The 3rd episode of the Django Rising Podcast

Hello! I am working on the 3rd episode of the Django Rising Podcast! At the moment, I am shooting for a release date of Sunday, September 27th.

Fred Blosser on Sergio Martino’s Spaghetti Westerns

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Fred Blosser has a good review of the two Spaghetti Westerns by Italian b-movie cult director Sergio Martino.

Sergio Leone pioneered the Spaghetti Western.  Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima made significant contributions to the genre in Leone’s footsteps.  When fans think of Spaghettis, those are the three Sergios who usually spring to mind.  But there was also a fourth Sergio in the Italian West  – Sergio Martino – who directed two interesting entries on his way to bigger fame in other Italian B-movie genres in the late ‘70s and the 1980s with “Slaves of the Cannibal God” and “2019: After the Fall of New York” . . .
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According to The Wrap :”MGM Hit With $5 Million Lawsuit Over Classic Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando Films”

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Fistful of Dollars (1964) was involved in legal disputes upon its release due to copyright infringement on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) (1961) — of course, that film infringed on Dashiell Hammet’s novel The Red Harvest. Well, it has recently been reported that the legal issues around rights and royalties for the Dollars films continue. Obviously, these are valuable properties.

According to Pamela Chelin at The Wrap:

Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Inc. has been hit with a lawsuit by P.E.A. Films, Inc. alleging a breach of contract over the classic films “Last Tango in Paris” starring Marlon Brando, and Clint Eastwood‘s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “For a Few Dollars More.”

P.E.A. Films owns the rights to these films, and seeks to terminate MGM’s licenses, alleging that MGM failed to provide accurate and honest accounting statements with revenue and expenses for the films, nor did they provide timely payment of amounts due to P.E.A. They seek termination of their agreement with MGM on the grounds that they claim MGM breached the agreements.

P.E.A. further seeks a full accounting of all sums due from MGM, as well as more than $5 million in damages.

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Spaghetti Western Theater: Finger on the Trigger (1965)

Synopsis from Spaghetti Western Database:

A group of ex-Union soldiers, trekking towards New Mexico to set up new homesteads, come across a band of Confederate soldiers waiting in ambush for a troop of Union soldiers in pursuit of $10 million in hidden Confederate gold. The Union soldiers, pursued by hostile Indians are trapped in the ghost town where the gold is buried where they must decide to fight off the marauding Indians. Routine western produced in Spain.

Nothing revolutionary, but I enjoyed this film. The Youtube version is pretty poor, but it is a free way to see this film. I believe that it is also available on some of those multi-film DVD packs that sell for under $15.00 US on Amazon.com.

The movie is interesting because it is made by Producer/Director Sidney W. Pink. Here is the beginning of his entry at Wikipedia:

Sidney W. Pink (March 16, 1916 – October 12, 2002) was an American movie producer and occasional director. He has been called the father of feature-length 3-D movies. He is also noted for producing early spaghetti westerns and low-budget science-fiction films, and for his role in actor Dustin Hoffman‘s transition from stage to screen.

Sidney Pink was similar to Albert Band in the early role he played in the Eurowestern genre. His movies are very traditional. He came to Spain to make low budget westerns with American actors. However, he did work with European production companies and talent.

El Dedo en el gatillo (1965) 2

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Criticizing the critic: Judith Hess had a problem with her parents, not with western movies

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So, if you follow the blog and podcast, you have probably figured out that I like to try to figure how the Spaghetti western genre works, how films are related to each other, and why audience liked (and still like) them. I think some of my ideas are interesting, but I always like to find other people’s ideas. So I decided to read Judith Hess’s influential 1974 article Genre film and the status quo.

Hess proposes that we look at the cultural and political function of film genres like the western:

I think that we may see what genre films are by examining what they do. These films came into being and were financially successful because they temporarily relieved the fears aroused by a recognition of social and political conflicts. They helped to discourage any action which might otherwise follow upon the pressure generated by living with these conflicts. Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt. They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts. When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the same conflicts assert themselves. So we return to genre films for easy comfort and solace—hence their popularity.

