At least, they’ve not yet shown that they can connect with an audience in a genuine way. But they’re masters of visual obfuscation and jazzing about. They seduce you with over-amped imagery that only registers surface stimulation, if even that. They’re cinematic cosmeticians, bred on the techniques of advertising and bad television shows more than they are on the masters of action cinema like Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Leone, Sturges, Hill, and so many others.

For some people, I guess, that’s enough. They just want to see shit blowed up real good. But for someone like myself, who wants their action narratives grounded in character, emotion, and real physicality—it’s a bore and I anticipate the tide turning, because this trend won’t last. It may be irritating, but it won’t last. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is real storytelling and the ability of a director to generate genuine emotional investment in his characters. It’s the fundamentals of drama. And you can pit your hero up against the most ass-kicking robotic giant we’ve ever seen on screen, but if the hero isn’t worth our emotional investment, why should we care? Plenty of people obviously do enjoy being lulled into waking sleep week after week, since these movies are astoundingly popular. I’ve yet, though, to hear anyone talk about them as great stories; I’ve yet to hear anyone tell me they actually cared about what happened in a Michael Bay movie.

Film writer and academic Matthias Stork has labelled this new form of dissociative action filmmaking “Chaos Cinema.” Over at Press Play you can view Stork’s two-part video essay and judge for yourself. Then head over to Big Media Vandalism and read Steven Boone’s thoughts on the subject, “Blind Fury: Notes on Chaos Cinema,” and take in some of the rather hostile reactions in response to Stork’s criticisms.

A part of me is rather dispirited in seeing such unthinking, reactionary support of directors like Bay and others. It’s like hearing someone mount an enthusiastic argument for the virtues of Hamburger Helper over that of a perfectly grilled steak or even a good old fashioned delicious cheeseburger. The argument becomes a bit embarrassing after awhile and displays a shocking lack of taste. Okay, you like eating shit. But you do know that you are eating shit, right? There’s nothing wrong with championing undervalued or critically-loathed filmmakers. You do, though, have to establish sound reasons why they’re worthy of taking seriously. Just saying you like them a whole bunch isn’t enough, I’m afraid.

I’m also encouraged by all of this, however, because what essentially people are arguing about is… editing. Aesthetics. Movies. Entertainment. Criticism. Art. And there’s something oddly beautiful about that, especially at a time when supposedly dialogues like this are things of the past or confined to academia. Is anyone really convincing anyone to his or her side? I don’t know. But I’m glad people feel passionate about… editing rhythms.

I should make it again clear that I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the techniques utilized in these so-called Chaos Cinema movies. Commercial films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch both shocked audiences out of their apathy with jarring editing schemes during their apocalyptic finales. Violence had never been represented on screen with such savagery and graphicness before. Exit wounds exploded, blood spurted, and the agony of death could be felt in every frame. It was an assault on the senses, but the directors of those two milestones ultimately wanted you to feel. Audiences were shocked by the carnage, but it was the way those scenes had been filmed, edited, and designed that greatly contributed to their disorientation as well. And when they walked out of the theater they felt something.

This was old school Chaos Cinema.

This was a time when commercial feature film directors like Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah, as well as editors like Dede Allen, pilfered the techniques of the Nouvelle Vague for their own uses, manipulating space and time within the frame to a degree that many viewed what they were doing as incoherent and artsy-fartsy. It pissed people off, but eventually our eyes adapted to this new way of viewing action. I’m sure many moviegoers who were more comfortable watching John Wayne in True Grit wanted to rip their eyes out after seeing The Wild Bunch. True Grit, released the same year as Peckinpah’s masterpiece, feels old and wheezy in comparison. It’s plenty good, but it feels old. Now, The Wild Bunch looks like a relic to some kid jonesing for his next digital hot shot. I’m sure even films like John Woo’s The Killer or Hard Boiled–two films that were evolutionary leaps in terms of how action was conveyed on screen in their day–are considered slow to that zapped-out kid sucking out droplets of pixelated joy from the latest Michael Bay or Tony Scott release. But the major difference in what Peckinpah and Penn did in their work and what the directors of Chaos Cinema are doing, is that the former filmmakers never lost sight of character and emotion. They never surrendered their humanity.

