The Cineastes #3 Big Trouble in Little China (1986, Dir. John Carpenter)


Staring: Kurt Russell (Jack Burton), Dennis Dun (Wang Chi), Kim Cattrall (Gracie Law), James Hong (David Lo Pan)

Written by Gary Goldman & David Z. Weinstein, Adapted by W.D. Richter

“Like Ol’ Jack always says, What the hell.”

The cheese factor is strong with this John Carpenter action flick, and that is most certainly not a negative thing. Steeped in subtle, as well as blunt, references to the precursory films of the genre, Big Trouble opens with an interview about the actions of the character Jack Burton. With the cookies of window blinds on the wall behind the character being interviewed a noir-ish atmosphere is set. This then leads to a quick jump to an establishing character shot of good ol’ Jack himself. The viewer is introduced to the main character as he mouths off on a CV radio barreling down the road in his deluxe big rig, the “pork-chop express”. The character of Jack is steeped in western filmic tradition, basically an ‘every action hero’ sort of character, however the most obvious character reference embodied in Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton is John Wayne. Immediately from the intro on the CV Radio, it was clear that Jack Burton was a character obviously modeled after John Wayne.

“Reach for the Sky”

However, riffing off of the idea of the machismo soaked hero, Jack Burton is obviously a displaced hero. jokes are often made at his expense and it’s obvious that while Carpenter (Goldman, Weinstein and Richter) are in many ways paying homage to the action film, seemingly mixing many different sub-genres together (asian gangster, kung-fu, wester, etc) they are also poking fun at the conventions of the typical action film. Such as having Jack often miss the action or at least the beginning of the action because of his own stupidity, knocking himself out often and getting his ‘shoe-blade’ stuck in an opponent, and going into the final battle scene with lipstick on his lips (haha). Jack also often finds himself in over his head, and while all of the characters fit into their own archetypical characters, they often defy the logic of previous action films.

Line obviously poking fun at the western need for a bigger gun “Make you feel better, Like Dirty Harry”

As far as the cinematography and filmic techniques go, this film is a rather typical action film, steeped in medium shots, over the shoulder shots, and a generous sprinkling of deep focus as well as POV shots. The way that the film was edited, of course, lends itself well to the fast pace of a thrilling action film, as the main characters Jack Burton and Wang Chi (with a little help from their friends) race to save the girls from their devious, supernatural, matrimonial fate. The film inter-cuts between the heros and the ‘bad guys’ to create a building tension.

In typical early John Carpenter fashion he wrote the score (or at least co-wrote), however with this film we hear his scoring evolving into a much more lush and full sound, much more bombastic than that of the haunting Casio chords of the songs Halloween or Assault on Precinct 13. With this as well as many of the other filmic technique changes, make it obvious that this film as opposed to may of his others is much more about the straight action and fun rather than the suspense.

Another part of the film that I found rather interesting was the ways in which supernatural folk-lore came to life through this film. The film obviously borrows from many different cultural influences, as well as totally B.S.ing some new ones, which makes for an even interesting and aesthetically rich setting. On top of this I found the idea of an underworld rather well done and for lack of a better word ‘fun.’ In this regard Carpenter did a very good job creating a feeling of decent into a sort of hidden hellish dimension. Having the characters ever confused as the to direction which they are traveling was a very interesting technique in creating a sort of perplexing reaction from the viewers, while I’m sure remaining within a somewhat limited budget.

The ending of the film as well harkens back to the conventions of the western genre. With the day effectively saved and peace seemingly restored, everyone sits around discussing what next, and in the tradition of the lone cowboy Jack Burton ‘rides’ away solo, leaving the girl behind. But, what happens next, is left somewhat up to the imagination as a little unexpected something is along for the ride.

“sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way, well lemme think about it”

In the end this film was a complete joy to watch. If you’re looking for a deep viewing then go ahead and watch retreat to your Godard, Bergman, or Kieslowski (just to name a few I like to run to), but if you’re looking to escape into an enjoyable fun fantasy tinted world crafted by one of the early masters of the genre you certainly have a gem in this film.

“We really shook the pillars of heaven didn’t we… No horse shit”

This Month was delightfully hosted by Crap Monster at http://www.yggnoise.com/cineastes/0709-bigtrouble

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A slightly shorter, and quite late entry, but here it is!