Hess argues that genre films simplify the conflicts that people face, reframing these conflicts in a distant setting (the Old West) and providing a simple resolution to deep contradictions in the society. Genre movies, like the western, ultimately make audiences politically quiescent.

About westerns specifically, she writes:

The western centers on the violent act and ascertains when, if ever, it becomes morally right.

I agree with this point. In fact, in a post from yesterday I said essentially the same thing when I was talking about what makes a Spaghetti Western protagonist an ‘anti-hero.’ Usually, they do exactly what John Wayne or Gary Cooper would have done (That would be a great bumper sticker: “What would John Wayne do?”), but in films like Fistful of Dollars they  don’t bother explaining away their actions by pointing to grand narratives of law or justice. Even in Once Upon A Time In The West, Harmonica’s revenge is not justified in terms of the coming of ‘civilization.’ Leone goes out of his way to say that Harmonica, Frank, and Banjo all exist before the justifications that society must necessarily bring with it.

Frank: Morton once told me I could never be like him. Now I understand why. Wouldn’t have bothered him, knowing you were around somewhere alive.

Harmonica: So, you found out you’re not a businessman after all.

Frank: Just a man.

Harmonica: An ancient race. Other Mortons will be along, and they’ll kill it off.

Frank: The future don’t matter to us. Nothing matters now – not the land, not the money, not the woman. I came here to see you. ‘Cause I know that now, you’ll tell me what you’re after.

Harmonica: …Only at the point of dyin’.

Frank: I know.

This is the main difference of between the Italian western and the Hollywood western. These movies strip away the origin myths of the American frontier and reveal the underlying mythic structure. It is after this happens that you begin to see more and more movies in which the hero or villain even becomes supernatural (Django Kill, High Plains Drifter, Dead in Tombstone, etc . . .). The genre changed profoundly in 1964.

Hess continues along this vein:

The problems posed by these contradictions are solved simply. The western decrees that the violent act can become morally right when it occurs within the confines of a code which allows for executions, revenge killings, and killings in defense of one’s life and property. In the microcosmic western society everyone’s code is the same; thus absolute guilt and innocence are possible because social and moral goodness are the same. . .

In order to flesh out these assertions it is necessary to examine each of the genres in some detail. The western male is dominated by a code of honor which prescribes his every action; violence by lynching or shooting, amorous advances, or friendships are determined by some fixed rule. One lynches cattle rustlers but not petty thieves—one runs them out of town. One sleeps only with bar girls, not eastern school teachers. One never shoots a man in the back; one is utterly loyal to one’s friends, defending them physically and verbally at every possible opportunity. At a certain mystical point in the interaction between two opposing forces, the western version of the duel becomes morally acceptable. Both the villain and the know immediately when this point comes as they do not exist as psychological entities apart from the code—rather, they embody the code. The earliest westerns afford the clearest expression of the workings of this code. In these movies the heroes and villains are like chess pieces moved about to depict the code’s intricacies. In a great many westerns you will note the eerie occurrence of two phrases which are as far as these movies go toward positing motivation: “I have to…” and “All I know is… “ These phrases express how the code provides motivation, not the person himself. Westerners act together in absolute, unthinking accord. Westerns examine those aspects of the code which determine the westerner’s response to situations which demand violence. The compartmentalizations of the code—one treats bank robbers one way and friends another—allow for situations which involve contradictory responses. What happens, for example, in THE VIRGINIAN (Victor Fleming, 1929), a movie that Robert Warshow calls “archetypal, “ when a captured rustler is at the same time a friend? Gary Cooper, a chess-piece representation of the code, is caught on the horns of a moral and social dilemma. Although he must bow to the will of the other members of the posse, for whom the situation is not complicated (the rustler is not their friend) and assist in the lynching, and his friend exonerates him, Cooper must work within the code to redeem himself—to rid himself of guilt by balancing the books.

