The following is 6 posts about westerns, tracking through themes of right and wrong, morals, a look in on the master of the spaghetti westerns, his style and his 4 greatest films. This playlist was inspired by the sci-fi western fantasy that I wrote, that these films of course inspired.
Worth, You And Used To Be
Thoughts On: Unforgiven
Unforgiven centers on the assault of a prostitute, the revenge herself and her friends seek and the bounty hunters they'll be using to get it.
This is a tough one to start with. But I like a challenge. This is a late great western and is so because it stands in face of almost everything that came before. The western is almost as old as cinema itself with The Great Train Robbery coming out in 1903 as one of the first great narrative films. With this very title, The Great Train Robbery, we can understand just what Unforgiven is despite of, and 99 years down the line. 'Great' obviously means extraordinary, huge or noble. The Great Train Robbery utilises all such connotations and paints a picture of the mainstream western for decades and decades to come. Westerns are myths and legends. Everything is romanticised: the huge open skies, the honor, credence, grit, freedom, masculinity. We all know this, just like we know the likes of The Godfather isn't an realistic portrayal of gangsters in general. I mean, Goodfellas is the much more likely narrative: fear, no real friends, constant disillusion, prison, drugs, addiction, a witness protection program--if you're lucky--and a rat. Unforgiven is the Goodfellas to the likes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both both deal with fantastical characters and situations, but with realism and an attempt to stay true to what would really happen. Unforgiven can resultantly be seen as a satire. We can see this through The Schofield Kid and W.W Beauchamp (the writer). We are, in short, these two characters. We want the myth. And put in realistic circumstances we're shown that the side of the old west that we're so infatuated with is not so much a good shoot 'em up, fun time at the pictures, but a 'holy shit, I want my mum' kind of place. This, however, isn't a flat out satire - such things are usually reserved for comedies. Unforgiven doesn't speak to the audience of westerns in an attempt to disillusion, to tell us all we're childish and don't know how the real world worked, but explore the idea of a myth and the contradictions behind the mythical. Before moving on to that though, I'd like to say that I started with this film because it says a lot about cinema today. We're all familiar with the idea that the comic book movies are westerns - just redefined. I've even seen videos making clear the parallels between this and The Dark Night Rises. What we are now trying to create is the comic book versions of Unforgiven. We can see this in the move toward realism and away from the fantastical elements of sci-fi/fantasy. This is only to the genre's detriment in my opinion. That's not to say that Unforgiven is in any way bad, but that its narrative and idea of satire needn't be exhausted. In other words, we can only take so many pokes at the idea that Hawkeye shouldn't be in the Avengers before we just call shitty writing. But, I've said this all before so let's move on...
Unforgiven works because, as said, it's not a flat out satire. It clearly didn't want to set a trend of gritty, real westerns, but use the idea to explore a character and his conflict. Bridging back to that idea, I'll leave the previous point by saying Unforgiven is great, but the shoot 'em up, fun time at the pictures is why the western as a genre is great. This is why I started with Unforgiven - to get the true realist idea of the west over and done with so I can explore the classic western movies and their tropes without reserve. Down to it, Unforgiven explores the idea of change; whether Will is a true black hat cowboy; if Schofield can live up to his own words and if Ned turn back to his old rifle. Change is an essential theme to the western. It's usually the world that is evolving around men of a time passed. Unforgiven takes that theme to heart and turns the question to the archetypal 'Man With No Name' antihero. That of course makes Clint Eastwood, as both director and actor, a perfect choice. The Man With No Name is finally forced to spill the beans and tell his own story. To explore this idea of change a few more archetypes have to be brought out and demystified before that. The good sheriff is ultimately a bully. It takes a little more than charisma, a rifle and John Wayne to keep a town clean and safe. It takes zero tolerance, it takes beating the slightest whiff of scum down to the ground and out of town. Next up comes the trusted partner or side kick. Not really there through thick and thin, not always got the quips, not always a loveable, yet grumpy, crone. After that comes 'the kid'. Little more than a mouth looking for a father figure in all the wrong places and trying too hard to prove himself something. Lastly is the prostitute. Callused, a bit nuts, not exactly the Angie Dickson type. With all these archetypes redefined comes the blaring question of worth. This is posed mere minutes into the picture. Prostitutes are seen as prostitutes, customers are customers, pig farmers are pig farmers. There is no question surrounding this idea--everything is called as seen. The prostitutes are key figures here. They parallel the struggle Will endures with the idea of perceived character. Like him they are seen as undeserving of affection, understanding and justice. It's only because they are proven to be property that the men who sliced Delilah's face were charged. But, that wasn't enough--at least not for them as a group. And so, Will comes into the picture.
A specific character is being drawn out here. The prostitutes attract the likes of Will, Ned and Schofield because they are very similar. This is proven after the introduction of English Bob that we can't skip. The promise of bounty, of reward for revenge, also brought him in--but only to meet the wall that is Little Bill Daggett. Here, the film can be seen in all it's parts. We have one central archetype: the prostitute. With this comes one central idea of retaliatory violence. In short what we have is mob rule, a democracy for anarchists, and it's all encompassed by the idea of cowboys taking the law into their own hands. Big Whiskey is a microcosm of the wild west--of lawlessness. But, it's becoming civilised, it's got boarders - Little Bill. English Bob trying to pierce this bubble is a step toward devolution. With Unforgiven, what we have isn't knights and princesses, but the caveman and his cavewoman. This is almost the true wild west. Cowboys are lawlessness, they are fuelled by primitive ideas of honor, of respect, of the individual. They are cavemen because they just want to smash the bad guy on the head with a rock instead of waiting for the court session. So, what we have initially set up is our bubble. Inside is our cavewoman, and civilisation is protecting, yet confining, her. As a result the cavemen are now coming in to save her. First in is of course English Bob. He thinks himself the shining knight type. This is all self-evident with his constant ramblings of queens, presidents and civilisation. But, alas, that's all a lie. English Bob is nothing more than a poser laced in myth. But, here's where the theme of change comes thundering back in and all because of another key idea of contradiction. Bob is not the cowboy he pretends to be, he never has been, he never will be. He cannot change and he is a contradiction--a lie. Another contradiction comes with our image of civilisation - Little Bill. The beating he gives the caveman trying to move in on his patch of land is tantamount to beating a guy over the head with a rock and then kicking him when he's down. Not very civilised. Contradiction is so rife throughout this film because it's trying to make obvious the fact that to change you must retaliate--you must almost become what you are trying to destroy. This is obvious with Little Bill. To sustain civilisation he must be uncivilised. In the same sense, to comfortably service men in an around-about affection way, the prostitutes must be callused and vengeful. The Angie Dickson character in Rio Bravo worked because in the image of a dancer and flirtatious gambler came this idea of affection. Unforgiven opposes this idea and proves such characters exist because of contradictory natures instead of hidden essence. This is probably easiest seen in English Bob. He can only be so confident, so smug, because he's lived a life of a very stupid, yet very lucky, man. How can he not assume his luck wouldn't run out after such a great run?
This leads us onto Ned, Schofield and, most importantly, Will. They are the second wave of cavemen - and they too have their contradictions. Ned is a dead-shot with a conscience and Schofield a bark without a bite. These contradictions kill their characters--Ned literally. Schofield, however, is taught the simple lesson of murder not being so glorious. All characters' arcs are of devolution. Characters cannot change into what they used to be and that destroys them. But, this brings us to Will. He is the viscous thief and murderer who fell in love with a wife that changed him, that is now turning back to bounty hunting. With Will we get the clearest picture that this film is as much about change as it is cycles, or at least changing back. The sheriff started in bad towns and moved to an easier one, just like Will gave up the life of crime for a wife. Both men managed to change and are being forced to change back. To look at this in metaphorical terms, civilisation found peace and the criminal turned recidivist. But now, tables are turning themselves. To keep peace civilisation has to devolve and to stay the changed man the criminal must turn back to his old ways. In short, what can't be escaped is the initial idea of worth. Just like a prostitute is just a prostitute, a pig farmer is a pig farmer and a black hat cowboy is a black hat cowboy. What I'm hoping you caught there was the contradiction. Will is both a pig farmer and a black hat cowboy. He's killed women and children but also fallen on his ass and in mud a thousand times. Here is the crux of the film. There is no black and white, there is no definites with true characters. All characters in Unforgiven are made up of contradictions and seek change only to find themselves in cycles because that's there irrevocable character. Everyone is made up of a simple facade--the irrevocable character--but underneath comes the contradiction and complication. With this comes the argument that people do not change, not much. Will is always going to be the black hat cowboy as shown by the end of the film. He has an inherent capacity for violence. But, like he says, he's lucky he gets away with it. What kills characters is the situations they get themselves into. This is the core idea behind the prostitutes starting the whole mess. They want change. They want justice when they don't see it coming - or maybe don't deserve it. Will wants a good honest life despite his sins. Schofield wants glory with bloodied hands despite never being able to kill someone. Little Bill wants a peaceful town despite being a tyrant himself.