The Gambler (Karel Reisz, 1974)

Hosted by Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema (http://www.octopuscinema.blogspot.com/)

‘An investigation of the appeal of a quick decline’

This is one essay where the title says it all. When I went into the viewing of this film, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The obvious appeal to the film was the presence of James Caan, and the possibility of a thrilling film about ‘risk.’ However upon watching the film, I found myself lost in a somewhat gripping and utterly depressing investigation of addiction.

In the film, which is said to be loosely based upon the Dostoyevsky story of the same name, director Karel Reisz is not afraid to present us with a, for the most part, quite unlikable character. James Caan’s Axel Freed, although he has his brief shining moments, is a despicable personification of a gambling addict. In the beginning of the film we’re first introduced to Axel in a particularly pathetic and pitiable predicament. Throughout the rest of the film, while his situation waxes and wanes from the two extremes of human experience, a sympathetic viewer such as myself had a hard time feeling anything other than resentment for Axel.

This, however merely proves that Reisz succeeded in evoking an emotional stir within me. Through various techniques Reisz forced the viewer to bear witness to Axel’s quick and painful decline. Minute by minute during the film Axel loses one thing after another and we watch him break down and crack under all of the different pressures and situations he places himself in. “It’s no good, if there’s no risk… you need the Juice!” This is an overarching theme through the film that Axel as well as a fair amount of addicts, “want to lose,” they can’t help but be addicted to the danger, they seek the rush.

By using many different techniques such as perspective shifts, as in the constant use of mirror, static shots coupled with silence (or a shrill sustained note), like when he sat in the tub as the viewer gazed up at him from a voyeuristic perspective at him as he loses, yet again, truly place the viewer in the hellish demise of an individual. His downward spiral which is mirrored in the editing and the clever utilization of telling snippets of flashback, as well as the soundtrack which at times borders on Brechtian, culminates in an aesthetic representation of what he has been doing to his ‘soul.’ By having our ‘hero’ physically scarred by his actions, the damage he has done to himself take on a corporeal as well as metaphorical representation.

In the end, this is not an enjoyable film to watch. It’s not a film to pop some popcorn and sit with the family for, it’s a gritty presentation and investigation into the human psyche and it’s inherently flawed nature, corruption from within. However, while this wasn’t a fun film, it was an interesting and worthwhile viewing. The references to literature further added insight. The acting on the whole was rather good (although there certainly were some cardboard portrayals). And while the film at times felt like watching an anti-gambling after-school special, in the end it came out as a more serious film to be scrutinized, and while the direction of the film on the whole was a tad on the bland side (the cinematography often left something to be desired) there were certainly enough instances of interesting or intriguing filmic technique to at least placate this cinematography nerd. Overall an interesting film.

“Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be…”

Although I am an admitted novis when it comes to the world of Woody Allen’s cinema, I’ve recently become enamoured with this film. I’ve seen a few of the early films and a few of the later films, and have always found them to be wholy enjoyable, but Ihave to say that this film blew me away. Allen’s brilliant, biting, comical, self efacing and satirical script (dialoge especially) along with the brilliant stark black and white cinematography have coeleased into this amazing film which serves as a love letter to film in general, Manhattan, as well as a really complex and interesting plot.

Other than that simple thought about the film, I would really like to talk about a couple of really interesting scenes, both of which were in museums. In two of the museum scenes, Allen playfully plays with perspective. In the fist scene, when Isaac is with Tracy at an art gallery (I guess not quite a museum) and they are standing looking at a work, and talking about it. In the composition there is a large work that dominates the screen, which it seems that they are talking about and then someone walks in front of them and smashes this perspective and adds another dimention to the shot. The second scene of which I speak is when Isaac is walking with Mary in the museum, to escape the rain, they walk through straight black space where they walk around or behind, it’s hard to tell which, seemingly massive structures, throughout this scene Allen plays with perspective in a truly interesting way.

Anywho, along with what I’ve already said, I feel in love with Allen’s ability to create characters who are all together reprehensible while at the same time completely loveable.

