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.