April 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of narrative, and the power of story as told through, but I can’t help but think about ho I am indescribably moved by the non-narrative absract films of Stan Brakhage. I just recently bought the By Brakhage set that the criterion collection put out, and was floored as I watched all of the films in succession, just glued to the screen watching as his techniques and subjects evolved. Everything from his early stuff which has a somewhat tangible narrative to his work with straight glueing actual objects directly onto the film strip, had a variety of different effects on my emotions and thoughts.

So I guess I just wanted to create this post just to say that, while I am obsessed with narrative film and the ways in which story are conveyed through the filmic medium, as well as the subtleties of plot and the devises utilized within, I still LOVE getting lost in the chaotic and confucingly emotional world of abstraction, of which Brakhage (thus far) has been perfection, in my humble opinion.


The reinvention of a genre is something that, can often be manifested with conflicting results, while this could also be said about the Italian’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns,’ very few people will dispute the importance of and intriguing innovations brought upon the Western genre by famed Spaghetti Western champion Sergio Leone. However there is also a much lesser known Sergio, whose influence upon and innovation within the genre, while less pronounced, was still vast within the cinephile circles, and that Sergio is Sergio Corbucci.
Corbucci, born on the 6th of December 1927 and often referred to as the forgotten Sergio, is considered by many film scholars to be the second most significant Spaghetti Western directors. He wrote and directed a wide multitude of westerns, a few of which are widely thought of as extremely important. Corbucci and his brother Bruno both played important roles in the Italian cinema, however their work only had a very small cult following outside of the Euro-Asian continent. Sergio, who tried his hand at the variety of different genres, began his career in film, as a critic. His critical career, led to his assistant direction under such important auteurs as Roberto Rossellini and the patriarch of the Spaghetti Westerns himself Leone (prior to his foray into the Western genre). It was at this time when he began to formulate his ideals about the cinematic art. From this point Corbucci began his ascent into the world of writing and directing his own features, the beginning of which were Italian comedies as well as some documentary work for Canadian television.

While working with Leone on his feature Pompeii in Spain, Corbucci was quoted as remarking to Leone, “Hang on a minute, we could make an amazing Western here, couldn’t we.” (Frayling, Sergio Leone 95) While Leone neither confirmed nor denied it, it seems as if this (as well as Leone’s close examination of the themes brought forth in Akira Kurosawa’s Yokimbo) was at this point that the Spaghetti Westerns began. Corbucci himself began his foray into the genre with the film Red Pastures (1963, co-directed by Albert Band). While this film as well as the following two subsequent Westerns, Minnesota Clay (1964) and Johnny Oro (1966), were marginalized, Corbucci truly found his stride with his later 1966 film Django. In the beginning as well as throughout his Western career, Corbucci continuously upheld the ideals of the Spaghetti Western, to depict a much more harsh and unforgiving, morally ambiguous, west.

These cinematic ideals were all enormously present in Corbucci’s magnificently over the top Django. Stark photography captures the luminescent reds of both the copious amounts of blood and the hoods of the confederate ‘klan.’ This film, accepted as Corbucci’s first true break through into remarkable film, sparked a stream of non-authorized sequels ultimately creating Western icon in the titular character of Django, played by Franco Nero, who Corbucci saw as his Eastwood. (Simpson 157) Interestingly enough, the initial sketch of the character was based off of jazz legend Django Reinhardt, who at one point in his career recovered from a devastating accident to become an even better guitarist. (Hughes 59) However from the moment that Django walks into the frame it is clear that this is a larger than life persona, this is exemplified by the opening sequence, which is a shot from the ground up as Django walks over the camera and out of the frame dragging a coffin. This is where the mystery begins, and it quickly becomes apparent that Corbucci isn’t going to reveal much to the viewer through, as is custom is a genre where the less dialogue and motive the better.