Ugetsu: The Dangers of the Free Market through a Mystical Doorway

Ugetsu
Dir. ~ Kenji Mizoguchi
Original story ~ Akinari Ueda
Screenplay ~ Matsutarô Kawaguchi & Yoshikata Yoda
Cinematography ~ Kazuo Miyagawa

I guess to start I will simply state that the fact that this film, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), was an extremely exciting choice for me (thanks Matthias). I have a little experience with the rich history of Japanese cinema, a little Kurosawa here some Ozu there (as well as a healthy sprinkling of newer Asian films), but I really haven’t truly had a chance to dig seriously into the wealth of amazing films coming out of Japan. So, I’ve had an increasing interest and thanks to my friends at the Cineastes, I had reason to dive in headfirst.

I (plot and themes)
Initially I was incredibly interested in the premise of the film, a somewhat unordinary ghost film, and the Godard quote regarding the Mizoguchi on the back of the criterion also peaked my interest, and I wasn’t disappointed. Similarly to some of the Asian cinema that I have seen thus far, and also similarly to the films of Godard, Mizoguchi seems to abstract his characters using them as tools to propagate his ideals. While his characters, as well as the aforementioned, prove to be interesting and relatable characters who (making the message well received), the primary utilization is in setting up a sort of intriguing moral tale.
In the film, which is based heavily upon a few short stories (included for viewer/reader pleasure in the criterion release), the viewer is presented with two married couples, Genjurō (Masayuki Mori) his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Tōbei (Eitarô Ozawa) his wife Ōhama (Mitsuko Mito). In the beginning Genjurō is introduced as an eager entrepreneur running leaving his family at home to go in search of wealth and prosperity. His actions are, of course in a veiled way, for his family, however he is quick to fall into the trap of monetary success’s tenancy to lead to a slight ‘amnesia’ of sorts, and it’s obvious that Miyagi is really not interested in the monetary gains as much as she is in the value of familial stability (plus she was warned by the village ‘wise man of sorts’). Conversely, while Genjurō seems to have it all together and have his ambitions fairly well thought out (even though they are spiraling quickly out of his control), the male figure of our second couple Tōbei, is a ragged man ruled by his seemingly selfish ambition, to become a samurai. From the onset Tōbei is shown as an almost slapstick failure of a man, fully willing to leave Ōhama behind in pursuit of the notoriety and prosperity that comes with being a successful samurai, and Ōhama merely wants him to put aside his foolish ambitions in pursuit of a modest yet happy life.
Set in a period of civil war in Japan, the village in which the two families live is under attack and the two families narrowly escape only to be consumed by a lilting fog. As they slowly boat through the fog, they meet come in contact with a bad omen, a ‘ghost’ of sorts, At this point Genjurō decides that he must leave his wife and child behind (under the mistaken idea that they would be safer there). However, this fog seems also to be metaphorical because it is at this point that everyone’s ambitions and connections to their families become hazy. As they all emerge from the actual fog, they seem to (quickly or gradually depending on the character) lose sight of what in actuality matters to them. In reality only the women have clear vision of what would be viewed as ‘moral’ ambition, however at this point, the turn of the story, everything gets truly out of control.
Having made it out of the fog and into the city, where “war is good for business,” Genjurō, Tōbei and Ōhama are selling off the pottery that they had risked their lives to smuggle out. Quickly though they are separated. Once Tōbei has enough money for the armor he needs he immediately splits, Ōhama running after him and becomes lost (and quickly so does her honor and innocence), and Genjurō is seemingly lured and stolen away by a mysterious and mystical figure, who Mizoguchi cleverly has seemingly invisible to anyone else (with the way she seems to glide into the picture, have her companion say a few words, only to Genjurō and they glide away) as well as not showing the viewer her face right away in ominous fashion.
While the mystical aspects of the film, beginning to come to fruition at this point, are incredibly interesting, they seem to merely serve as metaphor for regret. Harkening to the idea of the ghosts as the lost souls with ‘unfinished’ business here on earth. Regret, mistake and unfinished business seem to be big themes in this film. The ghost who seduces and blinds Genjurō with her beauty and ‘monetary value’ was merely, as the dialogue pointed out, searching for love, the thing she regrettably never experienced in her days on earth. However in seeking said love with Genjurō she stole his life, taking him from the love he once had and creating the second ghost of the film Miyagi.
Having been all but abandoned Miyagi yet waited for Genjurō and eventually fell at the hands of starving rogue samurai. With the disappearance of his ghost seductress Genjurō was immediately filled with regret and ran back to Miyagi, whose ghost yet waited for him to return, still having the unfinished business of a last night with her love. When Genjurō returns he finds nothing, yet as he as well as the viewer through a sort of POV over the shoulder tracking shot circles in, out and back in magically there she waits. Yet with interesting focus on the tears streaming from her eyes it’s obvious that this isn’t to last. Genjurō wakes in the morning only to be told of her death and realize his loss.
While the other couple Tōbei and Ōhama escaped the mystical aspects of the film they encountered each other later on in the film, and were instantaneously filled with regret as well. Tōbei’s ambitions had all but ruined the two of them, and it could even be said that Ōhama lived as a living ghost living only for her unfinished business with her husband, and even though they were reunited in the end, with a renewed vision of life and their relationship, they didn’t go untouched by the events of the film.
In the end this film is a beautiful indictment of free market economy. The lust for the almighty dollar (or silver coin in this case) has taken everything from our set of main characters. Tōbei and Ōhama escaped with mere bruised egos and ruined honors, however Miyagi paid with her life and Genjurō lost his true love and chance at happiness. Through the film the dialogue speaks wonders of the moral of the story. The use of dialogue to aim the viewer’s attention at the right aspects was fantastic. Through the use of lines such as “money is everything,” “this world is a temporary abode,” “the fruit of experience is beauty” and “the value of people and things really depends on their setting,” the ideals and morals of the film become stark, poetic and powerful.

