Category Archives: Film

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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Movie Rip-Offs : A User’s Guide – Turkish Remakesploitation

Wonderful introduction to the world of Turkish exploitation cinema. There is a decent amount of information about Turkish westerns. Turkish westerns are nuts . . . I mean, they are completely insane. Just like the Italian filmmakers of the time, copyright was not a major issue . . . but the Turkish filmmakers took pirating to a new extreme. Their movies are typically very tongue and cheek. At first they seem just weird, but after watching a few I have started to get into them a little bit. Too few have subtitles for English speakers, though I think that there is a growing community of fan subbers dedicated to making these movies more accessible to the English-speaking world. Great blog post!

Physical Impossibility

Many thanks once again to Gokay Gelgec of the Sinematik website and Bill Barounis of Onar Films for invaluable background information on these films and the culture they were made in. Wherever possible, I’ve referred to the best-presented and ‘official’ versions of these films available.

Cüneyt Arkin’s spaceship manifests from one frame to the next in “Turkish Star Wars”, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (Çetin Inanç, 1982)

Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam AKA The Man Who Saved The World (Çetin Inanç, 1982) doesn’t make it too far past the endearingly handmade titles before it demonstrates the elements that gave it its better-known title, “Turkish Star Wars”. Edited into new Turkish scenes are newsreel clips of NASA rocket launches, instantly recognisable shots from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (chopped from a print in a different aspect ratio from the rest of the Inanç‘s film – making the Death Star an odd shape), and identifiable footage from Sodom…

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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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Aballay (2010): Excellent Argentinian Western With Some Spaghetti Flavor

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Yesterday, I finally watched the recent Argentinian western Aballay, el hombre sin miedo, directed by Fernando Spiner. While I will not write much in detail here, I wanted to just post my initial impressions.

Set in the Argentinian pampas during the late 19th century, this is an excellent revenge Western reminiscent of Giulio Petroni’s Italian classic Death Rides A Horse, but perhaps set in the world of Black God White Devil and Antonio Das Mortes. The performances, cinematography, and locations are excellent . . . earning numerous awards in Argentina. What is really cool, from my perspective, is how the filmmakers translated the imagery and themes of the Italian western into an Argentinian idiom. The movie has two characters that following parallel liminal narratives described in my article on the Carnivalesque Western alla’Italiana. The religious imagery is evocative without being too heavy handed.

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Kevin Phipps at AV Club on Spaghetti Westerns for the unitiated

Spaghetti Westerns · Gateways To Geekery · The A.V. Club

 

Good introduction to the genre by Kevin Phipps. 

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. . .

. . .Geek obsession: Spaghetti Westerns

Why it’s daunting: Europe’s fascination with the American West dates back to before the Old West could rightly be called old. German author Karl May began writing about the Native American hero Winnetou and his German blood brother Old Shatterhand in the 1890s, and his stories seeped into the water of European popular fiction and inspired several films from the 1920s through the 1960s. So it wasn’t that odd, really, that Italian director Sergio Leone would decide to shoot a Western in Europe: It had been done before. But the 1964 release of A Fistful Of Dollars, starring minor U.S. television star Clint Eastwood, started a deluge of European Westerns. They quickly came to be known as spaghetti Westerns, thanks to Leone and the number of Italian directors making them, but they were often European co-productions shot in southern Spain with casts drawn from across Europe and the United States. Between 1964 and 1976, hundreds of spaghetti Westerns saw the light of day. As with any vibrant genre, the quality varies greatly from film to film. Furthermore, Leone’s work tends to overshadow his contemporaries’, meaning a lot of good-to-great movies tend to get overlooked by those who stick with the master.

 

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Edd ‘Kookie’ Byrnes at Memphis Film Festival

Edd Byrnes

Toughest, ‘ginchiest’ stars come out to celebrate Westerns at Memphis Film Festival by John Beifus, The Commerical Appeal

Cool information about the career of Edd Byrnes. It would appear he followed Eastwood and Burt Reynolds to Italy to try and break out of popular TV shows and into film. Edd Byrnes starred in a number of notable Spaghetti Westerns, including Any Gun Can Play7 Winchesters for a Massacre, and Red Blood Yellow Gold.

Edd Byrnes, 80, was a slang-spouting, hair-combing hipster known as “Kookie” from 1958-1963 on the ABC private-detective series “77 Sunset Strip.”

A predecessor to “the Fonz,” Kookie became a cultural phenomenon. In 1959, Byrnes and Connie Stevens recorded a hit novelty single, “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb),” and fans emulated the character’s jive jargon. “I’m so far out I’m, like, still orbiting,” said Kookie, whose synonyms for “very good” included “ginchy” and “the maximum utmost.”

“Writers wrote all the jive talk and all the stuff I used to say,” Byrnes said. “It was all news to me; it was foreign to me. When the record with Connie Stevens came about, I said, ‘I’m not a singer,’ and they said, ‘You’re gonna talk-sing, like Rex Harrison.'” . . .

. . . Both Conrad and Byrnes have struggled with alcohol during their careers, but both men say they no longer have “smog on the noggin,” to quote one of Kookie’s lines.

Byrnes arrived in Hollywood on Sept. 30, 1955, the same day James Dean died in a car wreck, but he said the date did not prove to be a bad omen in a busy career that enabled him to work with such directors as William Wellman (“Darby’s Ranger”) and Roger Corman (“The Secret Invasion”), and that brought him a burst of renewed fame in 1978 when he was cast as Vince Fontaine in the musical “Grease.”

“My son always reminds me, ‘You drove out to California, you had $300, you were a high-school dropout.’ For a guy like that, I’ve been blessed.”

 

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Swide’s Valentina Zannoi on “Giuliano Gemma: Spaghetti Westerns’ Angel Face”

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Nice, short introduction to the films of Gemma.

Born in 1938, Giuliano Gemma began his acting career as a stuntman due to his physical prowess. His talent as an actor and his leading man looks though did not go unnoticed, and director Dino Risi first offered him a speaking part next to Alberto Sordi in the critically acclaimed Venezia, la Luna e Tu in 1958.

Gemma’s real break however came in 1959 in an unaccredited role, he was cast as a centurion inWilliam Wyler’s Ben Hur. His looks, and physique then lead him to star in the ironic take on the mythological genre with Arrivano i Titani, (1962) which was a huge success both at home and abroad.

Taking a brief hiatus from the more action based movies, Gemma makes appearances in Visconti’sThe Leopard in 1963, and more from the franchise like Angelica and Angelica alla Corte del Re.

His real success and status as a heartthrob known worldwide was christened with the Spaghetti Western films, where he starred in many oeuvres directed by the biggest names like Duccio Tessari,Tonino Valerii and Sergio Corbucci.

Gemma interpreted over 100 films in his career and later in life moved towards the tv screen.

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Jandê Saavedra Farias Short “Lindonéia – Western Comics”

Art and animation for the comic book sequences in the short film “Lindonéia” by Tainá Vital and Raquel Gandra. Inspired by old italian Tex comics.

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