Monday, 22 February 2010

Some thesis stuff

Introduction: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
A recurring theme in Sergio Leone's 1966 film The Good, The Bad and the Ugly/Il buono, il brutto e il cattivo is that there are two kinds of people in the world: There are those whose neck is at the end of a hangman's noose and those who do the cutting of the rope. There are those who enter through the door and those who enter through the window. There are those who, faced with poverty, become priests and those who become bandits. There are those with loaded guns and those who dig. Though such pairings might suggest the applicability of structuralist binaries or tables of oppositions to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly the film clearly resists and problematises these in other ways. This begins with its title and the fact that it introduces three rather than two terms. Inasmuch as the traditional Hollywood western features good guys and bad guys, often codified by such markers as wearing white hats and black hats or being clean shaven and unshaven, the good/bad pairing can be read as a relatively familiar and conventional one.

Even here, however, Leone's characters do not abide by these dress codes, with each of the three men's costumes and supposed allegiances changing through the course of the narrative: The Good (Clint Eastwood) and the Ugly (Eli Wallach) strategically don Confederate uniforms and the Bad (Lee van Cleef) that of the Union. The Good also later acquires a serape similar to those worn by Eastwood in his two previous collaborations with director Leone, A Fistful of Dollars/Per un pugno di dollari (1964) and For a Few Dollars More/Per qualche dollaro in più (1965), an item of dress that confuses Anglo and Mexican identities.

The good and ugly pairing might meanwhile be understood as one of the film's more distinctively Italian touches, one that refers more to their relative stylishness and lack of style. The Good, described at one point as “a golden-haired angel”, is the one who makes a favourable impression, displaying la bella figura, or a beautiful figure. The Ugly, also known by the nickname “the rat” and described as “a sawn-off runt”, is the one who does not; significantly the Italian equivalent of the English bad joke is un brutto scherzo, or an ugly joke.

Beyond this there are the inter-relationships between the three characters and the shifting positions that they occupy, both to one another and to the wider context of their treasure hunt, the American Civil War. Leone has identifies one of his intentions within the film as putting the terms good, bad and ugly into play with one another:

It was while I was reflecting on the story of For a Few Dollars More and what made it work, on the different motives of Van Cleef and Eastwood, that I found the centre of the third film … I had always thought that the “good”, the “bad” and the “violent” did not exist in any absolute, essential sense. It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference. A person who appears to be ugly may, when we get to know him better, be more worthy than he seems – and capable of tenderness … I had an old Roman song engraved in my memory, a song which seemed to me full of common sense:

A Cardinal is dead
Who did good and bad things
The bad, he did well
And the good, he did badly

This was, basically, the moral I was interested in putting over in the film.
(Leone, quoted in Frayling, 2000: 203)

Interpreting Leone's remarks semiotically we can thus see how he is identifying the three terms as mutually interdependent and negatively defined. No one term occupies a privileged, central, anchoring position. The Good, for example, is not good in some absolute sense. Rather he is only good in relation to the Bad and to the Ugly as less or non-good.

Against the ever-more intrusive backdrop of the war the three men's activities seem almost harmless: “I've never seen so many men wasted so badly” remarks the Good after he and the Ugly have just witnessed another futile frontal assault by Union troops on their Confederate counterparts for a bridge of doubtful strategic importance, described by the Union commander as a mere “fly-speck on the map”. Indeed, Leone's treatment of the Union and the Confederacy is equally unconventional, as he emphasises the good, the bad and the ugly on both sides and, at one point, their seeming interchangeability: Wearing Confederate uniforms, the Good and the Ugly see a patrol of what appear to be Confederate soldiers approaching. It is only as the riders get nearer that they and the audience realises the soldiers are in fact Union cavalry, their blue uniforms caked with grey dust.

In sum, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is a film which challenges identities in various ways. While I will return to this theme in relation to its form and content in greater detail later, the point I wish to emphasise here is the challenge the very existence of the film and others like it pose to many of the established structures of film studies. The most basic challenge The Good, The Bad and the Ugly poses is that it is an Italian western, a film with an obvious hybrid identity.

The issue here is that the US and European cinemas have traditionally been positioned largely in opposition to one another. But while each gains something of its meaning from what it is not in relation to the other, the hegemony of Hollywood has always meant that it is more of a centring, defining term or assumed norm against which European cinema – or, crucially, a particular understanding of European cinema – is placed in opposition. We might summarise some of the main distinctions as follows:

USA / Europe
Hollywood cinema / Art, auteur and avant-garde cinemas
Industrial mode of production / Artisanal mode of production
Popular / Elite
Commercial / Less or non commercial
Impersonal / Personal
Generic / Less or non generic
Uncritical / Critical
Illusionist / Anti-illusionist
Classical / Modern or neo-modern
Movement-image / Time-image

Within these distinctions it was difficult to accommodate a US director who made 'European' style films, such as John Cassavetes. More important for my purposes, however, is that the work of European directors making popular, genre cinema, such as Leone with his westerns, was liable to be ignored or treated as inherently inferior and inauthentic in comparison with an assumed Hollywood original. Such films were simply not supposed to exist, at least according to the canonical understandings of cinema. Something of this can be seen, for example, from a consideration of the British Monthly Film Bulletin's reviews of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More at the time of their original UK releases in 1967:

[A Fistful of Dollars] was the film which […] made a lot of money in Italy and sparked off the craze for a few dollars, more dollars, silver dollars for Ringo, Django and the rest. It turns, predictably perhaps, to be extremely efficient, fashionably immoral, and rather lacklustre except for a fine opening sequence in which the stranger rides into the sinister town past a dead man riding in the opposite direction with a placard reading “Adios Amigo” on his back. Thereafter it is the prolific action which keeps it going, rather than any particular distinction in the direction – or for that matter the acting, though Clint Eastwood is competent as the dead-pan hero who sports a stylish poncho [sic] and chews an eternally half-smoked cheroot.
(Monthly Film Bulletin, no 401. Vol 34, June 1967. p. 96.)