II (technical aspects)
And now with the last of this essay, there is an aspect of the film that I have yet to address at length, the cinematography. This film is truly incandescent. From the use of deep focus in the landscape/establishing shots to the pace of the editing and camera movement (slow deliberate tracking and panning shots), Mizoguchi is beyond doubt a master at creating an atmosphere. Taking the visual aspects further, the use of hazy fog to create the beautiful seemingly endless water on which they travel is luminous! He also utilized voyeuristic POV very well in some scenes particularly the rape of Ōhama.
Other than this I couldn’t help but notice the brilliant use of framing aspects of the composition. Mizoguchi seems to have an amazing eye for splitting a frame, and most striking for me was the use of doorway as a framing technique. Many times throughout the film doors, as well as windows funneled the viewer’s attention upon a certain event. For specific examples look no further than the scene as the army invades the village. As they drag the inhabitants of the town away, the perspective is from the insides of their homes looking out, framed through the doorway as the soldiers violently pull the town apart. I’ve always been a huge fan of this funneling effect, and Mizoguchi does it extremely well.
I also couldn’t help but notice how for the compositions, similarly to much of Dreyer’s later films, direction in which the different characters in the frame are looking becomes increasingly important. For a specific striking example, the scene where Genjurō and Miyagi are working on their pottery together. As the child (who’s in the way) looks in all directions, Genjurō stairs forward at the pottery keeping his eye and mind on the ‘prize’ while Miyagi stares longingly at Genjurō (talking in what may as well be voice over about how much she yearns for the past when the worked together and enjoyed their lives). In this and many other frames the directions in which the characters eyes are focused, especially in relation to their surroundings and the surrounding characters, is VERY important for the effect of the scene.

Overall I would have to say that watching Ugetsu was a completely enriching filmic experience. Mizoguchi provides the viewer with a perfect example of a film that brilliantly walks the line between the harsh realities of life and the intriguing mystical aspects. Although I feel as if some of the aspects of the moral of the story were a bit lost on me for my lack of knowledge of Japan during the time period, as well as during the time the film was made, I feel as if there were many aspects off the film that were not only timeless, but transcended nationality as well. In the end Ugetsu was a complex film and I don’t think enough can be said about it. So since I feel as if I definitely left quite a bit out, please (if you haven’t already) read the essays of all of the other members of The Cineastes. This month was hosted by Matthias Galvin at Framed, and you will find links to all of the essays there, as well as if you click on The Cineastes links to the right on my page.

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.