Hyper-kinetic cutting, handheld camera usage, and attempts to displace our sense of space within a scene can theoretically be useful tools for a filmmaker if used judiciously and with thought. Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic Saving Private Ryan–a film that I don’t particularly care for overall–effectively overwhelms the viewer with a virtuosic opening D-Day sequence that uses many of the techniques later bastardized in the lesser films that followed. But Steven Spielberg is a master craftsman and, working with the brilliant cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, was able to immerse us within the physical combat experience in a way we’d never experienced before in a movie. There was physicality in the images–an awareness of bone, blood, and suffering. There was also an awareness to know when to draw back, to let a semblance of “real life” intrude into the otherwise melodramatic WWII clichés. Arguably, some of Saving Private Ryan‘s most indelible imagery comes from the quiet moments, such as the scene of raindrops pelting a leaf or a procession of soldiers walking across a field at night, their silhouettes visible whenever bombs light up the night sky in the distance.

But directors like Michael Bay and others seem to have only a rudimentary understanding of storytelling, hence why they’re so afraid of boring the hell out of you, hence why they have to overload your senses at all times, even in non-action domestic sequences when characters dribble out useless plot exposition or backstory.

It’s a con. They know it. Do you?

not for sale: winchester ’73 (1950)

This is the first of five Westerns (eight films overall) that star Jimmy Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, inaugurating one of the most fascinating actor/director combos of the classic Hollywood era.  Mann, along with Alfred Hitchcock, realized that there was a wellspring of angst and turmoil underneath Stewart’s likable, American “everyman” persona, and that if guided in the right way Stewart would not alienate audiences but keep them transfixed despite the harder-edged tone of the film and character.  We would still be able to sympathize with Stewart’s character even when he tipped over into madness (however brief), because Jimmy Stewart would never exact vengeance for the pleasure of it.  He had to have a good reason to commit bloodshed, right?

Winchester ’73 originated at Universal Pictures with producer Aaron Rosenberg and Stewart attached but with no real script or director yet involved.  Screenwriter Borden Chase, a specialist in hard-hitting manly actioneers like The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Red River (1948), was brought aboard when the first screenwriter involved Robert Richards couldn’t get things cookin’, and it was Chase who was the one to see in Stewart the need for a new post-WWII toughness.  Stewart was desperate for a career resurrection after his last three films failed to connect with the box office.  He was more than a little game to forge into this new cinematic territory.  Only problem was, would audiences be ready for a tougher, more violent Jimmy Stewart?  John Wayne made gritty Westerns, not the guy more well-known for his easy going comedic and dramatic skills.  But Chase, who had grown up on the mean streets of New York City and in the 1920s served as gangster Frankie Yale’s chauffeur for a short time before Yale ended up a corpse, knew a killer when he saw one.  “[Jimmy Stewart] was in the Air Force, he knows how to kill,” Chase said in an interview with writer/film critic/professor of cinema studies Jim Kitses in 1970.  “You know, when you command a wing of fighters in a war, you’re not exactly soft.”

Anthony Mann, a journeyman director of considerable talent best known at that time for a series of hard-boiled pictures like T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949), was eventually hired to helm the picture on Stewart’s recommendation (they’d known each other years before) after Fritz Lang declined the job.  The resulting film became a huge success for the studio and specifically for Stewart who had taken a 50% share on the film’s profits instead of an upfront salary.  But the more important upswing surrounding Winchester ’73‘s success was that a new artistic partnership had been forged.  Over the next decade, Stewart and Mann would team up for seven other films–Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), Thunder Bay (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Far Country (1955), Strategic Air Command (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955)–most of them Westerns that are comparable in many ways to the finest of John Ford’s shoot ’em ups with John Wayne, though with far more Oedipal melodrama and intense psychological complexity bordering on the noirish than anything Ford and Duke would ever sully themselves with.   This was a new kind of Western in which conflict generated from within the main protagonist as much as it came from exterior dramatic circumstances.  The Mann/Stewart Westerns (three of them written with Chase) would betray the cracks deepening within the American postwar psyche, giving us doubt, turmoil, and showing a frightening, blinding rage hiding beneath the veneer of the good guy’s quest for redemption and honor.

In Winchester ’73, Stewart is no cowboy anti-hero, although he foreshadows how such a character would be shaped into misshapen idolization under the direction of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah more than a decade later.  The significant nudge into more mature territory that Winchester ’73 was attempting, moving away from the oaters of the past where divisions between good and evil were clearly recognized and into more complex psychological terrain,  was the inevitable evolutionary step for a genre that had already changed drastically since the Edison company tried to capture the American West on film with the short Cripple Creek Baroom in 1898 and Edwin S. Porter made cinema history with the more narrative-driven one-reeler, The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Winchester ’73 centers on the fabled “Gun that Won the West” and the strange attraction it held for those who coveted such a tool to tame the land.