What Unforgiven demonstrates is the cycle people drive themselves through when wanting change that cannot really be sympathised with. What it does, however, also cite is the change stumbled upon or given to us. The comely young woman married the known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously viscous and intemperate disposition, because she saw him as the fevered and weak figure we do in parts of the film. She saw change, she saw a difference, where no other did. In short, who we are is contextual, in large, out of our control. Forgiveness is ultimately being forgotten--it's being seen as a person you are said not to be. With his wife gone Will lost all forgiveness. With the end of the film comes his opportunity to gain yours, leaving us with the question of: what explanation would there be on that marker to resolve why the comely young woman had married the known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously viscous and intemperate disposition?
Honour, Sense And Sensibility
Thought On: High Noon
A former Marshall faces life, death, enemies, friends, his wife, former lover, a whole town, as a clock ticks down, as high noon approaches, as an old enemy rides into town.
I'd like to start off by saying that this movie is not what the tag line tells you it is. High Noon is a not the story of a man too proud to run. Before getting to that though, this blog is obviously called Thoughts On. But, when I often ask people their thoughts on a movie, the answer I'll most probably get is: I like it, but I don't like to think too much or too deep into it - I just like it. I've not got any real problems with that, not at all, but what I've always found is that the things we don't understand, we sometimes don't appreciate. Furthermore, the things we like, but then think deeper into become the things we love--or at least we develop a greater sense of respect for them. I find this is true about almost everything in life. I used to absolutely hate maths. I've never been that good at it, but, when I first learned how to solve a quadratic equation (which I've since forgotten how to do) I developed a respect for the subject. Even though it remains complex, pretty much a huge wall to me, and the little I did know of advance maths has since dissipated, the respect I have stays. With that in mind, I ask you if it's really a waste of time to look into movies--especially those we love. So, what do you say? Comment below or tweet at me at: @DanielSlackDSU. Should we analyse movies? That said, I'll reiterate: this is not a story of a man too proud to run. The tag line suggests he is at fault for his pride--it being 'too' much. The film beyond the tag line is a complex series of questions ending in an epic shoot-out promised. Those complex series of questions, however, make clear that pride isn't the end all and be all of everything about this story. Will stays in town firstly because of the danger Frank poses to himself and so his wife on top of that. He promised to get out of jail and kill the man - and, like Will says, what's a hundred miles between them going to do? Frank seems like the kind of man who'll happily chase him down and slaughter his family. So, turning back makes sense - and has little to do with pride. The second reason Will turns back is for the sake of the town. Frank's gang pretty much ran the town before Will took over. He may have been a friend to some of the townspeople, but it seems he was a tyrant nonetheless - just look at what the women in the church say: respectable women couldn't walk down the street in the day. However, there is no certainty surrounding the idea that Frank coming back into town is a recipe for disaster. What is then set up is a profound question as to where Will should fight and why.
What this translates to is a basic question of realism vs. fatalism vs. optimism. The optimists are those town members who assume everything will be fine. Amy, Will's wife, is also an optimist. We can see this through her hope, her almost irrational assumption that they can run and everything will be all right. This makes Will a realist. He sees the step by step, the cause and effect. If he runs, Frank comes after him, they die on the road, unarmed, or they die in their new town. No amount of hoping is going to stop what seems inevitable. However, there is a sense of fatalism about Will. He assumes that Franks is bad news for the town, that they need someone to look after them. Some of the townspeople don't like this. Moreover, quite a few have never liked him. He represents sense and a clear idea of right and wrong in face of the law. Law is a key idea here. What makes for a good guy, a good sheriff, is sticking by the law book, but also sometimes knowing when to abandon it. For the sake of a friend (Frank) the town sees leaving him be is to neglect of rules that don't matter. Will's disagreement with this is what gets him into trouble with the town, is what makes some think he's due a comeuppance. In that idea we can also see fatalism again--they think Will is doomed because he's not in the complete right. The course of this film is thus a group of people with answers in mind watching a clock tick as the big question waits, soon having to be answered. In short: what should happen when Frank steps into town? Should he be confronted or welcomed? If he should be confronted, then should Will be doing it alone? The church scene perfectly demonstrates the myriad of questions and considerations surrounding these ideas. But, ultimately, where this leaves Will is alone. The question is never truly answered--but Will is left alone nonetheless. This all comes down to what is most probably the crux of the film. This is about the individual. All decisions made, by Willl, Amy, Helen, Harvey, the townspeople, are a culmination of what they think is just and what they think is safe for them and those they care for. Such is moral identity. Right and wrong isn't a simple equation. It is always relative. With this in mind we can see why Will is left alone. His old friend says it best: some people just don't care. Despite everything Will has done for the town, they appreciate him--but not enough to die for him. This is where individuality really comes into play. Whose problem is Frank? Is it the town's? Is he just Will's? In the end, the verdict ends on him being Will's problem alone.
People still care for Will though, they want him to leave. Such is a death sentence though - as has been made clear. Though said with good will, these people are kind of suggesting he go die - just not where they can see and feel guilty. That's harsh, but in real circumstances, I believe this is a true representation of how people may act. I'd like to take a tangent or two here. The first comes the idea that this is a simple story. (This links back to the beginning question of should films be looked into). This not a simple film in my opinion - I think the questions asked are hard to answer and are very interesting. However, this maybe is a simple film from a perspective of today. If you grew up in the 50s watching films like High Noon, honour, sense and guts are themes you are very attuned with. 60 years down the line, this kind of story telling has been lost a little. Maybe this is due to over-exposure, I can understand that (and is a perfect reason to watch older films if you're a young person) but the themes haven't been lost entirely. As has been said quite a lot, modern sci-fi films and comic book movies are basically westerns. Despite this there's nothing of the likes of High Noon in the Avengers. I even fail to see this kind of depth in Nolan's Dark Night Trilogy. Is cinema getting worse? Are we running out of content? Of themes? Of stories? All questions for another time - sorry. But beyond cinema, High Noon is a simple film because it deals with honour, sense and guts. We can look straight at 500 Days Of Summer here (a film I love and have talked about before by the way). In 500 Days there's a scene in which Tom stands up to a guy hitting on his girlfriend and who also insults him. He smacks the guy in the mouth. This is a scene very much like the one in High Noon where Will walks into the bar to hear the bartender shooting off his mouth, talking smack. What does he get? A smack in the mouth. Rightly so in my opinion. But, at the same time I'm likely to, like Tom, have the guy stand back up and sock me right back quite a bit harder (maybe--never been in the situation). Anyway, this mentality is almost spat on today in popular culture. We see this in 500 Days Of Summer. The says woman she can stand up for herself. Sure they can, but Tom also stood for himself. For this he was seen as base and simple. This would probably be a key criticism of this film from any newer pop culture tabloid, blog, website or whatever. Honour is pretty much dead and women kind of killed it.
I'm not talking about holding doors open here, I'm talking about standing for those who you love - even if it is at a bar and up to a dick insulting yourself and a friend. It's one thing to walk away, but another never to fight. I, in most cases, would be a person to walk away. But, I am not one to say that you shouldn't stand your ground when a line is crossed. We're not just talking about fist-fights here. I'm talking about everyday confrontations of all manners. A debate is not an argument, just like a fight isn't always assault. It's the probable popular opinion that this film is too masculine or dumb that I really mean to take issue with here. 'Civilised' does not mean perfect, it doesn't mean world peace. Civilised is normal human interaction. All it means is don't be a dick. This bridges onto my next tangent. This film is largely about an honour system vs. a peace system. We can see this exemplified today in the over-exaggerated conflict between cultures and the massive movement toward equality for the sake of equality. I don't bash equality here, but (in a sense that doesn't consider myself in a situation) equality is an inevitability. 'You get what you deserve'. We all grew up hearing that from parents, teachers, friends, and bullies. The more accurate version of this I heard quite often was: 'you get what you get'. And this perfectly sums up my point. Equality is an inevitability because, in a stable state, in a homeostatic, equilibrated society, what you get is the product of balance. When it ain't broke, you don't fix it and so what you get is good enough--it's what you deserve--but most importantly, it's what you get. What this means is that the maybe we shouldn't strive toward equality so hard. But furthermore, it means that peace systems are redundant. However, they do exist and they are revered. This is because of, again, the individual - and is why I said 'in a sense that doesn't consider myself in a situation'. If I, like us all, were a slave on a plantation, or a Jew in a concentration camp, I most definitely wouldn't say that 'yeah, this is all equal, this is all fine'. This is where the tangent takes us home as it is the core conflict of the film exemplified. Is peace more important than respect, than what is right? We see this very question personified through the character of Will and then his wife, Amy. Will demands what is right - respect in a certain sense. Amy, is willing to let that go for peace. Who is right? Is peace or respect more important? I'll leave you to ponder...