In the first segment of class this semester we have already covered quite a bit of ground, from the humble (yet intriguing) beginnings of the genre with The Great Train Robbery (Porter 1903) to some films from the more innovative directors who spearheaded the “classic” period of the western, the most captivating of which would have to be Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet (1959). In this film Arnold, who had already shown himself to be a very versatile director with a flair for noir-ish observant direction, presented the viewer with a new take on the western genre. Instead of having the showdowns and the obvious moral denotations, Arnold creates a western that, not unlike Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), calls into question the viewers ideals about the western ‘hero’ and the moral codes that seemed to be staples at the time.
In Zinnemann’s film we watch as a whole town one by one deserts the only person who has ever really been there for them, the only character who has really been there and with confidence and morals ‘in spades.’ This idea of the town full of people, who seem a lot more trust worthy than they actually are, is taken in a different direction by Arnold in No Name on the Bullet. With his film Arnold presents another very bleak representation of a seemingly ordinary western town, yet in contrast to Zinnemann’s town of cowards and felons (or felon ‘sympathizers’ i.e. people who profit of the presence of felons), Arnold takes a much more observant psychological approach, much like the methods of the films antagonist, John Gant played perfectly by Audie Murphy.
From the commencement of the film the atmosphere is impeccably set, a very desolate and isolated farmhouse. Two seemingly ordinary stock characters, a barking dog, and ominous music, create the setting in which we first encounter John Gant as he strolls up on his horse and inquires about his destination. Gant’s cold calculated manner coupled with the use of ominous music and the brechtian and uneasy use of the dog bark as well as the slow and seamless flow of cinescope to fashion a broad and vast landscape, brilliantly set the stage for the psychological “chamber” western that Arnold has just begun.
From this starting point Arnold proceeds to build upon this already noir-ish western set-up by presenting us with an austere, façade ridden average western town, and having emotions, or more importantly, tensions run high with the entrance of the ‘force of nature’ that is John Gant. One specific line from the film that wholly emphasizes the general importance of Gant’s character within the narrative as being of chaotic passive initiator is when the physician, while conversing to Gant, says “Right now I’ve got one big public health problem, and I’m looking at it.” (As quoted from you, quoting from Graham 1989; 273) This quote brilliantly describes the effect that Gant has upon this seemingly ordinary, run of the mill town, an effect that runs rampant through the minds of the towns people from the moment the hotel managers’ mistake of calling him Grant is corrected with the perfect stoic-ly delivered line “It’s Gant, John Gant.”
At this point on the seed of destruction has been planted and a growing unease quickly spreads through the town. The only people who appear to be immune to Gant’s force are Dr. Luke Canfield (i.e. The physician, Charles Drake), his father Asa (R.G. Armstrong), his fiancé Anne Benson (Joan Evans), and her father Judge Benson (Edgar Stehli). All of these characters have their own reasons for not being worried, but what’s interesting is that these characters, except for Judge Benson, who represent different pillars of morality seem more closely aligned with John Gant himself than with the rest of the town. Arnold doesn’t seem to place any judgment on Gant, instead he more or less presents the viewer with a characters who, obviously, has a warped vision of his own morality, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about him. While the clearest conclusion the viewer can deduce is that Gant is clearly the bad guy, the way that Murphy plays the character coupled with the deplorable conduct of the citizens of the town, brings into question, who really is the monster of the film? Is it Gant himself, or is he simply the vehicle through which the real monsters are revealed?
Another main theme broached through the film is that of calculated reaction, as opposed to action. This is not only evident in the way Gant carries out his ‘occupation,’ but is also skillfully mirrored through the cinematography. The camera plays the part of a voyeuristic omnipresent yet unseen character that watches and waits to see how everything will play out. The compositions of striking scope, often utilize deep focus through which the viewer is given many different choices of where to focus their attention and yet, no matter where the ‘action’ of the scene is, the viewers focus is often beckoned to shift from the action to the reactions of the minor characters in the scene, as well as Gant himself, whose presence seems to be felt in every scene regardless of his physical presence (or lack there of).
