The Carnivalesque Western alla’Italiana


The Carnivalesque Western alla’Italiana

The Italian filmmakers working out the massive Cincecitta film complex outside of Rome were marginal producers of marginal films for marginal audiences. The nature of the industry and the film-going practices of the audience contributed a carnivalesque and repetitive nature to the films. Together, audience and filmmaker created a cultural context in which both had great freedom with which to play with the syntax and semantics (Altman 1984) of the Hollywood western, flipping its significances on their head in carnivalesque inversion.

Though often associated with rigid formulas, the French exploitation filmmaker Jean Rollin argues that exploitation and genre films allow the filmmaker a wider range of expression than mainstream film:

“For me, the terms of popular cinema starkly oppose those of commercial cinema. Commerical cinema attaches value only to the profitability of the product. Popular cinema, or B-series, on the contrary, allows for the creation and development of a director’s personality, even in the realms of alternative of genre cinema. I decided to become a B-series auteur on purpose . . .” (Rollin 2004:xi)

While the marginality and illegitimacy of particular cinematic domains, such as the Italian western, leads to derision from the arbiters of official culture, the marginality endows these movies with a frankness and playfulness that can exceed that of both commercial and art films. At the end of Mussolini’s regime, a decade of previously forbidden American movies flooded the Italian market where they were eagerly by audiences that included later “genre auteurs” like Sergio Leone (Frayling 1998a). Contrary to the Northern filmmakers in the venerated neo-realist tradition of de Sica or Fellini, the popular filmmakers learned their trade working on big budget epics like Ben Hur (Wyler 1959) being shot in Europe in the early 1960s due to low production costs. Much has been written about how the industry attempted to pass-off their product as “authentic” Hollywood westerns (Frayling 2006). The names of personnel were “Americanized” in the credits of early films like Fistful of Dollars (Leone 1964) or Massacre at Grand Canyon (Corbucci 1964). Typically, this is portrayed as counterfeiting or piracy. However, it is important to realize that the filmmakers participated in Hollywood cinema as fans. Even though the films were initially opportunistic knock-offs of Hollywood b-movies (and later many were inferior knock-offs of successful Italian westerns), in many ways the films share characteristics with contemporary fan fiction or fan films. Fandoms do not passively consume a film or television series. Instead, they actively “poach texts,” reinterpret them, explore them, and put these texts to work defining the fan’s own identity and worldview. They produce commentary, artwork, or performances in the idiom of the film or series. Harry Jenkins (1988) describes how Trekkies, fans of Paramount Pictures’ Star Trek franchise, reinterpret the series from their own unauthorized perspective. Characters from the original television series, novels, and films were mostly male. According to Jenkins, this positioned the experience of female fans as a mode of “transvestitism.” However, this opened up new opportunities in the text. Through fan fiction, the relationships of the characters explored through plastic reworking of their sexuality and gender in often homoerotic ways.

These Italian filmmakers also engaged in a similar “transvestitism.” The act of making a western – at the time an explicitly nationalistic American genre – by Europeans in Europe was an illegitimate act. It stood in the same relation to the Hollywood product as the fan’s online Star Wars novel stand to the products of Lucas Films. Part opportunistic exploitation, part exploratory fan fiction, after the international success of Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964) Italian popular cinema rapidly expanded the semantics of the Hollywood western beyond its traditional rhetorical boundaries. At the same time, the landscape and characters were “Italianized” (Frayling 1998a). Leone later claimed that:

“ . . . when I started my first Western, I had to find a psychological reason inside myself – not being a person who ever lived in that environment. And a thought came to me spontaneously. It was like being a puppeteer for the pupi sicilinai. The pupi siciliani are an old Sicilian tradition. The players tour around in a painted carriage performing shows which are both historical and legendary – based on the Song of Roland. They stop with their puppets and their carriage in every village square and put on a performance. However, the skill of the puppeteers consists of one thing: to give each of the characters an extra dimension which will interest the particular village where the pupi are visiting: to adapt the legend to particular locality. That is, Rolando takes on the faults – and the virtues – of the village mayor. He’s a good guy in the legend. His enemy, the bad guy, becomes – say – the local chemist . . . The puppeteers take a legend or fable and mix it with the local reality . . . That is what I tried to do with the Western (Frayling, 1998b: 76).

In addition to being an artifact of fan culture and outcome of an active translation, two important aspects of production heavily influenced the freewheeling character of the genre. First, the films were usually presold to distributors before production, usually be referencing a previous success (Koven 2006). The industry comprised of competing companies that often released only a single film annually, meaning that even with government subsidies each film carried significant risk (Wagstaff 1992). Investors preferred to bet on sure things. This created the conditions in which the central narrative of Fistful of Dollars was elaborated on, streamlined, or exaggerated in an attempt to capture audience attention scattered among dozens of competing movies.