The answer is: the question is wrong. Peace and respect are shown to be the same thing. Respect gives you peace, just like peace cannot be kept without respect. This is the 'if you don't get it, I can't tell you' that is repeated so often throughout the film. Though I just put it down in words, this is a very difficult idea to execute. This is why masculinity is blamed for all that is bad in this world, for wars, poverty, capitalism, inequality, oppression, such and so on. But, without masculinity, where would we all be? We would have never made it out of the jungle. This is why I take issue with the complete dismissal of respect, of a man being seen as a man and doing stereotypically manly things. This idea comes largely from factions of feminism with words such as patriarchy, oppression and the white man. This film is an allegory to these women though. They seek to have these ideas of masculinity quashed for the sake of women, of more respect for themselves. There's an inherent contradiction in this. It's the second place contesting the first place winner because 'hold on, where's the equality?'. I'm not saying that men are in first place - just that you better run the race if you want to win. This is demonstrated in High Noon through Will being marginalised, being left to face Frank and his men alone. He fights for respect so that he can be left in peace--himself, his wife and what he believes to be the town on top of that. This is what makes him a hero. But he doesn't defeat those men alone. Amy gets wind of the answer to that 'if you don't get it, I can't tell you'. She sees that she loves Will enough to step off the train. She sees that what she ultimately wants is him by her side, that to keep him there she must take on his issues - she too must fight. This is what makes this film special to me. It's a perfect, perfect, allegory to the idea of peace and honour, to right and wrong. It also cites another perfect example of us vs. them. I really believe in this idea and urge you to check out my thoughts on it here with Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans.
So, all in all, this film is a question of right and wrong, but more importantly a relative right and wrong. What was right for Will? What was right for Amy? What was right for the town? The end is a little bittersweet as the town aren't forced to answer - but this is what makes Will our hero. It's also why he rides away without goodbyes, hugs and kisses. He did what was right in his eyes, for himself, and for those he loved. If that's not a hero, what is?
The Orchestrated Canvas
Thoughts On: A Fistful Of Dollars
Joe--The Man With No Name--plays two gangs fighting for control over a small Mexican town, walking a thinning line, eyes fixed on money.
I'm going to be covering Leone's whole Dollar Trilogy over the next few posts and each one is connected by themes of greed, need, want, desire and all surrounding money--hence 'Dollar Trilogy'. So, to start off, I won't be talking about themes much, but much rather Leone's style. Style can account for more or less everything with some films. We need only to look at Michael Bay here. His plots are convoluted at best - and not in a good way - his logic isn't always sound, his tone and humour isn't very mature, less so imaginative (offensive to some) and messages? Yeah, I don't know about that. But, his movies entertain and damn do they make money. This is because of his style. Everything explodes off of the screen with colour, flare, sound, movement, energy. I don't mean to compare Bay here too directly to Leone here, merely say he is an auteur. I said this before in comparing him to Fellini and, indeed, the same can be said in respect to Goddard, Herzog, Tarantino, von Trier, Ozu... the list goes on. It's because of these director's styles that we are drawn to their pictures. Style is so important in cinema because it is nuance. In a certain sense you could say that Hollywood is the biggest auteur of all. The classical Hollywood approach to film is what has almost always ruled over cinema. It's what made it great. It's what the whole world knows. To say that Hollywood is an auteur kind of defeats purpose the term - I completely get that. But, the point I'm trying to make here is that style is what sells. The Hollywood style is what audiences over time have come to understand as part of what Scorsese would call film language. Style is important as it lets an audience know where they stand. When you go into a Michael Bay movie you know the camera is going to swirl around the protagonist at a low angle as they look off into the distance, wind blowing, surrounded by rubble, drenched in fake sweat, music pounding--American flag making it's 40th cameo in the flitting background. As much as some people may criticise that, it's what brings the audience in - to be honest, we all enjoy it, just given the right context. The Lego Movie is a perfect example here. A Michael Bay-esque style works because it excites, but more than that, critics and audience members can't be mad when the camera swirls around a 1 1/2 inch plastic toy. What this all ultimately translates to is dialect. If camera movement, positioning, framing, is language, then style is dialect. In the same way German has a hard, authoritative sound or French can melt hearts, Bay gets teenage boys jumping out of their seats and Tarkovsky has you sat back in a trance, in utter awe.
Films, in this sense, talk to us. Hollywood is an auteur because it has a unique style that almost lends it's name to a film - making Hollywood a kind of ghost writer. The way in which this ghost writer talks, rather, whispers to us defines our conception of filmic language. We are comfortable knowing that in a 40s MGM picture before we go into any interior sets we get an exterior shot, a wide angle, some form of establishing shot. We then move to mids, doubles, close-ups, inserts and singles, with controlled reversed angling that you can almost tap out without watching the screen. This is the power of style. It's the magic of language. It's also why the French New Wave had the impact on cinema it did. In the same way each generation has it's slang, the different epochs of cinema have their different dictions. Leone represents a huge turn, a massive revitalisation, of the western. In short, The Dollars Trilogy gave us the Spaghetti Western. And this all comes down to a new dialect being mapped out. To explain this I think we must first accept that there's nothing new in cinema--despite the auteur. We can see this best in Griffith or even Welles. Both men took everything that was great, that was revolutionary, from their age of cinema and funnelled it into masterpieces. Leone's style (to my eye) comes from two types of classical filmic styles. There's obviously the massive influence that Howard Hawks or John Ford had on him. They are the reasons Leone made films - he loved the old Hollywood westerns. But, I also see a lot of Hitchcock in Leone's style. What I primarily see is Hitchcock's ethos concerning a cinematic orchestration. He talked about this extensively, going as far to use his own films as examples. Anyone, familiar with Hitchcock and his T.V shows surely knows of this. It's the use of images in the same way one uses notes to form a piece of music. A mid-shot of curiosity starting up the steps for a bit of strings as set up. A small figure in a bird's-eye cut away for beat of near silence - a bass line working below. And then--BAM--a huge close-up with a knife slashing across a face (Psycho) as a huge bellow from the trumpets.
This is a broad piece of film theory that can be seen in all facets of cinema (obviously small images are juxtaposed with big ones) but with Hitchcock and Leone this idea is utilised knowingly and for direct effect. Hitchcock used it as a suspenseful device. Leone does something quite different. His films are very musical, they are drenched in operatic influence - we can see this in the acting, editing and use of score. Leone even went as far as to have Ennio Morricone pre-record the score to Once Upon A Time In The West to produce one of the most awe inspiring shots in all of cinema. I'm talking about the tracking shot following Jill away from the stopped train, bags in hand, over to the station where she disappears inside, music rising, rising, the camera staying exterior, rising, rising, everything coalescing with an almost euphoric release of the wide angle, capturing movement, life, the hustle and bustle of the town below from above the roof, of the growing industrialisation - that which Jill must wrestle with for the remainder of the movie. More on that in a few days though. This moment in film, a perfect example of Leone's style, went as far to baffle Kubrick. He was on the phone asking Leone (translators) how he managed it. This is the man who practically composed 2001: A Space Odyssey and struggled doing so for years previous to Leone's release. The foundations of this perfect piece of cinema can be traced back through Leone's previous three films from the, again, euphoric rise to the wide angle of the graveyard in The Good The Bad The Ugly, to the final shoot-out scene in For A Few Dollars More to that classic shot of the tiny figure stood between the huge pair of boots in A Fistful Of Dollars. What makes these images, these moments, so special is the way they almost sound, the way they talk to us. To have your dreaded advisory, the guy who's going to try and kill you, be a tiny figure between your huge boots says a lot. It says 'do you feel lucky? Well?... do ya'... PUNK!?'. Yeah, I know I just warped cinematic time and space with that one, but there's no better way to say it. However, Leone's cinema can be this boisterous not just because of Hitchcockian theory, but because of further incluences.