The 1873 model was a limited edition.  Highly prized for its accuracy, durability, and efficiency.

It was a rare and beautiful machine.

Lin McAdam (Stewart) and his sidekick “High-Spade” (Millard Mitchell) ride into Dodge City on the hunt for the man who killed McAdam’s father.

Vengeance is good and all, but not in Dodge City.

In town, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) is the law and guns have no place there except when he wields one.

Or when you can shoot for fun.

A July 4th shooting contest to be exact.

Winner wins a Winchester ’73 rifle.

McAdam is a good shot.  He beats everyone but one fella…

Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally)…

The cagey bastard he’s been hunting…

Who also happens to be talented with the ways of the gun.

After a few rounds, the stalemate holds tough.

So it comes down to McAdam…

If he can shoot through the postage stamp fixed to a coin as it flies through the air…

He wins.

McAdam wins the rifle and is given the option to have his very own name engraved on the metal plate affixed to the weapon.

Being that McAdam is a no-nonsense kind of guy, he declines.

He’s got more important things to deal with…

Like chase down loser Dutch Henry who has just split town with his gang…

Or so we thought.

Seems ol’ Dutch doesn’t like to lose.

And he doesn’t like to be hunted, either.

Dutch wants the Winchester, too.

And he figures he’s mean enough to take it.

But this rage inside of McAdam is something fierce.

He’s been living with it so long.

It’s rooted deep within him…

This lonely wilderness of pain within.

He’s been living with it so long.

It’s so easy to get lost within it…

Forget why you’re on this path in the first place…

That’s why it’s important to remain clear…

Keep focused on the task at hand…

That’s what Pa always said, right?

If you don’t keep it together and work hard…

You’re liable to lose control of the situation…

You’re liable to get yourself hurt…

Or wind up something worse.

There are always tougher hombres out there.

Sometimes it’s best just to let them win the battle.

It’s not about the gun anyway.

It’s about the long-haul.

It’s about biding one’s time.

Remembering why you’re at this moment in the first place.

What it took to get there…

And all the suffering that came along with it.

The “winning of the West” wasn’t just about brute force.

For some men, like McAdam, it was about weighing your options…

Knowing when to lie down on the floorboards and take a beating…

Remaining cool… in the moment…

Because the cool guy is the one who gets the job done.

It’s all about balance.

Never letting the rage within consume you…

It’s the guy who eases back on the trigger who stays alive.

Because it’s the angry ones who get themselves killed…

And wind up the subject matter for another person’s idiosyncratic blog.

some of my favorite things #6: the cowboys (1972)

I’m not sure how this one slipped by me as a kid.  I’m sure it played on television when I was a youngster–local Portland station Channel 12 was obligated by law to play John Wayne movies every weekend, I think–but I don’t ever remember watching it.  If I did, I blocked it from my memory.

Oh, what a little fool I was.

Having been on a bit of a John Wayne binge of late, I rented the Blu-Ray edition of this and hoped for the best.  I don’t think I’m giving anything away by writing that the film is notorious and legendary in equal measure for being the one where Duke is shot in the back by a dastardly long-haired villain, played by the great Bruce Dern.  It was a jolt back in 1972 and plenty of kids, no doubt, were scarred by seeing the movie icon go down in such a brutal manner.  It’s still a jolt to watch today.

But how was I to know any of it was good?  Most reviews that I’d come across over the years treated it as mediocre late period Wayne.  And people I’ve spoken with who had seen it loved the film, though I suspected they were blinded by childhood nostalgia.

I have to admit it’s a really splendid film, from Mark Rydell’s assured direction to (egads!) John Williams’ appropriately majestic yet lyrical score to the performances from all the kids (half of ’em non-actor rodeo boys) to the stand-out roles by Dern and the great Roscoe Lee Browne, the latter as Nightlinger the chuck wagon man who accompanies the cattle drive.

And then there’s Wayne.

