Thursday, 21 March 2013

Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema

This 2011 volume published by I B Tauris presents an analysis of a number of films that may be identified as a sub-genre of a sub-genre, namely Italian or Spaghetti Westerns that have an explicit political (read left) orientation.

Whilst adapted from author Austin Fisher's PhD thesis and thus possibly more theoretically oriented than some fans would like, the author's use of the likes of Louis Althusser and Franz Fanon does not come across as gratuitous name dropping or shoe-horning of the theory into the text, coming across as more bottom-up than top-down.

Fisher begins by establishing the broader context in which his corpus of films emerged, most notably that of the post-war settlement where the anti-Fascist alliance of the resistance (a resistance which was a formative experience for some of the key filmmakers) was represented, with overt and covert US support, benefitting the Christian Democrats party and marginalising the communists.

Turning to the films themselves, the key distinction Fisher makes, responding to the taxonomies of Will Wright, Christopher Frayling, and Bert Fridlund, is that between RSA and insurgency narratives.

The RSA narrative is derived from Althusser's distinction between the Ideological State Apparatus, or ISA, as represented by the education system and the mass media, and the Repressive State Apparatus, as represented by the law. Put crudely the ISA tells you what to think and do, while the RSA then comes into play if you fail to follow the ISA.

The key characteristic of the RSA film, as epitomised by Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown and Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence, is the power of the law, or the RSA, being (ab)used by the powerful against the weak.

In Sollima's film it is how land baron Brokston sends Corbett off to bring back Cuchillo dead or alive (preferably the former), for the peon's supposed rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl to divert attention from the real perpetrator, his son.

In Corbucci's it is how businessman Policott contrives to have those who refuse to surrender to him outlaws, such that they may be legally murdered by bounty hunters/killers.

For Fisher the key point about The Big Gundown is its ultimate incoherence. Here it is germane to remember a fundamental difference between Sollima's film and Corbucci's. In The Big Gundown the ending of Franco Solinas's screenplay was dropped, so that Corbett did not kill Cuchillo and the real villain was punished -- i.e. an unhappy ending. In The Great Silence Corbucci was asked to provide a happy ending for some territories, one in which Silence triumphed. Corbucci subverted this request by presenting a happy ending that it was difficult to take seriously, reminiscent of the self-consciously ironic coda to Murnau's The Last Laugh.

The insurgency narrative is drawn from Fanon, and is exemplified by Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General and Corbucci's Companeros. These are narratives where a US or Anglo character heads south from the US into Mexico and thereby becomes involved with the revolution, whether supporting or subverting it.

The key question these narratives raise, to Fisher, is the place of violence and its justification/rationalisation: how do we distinguish between legitimate violence against an oppressor and illegitimate violence whereby the formerly oppressed becomes the oppressor?

The most important film in this regard is Sollima's Face to Face, with its civilised eastern academic going west for the sake of his health and then becoming a ruthless bandit leader.

Sollima's film is also important for featuring the two key actors within the Italian political western, namely Gian-Maria Volonte and Tomas Milian.

There are perhaps two notable areas of omission in Fisher's discussion. Both are, however, perfectly understandable given the origins of the book in a PhD thesis where (as I was advised) it is better to accentuate the positive by looking for confirmation rather than refutation of one's ideas.

The first of these is where these films fit in relation to the taxonomy proposed by the editors of Cahiers du cinema around the time of May 1968 (and all that). They suggested that films could be divided into five main categories in relation to form and content and whether these were conservative or radical in approach.

Category A encompassed the bulk of films, especially those produced by Hollywood. These films were conservative on both the form and content axes. As such they were condemned by Cahiers. The far rarer category B encompassed films which were radical in both form and content, such as Godard's Wind from the East. Category C encompassed films which were formally radical but conservative in their content. The Cahiers critics felt such films preferable to those in category D, which were formally conservative but politically radical. Finally, category E encompassed films which did not fit into this schema, in that they might initially be taken as conservative texts but then proved to question this through their contradictions.

With this taxonomy Italian political westerns would seem to be closest to category D. But a problem perhaps then arises when it comes to identifying what conservative form means. A key characteristic of the films of Leone and, more pertinently, those who he influenced is, after all, their comparative lack of regard for David Bordwell classical Hollywood style or Noel Burch's Institutional Mode of Representation.

To give one example, in Django Kill there are rapid-fire montage type flashbacks which are tinted and at times appear to be in reverse motion, with bodies rolling uphill rather than downhill. Rather than seeking to conceal his interventions Questi makes them obvious.

What thus arguably emerges is a situation where formal radicalism becomes less clear cut. Django Kill is radical in relation to The Searchers, but conservative in relation to Wind from the East.

The second area where I felt that Fisher might have commented is with regard to Pier-Paolo Pasolini's broadly contemporaneous notion of an “unpopular cinema”. Pasolini identified three approaches to cinema and politics, the first two of which broadly correspond to Cahiers' categories A and B. For Pasolini the popular cinema, as represented by Hollywood, lacked political bite. The avant-garde cinema, as represented by Godard, was critical, but was also self-defeating as it could only ever reach a minority audience and even then implied a fundamentally sado-masochistic relationship between the sadist filmmaker and the masochist spectator. Pasolini's alternative, the unpopular cinema, was political, yet accessible to wider audiences. As such it could be considered as having affinities with Cahiers' category D.

Pasolini himself took an unpopular cinema line with his Trilogy of Life, of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Thousand and One Nights, the wider accessibility of which could be directly compared to the films that preceded them, Oedipus Rex, Pigsty and Medea. Pasolini also, however, subsequently repudiated the Trilogy of Life and made Salo as a film which he hoped would be deliberately unwatchable and impossible to recuperate.

Italian political westerns would appear to clearly fit into Pasolini's framework as instances of an unpopular cinema. As such, Fisher's failure to provide a detailed discussion of Carlo Lizzani's Requiescant/Kill and Pray arguably emerges as another structuring absence. Lizzani was, after all, avowedly leftist, as were the actor playing the film's protagonist, Lou Castel, and a performer playing an important supporting role -- none other than Pasolini.

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