The loud and daring aspects of Leone's style can be compared to Bay's. A Michael Bay film is like a Leone picture smashed against The West Side Story (one of Bay's favorite films). There's Leone's bold imagery and the movement captured in West Side Story with little dance, CGI robots, and big explosions. Leone's style is, however, much more mature than Bay's. This comes with his influences stemming from the old Hollywood westerns, from directors such as Howard Hawks - but more importantly his (and his camera operators') love of Italian paintings. Now, I'm not going to pretend I know much about this. I'm not even going to paraphrase Google here. Suffice to say that Leone's influence from Italian artwork can be seen in his very own canvas. It's almost like Leone doesn't see film, but still images. You get this impression from his long shots of perfectly framed landscape. You see this also in his fascination with human features. Some of the greatest close-ups in all cinema come from the likes of Intermezzo, Notorious, Casablanca, Rear Window, Gone With The Wind, Lost In Translation and Whiplash. This is because of Melissa Benoist, Scarlett Johansson (opening shot anyone?--I joke--but only kind of) Grace Kelly, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman and, damn, Ingrid Bergman. Forgive me, but that opinion comes from the slightly lonely, slightly sad, slightly weird, cinema geek in me. The point is: beauty. But, Leone's close-ups defy this idea. I think it's safe to say that not all those extras Leone loves to push really close in on are much in the way of a Grace Kelly. He depicts the weird and wonderful in an almost elegant way though. This plays into his decisions to leave a wide shot on open desert linger, his inclination towards letting a horse come to the camera from what seems like miles out--in the same respect he'll watch them canter off just as far. He sets tone with his big notes and small notes - they are under and overtones that build atmosphere. He'll give us an almost blank canvas and then fill it with the trillion crevices of a crooked nose to control our depth perception. This is all about a physical communication between what's on screen and the audience. With the wide shot we sit back to marvel, peering into the distance, up at the sky. Cut to the close-up of the ugly guy and our eyes draw back--as might we in our seats. In the same respect, the tiny figure between the huge boots draws us to the edge of our seats. And then the flash to the extreme close-up of the gun being drawn has us jumping out of it with the B-B-B-BANG. When the dust and ourselves settle... the aftermath is revealed.
Leone's camera moves and cuts like a person feels--but not in a Spielberg/Saving Private Ryan way. In Spielberg's classic we are, of course, a soldier. We aren't so much in a Leone picture. We are an observer of little consequence. We literally are a camera, but held by someone with as much enthusiasm for what is happening on screen as we are. Leone's camera is almost mesmerized by what it sees. Its eyes flash wide, moving toward the gun belt, peeping over shoulders, past the big faces - just like we want to. This is the core difference between a Bay picture and a Leone picture in my opinion. Bay is trying to recreate joy for his audience of teenage boys--which is completely fine - admirable even (not to say he's a great influence, but, whatever). However, Leone merely has to capture his own joy. We see this also in Tarantino pictures. When you think back to the things you love, say for instance, about samurai films, you think of the blood squirting, the low angles with slack shoulders, samurai sword hovering millimetres from the ground, waiting to bite. Maybe it wasn't filmed liked that - but that's how we like to remember them. To see this all we have to do here is compare the final battle of Seven Samurai to the Crazy 88 massacre in Kill Bill. Similar ideas. Different execution (no pun intended). This is because Kill Bill is supposed to be a fun exploitation-ish film, whilst Seven Samurai can be considered a mature look at Japanese tradition, culture and history. This idea of contortion manifests itself with A Fistful Of Dollars also--this being a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Yojimbo's plot concerning honour and deceit must have triggered memories and emotions in Leone linked to westerns. He then takes influences from Kurosawa's expert blocking, keeps his acting style (a bit over the top) and merges it with a teenage wet dream of what a western is. What is that? It's black figures, horses, hats, guns, coats. bandannas, backed by blood red, hooves thundering, then... B-BANG... PEW-PEW-PEW... B-BANG-B-BANG... figures twisted, already writhing, falling to the ground, gripping the bullet sized holes in their chests. That goddamn intro - that's what that is. Leone's style has its roots in this sensationalism and when coupled with Hitchcockian theory, the idea of paintings, atmosphere, music, we begin to have his style.
There's one more thing to add though and that is sound design. This is the utmost craziest thing about what we consider some of the greatest films of all time. The dialogue track. The filming of Leone's pictures occurred in multiple languages. When you start squinting, trying to figure out why the words and mouth movement don't match up, it's because you're watching English come past lips speaking German, Italian, Spanish and other languages. Everything was synced in post-production (as was the way of the time in Italy). But, Leone didn't work from a script. He just knew his stories. He knew them so well that he only really needed a few takes per scene - most of the time only one. He'd only shoot multiple takes for the studio - just in case the film was lost or damaged. This is where his films where imbued with nuance. This is probably where his style flourished. He worked from instinct and the pictures he envisioned. This translated to one huge movement, an orchestrated, close to chaotic, recital of a song gone over and over in the head of an impassioned director. This starts to wrap everything back up. Nuance and style are intrinsically linked. This is why it's fine for you to scoff when I say that Hollywood is an 'auteur'. The term was coined to object to the lack of nuance in the pictures produced by mainstream production companies. Films being made by committee funnels all vision through a plan - such being standards of practice. Without a universal key to making movies, but a creative mind (the auteur) we get something new, true nuance - the closest thing we can have to originality. Style is an interpretation of what we love in the guise of what we are capable of. This is why Hitchcock, Italian artists, opera, Hawks and Ford are in a Spaghetti Western. Because Leone put them there.
For A Few Dollars More - Death's Price
Thoughts On: For A Few Dollars More
For A Few Dollars More follows two bounty hunters butting heads as they close in on a gang of criminals worth nearly $30,000.
To me, For A Few Dollars More is title that really doesn't do this film justice. The film is best surmised by it's opening text:
Where life had no value,
death, sometimes, had its price.
That is why the bounty killers appeared.
That is, in short, the crux of the film. But, before that, it has to be said that this film is the one to prove that Leone truly is a masterful story teller. The plotting of this film is immense--a true masterclass if ever you need one. In terms of technical plotting this film is probably Leone's best, and despite this For A Few Dollars usually falls to fourth place when Leone's filmography is ranked. The Good The Bad The Ugly comes first, Once Upon A Time In The West second, (usually) A Fistful Of Dollars third and For A Few Dollars more fourth. This comes down to The Good The Bad The Ugly being so iconic with its score and riveting (yet simple) narrative. Once Upon A Time In The West is the best directed of Leone's western pictures - in my opinion - but it hasn't the star power, loveable characters or iconic imagery The Good The Bad The Ugly has. A Fistful Of Dollars is what made him and Spaghetti Westerns famous. And so, that kind of explains why For A Few Dollars More comes fourth in ranking. However, I'd say that For A Few Dollars more needs to go up at least one place. It's a rare example of the sequel being better than the original. This is because it's not really a sequel. It's a film of its own. Leone had more money and a similar story to tell. Usually this leads to a relaxed director, just mailing it in - and is why sequels are rarely better than the original. But, Leone was holding out on us with A Fistful Of Dollars. For A Few Dollars more has more flare, spice, grit and bite. Leone took quite a few chances in this film. The most obvious will be the increase of violence especially that of a sexual nature. Marisol was probably raped in A Fistful Of Dollars, but this was never expressed in the same manner it was with Mortimer's sister - we even see the gun wound that ended her life. Also, women are shot down quite brutally in Fistful, but a woman and child--a baby--are murdered (off-screen) in For A Few Dollars More. Leone definitely grew braver with this film. But we can see this most clearly in his plotting and decision to make as pure of a narrative as possible. The first time I saw this picture (I was quite--probably too--young) it confused the hell out of me. I didn't know who was good, why who was doing what or even what was going on some of the time. This is because of Leone's refusal to explain anything with more than images. This is pure cinema, it's what makes the likes of The Godfather, Psycho, most things by Chaplin, Keaton, Murnau, great. Cinema is used as designed; stories are told frame by frame - not with dialogue. This is what makes Leone's cinema great.
There's one more thing to add about the plotting - this also comes back to the title of the film. It should have been called... drum roll... The God The Bad The Ugly. Why? The opening few scenes. First there's Mortimer, the hard-ass bounty hunter. He is the Good. Then comes the chilled Man With No Name. The Ugly. This is a beautiful opening. It sets up a key conflict of the film whilst perfectly demonstrating just who the two main characters are. There's the no bullshit, efficient and calculated colonel. Then there's the relaxed, talented, but sloppy kid. They're both after money, and so in comes the $10,000 - right above it - the face of El Indio. The Bad. This dynamic of the good guy, the bad guy and the questionable one (the ugly) isn't a mind blowing revelation though. It's obvious in both this, The Good The Bad The Ugly (duh) and Once Upon A Time In The West. This is because Leone is, in short, telling very similar stories. He does this to bridge away from the westerns that came beforehand--it's what let him revitalise the genre. Classic westerns have your good guy and your bad guy - the black hat and the white hat. Simple. Leone adds into the mix his iconic antihero - often The Man With No Name. (For more on antiheroes click here by the way). This is what allowed cinema as a whole to really open up. With antiheroes new themes and ideas can be explored that you can't with black and white story telling. Antiheroes obviously gave us A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas (all talked about in the link above). However, the opposite could also be argued here. Maybe antiheroes dumbed cinema down. As a blanket statement, obviously that's wrong. But, look at all the 'dumb, fun' movies that come out today--look at the majority of Seth Rogan's filmography. They all contain antiheroes of a sort, just look at The Interview, Superbad or Pineapple Express. This movement toward the stoner comedy (everything Seth Rogan) coincided with move into the 80s - Cheech and Chong, Up In Smoke anyone? By saying this I mean to make clear that antiheroes aren't just artistic and profound devices used to explore the depths of human nature in all its contradictions. Sometimes antiheroes just entertain (Ferris Bueller's Day Off). You can see this also in For A Few Dollars More. Some of the 'bad' or 'ugly' parts of the film are supposed to entertain with the camaraderie, almost playful deception and dark humor - just think of the act Indio almost gets away with after killing two of his own men. Comical, right?