Beyond the conditions of production, exhibition contributed to a fluid character of the Western alla’Italiana. While the bigger budget productions were shown in the prima vizione (first run) theatres, the majority of the films were intended for the terra vizione (third run) circuit (Wagstaff 1992; Koven 2006) in a striking parallel to the Ghanian straight-to-video horror movies. In urban working class neighborhoods, people often went to see a new film every night (Koven 2006), which givens the genre the character of a serialized television show (Wagstaff 1992). Viewers would arrive late, leave early, change seats, talk back to the film, and talk through the boring parts. Not a space for the “contemplation” of a cinematic text (Koven 2006), the terra vizione theatre was an active social space. Armbrust (1998) describes a similar popular film culture in Egypt during the 1990s. For Egyptian audiences, the cinema was one of the few places where the state could be mocked and social relationships inverted in (morally) “bad” movies. The cinema was a liminoid space. Similarly, in his study of vernacular cinema Koven (2006) describes a similar reaction to Italian giallo slasher films in a theatre in San Fransisco, California, in the 1970s. While little research has been done on audience reception of Italian westerns, the film culture appears to be analogous to that described in Italy and San Fransisco.

Italian westerns reflect this context of production and exhibition in both form and content. Directors and writers paced the action so that something – a gunfight or fistfight – occurred every ten minutes to recapture straying audience attention (Koven 2006). These episodes are signaled by the eccentric, exaggerated scores of composers like Ennio Morricone or Luis Bacalov (Wagstaff, 1992).

In terms of content, the filmmakers followed the strategy of the pupi siciliani. Most of the films are a strange, syncretic mix of popular anti-clericalism, populist Marxism, and American western situations and props in a Southern Italian social geography. Audiences responded to an edgier, irreverent, transgressive product whose grammar maps onto the Medieval carnivalesque as described by Bahktin (1984). These movies speak in the language of the marketplace, they travesty canonical texts, are filled with games of chance and fortune-telling, revel in the uncrowning of “kings”, the delight in grotesque bodies anatomized to pieces and returned to “the lower stratum.”

A tone of hyperbole and mockery is indulged in. Bahkitn identified this as the language of the marketplace. Violent death is ambivalent, both brutal and comic in its posturing and desperate gesticulations. In films like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Leone 1966) or Once Upon A Time In The West, Sergio Leone systematically inverts and travesties the narratives and icons of the classical Italian western (Frayling 1998a). Most of these films have scenes featuring games of chance. In For A Few Dollars More (Leone 1965), Death Rides A Horse (1967 Petroni), or Death Sentence (Lanfranchi 1968), the stakes of a hand of poker is the life of one of the players. Other films, like The Return of Ringo (Tessari 1965) or Yankee (Brass 1966), have female fortune tellers in pivotal roles.

The genre is filled with grotesque bodies. Ugly faces are exaggerated and anatomized in extreme close-up, as in the opening sequence of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Frayling 1998a). Other films emphasize extreme body sizes. Dwarves appear in God Made Them . . . I Kill Them! (Bianchi 1968) and Ace High (Colizzi 1968). Recalling the giants of Pantagruel and Gargantua, Bud Spencer plays a muscular giant in the films of Giuseppe Colizzi, Enzo Barboni, or Michele Lupo.

Grotesque bodies are torn into pieces. A legless soldier appears as an informant in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. Laughing Mexican bandits cut the ears off of a spy in Django (Corbucci 1968). In Guilio Questi’s surreal Django Kill (1968) this tendency is taken to its extreme. In a notorious scene, a doctor operating on an injured outlaw discovers that the patient had been shot with golden bullets. A god rush ensues and bystanders literally rip the outlaw apart.

These grotesque bodies, rendered into pieces, are then brought to the “lower stratum,” into seas of mud in Sergio Corbucci’s Django, into sulfuric mines in Vengeance (Margheriti 1968), or into Indian catacombs in desert caves as in Seven Winchesters For A Massacre (Castellari 1967), Johnny Hamlet (Castellari 1968), or Scalps (Mattei and Fragasso 1987).

Bahktin’s grammar had a firm philosophical basis in Medieval popular culture. Through uncrowning, exaggeration of the body, and dismemberment the old is reduced to the stratum of the bowels, genitals, mud, caves, or the grave. From this lower stratum is born the new in a dialectic of rejuvenation, a continuity captured in the image of pregnant death. A very similar grammar structures the Western alla’Italiana. In fact, even the figure of pregnant death is present in one film, Keoma (Castellari 1976).

Next: The Liminal Hero

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