Motivation becomes a very intriguing concept through this film as Django seems to be completely consumed by a hunt for revenge, yet his intentions are often muddled by extenuating circumstance, and the viewer is never quite clear whose side the brooding, blue eyes hero is on. A perfect example of this is in the first true scene of the film, as the music comes to a close and the camera pulls back to an typical landscape scene in which almost the entire composition is filled by cloudless sky, the viewers attention is quickly torn from this callously segregating shot to a scene brutal scene in which the female lead is being tied up and whipped (a scene which seems to be the prototype for many of the cringe worthy rape scenes in Django’s assistant director, Ruggero Deodato’s later film Cannibal Holocaust (1979)). As the camera rapidly cuts to close ups of the faces of her tormentors, they quickly realize that these men are the roving Mexicans, thus introducing one of the two rival gangs of the film. As this is going on our reluctant hero, Django motionlessly watches from his isolated cliff, after a few lashes shots ring out and the Mexicans fall. From this Corbucci has the camera quick pan and zoom up to a paralleling position across a dried up river where we are introduced to the representation of our second rival gang, the constantly bright red clad ex-confederate ‘klan.’ As these men approach the tied up lacerated woman, it becomes clear that their intentions are certainly no more pure than the Mexicans who they killed to get to her, thus solidifying the Spaghetti Westerns pattern of a west where your heroes are often nothing but yet another form of sadism. In Corbucci’s west, as in Leone’s (and some of the ‘classic’ American westerns), everywhere you turn there is one form or another of danger, and not even your protagonist should be trusted to uphold any sort of moral system.

After the two separate ‘gangs’ have been introduced, Corbucci adds the third entity into the battle, the force of nature Django. Equally as quickly (if not more quickly) as the small band of reds had done away with the Mexicans the confederates all fall to the ground and the camera pulls back revealing Django to be the cause of their deaths. The most intriguing aspect of this first scene is the way in which it beautifully establishes the three separate forces involved throughout the film, without actually telling the viewer anything. By relying on instant read icons as well as simple and lack of dialogue, as well as close ups and eye matches Corbucci, sufficiently places the upcoming events into a sort of veiled context. The film is still filled with mystery, and the viewer still isn’t sure the exact identity of any of the three forces, and there is certainly the looming mystery of Django’s dragging coffin, yet there are certain allusions to truths to be further unraveled as the film goes on.

However, at this point as Django helps the woman down from her metaphorical ‘cross,’ through lack of dialogue Corbucci leads the viewer to believe that he’s our moral character, the one with which our sympathies are supposed to lie, but this is an interestingly played omission of motive. Yet this is merely the beginning of the omissions of motive through the entire picture, the only real suggestion that Corbucci gives us as to the motives of our protagonist is in the scene where Django’s sitting playing solitaire with his meaningfully blank stare through piercingly icy blue eyes, and in response to the ex-confederates allusion to the war he replies with something regarding the fact that he is fighting his own private war. This holds true through motivational twist and turn, right as the viewer has decided that Django has feelings for Maria (the woman he saved played by Loredana Nusciak) he turns her over to his ‘friend’ Gen. Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo) the leader of her initial sadistic torturers. However, these are just a few of the twists and turns regarding Djangos motivations and his muddied sense of morality seems mirrored by the use of setting.

Throughout the picture setting also plays a key role, whether it’s the sun bleached dry outskirts of the town, the gloomy mud covered town itself or the climactic use of quicksand, the landscape seems to play the role of the forth force, danger lurks at every turn. While the muddy facet of the town aesthetic may seem rather atypical for a Western, it seems to play well into the ideals behind Westerns as a dirty unforgiving genre through which to tell a story. Apart from that though the mud seems to represent something further, the ideology of ambiguous, conflicted and confusing morality (or ‘muddy’) that is firmly rooted in the past. As Django slowly and laboriously lugs his coffin through the mud of town it seems as if death looms over his him weighing him down as he strives forward, to the point where has can ‘bury Django,’ avenging the death of his wife and relieving himself of the pressures and weights of the coffin.