What this all feeds into is the narrative purpose of the film. Whilst this is a fun, popcorn movie, it does say something quite bold about the dynamic between the questionable and the good. In short, this film is a perfect example of both the use of an antihero to entertain and explore. All the way throughout this film there are blatant religious images that are almost desecrated. One of the opening shots is the Bible and then Mortimer as priest bounty hunter. Huh? And then there's shooting at church bells, the constant cross image (especially when shot into the stolen safe), also Indio posing as a kind of Jesus preaching to his men, surrounded by, what I assume to be, religious statues. Again, this is bold, but, it also cites a loss of religion - with that, a loss moral guidance. From Leone to 21 Jump Street and Korean Jesus, we can also see the 'evolution' of the antihero in respect to disrespect - even if it is for the sake of comedy. Not that I criticise anything here--I have very little stake in the way of religion. Anyhow, what Leone is trying to demonstrate is a progression in time. Westerns are always about change whether it be with the image of war or the train. It's change that cowboys often fight against, but in For A Few Dollars More, they embrace it. The cowboys essentially become criminals and bounty hunters/killers. This is where the good and ugly come back in. Mortimer represents the good mainly because he's from a time before The Man With No Name. He's a bounty killer for similar reason as 'Manco', but with one key difference--the watch on his hip. The Man With No Name is, in spirit, ugly because he does what he does 'for a few dollars more'. With that idea we can see the double meaning in the opening lines of the film (at the top of the essay). Death having a price sounds ominous and dark. It implies anyone can be killed - just for the right amount of money. And whilst this is true in the film, it's not the only price willing to be paid. Mortimer is willing to pay for the death of Indio with not only his own life, but his own half of the bounty. This is why the title isn't entirely apt, and brings the film above the rank of 'dumb and fun'.
For A Few Dollars More centers around a question of bounty hunting. Is it good? Is it bad? Who is right? The question of course isn't asked explicitly, but comes with a question of character. How can we root for Manco and Mortimer if we don't first assume Indio is worth killing? That bounty hunting is right? How can Leone create tension without us too wanting The Man With No Name to get away with thousands of dollars for killing someone? What this reveals in the audience is our intangible, ineffectual, but present nonetheless, acceptance of this idea of murder for personal gain. Of course the posters say dead or alive, but we're all thinking 'just shoot him'. This period of cinema is reflected on by Eastwood himself with Unforgiven. His character, Will, is The Man With No Name, but old and constantly tortured by what he used to do. What this cites is the self-destruction in destruction. That killing someone else can haunt you. I know we're going off on quite a tangent here, but the point I'm trying to make centers on this idea of right and wrong. We assume that the ending is happy because Manco gets away with tens of thousands of dollars which will let him lead a comfortable and quiet life. But is that the end all and be all? Is the end supposed to be of consequence? You could argue here that I'm thinking too much into things, but GOONIES NEVER SAY DIE!! I don't know exactly what that meant--but it's true. Anyway, what the horizon Manco trots toward has to do with is the horizon Mortimer travels for. This is why thinking of beyond the film is a relevant point and also comes back to the price of a death. Mortimer killed Indio to avenge his sister - he was willing to risk his life for peace, but only because his life maybe had no value. The implied undertones of this movie as given by the opening text are very existential. Essentially, we have two suicidal characters. They don't see their lives as having any worth and neither those of the people around them. Their lives are worthless, yet death can have a price because, through death, these two characters can almost start living again. Mortimer, once avenging his sister's forced suicide can go on with his life. Manco, with money in his back pocket can begin living. This is why bounty killers exists and it also hits a lot closer to home than we probably realise.
What this film is essentially about is risking one's life for material gain. It's about putting everything on the line in hope of some return. What this film talks to is an idea of capitalism, of getting rich or dying whilst you try. This idea is encompassed by The Man With No Name--comfort at any cost. He is nameless for the same reason we use zombies to comment on consumerism. There's a contradiction in risking life and death now for what could be comfort later on down the line when you live in the old, slow west. Instead of being almost mindless like a zombie though, The Man With No Name is entirely emotionally disconnected. But, what Mortimer represents is the heart of a capitalist. He wants it all not 'just because', but for someone, some purpose. He wants to almost take back what he's lost. This idea is deeply engrained into Leone's westerns. They aren't just about the old west, the wild west, simpler times. They aren't even about refusing change, or at least not wanting to accept it - as most westerns are. Leone's Spaghetti Westerns embrace change - as do his characters. The Man With No Name doesn't care about the train, he's got his mind on his money and... you fill the rest. Overall, bounty hunting is tantamount to capitalism in For A Few Dollars More - in a western - so the individualist rise in cinema and culture could be perfectly exemplified. This isn't to say that all westerns previous to this were communists--John Wayne would probably turn in his grave if I dared say that. But, what I mean to say is that knights of the desert primarily cared for communities, morals, respect... not so much money. Look at High Noon, Rio Bravo, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stagecoach. All prime westerns and none really about making money or dying to get it. You can even look at The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. All about gold and how it can destroy people. Juxtapose this with Leone's Dollar Trilogy and then take a look at yourself. What does Trilogy say about us?
I'm going to leave you in suspense here, but only with the promise for conclusion in The Good The Bad The Ugly. Before I go and to wrap up For A Few Dollars More, what we have here is a preemptive to The Good The Bad The Ugly. It pushes the bar on what audiences will sympathise with or will root for. All in all, with For A Few Dollars More I see stunning technical craft in the way of story telling, Leone's style strengthening and, most importantly, a commentary on the audience brewing.
The Good The Bad And The Ugly - The Moral Trichotomy
Thoughts On: The Good The Bad And The Ugly
The legend. Arguably the best western of all time. Quite obviously the most popular, the most iconic. During Civil War time, three figures risk life and limb in search of a grave holding hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Leading on nicely from the talk on For A Few Dollars More we can jump right into the themes of greed. Money as motive in a narrative is often approached in two or three ways. There's the It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Wolf Of Wall Street approach where money is shown to truly posses characters - and to destructive or absurd lengths. Then there's the Pursuit Of Happyness or Bicycle Thieves approach where money is in dire need by the good guys with poverty being the looming threat. On top of that there's the third (and quite similar) narrative you can see in Spiderman 3 or Oceans 11. In these films money is in dire need too, but by what we can assume to be bad guys. So, to summarise, there's the money as incentive approach and then there's the money as conflict approach. It's either a need or want. We see the first approach applied in comedies and crime pictures. These are films in which morals and belief are suspended slightly. The second approach comes largely in drama, or in the more dramatic segments of a film. They rely on moral investment - which is often fueled by verisimilitude. The best two examples are probably The Wolf Of Wall Street and Bicycle Thieves here. With these as representatives of the two categories I ask: where does The Good The Bad The Ugly Sit? (P.S we'll call it The Good from now on). At first thought The Good sits well with The Wolf Of Wall Street, but, whilst you may not care as much for Blondie or Tuco finding their money as you would do the Riccis finding their bike, it has at least a foot in the other category - we care for these characters. The same could be said for It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and could be put down to good character work, but, in It's A Mad World as in Wolf Of Wall Street, Home Alone, Goodfellas, Citizen Kane there's an element of excess. This manifests itself in the form of comedy or literal excess in the way of hundreds of nude women, drugs, money, possessions. In all such films there is a downfall. In Citizen Kane we have a man dying with words of his childhood making clear the waste the majority of his life has been. In Home Alone cops come take the beaten, bruised, burnt, bricked (Home Alone 2) criminals away. In Scorsese's gangster pictures someone always oversteps the mark, people end up dead and others in ruins. There is always moral confirmation (the bad guys losing) and/or moral levity (the money hungry idiots being beaten down and left with nothing). The Good is one of a few good films that gets away with not doing either. There are enough serious moments in this film for it not to be considered a comedy, and the bad guys kind of get away with the money in the end. I can hear you stirring already about 'bad guys', so what this takes us to is the characters themselves.