His work with John Ford will always be my favorite–primarily the Westerns–but Wayne’s performance here as rancher Wil Andersen seems the perfect culmination to his long career.  The Shootist (1976) would end up being Wayne’s final performance, of course, but I like the Duke here more.  A bit world-weary but not tainted with cynicism, Wayne seems genuinely comfortable acting opposite the gaggle of cowpokes he’s saddled with, striking just the right balance of obstinacy, fatherly protectiveness, and gentleness we want from our aging cowboy icon.  He wears his heart on his sleeve, but not with the bathetic hard-sell one would expect.  It’s quintessential classic Wayne charisma we get in The Cowboys, but tempered with the wisdom and offhandedness that only a pro can pull off effectively.  There’s insight in them eyes… and when Wayne goes down, it’s crushing.

and it’s a battered old suitcase…

kissmescream.jpg

Living abroad, basically out of a backpack, prevents one from maintaining the lifestyle of a pack rat. Before splitting from Portland for European lands, my comrade in mischief and I sold off hundreds of books to Powell’s Books. And what they wouldn’t take, we gave away. Although we started packing and getting rid of items a month in advance, the pressure to clear out our cluttered yet pleasantly comfortable apartment was cranked up pretty high those last two weeks. So plenty of books and VHS tapes went to neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. What we chose to keep–still a good, solid library–got packed up and is supposedly safe and sound in some climate controlled wonderland waiting for us to return one day. My DVDs all went to a friend for safe keeping. No doubt they will be put to good use.

But some of my discs managed to escape being orphaned and are currently accompanying me on my journeys. In the past, when I had traveled “close to the ground,” the thought of having immediate access to films was absurd. And though I would occasionally dream of having films at my disposal, the idea was completely within the realm of science fiction. In the early 1990s, during my first lengthy trip to Europe, I was basically living in a cave. No, seriously. Well, it was a small, unheated one room flat with stone walls and only a wood stove to heat the place. I craved movies, but I craved heat even more. The last time that I was overseas for an extended period of time was 1996, DVDs were still a year away from entering the forum of mainstream acceptability, and therefore the idea of packing a bunch of them with me was ridiculous. I might as well have had access to a jet pack.

Not that I would want to take a traveling case of discs with me anyhow. Traveling, at least the way I’ve always done it, has been about surrendering the comforts of home, relinquishing the familiar, and attempting to reconnect with the alleyways of life.

Anyway, books were more transportable.

Things are different now. Because of work, I have to have access to films, or at least access to the machine that can bring them to life: a laptop. So I brought some with me and it ended up being a perfect opportunity to test out the “desert island” theory of film watching. You’re on a desert island and you can only bring twenty-five films. What films do you bring?

I stowed away a fair bit. Films that would inspire, would sharpen the intellectual batteries, would amuse, would withstand the repeat factor, and would continue to charge the imagination when nothing else would. There was also “homework” to consider, so a few of those ended up with me as well, though most of the required viewing is still back in Oregon awaiting orders to re-enlist for duty.

So what did make the cut? Obvious favorites, to be sure: Seven Samurai, Blade Runner (in all its permutations), Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Le Samurai, Heart of Glass, The Conformist, Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, Suspiria, the Sergio Leone westerns, Bad Timing, The Thin Red Line, The Searchers and some other Ford/Wayne westerns, The Wild Bunch, a whole lot of Mario Bava and other European horror films from the 1960s, Barry Lyndon, some Godard, some Truffaut, a couple of Japanese horror films, a couple of samurai films, all of the Val Lewton films, and Lifeforce. Yes, Lifeforce, the craptacular 1985 Tobe Hooper movie. I also tossed in Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise because I’ve never seen it (an embarrassing admission) and what better time to watch it than when abroad and more likely to have a little time to spare for a 190 minute masterpiece. I’d received the Criterion Collection disc for a review that never panned out and was always waiting for that appropriate rainy day. Well, it took a few years and me having to leave my abode to do it, but I plan on watching it soon.

When planning my exile, I’d expected to watch plenty of films. I purchased a good, compact traveling case and stuffed it with digital goodies. Much to my surprise, my old ways have sort of kicked in again. I haven’t watched much. The first month we were too much on the go, getting acclimated to traveling again. But this last month we’ve been stationary, so we managed to watch The Devil’s Backbone, The Wicker Man (the original 1973 Robin Hardy film not the LaBute/Cage carnival of guffaws) and a couple of nights ago I settled into the Lewton/Robson film The Ghost Ship. More about that last one in a near-future post.

This new, more accommodating style of traveling is weird. I’m not complaining, mind you. But it’s still weird to have the luxury of being seemingly so far from “home,” so far from the familiar and yet be so connected. It’s not exactly like I’m in some mountain retreat at the moment, so I’m not too worked up about it. But it does make me wonder that if I was on a real desert island, I think watching a movie would be the last thing on my “to-do” list.