Monthly Archives: August 2014

Spaghetti Western Theatre: Duel in the Eclipse (1968)

It is so cool that you can find movies that were once rare on Youtube. For today’s Spaghetti Western Theater, here is Duel in the Eclipse (1968). Here is the SWDB page, if you are interested.

First time I saw this film, I was not in the mood for it and thought it was silly. When I rewatched it several months later, I really liked it. It is an over-the-top acid western like a very unusual way of telling the story.

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“Echoes of the Spaghetti Western” in Kundo: Age of the Rampant . . .

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In a review of Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014), a historically-based Korean action film, Washington Post reviewer Mark Jenkins brings up spaghetti westerns briefly:

The history lesson pretty much stops there, however. The movie owes less to real events and more to Chinese kung fu flicks — yes, there’s a battling monk — and Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Seven Samurai.” And the Ennio Morricone-derived score is just one echo of the spaghetti westerns that also inspired “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” a 2008 Korean romp.

This is an interesting way to talk about the influence of the Italian Western on contemporary cinema . . . ‘echoes.’

Much of contemporary cinema (really, since the early 1990s) has been about filmmakers trying to stitch together the cinematic rhetoric of the past into something new. Tarantino is the master of this (though I thought that Django Unchained (2012) was a failure).

What is interesting to me is that this type of cinema was initiated by the popular European filmmakers that Tarantino often makes reference to. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, German cinemas were filled with movies the pointed back to the silent adventure films of the Weimar era before the rise of the Nazis. Upon his return to Germany, Fritz Lang remade Joe May’s epic The Indian Tomb (1921) (IMDB) as a two part film in 1959. In The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) then returned to the character of the insane criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse he had first introduced to film in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). These movies combined the cartoonish and exotic serial aesthetic with the contemporary pulp of Hollywood or the Bond-inspired spy movies.

Harald Reinl and others continued the Dr. Mabuse series through several other films. At the same time, the krimi films based on Edgar Wallace mysteries and the WInnetou films became popular. All of these movies looked to the earlier cultural forms to recreate a new popular German cinema.

While the German’s may have started this reuse of cultural artifacts, it was the Italians who mastered the re-use of past cinema to tell the stories that they were most interested in. The early Italian Westerns were largely pastiches of the Hollywood Western, but when Sergio Leone burst onto the scene with Fistful of Dollars (1964), the spaghetti western moved beyond pastiche or imitation. Leone did deliberately recreate moments, situations, and plots from his favorite American Western films. However, he did this in order to use to tell his own stories. And, due to the familiarity of audiences with these cinematic forms, he was able to invert, distort, or twist them in order to achieve new effects. Sergio Corbucci used the same techniques, though he was perhaps a bit more irreverent and crude. This same technique is essentially what Quentin Tarantino does in his films.

So it is quite interesting that Italian Westerns are a constant reference in this type of cinema, whether made in the US, Korea, or elsewhere. The popular pulp filmmakers of the early 1960s invented this approach to film. While I really like movies like Pulp Fiction (1994) or Sin City (2005), I have to admit that I think that the Italians did it better 50 years ago.

 

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Sartana the Gravedigger (1969)

Nice review of the next Django Rising Podcast’s topic, “Sartana the Grave Digger” by Jordan Richardson of Canadian Cinephile!

Ryan at Lost Laowai on “Shangdown — The Way of the Spur”, a Spaghetti-inspired Eastern

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Ryan at Lost Laowai published a post titled “Shangdown — Interview with Shanghai spaghetti western director Jakob Montrasio” that was interesting:

When Shanghai-based expat Jakob Montrasio first told me he was directing a spaghetti western set in his adopted city, I’m sure I blinked uncomprehendingly. The movie, Shangdown: The Way of the Spur is an east-meets-west kung fu cowboy mashup.

This Bruce with boots (or Clint with a kick) premise for a film seemed strange and intriguing, so I decided to probe a bit further into what the movie was all about. My interview with Jakob is below. But first, how about a more official synopsis (and a trailer):

Guerino, a cowboy from Italy, travels to Shanghai in search of his sister Elisa, who was working as a model in China but mysteriously vanished. In Shanghai, Guerino finds an unlikely ally in Jieikai, a local Chinese, whose girlfriend also mysteriously disappeared while working in the same modeling agency. During their search to uncover the truth, they are dragged into a dark world of criminality, corruption and human smuggling affairs. When things take a bad turn and innocent people start getting killed left and right, Guerino takes the matter into his own hands in order to save his sister before it’s too late… Driven by his thirst for vengeance and his desire for justice, he vows to take down every single link to this chain of smuggling affair following his one and only rule: kick first, ask questions later. . . 