Be honest and ask yourself if Blondie really is The Good. He exploits the law for thousands of dollars at a time, impersonates officers and probably doesn't pay taxes. He's not too great of a person. But, what makes him good is relative. He is the Good because Tuco is the Ugly, but also because he won't cross the line and kill him for his own gain. It's that moral boundary that can allow him to abandon Tuco 70 miles from town in the desert, but not shoot him as he hangs or just leave him. His boundaries even allow him walk through the desert as Tuco's hostage. Blondie has transparent principals. This is what makes him Good. What comes into question here is why Angel Eyes in then The Bad. He too has principals. He always finishes a job he's been paid to do. Is it just that he kills? Possibly. But, to complicate the films ideas of Good, Bad and Ugly further, let's reintroduce For A Few Dollars More. In this film we also have a Good, Bad and Ugly element. It is much more clear cut in this film however. The Man With No Name is the ugly because he does what's right (takes in criminals where the law can't), but only for money. Mortimer is the Good because he was forced into becoming a bounty hunter both by the changing society and his sister's assisted suicide/murder and rape. El Indio is the Bad for obvious reasons. Compare this with The Good. Blondie has not been wronged. Tuco has his past, and so why he is who he is, explained. Lee Van Cleef is playing the same character, the only difference being a lack of back story. There is almost no tangible justifications for their titles - Good, Bad and Ugly. You could say this is down to bad writing, but, would Leone really be so audacious as to name his film and then book-end it with 'The Good, The Bad, The Ugly' when it made no sense? I think not. As I've said before Leone's westerns (especially his famous four) are very similar in how they blend this idea of good and bad. With this in mind we can begin to take them a little more seriously, accepting that he has intentions toward a message of sorts. Furthermore, Once Upon A Time In America, the full directors cut, is one of the most overlooked gangster pictures of all time. This has a lot to do with how it was hacked down for original release. But, in this film Leone demonstrates a complex moral understanding of his characters. I'll stay on this film shortly as we are amidst a western series, but, I only need to point to one of the most shocking scenes in the film. This is the one in which Noodles rapes the girl who never gave him a chance. I won't delve deep into character motivations, but through a complex and rich narrative, Noodles' reasoning for doing this is very clear. That doesn't justify anything, but it is a very hard task to make a rapist anything more than a one-dimensional piece of filth. Other attempts toward this come with A Streetcar Named Desire and The Woodsman. Both films deal with equally heavy ideas, Streetcar being rape and The Woodsman pedophilia. Both are very mature films and like Once Upon A Time In America show a shade of humanity in what are so easily dismissed as monsters. A director of this calibre, comparable to works such as Streetcar and The Woodsman, is someone I believe deserves to be taken seriously - especially when his forte is morals.
That said, we can begin to pull apart the complex mesh of good and bad in Leone's Dollar Trilogy. To do this we'll have to make clear that these films are largely about greed and revitalise a good old adage of mine: selflessness doesn't exist therefor selfishness isn't all that bad. To explain real quick, all we do is to survive, to fit in, to live as apart of, in line with, despite of, society. This means that when you save a kid from an oncoming car you may be risking your own life, but only because the term 'hero' is so revered, is so imperative to the part of us that wants to fit in, be of significance in a huge society. Everything we do is for selfish gain. This may make people frumpy, huffy, depressed and all 'what's the point?', but this idea doesn't reduce the world to pointless desolation. For the same reason, it's ok if God doesn't exist. This is all because one cannot deny reality, they may merely accept it. You may hate the idea of taxes, but, come on, what are you going to do about it? You carry on. You tell yourself taxes aren't so bad or just moan about them. Moreover, the norm, to a healthily mind, should never be considered bad. What you are essentially doing is denying reality. By saying that it's bad for us all to be selfish when (as I think) we quite obviously are, you are saying we are all capable of better. People love to say this kind of thing, but such statements are empty. There is good and bad, suffering and levity, in everything. I mean, pure world peace isn't just unachievable, but would just be boring (just like complete equality). You couldn't punch your friend in the arm, bully the fat kid, shout 'you fucking limey cunt' once in a while (I'm British so that one's fine). Sure these things are a little nasty, but so is Jerry Springer, NASCAR, action movies, fail videos. But, we all love them. Without aggression, without wanting to see worse situations, cars crashing. people dying (even pretending to) or just getting hammered by their own stupidity, we're not human - not people recognisable as such. This is why selfishness isn't bad. But we also have the element of God to discuss. Before proceeding, I only mean to discuss present ideas of what God is in the form of religion (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism...). God as a creator is a valid and interesting idea, beyond that, with the dress-up of religion, I lose interest. And so, it's fine that God, heaven, hell, karma, fate, prayer don't exist because meaninglessness is ultimately bliss. The main argument against disbelief is the lack of morals, justice and meaning. However, (as in all likelihood) the reality of there not being a man in the sky but just a big empty universe is something we shouldn't try and refute. We shouldn't try to fabricate our own reality but try to come to terms with it. This is just like trying to take blame for a tragedy or something going seriously wrong. It's not our fault that the universe is empty and pointless, we don't need to take the burden onto our shoulders. If we accept that idea as an inevitability (like taxes) we can just get on, or, as is probably put best by Samuel Becket (under my interpretation), we should all be 'Waiting For Godot'.
What all of that should make clear is that I'm only really writing essays because I firstly love writing them, but mainly because I used to get in trouble for taking huge tangents in my English Literature classes. Who's going to stop me or tell me I shouldn't here? (Shout-out to all the teachers that put up with me). Anyway, this is all of relevance. With themes of greed and religion put forth in the Dollar Trilogy coupled with the last paragraph, the trichotomy (3 categories) of morality becomes all the clearer. Morals are right and wrong - a left and right of sorts - two extremes in short. This is where our Good and Bad come from. The Ugly originates from a grey area. Now, this scale of Good then Ugly then Bad is shown to be relative by Leone. This calls back to the fact that the Dollar Trilogy is not a traditional western. Traditional westerns are quite civilised. Leone drops civilisation to reflect present day. In my books, 'civilised' is a tradition, it's an idea of knights, princesses, kings, queens, chivalry, fearing God and knowing your place in society. Note, I said idea. This fantasy probably never existed. It did however have gravitas, it did have appeal back in 'the good old days' (when, I won't try to specify (I'm no historian and won't use Google to pretend to be)). Before we get lost again, Leone's idea of Good then Ugly then Bad is relative. So, in the wild west, Blondie is good when the others in question are a ruthless bounty hunter with principals (Angel Eyes) and a worm without many (Tuco). In a civil context, like in most traditional westerns, High Noon for example, the good is clearly the hero who makes the right decisions. The bad is the black hat criminal and the ugly are those without a spine who sit on a fence when maybe they shouldn't. Leone knows this, and so, The Good The Bad The Ugly reflects a lot about its audience. We live in a dog eat dog, follow back or I unfollow, world. The internet is our wild west and it is not very civilised. Of course, 'The Good' predates such an invention, but it is still relevant and very popular. Moreover, the film is about the same morality or mindset behind the shit-storm that can be the internet, that was also present in what we think of as the wild west. So, what this film represents is a change in cinema, a move in the world toward individualism and today in short. With this idea we can see that on the internet the good are responsible content creators, the decent human beings, the ugly are the trolls and propagators of the bad, which are those who just want to watch it all burn. If you zoom in here, let's say to a negative comments section, the good becomes those who say one or two nasty things that are quite funny, the ugly are the viewers who indulge them, adding to the mess and then the bad are those who take it a step to far and mean for death threats to seriously affect. Am I making a clear point here?