And, there is a single, simple solution. His friend has been drawn into rustling by the film’s real villain, Trampas. Cooper must wipe him out, at the same time showing the restraint demanded of the westerner. He must wait for that mystical point in time at which the showdown becomes morally and socially right. And, Trampas, because he is a villain and thus cannot act any other way, provides Cooper with sufficient injury and insult, and is thus shot in fair fight. Several violent actions are condoned in the movie: traditionally sanctioned violence demanded by the group (note that Cooper never questions the lynching, he only suffers because he is forced to abandon his friend); violence which is brought about by repeated attacks on one’s character (Trampas indicates that Cooper is a coward) and which redeems the violence Cooper has been forced to do to his friend. These acts of violence have complete social sanction. Only Cooper’s eastern schoolmarm girlfriend fails to condone Cooper’s actions; she has not as yet been assimilated into western society.

In the western every man who operates solely with reference to this strict code lives and dies redeemed. He has retained his social and moral honor. The code provides justification; thus it allows for a guiltless existence. On the other hand, we do not know ourselves when, if ever, violence is justifiable. We have great difficulty in forming a personal code and we cannot be sure that this code will conform in any way to the large, impersonal legal code set up to regulate our unwieldy, decaying economic structure. The westerner’s code is at once personal and social—if a man lives by it he both conforms to social norms and retains his personal integrity. It is evident whence comes the satisfaction we get from the western. Momentarily we understand the peace which comes from acting in accord with a coherent moral and social code and forget our fragmented selves. Many critics have seen the western as a glorification of traditional American individualism. On the contrary, the western preaches integration and assimilation and absolute obedience to the laws of the land.

Then she closes out with this:

We may trace the amazing survival and proliferation of the genre films to their function. They assist in the maintenance of the existing political structure. The solutions these films give to the conflicts inherent in capitalism require obeisance to the ruling class, and cause the viewer to yearn for less, not greater freedom in the face of the insoluble ambiguities which surround him or her. He or she is encouraged to cease examining him/her. He/she is encouraged to cease examining his/her surroundings, and to take refuge in fantasy from his/her only real alternative—to rise up against the injustices perpetrated by the present system upon its members.

This article has been hugely influential. It distilled the attitudes of the Marxist influenced academics and critics of the late 1960s, establishing a foundation for the way that genres are studied in the university in disciplines like Cultural Studies. But I must admit that I find this type of criticism nauseating.

There are a number of issues that I have with this perspective, but the one I will briefly discuss here is this: Hess disagreement is with the values of a previous generation, not with genre films. Given that the factory system in pre-1960s Hollywood was so centralized, it makes sense that the movies they produced would have a very limited perspective on the world. Indeed, many of them did resolve conflicts in an unrealistic way. But that is not a characteristic of the genre film, but instead of many genre films made in Hollywood at a particular time.

If you look a little deeper, you find that this argument about the function of genre films begins to fall apart. First, many of the psychological westerns of the 1950s presented a much more ambiguous, complex view of the world. . . and they were following film noir in this anxious uncertainty. Second, outside of Hollywood there was a vibrant B-movie industry independent of Hollywood’s centralizing tendencies. Many of these movies were very transgressive.

Finally, if we look at the Italian film industry, we have an almost anarchic industry churning out films to meet the public’s taste . . . very irreverent tastes. Audiences are not passive. They choose what they want to see. In the 1940s and 1950s, the many international audiences (and great filmmakers like Kurosawa) gravitated to the worldview of John Ford and Howard Hawks (as well as Roy Rogers and Wild Bill Elliot). In the 1960s, they still loved westerns but instead loved the playful irreverence of the Spaghetti western. And still later, the troubled nostalgia of the revisionist western was preferred.

