Saturday, 30 June 2007

The Spaghetti Western: A Thematic Analysis

As an academic study adapted from Bert Fridlund's doctoral thesis, this is not a book for those seeking a viewer-friendly introduction to the Italian western. Rather, it forms a very useful counterpart and corrective to what probably still remains the dominant study of the cycle in English, Christoper Frayling's Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone.

Whereas Frayling takes a more auteur focussed approach in concentrating upon a core selection of perhaps 50 spaghettis, Fridlund points to the frequent inconsistencies in such canon constructions - films like Django Kill and The Great Silence receive greater attention than box-office would warrant while the Trinity series are correspondingly downplayed as emblematic of little more than the descent into parody, for instance - and accordingly casts his net wider to discuss some 200 titles.

Fridlund's methodology likewise differs. Whereas Frayling emphasised the aesthetic dimensions of his films and was somewhat critical of Will Wright's structuralist analysis of the American western, albeit whilst offering his own alternative formulations of characteristic Italian western narratives, such as the "The Servant of Two Masters" plot he identified in A Fistful of Dollars and Django, Fridlund effectively reverses these terms, downplaying aesthetics in favour of thematics.

Indeed, in discussing Fistful of Dollars and A Pistol for Ringo, Fridlund is quick to offer an alternative formulation to Fraylings, that of "The Infiltrator," whilst subsequently identifying Django as an exemplar of another plot constellation, that of "the deprived hero".

Some of the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches are nicely summarised by the Fistful / Pistol pairing. Whilst I have not watched Ringo and his Golden Pistol for a while - and reading Fridlund makes me want to do so again, which always a good sign - from what I recall its aesthetics were far removed from those of Fistful, more neo-classical in seeking to directly emulate American models, less baroque, askew and 'Italian' - in other words, precisely the kind of thing that Frayling analyses excel at. But on account of this and the fact that aesthetics aren't Fridlund's topic, this is not a problem per se.

What some readers may find less convincing, however, is the way Fridlund's analyses develop over the course of the book as he explores other plot constellations, including "the unstable partnerships of bounty killers," as seen in For a Few Dollars More for example, and "the social bandit" of political or politicised spaghettis like A Professional Gun and Companeros. Or, more precisely the way in which they don't.

The key thing, after all, about Will Wright's Sixguns and Society is that second term in its title, the way in which he sought to bring Levi-Strauss and Propp inspired structuralism and formalism together with Marxism to show that the shifting configurations of the heroes, villains and their relationships with society in the American western over the decades, corresponded to social changes. Thus, for example, the emergence of the "professional" plot in the 1950s and 1960s, wherein the heroes remained outside of and separate from a weak society, corresponded with the emergence of technocratic elite rule.

Fridlund doesn't attempt anything comparable here. Whether this is down to too great a barrier of cultural difference - an American investigating his own country's myths obviously has it easier here than a Swede looking for the ways in which Italian film-makers used an imaginary America as a means of addressing specifically Italian concerns - that between an enduring American genre and a short-lived Italian filone cycle, a simple lack of enthusiasm - the success rate in bringing together the theoretical paradigms of Marxism and Structuralism has arguably been rather low despite the contributions of some of the best intellectual minds - or a combination of them, is open to debate.

On the plus side, however, the very fact that the emphasis is upon description also means that there is more here for the reader who is interested in the films in themselves, with less of those over-analytic, over-reaching and credibility-straining interpretations that often mar academic books as far as the fan reader is concerned.

For those with a more theoretical bent, meanwhile, it also opens up possibilities for further investigations, whether in filling in the gaps between theory and practice - a topic, often of great significance in the political spaghetti westerns to both characters and film-makers if not necessarily their viewing audience - or indeed in demonstrating their very irreconcilability as the reason for such a gap here.

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