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.