Tag Archives: Italy

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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The 50th anniversary of Fistful of Dollars . . .

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. . . has led to considerable recognition for the accomplishments of director Sergio Leone. The American Film Institute had an event showing Leone’s westerns this July:

Sergio Leone
July 3–27

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which launched Sergio Leone to international stardom (the film’s young star, Clint Eastwood, made out okay, too), AFI Silver presents this selection of the filmmaker’s finest films. Look for a new restoration of Leone’s magnum opus, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, out later this year.

The Cinémathèque in Paris is currently showing a retrospective of his work now:

Epic gunfights. Epic running times. Sweeping panoramas of the Wild West (often, in fact, Spain). Harmonicas on the soundtrack. Extreme close-ups and huge depth of field. Trains. Horses. Scowling hitmen with beards. Few cinematic languages are as distinct as that of Sergio Leone, the late Italian maestro of the Spaghetti Western.

Like Stanley Kubrick or David Lean, Leone was a perfectionist who obsessed over style in the manner of a master artisan. Consequently, like those two, he didn’t complete many films in his career. The seven movies that he helmed in his forty-year career form a coherent set: centred as it is on the Spaghetti Western genre, an homage to the Hollywood Western which is itself founded on the shaky fables of the Wild West, his oeuvre is preoccupied with nostalgia and myth. Many of his works, such as the Eastwood-starring ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy, pay tribute to the tropes of early Hollywood cinema while subtly subverting them; his best film, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West‘, threw its audience by casting erstwhile heartthrob Henry Fonda as a sadistic baddie.

Most interesting were the outtakes from Fistful of Dollars (1964) that surface this summer courtesy of the Cineteca Bologna:

 

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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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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”

kill screen response

 

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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Simon Abrams “After ‘Django’ came ‘The Great Silence,’ a spaghetti western about bounty killers in Utah”

After 'Django' came 'The Great Silence,' a spaghetti western about bounty killers in Utah   Capital New York

At Captial New York, Simon Abrams wrote a piece lauding Corbucci’s second movie in what you might call the “Django series.” Sergio Corbucci had a habit of remaking the same movie over and over if it were successful. After Django (1966), he essentially made two variations on the plot/character/theme in The Great Silence (1968) and The Specialist (1969). 

Abrams writes:

The Great Silence is an atypical spaghetti western in the sense that Corbucci doesn’t emphasize black humor and surreally sadistic scenes of violence as much as he does in a film like Django. . . 

. . .The Great Silence is an unconventional spaghetti western that takes place, as an intertitle imperiously announces, one “Winter [in] 1899,” in Snowhill, Utah. This is, in other words, a film set in a specific historical moment. And yet it has no more respect for rules than any other spaghetti western: Amorality and a fatalistic air of pessimism dominate Corbucci’s film. . . 

. . . The Great Silence stands up as well as it does today because it takes that intense cynicism we’ve come to associate with the spaghetti western and given it a new context. Tarantino would do well to draw on as much of that sort of innovation as he can.

However, Abrams misses the point when he writes that in The Great Silence “Corbucci doesn’t emphasize black humor and surreally sadistic scenes of violence as much as he does in a film like Django”. The Great Silence plays as though it is an intense, serious, cynical tragedy. And, in some ways, it is. . . almost. When you look at Corbucci’s entire oeuvre, you will find that he makes irreverent burlesques of the Western genre that almost verge on spoofs. He is always putting the audience on. In fact, that is what I think that is going in The Great Silence. I will not ruin the experience with spoilers, but I will ask to think about what Corbucci is actually up to after the impact of the movie passes over you. 

In a future podcast, I will cover the movies of Corbucci. It may be awhile, however, as I have a lot of topic I would love to talk about.

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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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“Vincenzoni was known as a spaghetti western scribe, to his chagrin”

RIP Vincenzoni

“Vincenzoni was known as a spaghetti western scribe, to his chagrin”

Co-writer of For A few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. From a syndicated New York Times column from last year, whenVincenzoni died.

Luciano Vincenzoni, an urbane Italian screenwriter who worked with Billy Wilder, Dino De Laurentiis and other giants of film but to his dismay was best known for writing two spaghetti westerns starring a young Clint Eastwood, died Sunday in Rome. He was 87.

The cause was cancer, said Federico Vincenzoni, a grandson.

Vincenzoni contributed to about 70 films, chiefly as a screenwriter or script doctor. His humorous touch could be found in films like “Seduced and Abandoned,” which he made with Pietro Germi in 1964, and “The Best of Enemies,” which De Laurentiis, the producer, released in the United States in 1962.

But to the general public Vincenzoni was most associated with “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” two hugely successful Italian-made westerns directed by Sergio Leone that are now recognized as classics.

“I have written movies that won prizes at Cannes and Venice,” he told Sir Christopher Frayling, a cultural historian and Leone biographer. “These were screenplays for which we suffered on paper for months. Do you know how long it took me to write ‘For a Few Dollars More’? Nine days.”

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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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