Hess is too simplistic. She had a problem with the beliefs of her parent’s generation and blamed it on western movies.

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Death on the Run

Robert Mahaney:

Some interesting observations about Spaghetti westerns, in particular the populist / Marxist Zapata westerns by an author viewing the films from that perspective . . . but 50 years later. These movies are still provocative. I trashed Godard’s The Wind From The East recently. This is why. That film did not effect cultural or political consciousness in the late 1960s and it certainly remains irrelevant today.

Originally posted on Full Unemployment Cinema:

“I used to believe in many things, all of it! Now, I believe only in dynamite.”

giu-la-testa

Lima Zulu and Full Unemployment Cinema present Death on the Run a 3 day short season of Spaghetti and deviant Westerns.

21st – 23rd FEB

FREE

#DOTR

LimaZulu, 3J Omega Works, 167 Hermitage Road, N4 1LZ

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The western is an intensely political genre, but if the American western mythologises heroism, order and Manifest Destiny the Italian “Spaghetti” western deals with an altogether different subject matter. This short season will explore some of the themes central to Italian and other deviant westerns – anti-colonialism, ultra-violence, anti-heroic nihilism and revolutionary intransigence, amongst others.

Connected to the season of screenings Benjamin Noys will give a presentation on ‘The Spaghetti Western, Politics and the Horrors of Resistance’ (Sat.22nd Feb. 17.30).

Great Silence

A publication featuring essays on the Spaghetti Western and the various forms of cynicism, nihilism and revolt that…

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Interesting definition from Urban Dictionary

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Spaghetti Western culture is everywhere! I came across this entry from Urban Dictionary recently:
A Curry Western is the Indian film industry’s (known colloquially as Bollywood) version of a spaghetti western which features the protagonist(s) and villian(s). The similaritiesbetween the traditional spaghetti western and the curry western is that either the protagonist(s) or the villian(s) will be daciots/bandits/robbers. The difference betweenthe two would be the use of traditional filmmaking rules in a curry western which features in all Indian films and that is music, there will be a minimum of one or two of either a sad song or a happier/livelier song or a combination of both.
Sholay (1975) is the most famous curry western in Bollywood. Widely hailed as one of the best movies to be ever made in Bollywood, it tells the tale of three men, Veeru (played by Dharmendra), Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) and Jai (Amitabh Bachan) who join forces to catch an ruthless dacoit Gabbar Singh (played by Ajmad Khan).

Box Office Information (as obtained by Wikipedia):

Sholay was released on 15 August 1975 in Mumbai. On 11 October 1975, the film was released in several other Indian film distribution districts. It earned Rs. 1,62,41,00,000equivalent to US$ 88 million, after adjusting for inflation and remains the highest grossing movie of all-time in the history of Indian Cinema.

At Mumbai’s Minerva theater, it was shown in regular shows for three continuous years, and then in matinee shows for two more years. Even in 240th week of its release, Sholay was packing the theaters. Sholay grossed about 35 crore rupees in its first run, a record thatremained unbroken for the next nineteen years.Sholay ran for more than five years.

Beküldő: rgp2130 2010. április 13.
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Great introduction to the Spaghetti Western at Infini-Tropolis

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If you are looking for a good introduction to the Italian western, check out this article by ‘Sergei Kowalski’ at Infini-Tropolis. Covers all the basics quickly.

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Joe Kaiser “Clint Eastwood Western Review”

 

There are not enough Spaghetti Western reviews on Youtube! Here, Joe Kaiser does his part by reviewing Leone’s Dollars films. Joe looks like an enthusiastic movie fan that likes to share his experiences of watching different movies. He is not a spaghetti western expert, but it is cool to hear what a normal (non-obsessed Eurowestern geek-freak) thinks about some of the films.