One of the more interesting ways in which Arnold places Gant in different compositions is through the use of the colossal mirror in the saloon below the hotel. Gant is often shown at a bit of an angle through this mirror, and often in shots where the immediate focus is on the person confronting Gant, or purposefully avoiding a confrontation. Through the wide deep focus scope Arnold is free to show the action and the reaction (or lack there of) of Gant, with the use of the mirror.
In this same vein, the voyeuristic air in the film is well executed through the use of over the shoulder, out the window shots used not only to create a certain atmosphere but also to further the narrative. For example, many of the scenes with which the citizens’ internal fears come to an emotional or chaotic climax, such as the suicide or the scene where the apathetic couple fight about the jilted ex-lover that ‘obviously’ hired Gant to kill them for running off together. Both of the aforementioned scenes begin with an over the shoulder, out window shot, which pulls back creating a change in focus from out the window to the inside where Arnold will now focus on, or allude to the character(s) with whom the viewer has just shared a perspective, reaction to what they (as well as the voyeuristic viewer) have just witnessed (or the implications of the action seen just prior). While the camera stays in the same room, it simply pulls back and changes the focus. This subtle and swift use of cinematography is a perfect example of one of the director’s auteurist stamps (as discussed in class). Arnold has an affinity for less ostentatious shots that have a subtle yet undeniable effect upon the viewer.
Another even more intriguing way in which the theme of reaction is envisioned is the way in which all of Gants’ movements seem very cold and calculated preemptive reactions. This is an aspect that is especially interesting when one gives more than a passing thought to the chess game between the physician and Gant. Through this game Arnold creates a perfect metaphor for Gants’ vocational life. To be successful in chess, the player is reliant on thinking a few moves ahead, all the while trying to lead their opponent into various ‘traps.’ In the end, chess very similarly to Gants’ strategy behind legal murder, is all about entrapment. What’s also fascinating about the use of chess is how the cinematographic and compositional choices during the chess game focus on the dialogue and the faces of the two players showing their reactions rather than the actual action taking place, that of the physical moving of chess pieces. For Arnolds’ vision the action is of very little importance in comparison to the reactions.
Along the same line as Arnolds’ noiresque focus on reaction is his unrelenting focus on the tension-ridden build up toward an ever-illusive climax. From the initial contact with Gant, the aural aspect of the film is heavily weighted with ominous music and well-placed silence, both of which are utilized to instill a sense of anxiety in the viewer, who is constantly waiting for the moment that Gant will strike and break the ever-growing tension. Yet this moment is postponed many times through the film. Arnold repeatedly raises the stakes, only to reveal a pay off much less gratifying that the viewer would have hoped. Through the constant build up and let down, Arnold is also playing with the viewers’ head. The viewer may think that when Gant is confronted by the sheriff that the pay off has finally come, and every aspect of scene, composition (the imposition of blatant oppositional roles) and a drop of soundtrack in particular, leads the viewer to believe that this is the moment, only to be let down by a minor instance of anticlimactic action. While some might assume that the moment Gant shoots the sheriff would be a fairly gratifying climax, the fact is that it furthers the narrative very little, and only serves as a way to bring the tension to a boil and then give the reader no true reward.
Possibly the most interesting scene that truly embodies all of the different aspects discussed throughout this essay, is the scene where the physician leads the charge to try and eject Gant from the town. The viewer watches as the mob amasses and, once again, though the use of voyeuristic camera work we feel as if we are there ourselves, preparing for the confrontation we so desire. Then, as the seeming moral compass of the film, the physician takes the lead, calming the crowd enough to the point where they will allow him to ‘give peace a chance,’ the confrontation is once again prolonged, but tensions are high and as the camera seamlessly switches from the approaching mob to Gant sitting calmly on the porch, it seems so evident that the climax is near. As the physicians pleas are refused, and the camera switches from Gants’ perspective looking down on the mob and the mobs perspective, the mob even starts to move toward Gant with every intention of bloodshed. Yet once again Arnold finds an inspired way to trump your expectations, with the climax leading to a speech from Gant where he calls the mob out by saying that they could kill him, but he would be taking some of them with him. It is then that the camera cuts to each of the characters he claims he’ll take with him. Through the eye matches, in combination with Gants’ confident smirk, and excellently delivered concluding line “That’s my prescription physician, you’d better get it filled,” once again puts a cap on the climax.