What I am trying to make clear here is Leone's expression of relative morals, and the idea that all situations can be understood by his good, bad and ugly trichotomy. This is all noteworthy because the film almost comments on itself. Morally, this film, as a western, is pretty ugly. It's not as ugly as Wolf Of Wall Street, but it isn't Bicycles Thieves. What we can, however, consider 'bad' is the likes of Cannibal Holocaust or The Human Centipede. However, Cannibal Holocaust is in a league of its own. All I can say is animals being killed, stabbed in the neck over and over, is nothing I want to watch - especially in the respect of an exploitation picture. Suffice to say I have no interest in getting through that film. On that point, we come to the truly interesting aspect of this film and its idea. Who decides what is good, what is bad, what is ugly? Us. Me, you, the audience. Why can Leone's stories be so simple, so entertaining, but be so morally complex (not necessarily in a good way)? The same can be asked of most blockbusters. Heck, we can bring Michael Bay back up again. Good in Transformers is the Autobots defending us Earthlings. Bad is the Deceptacons trying to kill us. And the ugly is a lot of the Bayisms like casual racism, sexism and childishness. What Michael Bay represents is the growing prevalence of the ugly in modern cinema. It started with the antihero's popularisation (I direct you here and here for more on that). This evolved into individualist teen cinema that flourished in the 80s (a must read) and with that came the loss of the clear-cut. The ugly weren't always gangsters, idiots or guys with a problem - they started to become us in our worst lights. I draw your attention here to Michael Bay's characters, those in Twilight or even those in Spring Breakers. As 'ugly' characters, the likes of a Mikaela Banes, Sam Witwicky, Cotty, Brit, Candy, Bella, Jacob, Edward aren't treated as such by director and writer. The same could be said for a Ferris Bueller, Gary Wallace (Weird Science), Chris Parker (Adventures In Babysitting - P.S '87 Elisabeth Shue, the proposal still stands). You can find these ugly characters in mainstream cinema before The Good The Bad The Ugly most notably those in screwball comedies. But, that pulls back to the top of the essay. The comedy aspects justify the ugliness. That said, there's still Scarlett O'Hara in one of the most successful films of all time. Well, again, she's not dealt with in the same respect a Man With No Name or Ferris Bueller is. Through writing and direction she is clearly very ugly. The fact that an attempt toward black and white right and wrong is being lost with the likes of a Twilight, Transformer or even Breaking Bad if you want to bring T.V into this, and they are all so immensely popular, shows that the growing individualism in cinema is something to watch.
This all raises very interesting ideas in respect to the audience. Is it because of modern individualist cinema that we are being better represented and that characters are becoming more and more ugly? The main criticism of The Wolf Of Wall Street is that fact that it didn't condemn Jordan Belfort. I don't agree with this, but only because I like the film so much. I would however say that Twilight is kind of fucked up in the way everyone treats each other. But, don't think I don't see my own bullshit. here Jordan and Bella are both ugly, but huge masses of us are willing to overlook that. That's the paradigm I'm trying to make clear. Condemnation is a huge aspect of older pictures. I cite Citizen Kane as an example. Moving forward we have The Good The Bad The Ugly where of course the bad guys get away in the end - and we support them all the way through. This deepened with the likes of Taxi Driver, more so with Ferris Bueller and even further with Transformers. There's little consequence to being a bit of a dick in these pictures. And of course that 'bit of a dick' quotient is increasing from Travis to Ferris to Sam. An interesting paradigm, no? It's now that I'll try to take this all full circle with the idea of the helpless and the ruthless to explain why Leone's spectrum exists. Firstly, this idea of the helpless and ruthless is expressed through the following iconic lines:
There's two kinds of people in this world: those who have a rope around their neck, and those who do the cutting.
There's two kinds of people in this world: those who come through the door, and those who come through the window.
There's two kind of people in this world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.
Poetry, huh? What each of these lines make clear is the weak and the strong. But what they don't account for is:
Those who miss.
That cannon that blasts through the wall.
Angel Eyes, who also has a loaded gun.
Each of these are visual responses to the quotes up top. Yes, Blondie may be the one who shoots the rope around Tuco's neck, but only until he chooses to miss. Just like Tuco may be able to sneak in the window, but Blondie gets away when that cannon hits the house. Just like Angel Eyes had to complicate the discovery of the money. To reiterate, we have two extremes and then a complication. Leone uses these to create conflict, such as Blondie standing on a stool, Tuco shooting at the legs, the noose around Blondie's neck tightening. He then breaks it up (with the cannon) so his story can continue, taking us to the ending of the epic - resolution. Extremes nullify each other for the sake of narrative flow. So, there can be good and bad, but things figure themselves out. Here, we come back to the ideas that selfishness isn't bad and neither is it such a disaster if God doesn't exist. Each of these men are outwardly selfish, but, only in context, in their little circles. Their fight for the money doesn't cause any one else much harm. This is why their selfishness is acceptable by the standards of the audience. Moreover, this is why films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Taxi Driver, Twilight and Transformers are successful. They deal with context. All ugly characters stay in situations where they don't make the jump to bad - they don't let us label them as such because: 'but look what she did'. The religious elements of this film are also there to show this same kind of leniency. We see this with Tuco's interaction with his brother. Tuco is the way he is because that's how he survives. He lives in a harsh, ungodly world. But that's ok because he still finds joy, he still finds purpose in the material and equally meaningless - money. This is why Leone satirises religious imagery throughout the Dollar Trilogy. First it shows a lack of religion in the characters, but secondly it shows that they get on despite that. Leone's lasting image is an idea of an automated process. His narrative contains conflict and aversion (the italicised bits up there) for resolution - so that The Good The Bad and The Ugly can sort each other out. In Leone's universe there is always moral complication, but, it always fixes itself. There seems to be an underlying mechanism by which evil is conquered and the sustainable live on. This is why The Ugly is left to his loot, but the relative Good is the focus in the end of the film. His journey, where he goes next, matters. Similar could be said for For A Few Dollars More. The Ugly, The Man With No Name again, has won his loot and is going to use it to live the life he wishes - the sense given is that he'll stop bounty hunting becoming more moral. Tuco on the other hand might not. Either way, in all narratives, the bad guys get it. That is what matters.
All in all, the Dollar Trilogy is about inevitability. It's about the acceptance of the negative aspects of the world, but also seeing things in context, the small victories, the human tenancy to quash the bad - whether it be accepting them as ugly, being able to indulge in the mischief or laugh off the absurdity. Morals are relative. This is what Leone makes clear through the idea of Good Bad and Ugly.
Motive And Then The Love Story
Thoughts On: Once Upon A Time In The West
Lives of the shady, evil, questionable and hopeful coalesce over a small patch of land called Sweet Water.
This is my favourite Leone western. In fact, I think it's safe to say this is my favourite western of all time. This is an amalgamation, almost literally, of The Dollar Trilogy in terms of narrative. We have the clear archetypal Good, Bad and Ugly in Harmonica, Frank and Cheyenne, we also have elements of bounty hunting, gangs and revenge - all themes touched on in the Dollar Trilogy. But, let's not take the parallels too far. Let's take a look at the opener. Not only does this perfectly set the tone of the movie as a calm, yet suspenseful, yet entertaining movie, but it references the Dollar Trilogy. The three guys? Yeah, they were (as rumoured--where I heard this I can't remember (maybe DVD extras)) supposed to be played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and possibly Eli Wallach. I think this could be nothing more than heresay, with Eastwood probably just turning down Bronson's role, but the idea of killing off his archetypes makes a lot of sense. Firstly, Leone wanted to retire from making westerns after The Good The Bad The Ugly. The Dollar Trilogy is a nice package about well... find out here... but, whilst Leone using similar tropes, there is a clear attempt to move away from the trilogy. The first three figures hold an air of competence, of belonging, a tone given by the good, bad and ugly. They suit the world they exist in, whether it be in the form of bounty hunting or a will to make money. The Dollar Trilogy was largely about getting on in the world. But, with Once Upon A Time In The West there's a clear idea of transcendence, of dying an unchanged man. The reckless nature of Cheyenne, Frank, and Harmonica especially, demonstrate no capitalist gain. They want land, respect or revenge. You could argue the same of the Dollar Trilogy characters with money being the stop between present and final goals, but take away the money and you take away security. The recklessness characters exhibit in Once Upon A Time In The West is near suicidal. Before moving on to that though, I'd like to talk about Leone's style. It shifted quite a bit for this film. His grass roots, slow, steady tone, visually poetic captivation of suspense through inertia, close close-ups, wide wides and so on is still present. But, the energy has been sucked out of this film - not in a bad way. Leone differs largely to indoor sets and has a full frame almost all the time with a flatter, more subdued colour palette. The big skies don't pop, the open dessert doesn't engulf. There's also a very strong sense of, and focus on, character in this film as well. This translates to less extravagant or boisterous camera work, with literal focus on faces, not just bodies and actions. Furthermore, the complex, wider range of emotions expressed throughout this film also grate against pacing - which doesn't happen in The Dollar Trilogy. All we have to do is look at the massacre sequence with Frank. There's a wide range of expression given with the tentative nature of the father awaiting his wife, Jill, in how he treats his children. In respect to this, the direction concerning the murder of his family is largely implied, not sensationalised. What this allows Leone to do is construct a more mature, dramatically based film.
