Wednesday, 20 May 2009

10,000 Ways to Die

This new-old book from Alex Cox has an interesting history. Cox originally wrote a manuscript about the Italian, or Spaghetti, western in the 1970s as a graduate student and aspiring filmmaker. Unfortunately for him, at least at the time, the project fell through and the manuscript was never published – although he more recently made it available, as typewritten pages converted to a PDF, to download from his website.

Though Cox has since made several changes to the text, downplaying semiotic and other fashionable theories of the time in favour of a more personal approach based on his own experiences as a director, one constant remains: 10,000 Ways to Die is an excellent and insightful discussion of its subject that deserves a place on any genre fan’s bookshelf.

There are some minor errors. Herschell Gordon Lewis’s first two names are reversed when he is invoked in relation to the late Spanish horror-western Cut Throats Nine, for instance. Edda Dell’Orso is erroneously referred to as the vocalist on The Big Gundown, rather than Christy, an odd mistake in terms of their dissimilar styles but excusable via Cox’s admission not to have a much musical sensitivity.

These errors are, however, countered by all manner of details and insights. Three things particularly impress.

First, Cox’s use of triangulation, with different sources being played against one another, much like the factions in A Fistful of Dollars, to see where they support and contradict one another; in this regard Cox concludes Leone’s first western was essentially a rip-off of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, with the Italian’s claim to have drawn inspiration from Goldoni’s play Harlequin Servant of Two Masters being little more than a post-facto attempts to avoid paying royalties to his Japanese counterpart.

Second, that Cox, as an independent film-maker and self-identified anarchist, isn’t afraid to challenge received – and thus safe and boring – critical opinions. He considers the shorter version of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly superior to its longer counterparts and is largely dismissive of Clint Eastwood’s work as a director, for instance.

The most important aspect of this revisionist approach – one with an elective affinity for the spaghetti western, as revision of its own Hollywood counterpart – is however the promotion of Corbucci, via Django and The Great Silence, as a western filmmaker on a par with Leone.

Here, and in his discussions of a number of other films and filmmakers, Cox beautifully brings out the distinctions between ‘American’ and ‘Italian’ elements. Those favouring the former market tended towards a more conservative and conventional approach, those the latter greater experimentation, subversion and surrealism. As a filmmaker, Cox proves particularly sharp on issues around mise-en-scene, aspect ratios and so on, that Django’s 1.66:1 ratio – for instance – is apposite given its particular milieu against A Fistful of Dollars’ more usual 2.35:1. A split between televisual and cinematic aesthetics recurs within Cox’s discussions of framing and composition, some films tending towards familiar Hollywood-style centring of the ‘important’ things against others’ more off-centre – or decentred – approach.

Third, Cox’s selection of films, both broader than other key English-language texts, such as Frayling’s Leone-centred Spaghetti Westerns and Hughes’s Once Upon a Time in the Italian West, but not so broad as to ever become a set of lists. The important films, whether ‘good,’ ‘bad’ (Cox has a particular distaste for Tony Anthony’s Stranger series) or just plain ‘different’ (Little Rita of the West, The Price of Power, Closed Circuit) are amongst the fifty discussed in detail, while three or more times as many are mentioned in passing.


Wostry Ferenc said...

It's an interesting book, but not particularly engaging. It's dry. And Cox reasoning is illogical (there are no good seventies westerns, but there are ones with magnificence in them? I'm paraphrasing here, but that's kind of what he wrote. And then he dissects a few mediocre and downright bad 60 westerns, which are much worse then the 70s ones...)

Oh yeah: and Cronenburg is Cronenberg.

Aaron said...

Off topic: Just wanted to say that I recently found your blog and I love it. You do a great job at covering Italian cinema and I can't wait to go digging through your archive to check out your work. Cheers.

K H Brown said...

The dryness may be partly down to the Monthly Film Bulletin-inspired format Cox takes, of credits, followed by synopsis, followed by commentary. I have to say I mostly skipped the credits and synopses parts, to concentrate on the analysis. It's a functional way to write, certainly, but perhaps not always the best.

As far as the illogical aspect goes, perhaps that's a reflection of his anarchistic / surrealistic approach, that you can have a film which is otherwise mediocre but has one magnificent moment.

Maybe I'm just making excuses, however.

Thanks for your insightful comments as always Wostry and welcome Aaron!

Wostry Ferenc said...

Also, his taste overall is sometimes infuriating... :) So the worse dialogue in all spaghetti-westerndom is the one where Fonda and Bronson are having that mythological exchange about humanity? That's probably THE BEST scene in all spaghetti westerns. Cox has no sense of mythology, he enforces a realist approach which is just out of place, in the case of spaghetti westerns especially. They might be down and dirty, but their themes are - in case of Leone - not down to earth. In that scene, for example, the dialogue is not between two men, but between legends.

K H Brown said...

With that exchange you're spot on. They're speaking in a self-conscious, larger than life, mythical, way, just as the film as a whole is can't be read literally, realistically. Why is Sweetwater so grandiose? Because it's "McBain's Dream of a Lifetime"

Maybe in making the case for Corbucci he felt he 'had to' diminish Leone?

Wostry Ferenc said...

Probably, which is unfortunate.