Cumartesi, Eylül 30, 2006

All You Need is a Girl and a Gun, Part 2

Le Petit Soldat (France, 1960) * * * 1/2
Les Carabiniers (France, 1963) * * *
Contempt (Le Mepris) (France, 1963) * * * *
Operation Beton/Une Histoire D'eau (France, 1954/58)
D: Jean-Luc Godard

The Cinematheque series on the pre-1968 works of Jean-Luc Godard has continued over the past two weeks with three films released in 1963, proving, if nothing else, that Godard was one of the most prolific directors of the French New Wave. (Actually, Le Petit Soldat was completed in 1960 but withheld by French censors until 1963.) The films also make clear the astonishing variety of subject matter Godard was attempting to tackle in his early years, while keeping his very particular stamp on each film. You could see three random clips from Le Petit Soldat, Les Carabiniers, and Contempt, and identify each as a separate film, but at the same time identify none but Godard as the auteur.

Yet the first two are "war" films. Le Petit Soldat ("The Little Soldier") would make an ideal double feature with the better-known (and, indeed, more highly regarded) Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo--both are set during the Algerian war as Algeria struggled against its French occupiers for independence. Bruno (Michel Subor) is a young man very much like the one played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless: an anarchic punk on the run. Ostensibly he belongs to a right-wing, anti-Algerian group, and is ordered to kill a spy sympathetic to the Algerian cause. He falls in love with another Algerian sympathizer, Veronica (Anna Karina, making her first film with Godard), which causes his fellow right-wingers to suspect him of being a double agent. It's a noir film, it's a political film, and it's a quasi-documentary, with Godard adopting the techniques of cinema-verite. But ultimately it is a film about a girl, and a man who finds himself being brutally tortured more or less because of her: he is a martyr for the cause of the girl, and not Algeria or France. The war was still going on when the film was completed, so understandably the French government suppressed the film until Godard's reputation was won and the war lost. I missed the screening of both this and Les Carabiniers due to a schedule conflict, but having seen it a year ago on Turner Classic Movies, what stands out is the transition from the iconic Godardian mix of young gangsters, existential romance, and cinematic experimentation in the early scenes, to the brutally realistic and drawn-out torture of Bruno in the final scenes. The effect is of philosophy and romance being simultaneously stripped away and seared into the flesh.

Les Carabiniers ("The Riflemen"), though grouped by the Cinematheque as another "war film," is by contrast a savage satire and fantasy along the lines of Godard's later film, Week-End. In a country that might as well be a more gritty version of the Marx Brothers' Freedonia, two farmers (Albert Jeross and Marino Mase) succumb to the propaganda of their country's army--a war is being arranged, and soldiers are needed--so they enlist under the promise of seeing distant countries, and the opportunity to kill and rape anyone they please. What follows is rather jaunty. We see postcards the boys send back to their cheerful wives. We witness the chaos and the murder. Eventually, the anarchic joy subsides and the weight of the war begins to crush them. Seldom seen, it's actually started making the rounds on TCM over the last couple of years; it's a sharp satire, if a bit obvious and heavy-handed. But when seen in the shadow of the Iraq war--and in particular the reports of American soldiers raping and killing an Iraqi girl, and slaughtering her family, before officers attempted to cover it up--it becomes even more distressing. This is essential Godard, if for no other reason than to see the beginning of a path he will follow for much of the rest of his career, sacrificing subtlety for confrontational politics. I think it works here, because it's kept timelessly simple, almost allegorical.

The first Godard film I ever liked was Contempt. Based on the Italian novel Il Disprezzo ("The Ghost at Noon") by Alberto Moravia, it's set in Italy, on the sets of the renowned Cinecitta Studios, where Fellini was making his classic films. This is considered Godard's attempt to make a mainstream, Cinemascope production with a name cast, and as such seems to have split Godard fans between those who consider it one of the greatest films ever made (it usually appears very high on Sight & Sound's critic-polling top 10 list) and those who merely consider it good. Godard, though still married to Anna Karina (his marriage was on the rocks), this time substituted a world-famous star as the film's muse--Brigitte Bardot, whose best-known film to this day is Roger Vadim's mediocre And God Created Woman. Here she is a "typist" married to the older, cynical playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), who, by contract with Godard, dresses like he's in a film noir and lights a cigarette in every scene. He also carries a gun, fulfilling Godard's notion that "all you need is a girl and a gun," and opening up the threat of violence in what is otherwise a very languid, brightly-lit, Mediterranean film. Paul is hired to rewrite a script for The Odyssey which is being adapted by the legendary German director Fritz Lang (playing himself). The American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), wants more sex and action, and less of the arty stuff. (Famously, he says, "Every time I hear the word 'culture' I get out my checkbook.") While Paul seems bilingual, his wife Camille only uses the language stumblingly; this doesn't seem to bother Jeremy, intent on seducing her. Jeremy knows very little French, but grins lasciviously while she talks. Fritz Lang is fluent in English and French, but seems the most isolated of all of them, concentrating only on his film, and bemused by these creatures that keep fluttering around him and getting in his way.

Language presents just one barrier for this quartet at the center of Contempt. Paul, Jeremy, and Lang argue over whether or not Ulysses' wife Penelope was faithful while he was away on his long voyage. Paul, meanwhile, encourages his wife to spend time with Jeremy, and she suspects him of having an affair with Jeremy's assistant Francesca (Giorgia Moll). He is afraid of losing her, but at the same time lets her leave. Is it because it is the easy and correct thing for his career, and hers? Similarly, he greatly respects Lang, but has been hired to mutilate his film. To follow the path to success is also to tragically destroy--in one case, a work of art, and in the other, a relationship. The secreted gun is never fired. At one point, Francesca is discovered toying with it; later, Camille unloads it, essentially emasculating Paul while she runs off with Jeremy. She doesn't run off because she wants to--rather, it's the only option left to her. This act, and the tragic violence that does follow, offers up the ironic possibility that now Fritz Lang will be able to complete the film to his own artistic ideals.