In the old days badmen died decently. But in Sergio Leone's derivative imitation of the American Western the badmen are tortured beforehand and death comes in leering close-up of a red hole in the head. This is the second in this particular series, and it is possibly even more ostentatiously sadistic than its predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. Clint Eastwood, as the laconic stranger, he of the chewed cheroot, well-worn poncho and growth of beard, is here joined by Lee Van Cleef, whose distinguishing characteristics are his ironic smile and his pipe. This, though, is just about the only innovation. As killers, these two are almost supercilious in their professionalism, summed up in the final shot of a wagon-load of victims (who include, incidentally, a pathological murderer and a hunchback). There is no denying that the whole thing is efficiently done; an occasional scene (like the one in which the two bounty hunters shoot up each other's hats) reveals a grain of originality; and Lee Van Cleef's intelligent performance provides some antidote to the poisonous effect of the blood-letting. The ear-splitting soundtrack seems, in the context, quite appropriate; but the film's total effect is to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
(Monthly Film Bulletin, no 406. Vol 34, November 1967. p. 176.)

In both cases the reviewer is here responding negatively to Leone's distinctive approach to the western. On the one hand he is seen as being too close to the Hollywood western, making films that are “derivative” and “unoriginal”. On the other hand the things which distinguish the films – immorality, sadism, violence and excess – are viewed as unwelcome departures from the Hollywood formula. The negative responses to Leone's specifically Italian westerns can be contrasted with the positive response to Duccio Tessari's more Hollywood-styled A Pistol for Ringo. Crucially it was made after A Fistful of Dollars, but released, like a number of other Italian westerns, that perhaps made Leone's film seem less original, in the UK beforehand:

Lovingly culled from a variety of sources ranging from Ford and Hawks to Raoul Walsh, this amalgam of well-tried Western situations is put together with real flair and sophistication. The action never lets up for a minute, the characters are vividly drawn, and the general tone reminds one, oddly enough, of minor league Bunuel.
(Monthly Film Bulletin, no 394. Vol 33, November 1966. p. 176.)

Today critics recognise that Leone's films drew equally on Ford, Hawks, Walsh and other Hollywood western directors, and also had a somewhat Bunuelian cruelty and grotesquerie to them. I would argue, however, that these aspects were not always recognised by 1960s reviewers precisely because Leone adopted a more critical stance towards the Hollywood model than did a director like Tessari: Whereas Tessari was making westerns in Italy that celebrated pre-existing generic traditions, Leone was making specifically Italian westerns that deconstructed and demythologised these selfsame traditions in favour of a new and different approach, one that he would later theorise as “cinema-cinema”. This, in summary, was a pure cinema, a cinema in and for itself.

Much the same can be said of the two other Italian filmmakers who form the basis of this thesis, Dario Argento and Giulio Questi. Argento is often described as doing for the Italian thriller what Leone did for the Italian western, beginning with his 1970 debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970). Indeed, just as Leone became recognised as the leading “spaghetti western” filmmaker, Argento receiving comparable epithets like “the garlic-flavoured Hitchcock”. Significantly Argento has also been profoundly influenced by Pier-Paolo Pasolini's notion of a cinema of poetry, which we might here summarise as a cinema in which the presence of the camera is self-consciously and intersubjectively felt; again I will return to this concept in greater detail later. Questi, who made both the thriller Death Laid an Egg/La morte ha fatto un uovo and the western Django Kill/Se sei vivo, spara (both 1967) was, if anything, even more radical in the kind of hybrid filmmaking he pursued. His eclectic mixture of influences and juxtapositions of high/European and low/Hollywood cultures tended to confound reviewers:

Though the familiar presence of torture and sadism might seem to cast [Django Kill] in the routine mould, its first twenty-five minutes or so have an extra-ordinary, dour atmosphere which suggests that Giulio Questi (who was last seen fashioning the curious erotica of A Curious Way to Love) is at least attempting something different. […] A pity that the story is overpopulated and the action sequences overwrought; but there's no denying that Questi, with better material, could make something really interesting.”
(Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol 37, No 433. February 1970, p. 35)

The implication, of course, is that “better material” would mean a move away from genre towards art cinema. Ironically this was what Questi and his co-writer and editor Franco 'Kim' Arcalli had in fact done. Death Laid an Egg/A Curious Way to Love was actually made after Django Kill as a more personal project, at a time before Argento popularised the Italian thriller in the early 1970s; Questi and Arcalli had been unable to convince backers of Death Laid and Egg's value without first agreeing to make a more commercial western.

In all of this the key point, of course, is that there are not just two cinemas, the good and the bad, or Hollywood and Europe, or Europe and Hollywood. Rather there is a third, 'ugly', almost 'abject', cinema, namely the European popular cinema, which does not fit into such a neat framework. Instead, it is a hybrid cinema, now drawing from hegemonic European traditions and now from Hollywood ones.

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