Spaghetti Western Weekend
5 December 2010
The most famous of the spaghetti westerns were the three films, sometimes referred to as a trilogy, directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. The three together are sometimes called the “Dollars Trilogy” and sometimes “The Man with No Name” trilogy. The last two both include Lee Van Cleef. I own a copy of the latter on DVD, and I found a copy of the second of the films at the library, and watched both of them repeatedly over the weekend. For contrast, I also watched High Plains Drifter, directed by Eastwood and starring Eastwood. Eastwood was influenced by Leone, but to watch the films side-by-side is more revelatory of their differences than their influences. The three Leone films, in contrast, posses a close similarity of vision, tone, and cinematography.
I gather from the Wikipedia write ups that it is no longer considered quite proper to use the term “spaghetti western,” with its implied derision of the genre, and that “Italo-Western” is now preferred. But many names for movements had their origins in hostile criticism, most famously, impressionism. In any case, the films are truly international in character. With an Italian writer and director, Spanish and Italian film crew, location shooting in Spain, and cast members of the US and Europe, the influences are manifold. Moreover, the first of the films was based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, so we have a US theme, a Japanese story, and European sensibility in the writing and direction. (The writers of Yojimbo, Kurosawa and Kikushima, sued and eventually got fifteen percent of the film’s worldwide gross, which made them much more money than they earned from Yojimbo.)
This kind of multi-leveled collaboration and influence could end up as mere eclecticism, or as an awkward pastische of sources, but the films retain their thematic unity, and even their unity of vision, because of the strong vision of the writers and the director. Above all, this was Sergio Leone’s vision, and it was a powerful vision that transformed the genre of westerns and continues to influence film to this day. Since these three films, no one could take the moral simplicity of a lead character seriously. Indeed, Leone popularized the New Western History — Patricia Limerick’s western frontier of conquest, convergence, continuity, and complexity — before it was given its academic expression.
Several sources note that Leone’s cinematography is known for its contrast between extreme closeups and extreme long shots, and this definitely comes across in a close viewing of the film, and it also shows up as a contrast to US productions. The closeups give an opportunity to appreciate the character of the faces embodied in Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Gian Maria Volonté, the last of whom plays a charming and brutal villan in the second film.
The films also embody the temporal sense of European film, which is very different from plot-driven, cut-to-bare-bones-necessity temporality of US films. They are more slowly paced than a US film, with more development of character, especially the emotional lives of the characters, in contradistinction to being driven by action and event, and by the place of action and event in the plot. But since the films also have long and complex plots, and they proceed at a leisurely place, they are quite long. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was 176 minutes in its longest Italian release — note that this is not an extended “director’s cut” but the actual length of the initial theatrical release — and was cut to 148-162 minutes for its US release.
In their length, complexity, and their dark vision of the human condition, the films are more like operas than they are like the US westerns that preceded and inspired them. But I would not compare them with opera, but rather to the less fanciful and more visionary conception of the world embodied in early modern painting of the northern renaissance. This is not in the least Italian — the great representatives of this tradition are Bruegel, Patinir, and Altdorfer — but it would be appropriate, given the international flavor of these productions, to see them in the light of wider European culture.
I have long had it in mind to write an essay about the conception of the world embodied in Bruegel’s paintings, which I have looked at carefully. I have seen the more significant collections of Bruegel in Vienna and in Brussels, and individual paintings elsewhere as I could find them. One of the themes most distinctive in Bruegel is that of a small group of human figures almost lost within a vast landscape. I have written about this previously in Temporal Parochialism. The most famous examples of this are Hunters in the Snow and The Fall of Icarus. Leone’s long shots give us a very similar perspective on the world. We see riders across an empty plain set against a vast if not overwhelming and impersonal wilderness that is not yet subject to human control. Even the small towns that figure so prominently in the narrative are isolated in a vast and empty plain; they stand out like individuals in the landscape, and are dwarfed by it. Thus even the paradigmatic artifact of civilization, the city, is lost in a landscape that exceeds human endeavor and ambition.
There is a sense in which any genre, especially one as tightly constrained as the Western, is temporally parochial. Of course, what makes a work of art great is when it can take a parochial setting and use this to bring out what is universal in the human condition. Certainly the Leone Westerns, in seeing the western through European eyes, and even in seeing them through Italian eyes, do this. What we have is the participation of many different parochialisms that are unified in a single vision that rises above any one of its influences, whether that influence is the American frontier, Italy, Europe, or Japan.
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