What is really cool is how he picks up on how Cline Eastwood’s Man With No Name always ends up helping out another character at some pivotal point in the movie. In Episode 2 of the Django Rising Podcast, I briefly talked about the protagonist in an Italian western. They are often times called anti-heroes. The idea is that they do the opposite of what a typical western hero would do. Supposedly, they are ultimately amoral and cynical. But this is not the case at all. In fact, movies with characters like that rarely work for audiences. Instead, Leone and Eastwood agreed to cut out most of the expository dialogue for the Man With No Name in Fistful of Dollars (1964). That had a wonderful effect. The audience is not really sure why the character is doing what he is doing. In fact, he ends up freeing Marisol and her family, then liberating the town . . . and he makes a fortune. But this is what happens in many classic Hollywood westerns. But in a classic Hollywood western, the hero usually justifies his violence. Not in the Italian western . . . the laconic hero does not bother excusing himself. That is what makes him an ‘anti-hero': he doesn’t make excuses for his violence.

In later Italian westerns, the heroes do make ‘excuses.’ Sometimes they do it for revenge. Over the course of 13 years (1964-1977) he number of fictional wives, mothers, and sisters that are raped and murdered to provide a motivation for the hero is staggering and, ultimately, monotonous. In other movies, the heroes are motivated by a cause. There are the Zapata westerns like A Bullet For The General and Tepepa.

What is an ‘excuse’? Well, by that I mean a justified reason. And the reasons that justify actions are specific to a culture and political regime. So in Hollywood westerns, there was a particular set of justifications (‘ideology’) for the actions of the heroes. In late 1960s Italy, many of the filmmakers were populists or socialists, so their justifications reflected there time, place, and beliefs.

Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood did something slightly different. They stripped the western film of its timeliness  and made it more timeless, in a sense. They found the underlying mythic structure of the story. This is where the force of the genre comes from. This is why it is compelling. This is more important than finding excuses for why the Man With No Name does what he does. There are deeper reasons that transcend the political and cultural climate both of their time (mid-1960s) and our time (mid-2010s).

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Explain yourself: film critics and their shorthand

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Among contemporary film critics, there is a shorthand that communicates alot of information about a film quickly. One example of this shorthand is calling something a ‘spaghetti western.’ The terms is generally used to evoke memories of Sergio Leone’s Dollars films, which by now most of the film literate world are intimately familiar with. But I often find the use of the term just lazy.

For instance, in a review of The American (2010)a recent Hollywood film starring George Clooney, there is a well-written and thoughtful review at incritic. However, the author titles it The American: Reinventing the Spaghetti Western. Sounds like an interesting title, right? But nowhere does he explain why the film is like a spaghetti western nor how the genre is being ‘reinvented.’ So the author is trying to build up the significance of an over-looked movie he or she liked by creating a linkage to the classic movies of Sergio Leone. The final lines just add to the confusion:

 

The American is actually fully Italian, then: beautiful, deliberate, spare, symbolic, Catholic, overly sentimental. And a throwback to the great Italian Neorealismo of the Sixties.

The respected, self-consciously artistic directors of the Neorealism and the opportunistic, pulp directors of the popular cinema were two distinct traditions of filmmaking. Largely made up of Northerns from cities like Milan, filmmakers like de Sica, Rosselini, Fellini, and Visconti were respected internationally. At least early in their development, they created a cinema focused on Italian lives and experiences. The popular filmmakers Leone, Corbucci, Bava, and others tended to be Southerners. They made movies in whatever genre money could raised for at the time. I think most people would agree that there movies had a subtext of significance drawn from the lives and experiences of people in Italy, but this submerged under the surface formulas of giallos, westerns, police films, spy films, peplum, etc.

In other words, it at first seems strange to say that The American combines the very different approaches to filmmaking of the spaghetti western and neorealism. This is not to say that these two traditions did not influence each other because they certainly did. It is also not to say that the director and screenwriter did not make a decision to make a film combining features from each. But only that this is not explained by the author. Instead, we are left with a cryptic shorthand, a few ambiguous gestures that tell the reader too little about the film.

 

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