With this dramatic basis we can begin to understand the depth to this film, which is furthered by the less quippy dialogue, but more metaphorical/ambiguous syntax. I mean to talk about the end and 'patting bottoms', but this is present throughout the film. We see this with reference to symbolism, i.e, Harmonica's harmonica. This is much like Mortimer's watch (it's almost exactly the same). However, instead of it being used to intimidate, to add suspense and mystery, it's a calling card, a passive/aggressive foreshadowing. So, whilst both characters are Leone's archetypal Good, they are separated by clarity in motive. This is prevalent throughout the film (in a convoluted way - which is ironic, I know). Whilst we never know what Harmonica is after until the final act, we do however always know what disinterests him. He's not too interested in Jill, in Cheyenne, in money, which whittles it down to Frank. This is the paradigm in character of the film and the way into its message. We'll start with Cheyenne. Why is he in this film? Firstly he is framed by Frank leaving evidence of a Cheyenne man's duster at the scene of the crime (the massacre of Jill's to be family). So, it seems like he's looking for revenge, maybe just to clear his name on the principal that he doesn't kill women and children. But then the aspects of what makes him the Ugly step in. He's very threatening, and unnecessarily so toward Jill, implying that he might just rape her because... something to do with coffee and his mother? This seems like bad character work until we get to the end of the film - like with Harmonica. Cheyenne is secretly an archetypal white hat, knight of the desert. Everything he does is in an attempt to protect Jill, or his persona as connected to her. This leads us onto Jill herself. At first it seems like her intentions for marrying McBain were purely based off of love. Later it devolves into pure material gain with Jill revealing herself as a woman willing to do whatever need be to get by - including sleep with the man who killed her husband. But, by the end we see a less back and white image of her and her motivations. Before surmising we still have Frank. He seems like a cold blooded killer who simply lives by his gun. Flash forward and it's all for money with his betrayal of Morton (the disabled train owning guy). Skip to the end and he throws it all away with the principals of an archetypal black hat cowboy. The paradigm in character is an arc of growing selfishness. This links directly into the philosophy of selflessness present in The Dollar Trilogy (for more on that click here then here). But this idea of selflessness not existing and selfishness not being bad is explored to much greater depth in this film.
Once Upon A Time In The West is largely about innatism and deep-seated character. Through this comes the themes of change--more specifically a lack thereof. Moreover, this is where we bridge from character actions to motivations. As is made clear in the film, Cheyenne has a soft spot for Jill because she reminds him of his mother. A mother's love is the symbol of his deep-seated character. It's also what makes him a more chivalrous character. His mother was the 'biggest whore', but the 'finest woman'. By societal standard she was filth, she sold herself to get by - just like Jill. Now, why is this a bad thing? Don't worry, I'm not going start advocating Slut Walks and such here. Prostitutes are looked down on because we (anyone with any kind of sexual inclinations - more or less everyone) look down on ourselves. Sexuality is a taboo subject and always has been (to varying degrees) throughout history. This is because it's a very destructive, yet creative, idea. Sexual drive keeps us all here, all 7 billion of us. But, if your Mum and Dad where the 'perfect people' we like to assume them to be, well... Jesus wouldn't be that special. Virgin births? A common thing. In this respect we can see inhumanity being revered. This stretches away from the film a little, but this idea is very common in religion. There is only heaven and hell, nirvana, enlightenment, such and so on, because human life and Earth aren't liked much. There is always more. something better in religions. This wishful thinking is strange and quite destructive, but, also links back into the destructiveness in the movie. Sexuality, Jill, prostitutes, are looked down on because sexuality is first and foremost, but also because they simplify the equation. Prostitutes nullify the idea of marriage in a certain respect. Marriage sustains monogamy - especially in western culture. It keeps small pockets of people happy. We call these pockets: family. Now, the reason why Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne in that one small house is a... I'm not sure how to communicate this idea. They are a nice, familial, image. There is a very clear tone of romanticism in this film, some would go as far to say there is a love triangle--quadrangle--square--pentagon--I don't know. The point is Jill seems like she could suit a many number of men: McBain, Frank, Cheyenne, Harmonica... who knows? This is why with the three characters (Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne) in the house in the very end of the film create a familial, comfortable even, image. Jill seems like a mother figure to these two men, she makes coffee, sets the table, gets water. All the while the men kind of look out for her, get her land back, save her from Frank. This is all down to the fact that she is a prostitute.
What does this mean? Are we all prejudicial? Weirdly romantic? Yes. And possibly, but that's not a bad thing. You do you. It's beside the point anyway. This familial image has a lot to do with the idea of family touched on before.What!? Yeah, just bear with me. Leone in short romanticises the idea of a prostitute, makes her a feisty woman, a woman without morals, willing to do whatever she must to get by. The men around her are of a familiar sort. That, of course, in objection to the idea of monogamy and the preservation of small groups. This is intentional. There's a very liberal mentality behind having a prostitute be the protagonist of a film - and it's not too different from having a gunslinger being the protagonist. By doing this you support or advocate sympathy for the characters and their situations--this is why it was so important for The Force Awakens to have a female lead. Feminism is all the rage, and so to positively portray a female in a commercial piece of work is... well... good business. This may be why Leone used Jill, why Paramount agreed to fund the movie. Feminism really kicked off in the '60s - as I'm sure most know quite a bit better than me. But, in terms of narrative and meaning, this is not the soul reason why Leone is using Jill. She is the counter balance to the (at times) malicious male characters. By bringing the key characters closer together in concept, their screen presence implies a sense romance - in short, our minds connect the links between these characters. So, what has just happened? An untrusted, looked down upon, image of a prostitute has been linked to an untrusted, looked down upon, image of a criminal and/or vigilante. Leone has showed us that taboo ideas, or unsavory characters are acceptable - in context - when grouped. What he has revealed is the mentality of 'pocketing', grouping, family making. This is all intrinsically linked to the idea of deep-seated character. As was said before, Cheyenne has a soft spot for Jill because she reminds him of his mother. Him revealing the familial connection we place upon like individuals is exactly why she (and so Jill also) can be considered a fine woman, despite being the biggest whore. Prostitutes are an image of love for him. Now, connecting to the idea of liberalism: free love? This may be what Leone is proposing with the idea that men should be able to pat her bottom whilst she just ignores it. He may be using the image of a prostitute to object to tradition in the same way he uses the ugly to revise the western. This is a valid interpretation of the film and explains a lot of character actions. There's a mentality of living and letting die - an idea of justice arranging itself (why Frank comes back to be killed).
I prefer an alternative interpretation though. I think the idea of 'tapping bottoms' reveals the way in which we interact with symbols - namely, a prostitute. Jill should act as expected because that's who she is. Cheyenne may be telling her that she should pay no mind of men touching her to imply that maybe she should return to prostitution, or at least not be afraid men. He says this because the expectations of a widow are to be boring and sad. Moreover, he wants her to go interact with the men because he is dying - he can't stay with her. He doesn't want her to change, to wait for himself or Harmonica to come back (because they won't). Again, this is an act toward protecting her. This is why he can be considered a good guy(ish). We also see this affirmation of character in Frank and Harmonica. Frank refuses to become a modern criminal - as represented by Morton. He refuses to grow old and weak, using money as his source of power (linking to the idea of corrupt politicians and bankers). Harmonica too refuses to turn away from a fight even though he achieved what he seemed to have intended--getting Jill back her feet. No one changes over the course of the narrative. Everyone appeals to their character's core. Jill has her callousness, Harmonica his silent malevolence, Frank his gun and Cheyenne his reckless nature as well as his upbringing of his mother (which makes him sympathetic, giving him his black hat principals - no killing women and children). With the refusal to change comes the arc of growing selfishness. It's because all these characters are self-centred that they are strong, that they can be indifferent, that they can get along and survive. In this, Leone's message seems to be one of civilisation. He makes clear that uncivil characters and situations give rise to civility. The bad and good balance each other out, the unconventional (maybe uncivil) can live on because we let them. This is why the audience, you are so important. He has us align ourselves with certain characters to have us understand this idea. We like Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne despite the connotations surrounding characters such as prostitutes and gunslingers because we all have an element of destruction within us all. This is why the likes of Jill can exist, why violence does, why 'Merica loves their guns. That's why Cheyenne says that the men patting Jill's bottom deserve it. First of all, they're working for her and she might not mind - but second of all, and more importantly, there's an idea of release, of letting go of suppression. I can argue that this exact same idea is why we love the film. We want to see violent, sexual, dangerous characters.
All in all, Once Upon A Time In The West is about characters being driven by both selfish, questionable, good and bad mentalities, towards an askew and slightly romantic idea of civilisation. Like in the Dollar Trilogy there are happy endings despite not-so-happy undertones (the fact that Cheyenne dies, Jill endured tragedy, such and so on). With this Leone implies that equilibrium is an inevitability - an idea present in almost all of his westerns.
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