Tag Archives: Bad Criticism

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

hess

 

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What does ‘laughably weird’ even mean?: A few notes about “THE MOST LAUGHABLY WEIRD SPAGHETTI WESTERNS”

blog respons
In Anthropology, there is a concept called ethnocentrism, which essentially means judging the norms and conventions of another culture by one’s own. This is a problem because it typically leads people to judge what they looking at superficially. If someone if trying to understand something, like an Anthropologist in the field, they need to be willing to look at it on its own terms. In terms of cultural experience, this attitude limits your ability to grow.

I was thinking about ethnocentrism when I recently came across a post at Balladeer’s Blog titled “The Most Laughably Weird Spaghetti Westerns.” If we generalize the concept of ethnocentrism, it is applicable to this strange list.

The first issue is the title. What does it mean for something to be ‘laughably weird’? Usually, you hear of movies being referred to as ‘laughably bad’, not ‘laughably weird.’ A quick look at this list finds a strange mixture of films. There are some bad films: White Comanche, Kung Fu Brothers in the Wild West, Bad Kids of the West, Dynamite Joe, and Jesse James’ Kid. Only the first three really verge into ‘laughably bad’ territory. What is odd about the list is the inclusion of some good films: Django Kill!, The Price of Power, John the Bastard, Blindman, and Johnny Hamlet.

This strange idea of the ‘laughably strange’ and the odd mixture of films in the list leads me to this conclusion. ‘Laughably weird’ means that the Balladeer didn’t ‘get it.’ He was nonplussed. What he was watching was coming from outside his cultural frame of reference. Cultural signifiers – meaningful symbols, emotions, events, or ideas — were used in ways that he couldn’t follow. The strange juxtapositions provoked laughter, the same way they would if he were watching a bad movie.

In other words, the Balladeer exhibited a bit of ethnocentrism.

Regarding his criticisms of the particular films:

1) Django Kill (1967) His criticism seems to boil down to the fact that the film contains a series of extreme and strange elements. To this, I would point out that the movie is (1) based on the director’s experiences as a partisan (guerilla opposed to the fascist) in the surreal final days of WWII in Italy and (2) it is carnivalesque like most Eurowesterns. Carnivalesque refers to a perspective on life in which the world is turned upside-down, the body is celebrated in all its grossness, and atrocity merges into laughter. Conclusion: I don’t think Balladeer knew what he was looking at.

2)The Price of Power (1969) The criticism of this movie is based in its ‘pretentiousness’ and historical inaccuracy. I would contend that the movie is only ‘pretentious’ in that it is trying to reach the epic scope of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West . . . and it largely fails. What results is melodrama. That said, this film has great cinematography and a wonderful score. And, at its heart, it is an expansion on the mentor/apprentice or father/son dynamic of Tonino Valerii and Giuliano Gemma’s earlier classic Day of Anger (1967). At that level, this film works. Conclusion:  The Balladeer probably got caught up in the perceived absurdity of the assassination conspiracy plot and the melodrama about racism. However, he missed the solid b-movie underneath.

3 and 4) Bad Kids of the West (1967) and Jesse James Kid (1966) Yeah, these are not good movies. But are they actually weird? Bad Kids of the West was intended for children and numerous movies have tried to cast children as adults for comic effect. So does that make it weird or just part of a genre pitched at a particular audience? The weirdness of Jesse James Kid is, according to the Balladeer, the fact that Billy the Kid is Jesse James’ son in the story. But that is no more strange than the plotlines of numerous b-westerns, comic books, etc. Given the fact this movie is the equivalent of a 2-reel b-western from the 1930s, I don’t understand what makes this ‘weird’. Conclusion: Does the Balladeer know what the word ‘weird’ means colloquially?

5 and 9) John the Bastard (1967) and Johnny Hamlet (1968) The main complaint here is that Don Juan by Lord Byron and Hamlet by William Shakespeare were made as b-westerns. By this criteria, I guess it is equally weird that Macbeth and King Lear were remade as samurai movies in Throne of Blood and Ran. Were Kurosawa’s films laughably weird? Johnny Hamlet is very good acid-western that doesn’t take itself too seriously. John the Bastard also has a sense of humor about itself and is decent, though hurt by its shoe-string budget. Conclusion: The Balladeer is struggling with the meaning of the word ‘weird.’ He seems to have missed the irreverence of these films for their source material.

7) Blindman (1971) I don’t even know why this is on the list. The movie is no more weird than the Zatoichi (The Blind Swordsman) movies on which it is based. It was relatively well-financed and well-made. As a quibble, the Balladeer states that there were numerous spaghetti westerns made based on the Zatoichi movies . . . no, there was only this one. There was an American made TV movie called Blind Justice made in the 1990s as well as a few American action movies in the 1980s. But no other spaghetti westerns. Conclusion: This is no weirder than much of popular culture. Is the Balladeer sneering at popular culture in general?

6, 8, and 10) Dynamite Joe (1966), Kung Fu Brothers of the Wild West (1973), and White Commanche (1967) are all bad movies. Outside of the over-the-top theme song to Dynamite Joe and the over-the-top Shatner in White Commanche, these are just typical lower rung b-movies. Conclusion: The Balladeer gets off on pointing out the obviously bad.

In the end, this is my reaction to “The Most Laughably Bad Spaghetti Westerns”: The author is like a kid in the playground who gets attention by making fun of another kid with goofy clothes, thick glasses, and a strange accent. As a critic, the Balladeer points out obvious defects in films, some of which are good and others transparently bad, then sneers and makes snarky comments for his audience. There is no insight. There is such an obvious question that he misses. If genres like Eurowesterns or blaxplotiation strike contemporary viewers as being so strange and bad, why do they even exist? Why were they so popular? Were there audience just inferior in some way? Lets start with a different assumption: The audiences for these films weren’t ‘inferior’ and these movies had meaning for the audience in some way. Trying to grapple with this forces the critical viewer to move beyond themselves and view the movies a little differently. What Balladeer is doing the worst, most uninteresting and superficial type of film criticism (of course, its really just clickbait). It seems that the point of this sort of film writing is for the author to ‘demonstrate’ that they are, in some sense, superior to the audiences for these films.

To say that something is ‘laughably weird’ is to admit that you didn’t get it. I suppose that this would be the Balladeer’s response to silent films, Kabuki theater, or Chinese opera. If he doesn’t understand the conventions and symbolic universe of the art form, that makes the genre of performance “bad”. This sounds a bit like that concept of ethnocentrism that I started with.

Korano provides a much more interesting short list at the Spaghetti Western Database: Spaghetti Western Oddities.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,