From the interview:

LLW: What was your interest in melding the Spaghetti Western-Kung Fu Action genres? Do you think there are similarities between the two styles?

JM: The Spaghetti Western and the Martial Arts Eastern are, from a plot point of view, actually quite similar. Usually they have a lead actor who ends up fighting someone much bigger than him, out of personal conflict or due to a need for help — or simply for money. There are, of course, differences in the sets, the actual action and some more things. For example, Spaghetti Westerns from Leone have the famous stare-downs, because the actual shooting is quite quick – one shot and the enemy is down; whereas martial arts are exciting through the moves and stunts. We combine those two and mash them up.

The last mashup in this style that I’ve seen was the Sukiyaki Western Django, but there they used guns and shot and shot and shot … I didn’t like that very much. I think using martial arts in a Western that’s shot in the East is much more exciting.

LLW: It’s interesting to me that Leone’s Dollars Trilogy kicked off with a remake of the Japanese filmYojimbo. These films all seem to mix up Asian and European directors, actors and locations; and use principally a North American “Western” concept of cowboys and gunslingers — does this say something about the universality of these themes and how they are accepted and understood across cultures? How do you think that plays out in Shangdown?

JM: I think the typical David versus Goliath concept appeals to the audience, and Akira Kurosawa’s films are pretty much quoted in every western, whether on purpose or not. I wonder where he got his inspiration from. It doesn’t matter where you are, what culture you’re in, if you see someone fighting or tricking out someone bigger than himself, it’s exciting.

My personal favorite Kurosawa film is The Seven Samurai, which was also remade into the Western The Magnificent Seven, and the topic of it is simply honor. The honorable samurai take on a huge enemy knowing that they wont make it, but try anyway, to help the poor village people. It’s fun to see that! Tragic in the end, but fun! John Woo’s Hong Kong films have the very same topic, but he transfered it into the cops of the southern metropolis. In a way, he’s referencing The Seven Samurai at the end ofHard Boiled, when Chow Yun-Fat saves the baby from the exploding hospital.

Also, 2010 and 2011, with stuff like Cowboys & Aliens from Iron Man director Jon Favreau, are years of the cowboy comeback. Even videogames sell cowboys well; look at Red Dead Redemption, pretty much the best game of the year. Cowboys are really “in” again and martial arts will always be.

I don’t think Jakob Montrasio really understands spaghetti westerns very well. He says that they are about”fighting or tricking out someone bigger than [the hero]”. There is usually a bit more going on than that, I think. The heroes not only meet their equals, but they are knocked down and humbled a bit (think of all the beatings of the hero in almost every spaghetti western). But that is okay. Shangdown – Way of the Spur looks like it might be fun, though the images of an American in a black duster and cowboy hat in Shanghai are a little out-of-place. This movie might be worth checking out, though. There has been a resurgence of the Spaghetti-inspired western in straight-to-streaming-video b-movies over the past few years. Some have been decent.

 

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Weaving authenticity and meaning in genre film: “SHOOTING ‘SIX BULLETS TO HELL’ IN ALMERIA’

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Danny Garcia had an interesting post late last year over at his A Spaniard In The Workz blog. In it, he briefly wrote about wrapping up shooting on a low budget western titled ‘Six Bullets To Hell’. He wrote:

They said we were crazy. And yes, it was hot, it was dusty, it was real hard work but it was also great fun to shoot a real Spaghetti Western with a bunch of great actors and a great crew right in the middle of July AND right in the hottest spot of Spain: the desert of Tabernas in Almería

Almería had been the European Hollywood in the 60’s and 70’s, a good number of films where shot in that area of Spain every year. Fifty years ago, there’d be a couple of movies shot there everyday. Everybody in the small town of Tabernas would be somehow involved in the productions: the shops, the restaurants, horse wranglers, drivers, electricians, carpenters, extras, etc.

The great Frank Braña (R.I.P.), who worked in Almería hundreds of times (even with the Master Sergio Leone in all his westerns) told me there wasn’t a single hotel in Almería when they started shooting there in 1964. The cinema industry helped that city grow big time. . .