While Corbucci’s Django most definitely has its moments of ridiculousness, the mud wrestling scene, the many scenes of machine gun round after another mowing enemies down and the ear severing/force feeding scene (which Tarantino obviously ripped off for his famous scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992)) to name a few, the core of the film is firmly rooted in typical Spaghetti Western tradition, and Corbucci’s style begins to shine through. While the film contains many typical elements such as the quiet loner protagonist and the jilted fallen woman as well as the pompous and racist ex-confederate villain Major (Maj. Jackson played by Eduardo Fajaro) Corbucci’s ideals regarding the political left versus the right, as well as his tendency toward tight close ups, often brought upon by a quick zoom and in contrast to wide landscape pans are more than apparent in this picture.

All of the ideals come to a much more mature fruition in that film that is widely considered his masterwork, The Great Silence (1968). While Corbucci made a few films between Django and The Great Silence these are generally considered his the two films where Corbucci’s flair for the Western truly shined. This offering from Corbucci provides the viewer with many ways in which to do a proper deconstruction. From Corbucci’s use of a slightly agitated camera style, the interesting shifts in perspective (often voyeuristic with some amazing point of view compositions) to the thematic elements of rich right versus underprivileged left and the silent dutiful protagonist to the hauntingly poignant soundtrack provided by Ennio Morricone (these only being a few of the intriguing aspects of the film) there is certainly no lack of depth to this picture.

With this film Corbucci seemed a lot more grounded in his message, as well as quite a bit more comfortable and in control of his cinematic out put, and through this he provides the viewer with one of the most brutal visions of the west the cinema has ever seen. The first striking element of the film is the setting. In contrast to the typical Western setting of the bleak arid desert, Corbucci presents us with the snow-blanketed winter of Utah. Once again Corbucci plays with the use of setting showing once again that the desert is, not the only suitable setting for a ruthless severe Western. The frigid winter setting once again provides an interesting and equally unforgiving landscape for the narrative to follow.

In this film the viewer is confronted with a drastically different and conflicting view of the bounty hunter than Leone’s westerns. In this film the bounty hunters are the villains, running around killing the outlaws, who were merely forced into a life of crime because of extenuating circumstances (stealing to stay alive). The foremost villainous bounty hunter, Loco, is played scathingly by infamous German actor Klaus Kinski, with his amazing devilish blue eyed stare. With human life merely a source of monetary funds, Loco ravages the land savagely killing with ruthless disregard justified by its ‘correctness,’ with further justification in the ‘patriotic’ nature of the ‘job.’ “All according to the law,” he declared with a devilish grin and an elated faux-naïve look in his eyes.

The antithesis to Loco’s exaggeratedly evil character, who smoothly talks his way out of trouble with skewed justifications and sly demeanor, is the tragic protagonist of the story, the aptly names ‘Silence’ (Jean-Louis Trintignant). With this character Corbucci took Leone/Eastwood’s idea of the silent loner with minimal dialogue to the extreme. Silence is the representation of the righteous downtrodden left with which Corbucci obviously associated. Silence’s association with this demographic comes from the death of his parents, which we find out through flash back (which was brilliantly switched to through the use of light, candle in a relatively dark room goes out of focus and when focus returns the viewer is presented with a much brighter scene) was the result of crooked a crooked lawman and devious bounty hunters. Because of the tragic death of his parents, which he himself witnessed, hence the bounty hunters cut his vocal chords so that he couldn’t tell what he had witnessed, Silence became somewhat of a mercenary “avenging justice and defend(ing) the innocent.” Silence’s lack of voice is made up by Corbucci’s constant focus on extreme close up grounded heavily in eye-match, his cold facial expressions and cool eyes seem to tell it all, and in direct disparity to the eyes of Kinski’s Loco. Another way in which Silence is given a voice is through the score. In Howard Hughes’ essay “Since When Are Wolves Afraid of Wolves?” he stated that, “Morricone’s music is Silence’s voice and the voice of the landscape.” (Hughes 200)

Along with Corbucci’s characteristic use of eye match and focus upon facial expression (which isn’t so much singularly typical to his work as it is to the Western genre), he utilized the camera slightly differently in this film in comparison to Django. In Django the compositions were always very sharp, however while the majority of composition through The Great Silence are also in sharp focus (often an interesting deep focus on a bleached white landscape) here Corbucci is not afraid to float in and out of focus adding a sort of voyeuristic realism to the cameras views. As he shifts the focus of the composition he employs a slower focus adjustment, whether this was a purposeful tactic, it serves to add an additional air to the film.

