Saturday, May 23, 2009

A director’s spaghetti western obsession Part 2

By Alex Cox

At this stage in my life, I didn’t expect to be a filmmaker. Yet I still learnt by watching these films. I acquired information, a cinematic shorthand, that would be helpful later on. I also learnt the importance of hiring a great designer and, if possible, providing them with a good budget. It seemed to me that Carlo Simi’s sets and costume designs were the most crucial part of the spaghetti western – he came up with Clint Eastwood’s serape, and the long duster coats worn by Henry Fonda and every western bad guy since 1968 – even more so than the violence or the epic performances or Ennio Morricone’s remarkable scores.
Simi designed westerns big and small but for Leone he would build structures with an epic nature that matched the landscape: the ranch house in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a huge incongruous home in the middle of nothingness; the half-built town of Flagstone, also from that film, a handful of brave buildings beside the railroad in an endless plain, or the Bank of El Paso in For a Few Dollars More (1965), which imitated the chalk-white desert buttes surrounding it.
In the early 1970s, I took the train to Almeria in southern Spain to check out Simi’s structures. These were working film locations – they hadn’t yet become tourist attractions – and I watched from a hill as Ken Russell and his crew filmed exteriors for Valentino on Simi’s “El Paso” set. I camped out in Simi’s ranch house, across the highway from a new “old” town, recently constructed for a Charles Bronson film. I remember thinking that Bronson clearly wasn’t a tall fellow, as all the doors seemed to have been built three-quarter size.
I finally caught up with Django – also designed by Simi – when I was a graduate film student at University of California, Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. The film had a US distributor but a very limited release. As I worked in the film and TV archive, I was able to borrow a print from the distributor and watch it on a flatbed editing machine. Relentless, surrealistically cruel and crazy, it is a film I’ve seen several times; it never disappoints.
Somehow I’d ended up in the critical studies department at UCLA, even though I knew by now I wanted to be in “production”, a different department in the same building, where the students had more access to camera and editing equipment.
So I tried to accelerate my progress through the critical studies course (and thus my departmental switch) by writing my thesis. My subject? The Italian western. Back then, “serious” film academia tended towards something called semiotics and if you wrote a book about anything to do with film you were expected to break the damn thing up into sections and subsections about the various symbols, signs and meanings that other academics had decided were crucial. My attempt at a spaghetti western book, called 10,000 Ways to Die, was overshadowed by all this and didn’t amount to very much. It wasn’t published.
Thirty years on, however, a new version of the book is set for release. It is written as a brief history of the form, with reviews of what I think are interesting or important films, in chronological order. The chronological part was of most interest to me; I also watched the films, as far as I could, in the order in which they were made. In that way, I thought, it would be possible to detect the development of the form. It is a fascinating study in the case of Sergio Leone, whose tale of insecurity and great success unfolds along with his films.
Spaghetti westerns may have become “respectable” now but only Leone is accorded much respect – his DVDs alone are marketed as the “director’s cut”. Leone was the one bad boy allowed into the House of Culture; the door was then closed and the rest of the ragazzi – Corbucci, Damiani, Giulio Questi – remain outside.
Corbucci and Leone were friends, then rivals as well as filmmakers of great influence and significance. Leone’s west was one of uneasy alliances between god-like men – cat-like, innately violent westerners; cold, technological easterners, and Mexican bandits. Corbucci’s west was a world without alliances, in which one man – usually crippled, maimed or blind – was forced to confront two gangs of equal villainy. In Leone’s world, money was always the goal. In Corbucci’s world, money was mentioned, then quickly forgotten in a downward spiral of torture, destruction and loss.
These days, westerns don’t figure much on the horizon, outside the world of DVDs. In Almeria, three of the old sets remain as tourist destinations, paved and featuring faux-western brawls. The Italians don’t make westerns any more, though the French still do, from time to time. And it is one of the laws of Hollywood that every up-and-coming male star will get to make (and possibly direct) at least one western as a vanity project.
Obsessions are interesting things but they don’t last for ever, any more than anything else does. And, after watching so many spaghetti westerns, with the same sets, the same actors, the same repetitious jokes, the same sexism and racism and ennui masquerading as entertainment, I am finally sick of them! Or, at least, I tell myself I am. Just as Corbucci once told reporters he was sick of westerns and would never make another.
But then he got to thinking about a man on a horse against the horizon, and about how fine that looked and, before he knew it, he was back in the desert again.
Alex Cox’s is currently working on ‘Repo Chick’, a sequel to ‘Repo Man’

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