. . . As fans of the old Spaghetti Westerns, this was the perfect chance for all of us to shoot in legendary sets like the Oasys (aka MiniHollywood), Sergio Leone’s set, the very same set he built with Carlo Simi in 1965 for For a Few Dollars More (and was also used in classics like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hannie Caulder, Doc, etc) and also at Fort Bravo, where Ringo Starr did Blindman and where greats like Lee Van Cleef, Jack Palance or Charles Bronson starred in great westerns like Death Rides a Horse, Chato’s Land, etc. So we were literally standing on the footsteps of giants.

What stuck me as I read this was how it showed just how profoundly the Italian westerns of the 1960s-70s completely transmuted the Western genre. The term ‘Spaghetti western’ was coined by American film critics that wanted to mark out these Italian films as cheap knock-offs and fakes. In fact, this is how the Italian filmmakers initially viewed them as well. Look at how the names of directors and actors were changed in order to fool Italian audiences into believing that these were American productions. The most famously example is, of course, Sergio Leone appearing under the alias ‘Bob Robertson’ in the opening credits for Fistful of Dollars (1964) (an alias that actually goes back to his director father and the silent film era).

After Leone had the resources to make big budget productions, he made an interesting choice. He planned on shooting much of his masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) in the ‘real West,’ Monument Valley, Arizona. Of course, this was John Ford country. Here, the legendary American director had filmed many of his most iconic Westerns. In deciding to film there, Leone was creating a link with these places, locations, and films. From them, he was gaining something . . . authenticity.

However, after the economic, artistic, and cultural success of Leone and other European filmmakers in remaking the Western from Italian, Spanish, or German perspective things changed. Today, when young filmmakers want to give their films a link to the classic cinematic images and experiences of the past, they don’t travel to John Ford country. They travel to Leone country, the Almerian desert in Spain. In his blog post, Danny Garcia promotes his film by focusing on the locations and actors that provide a link to the Eurowestern boom of the 1960s.

As Chritopher Frayling points out in this great biography of Sergio Leone: Something To Do With DeathLeone inverted the situations and rhetoric of the Hollywood Western to create new and interesting effects. Perhaps this is the ultimately the most interesting inversion that he accomplished.

 

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Kill Screen on a new Spaghetti Western-Inspired Videogame “Secret Ponchos”

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Zach Budgor at Kill Screen has written an interesting piece on a new Spaghetti western inspired videogame “Secret Ponchos”: SECRET PONCHOS TURNS THE DESOLATE SPAGHETTI WESTERN INTO CHAOTIC MULTIPLAYER

The piece start off invoking imagery from Sergio Leone’s films:

“They’re so cool to watch, but not so much fun to play,” says Yousuf Mapara of the western standoff. You know the type: Eastwood’s standing against a long flat horizon, eyes permanently squinted against the frontier sun. The camera’s tight against those eyes, searching. They give nothing away. Cut to his hand on a revolver grip.

His opponent’s eyes are wild, nervous. Eastwood again, grimacing. The other man pulls but Eastwood’s pistol is already up, up and firing, and the sadsack falls to the ground in dust and blood. Probably a lot of blood.

So maybe it’s fun to write, too. But Mapara’s not shooting a film, or writing an action scene; he’s developing Secret Ponchos, an isometric multiplayer shooter that pulls deep from the spaghetti western bottle.

And the author shows he knows a thing or two about the better known Spaghetti westerns:

Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is the most recognizable of these films: A Fistful of Dollars (1964),For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966). A close second isDjango (1966), which is a little stranger: Django lugs around a coffin with a gatling gun inside. The final shootout sees him fanning a pistol with crushed fingers. The film spawned innumerable sequels, most of them completely unrelated. From there it’s a crapshoot, directors feeding off each other and themselves: The Beyond legend Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse (1975) ups the brutality quotient considerably, as you’d expect.

 The concept behind the game sounds cool, especially the bounty system:

Take the standoff: in a spaghetti western, the standoff is the climax. Mapara says there’s “not a lot of action” in the typical spaghetti western, but “a lot of buildup.” But a multiplayer shooter doesn’t have a specific climax.

”We realized the standoff in the game has to happen differently,” Mapara says. “Really what a standoff is about is that moment in the film when the two characters have everything on the line and then they meet. And we thought, okay, well that we can do. So we started playing with the idea of heavy consequences when two people meet.”

This translated into a bounty system, where a player’s bounty rises or falls based on the arc of the match—but the loser’s bounty goes down, while the winner’s rises. Doing well makes you a more desirable target.

To Mapara, the key to the multiplayer is “understanding your opponent.” Every outlaw has specific moves that are executed fighting game-style with a combination of directions and buttons. Each of these moves has a recognizable tell, and can be countered by another character’s moves—“controlling range and timing,” as Mapara describes it.

