Tuesday, March 22, 2011

1st Los Angeles Spaghetti Western Festival Review

North Hollywood-Toluca Lake Patch
NoHo Arts District Report

By Craig Clough March 20, 2011

Spaghetti Western Film Fest Rides Through NoHo

Lovers of this classic genre of film gather at the El Portal on Saturday.

The lights went down in the El Portal Theatre for the final film of the first Los Angeles Spaghetti Western Festival on Saturday. It was to be a screening of A Fistful of Dollars, credited by many with popularizing the spaghetti western genre in America.

Suddenly the large frame of Clint Eastwood filled the giant screen as he rode a slow, tired mule into a dusty town. But something was wrong. Something wasn't right, and many in the audience knew it. There was a quiet, restless murmur that made its way through the crowd. After a minute the screen went black and the DVD menu of the film appeared.

This wasn't exactly a film festival -- more of a digital festival -- as all the films were being screened on DVD, and the reason the crowd murmured and the film stopped was because the scene being projected took place about five minutes into the film, after Ennio Morricone's iconic opening song and animated credits. For this crowd of film buffs, skipping the Morricone song was like skipping the national anthem before a ball game. It's just wrong.

Finally, the film began again, and Morricone's familiar, whistling theme filled the theater. The final film of the day was finally underway, and the crowd roared with approval and cheers.

Spaghetti westerns were a popular genre of film during the 1960s an 70s, called that because they were produced with Italian money with Italian crews and shot in Italy or Spain, but starred American actors and took place in the American West during the 1800s. There were roughly 600 to 700 of them made and the unique blend of European and American cinematic styles proved popular around the world.

The first spaghetti westerns in the early and mid-60s were shot and distributed for international audiences and rarely made their way to America, despite the fact that they starred Americans and took place there. One of the keys to success for an international audience was casting actors with American names because the Italian producers thought that would help guarantee a big box office, said Mark Damon, who starred in many spaghetti westerns, including Dead Men Don't Count, which was also screened at the festival.

"If you had an American sounding name, they would want you in the film, even if you weren't a big star in America. They figured the (international) audiences would just assume you were a big star," said Damon during the festival's panel discussion, which also featured spaghetti western actors Robert Woods, Brett Halsey, Dan van Husen, Richard Harrison, Michael Forest and Jack Betts.

The films were shot with a low budget and the sound was almost always recorded in post production, often dubbed in many different languages to ensure heavy international distribution. Since the films were going to be dubbed in so many languages, producers saw little reason to spend the extra money to record live sound.

"I did an awful lot of -- we called them 'dubbings' in those days," said Forest, who lived in Italy for 10 years while acting in many spaghetti westerns. "We did the best we could at the time. Everything was dubbed. Unlike what we do here, everything is done with direct sound. There in Italy, everything was done on what was called a dirty track. It didn't matter what kind of noise or anything else that was on the track."

But seeing the films and trailers now, projected on the big screen, it seems the dubbing is part of what makes them unique and memorable. Because all the sounds were added after, the audience feels and notices all of the sound much more. The jingle of every stirrup, cock of every pistol and click of every horseshoe in the dust is heard and felt. Sure, during the dialogue it is hard to forget that the words are obviously dubbed, but it also serves as a constant reminder that these films were enjoyed by audiences around the world. 'Fistfull' is layered with influences from other genres from many areas of the globe, not just Italy. It's in fact based on a Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo, which was itself influenced by American westerns.

The spaghetti western came to America in 1967 when A Fistfull of Dollars, which was filmed and released internationally in 1964, was distributed by United Artists. The film became a big hit and was followed shortly by two sequels, which had also already been shot and released internationally. The films were so popular they made superstars out of Eastwood, Morricone and Sergio Leone, the films' director.

The films became known as the Man With No Name trilogy, because audiences never learn Eastwood's name. In 'Fistfull' he is simply called "The Americano." In the third film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he was called "Blondie, " and it is this film that today is considered by many critics to be the greatest spaghetti western ever made, one of the greatest sequels ever made and also one of the greatest films ever made.

That wasn't the case at the time of its release. Nearly all of the spaghetti westerns, including Leone's films, were panned by many American critics and dismissed as ultra-violent B movies.

But that opinion in the film world has shifted dramatically over time. For example, in its original review in 1968, Time magazine wrote, "After liters of fake blood have oozed. dripped, spilled and spouted over the landscape—all three arrive at the cache at the same time. Who gets it? Director Leone doesn't seem to care very much, and after 161 minutes of mayhem, audiences aren't likely to either." Time Magazine now includes the film on its list of ALL TIME-100 Best Films.

Morricone scored all three of the Man With No Name films, music that is today amongst the most recognizable in the history of film. His music is so essential to the genre that a tribute band, Insect Surfers, closed out the night with several songs inspired by the Leone westerns.

Also part of the day's festivities were many old trailers like Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Charles Bronson, and Duck, You Sucker!, starring James Coburn. Both were also directed by Leone.

There was also a talk by David Frangioni, author of the book Clint Eastwood Icon: The Essential Film Art Collection. Frangioni told the audience the story of how the book -- the proceeds of which go to charity -- got made. After a lot of wheeling and dealing that involved finagling his way around many Hollywood agents, managers and assistants, Frangioni was told that the book, which features around 400 images of movie posters and stills from Eastwood's films, was just going to be an afterthought for Eastwood and he shouldn't expect any special kind of reaction or attention. But that wasn't the case.

"Clint ended up giving the book as a Christmas gift in 2009 to 150 of his closest friends, which was a shining moment in the short-lived history of this book," said Frangioni.

For fans under the age of 40, this was the first time many of them (including this writer) had seen a spaghetti western projected on a large movie screen. It can be said about many films, but it is especially true that one has never truly seen a Leone film until they have seen it on the big screen.

This use of extreme juxtaposition isn't just in the visuals, as Morricone's score is quiet whistles broken up by blaring trumpets and a screaming chorus. Even Eastwood's face, which we spend half the film studying in extreme-close-up detail, is a juxtaposition of extremes. As Norman Mailer once wrote in Parade Magazine, and which Frangioni quotes in his book's intro, by looking at Eastwood's face, "You could be looking at a murderer or a saint."

The spaghetti westerns were known, and highly criticized, for their extreme violence, and it is easy to understand why. In one scene of 'Fistfull,' a group of bandits lights a hotel on fire, mowing down their rival gang one by one as they flee from the burning inferno. The scene goes on and on, with one man after another being shot down in a hail of bullets, some of them on fire, screaming in agony. At the end of the slaughter, a woman emerges, screaming at the bandits and calling them murderers before one of them guns her down too.

''The cowboy picture has got lost in psychology,'' the New York Times quoted Leone as saying once. ''The West was made by violent uncomplicated men, and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my pictures.''

Most striking is Leone's juxtaposition of extreme closeups with wide angle long shots, for which he became known. We are either so close we could smell Eastwood's breath, or so far away its as if we are watching from a distant cliff.

The 354-seat theatre was only about filled with a quarter of its capacity, but those in attendance seemed pleased with the day's events. As the audience was leaving the theater after the screening of A Fistfull of Dollars, one fan turned to the other.

"Man, it sure holds up, doesn't it?"

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