Many of the different aspects of Corbucci’s typical thematic as well as cinematic elements are perfectly illustrated through the unexpected and powerful finale to the film. The end of this film is quite possibly Corbucci’s biggest break from Hollywood Western tradition, for the simple fact that the protagonist falls and the villain smirks and rides away untouchable, as it was “all according to the law.” However this scene truly embodies Corbucci’s ideals from its beginning. As in Django our protagonist has narrowly escaped a previous battle where his hand, his weapon, has been badly wounded leaving him seemingly unarmed. But, as in Django where Django says “I gotta deal with this in my own way,” Silence also has to confront his fate. Both men are firmly grounded in their sense of duty, whether or not morality plays any part, they are obligated not to shy away from opposition. So as Silence ventures out into the austere black of night, with little light, other than that reflecting upon the large snowflakes that fall around him, obviously injured he still has a very stern collected look in his eyes. As he ventures forth Morricone’s music plays liltingly and ominously in the background, as the hero practically stumbles into the face of insurmountable odds, the kind of odds audiences are used to heroes overcoming. Yet through the use of soundtrack as well as compositions the harsh reality of the situation becomes uncomfortably real to the viewer, and as Silence walks out of the shot and his lover, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), run into a composition where her whole face aside from an noticeably perturbed eye is obscured into back by a house, the inevitable looms over the viewer.

As Silence moves into the paralleled position to that of the lawful villains, all of his personal tactics are used against him as the camera focuses on the naturally calm Loco sits soothed in his ostentatious fur coat with a piercing stare into no where, as his henchmen inform him of Silence’s arrival. After a few moments of tension building pause, where Corbucci’s camera quickly cuts in closer and closer on all of the characters faces, shots ring out and Silence’s already impaired hands are rendered useless. As he had done to many different amoral bounty hunters, they (not Loco, but one of his cronies) shot his thumbs off. At this point Loco slinks over and slowly opens the doors to the saloon, and standing triumphantly centered in the composition with the camera pointing up at him as if from Silence’s perspective then switching to the camera looking down at Silence as if from Loco’s. And after a long pause Silence reaches for his gun, and just as Silence has done all his life Loco waited for this moment and reacts, out of ‘self defense.’ Two shots ring out, first from someone else and then a head shot from Loco, and Silence falls in slow motion. The brutality continued and in the end only the villains are left alive, and the final scene brilliantly illustrates the brutality of the film, as the camera focuses on Loco riding away in a windows reflection, and then shifts focus to the dead housed inside said window.

In the end, Corbucci provides the viewer with what are in some ways typical Spaghetti Westerns, but in many ways challenge not only the ideology of Hollywood Westerns, but also the Westerns of his contemporaries such as Sergio Leone. His stylistic and thematic principles were incredibly interesting and helped him to convey certain messages through each film. The films of Sergio Corbucci are violent, relentless, harsh, stark, off the wall and introspective, offering Western fans arguably a more realistic unsympathetic view of a tired west.

Works Cited

Edwards, Daniel. “Sergio Leone.” Senses of Cinema. Sept. 2002. 5 Mar. 2009 <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/leone.html&gt;.

Frayling, Christopher. Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2000.

_________________. Spaghetti Westerns Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (Cinema and Society). London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.

Hughes, Howard. Once upon a time in the Italian West the filmgoers’ guide to spaghetti westerns. London: I.B. Tauris, In the U.S. and Canada, distributed by Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Simpson, Paul. Rough guide to westerns. London: Rough Guides, Distributed by Penguin Putnam, 2006.

Weisser, Thomas. Spaghetti Westerns – the Good, the Bad and the Violent: 558 Eurowesterns and Their Personnel, 1961-1977. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1992.