However, this game seems to suffer from the same misunderstanding of Italian westerns that most American filmmakers have in the past when they try and incorporate elements of the Spaghetti western into their work:

To Mapara, the spaghetti western is darker than the traditional western (such as the black hat/white hat morality of 1953’s Shane), with a “certain style” that the Secret Ponchos team is looking to evoke. Crucial to that style was the music of prolific composer Ennio Morricone, whose western scores Mapara describes as “eerie instrumentals complemented with tragic trumpets” that lent beauty and gravity to the films. This rush of films from the late 60s were more violent and auteur-led than most previous Westerns; the gaggle of them were called “spaghetti” westerns because of the surplus of Italian filmmakers working on them.

Throughout the piece, the game designer and author focus on superficial aspects of the genre, such as the visuals and the music. And that is cool. The style of the classic Italian western is great and an essential part of the experience of one of these movies. They are the aesthetic hooks that draw the audience in.

But when it comes to the issue of what these movies are about, these two completely miss the mark. They imply that the movies are cynical and have a “darker’ outlook than the “traditional” Hollywood western. I don’t buy this at all. If this were the case, why does the hero usually end up saving society in the end? Think about Fistful of Dollars (1964). Sure The Man With No Name rides into town to make a profit, playing warring gangs against each other. But after he is beaten and nearly killed, he returns to town to save some of the townspeople that he has befriended. In effect, he purges the town of the evil, violent men that had been destroying it. That sounds . . . an awful lot like the outcome of the traditional western.

In fact, take a step back from the bounty killing and bank robbing and you will see that most Spaghetti westerns play out like traditional westerns in one way or another. Why have these movies struck generations of Americans as being so ammoral when they clearly are not? These are not American movies. These are Italian movies. What made Sergio Leone such a genius was his ability to translate the American western into an Italian cultural idiom. The characters are motivated differently. They view the world differently. They dramatize conflicts faced by Italian and not American audiences. But even if the bounty killers in For A Few Dollars More (1965) are motivated primarily by profit, they still perform the same service to their fictional world that a John Wayne or Roy Rogers did to theirs.

This is the genre that produced the populist revolutionary rhetoric of the Zapata westerns like A Bullet For The General (1966). This is not a genre defined by ammoral cynicism. It is not even that dark, though it is violent. Spaghetti westerns are strangely optimistic.

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Spaghetti Westerns and Reggae on AllMusic

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Interesting information about the international popularity of Spaghetti westerns in this review by Mark Deming of “The Big Gundown: Reggae Inspired by Spaghetti Westerns”:

 

While the average American’s perception of reggae music tends to be centered around ganja, good times and Jah, anyone who has seriously studied Jamaican popular culture knows that they value the bad ass above and beyond all else, so it’s no wonder that Italian Westerns from the 1960s and ’70s were a popular item on the island. Violent, amoral and invariably dominated by charismatic anti-heroes (and equally fascinating villains), “spaghetti westerns” were the cinematic bread and butter of the rude boys who dominated the early Jamaican reggae scene, and it’s no mistake that Jimmy Cliff‘s character in The Harder They Come checks out Sergio Corbucci’s classic Django shortly after arriving in Kingston — and flashes back on the flick during his final gun battle with police. No small number of primal reggae tunes were inspired to some degree by the great Italian Westerns, and The Big Gundown collects 26 tracks from the Trojan Records archives which owe a debt of influence to classic spaghetti westerns. While many simply draw their titles from favorite movies, such as “A Taste of Killing” by the Upsetters or “Savage Colt” by the Eldorados, several feature bizarre recitations that mimic and/or pay homage to classic bits of business, most notably “They Call Me Trinity” by Joe Whiteand the Crystalites and Lee Perry‘s “Clint Eastwood.” A few also interpolate bits of classic movie themes, and some sort of award ought to go to Lloyd Charmers‘ amazing “Dollars and Bonds,” which in both music and narrative brings together 007 and The Man With No Name for the first time. Even if you have no interest in European genre cinema, there’s plenty of excellent early reggae on this collection (all cuts were recorded between 1968 and 1972, and remastered with no fear of bass), with the oddball vocal treatments and echoey instrumentals on many tracks pointing to the dawning of dub, which lurked around the corner. Ideal intermission music for your next Sergio Leone Film Festival, and a lot easier to dance to than those Ennio Morricone discs.

 

 

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