Behind the scenes, Godard was forced to compromise by producers who may have been directly parodied by the caricature of Jeremy Prokosch. The rough cut did not present the quantity of Bardot flesh that they were expecting. As a result, Godard agreed to shoot a sequence at the beginning of the film which depicts the husband and wife in bed, the only time the relationship will be seen at a tranquil, happy stage. Bardot lies with her behind exposed, and the camera seems to caress her repeatedly while Godard satisfies his avant-garde impulse by exchanging different lenses, as though to show the different moods that can be evoked within a scene. While the scene jarringly interrupts what could have been a very smooth transition from the opening credits (Francesca, the assistant, walking down an Italian street while a film crew shoots her) to the first significant meeting with Jeremy Prokosch (on the same streets, as Francesca turns a corner and introduces them)--it does seem necessary to see the lovers at rest before their relationship begins to decay over the next two hours. Without this scene, Georges Delerue's despairing score would have no context. And about that score: though this is his "mainstream" film, Godard again satisfies that avant-garde impulse, and plugs the score in repeatedly, and at seemingly inappropriate scenes, to demonstrate how the score alters the mood, impact, and meaning in what might otherwise be banal. In a drawn-out scene in which the lovers nap, read, bathe and dress while talking (seemingly a Godard motif ever since Breathless), a point comes when Bardot is simply crossing a room and the score lifts, a propos of nothing, and then vanishes when she reaches the other end of the room. If you are moved by the stirring score, then why? Nothing happened. Yet several times during the film, Delerue's score is exceptionally moving, and adds the necessary weight, such as when it repeatedly regards Bardot's face as her husband lets her leave alone with Jeremy. Paul addresses the moment on the level of the banal: it's okay, he's the producer, what could happen, you're an adult, see you in the afternoon, etc. She witnesses it on the level of the tragic, and level with Delerue's score.

The final scene, when Paul climbs the stairs--which call to mind the stairway to heaven in Powell & Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death--to the top of a villa where Fritz Lang is shooting Ulysses against the backdrop of a wide, blue sea, and Lang (or someone) shouts "Silencio!", is one of very favorite final shots in a motion picture.

After Contempt two early short films were screened. Operation "beton" was Godard's first film, an industrial short made to prove to financiers that he was a competent filmmaker. It's a dry depiction of the construction of the Grand Dixence dam in Switzerland. While mildly interesting (in particular I was struck at how young the workers were, and how dangerous the work), it would be naive to try to cherry-pick Godardian themes from the 17-minute film. Une histoire d'eau ("History of Water"), on the other hand, is delightful. Francois Truffaut shot two actors fleeing a flooded village for Paris, and Godard was given free reign to write his own narration. He has the actress lecturing on all manner of topics, from referencing Raymond Chandler to the comment that sound is more important than image! The print the Cinematheque received, from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had no subtitles, so the organizers ripped the subtitle track from a Korean DVD of the film and projected it overlapping the French print. Similarly, last year several of the prints in the F.W. Murnau series had no English translations to the intertitles, so one of the professors would read a translation aloud to each. This is why I love the Cinematheque.

Pazar, Eylül 17, 2006

Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies (Hungary, 2001) * * * *
D: Bela Tarr

There should be more filmmakers taking the approach that Bela Tarr takes in Werckmeister Harmonies--and if I picked up a camera, it is the school I would follow, the same school of which the late Andrei Tarkovsky is still principal. It is to film the action, no matter how fantastic or strange (both Tarkovsky and Tarr tell stories with dollops of magical realism), as it happens and with complete realism; rather than rushing events, to plunge the viewer into the film's space by stripping away the D.W. Griffith language of cinematic editing. In other words, to simply point the camera and follow the characters as they go about their business, which is also to tell the story at a much slower pace. Ideally, the viewer should begin to forget that it's just a film, and will seem to occupy the world within. Then--as the viewer becomes lulled by the spare use of music, the very long takes, inaction or dulling repetition--something happens with an impact that would not be as effective if any other approach were taken. I'm thinking here of the very last shot in Tarkovsky's Stalker, one of my favorite scenes in any film, or a key moment at the climax of Werckmeister Harmonies, which should not be described.

There is a plot, and it is an interesting one that holds you through the 145-minute running time: in a nameless Hungarian village (the film takes place in a modern setting--there are helicopters and giant trucks--but the village is rustic, the cobblestone streets often empty), the innocent courier Janos (Lars Rudolph) is witness to a growing panic among the townspeople on the approach of a circus that brings the dead body of a giant whale, accompanied by someone called "The Prince"; the rumors go that riots and destruction accompany the circus, and that the Prince, the instigator, has three eyes. Janos visits his Uncle Gyorgy, a music theoretician attempting to reconstruct the original method of tuning the keys of a piano, before it was corrupted by Andreas Werckmeister's standard of tuning, and is charged by his manipulative aunt to urge his uncle to head a commission to investigate the (supposed) looting which has begun to occur throughout the city; but his uncle is less interested in restoring order than in continuing his research. Janos witnesses the arrival of the whale--stored in a giant truck--and is deeply impressed and humbled by it. But the rest of the villagers refuse to step into the truck, and instead begin to gather outside, building bonfires, and gathering weapons in anticipation of orders from The Prince. The film is an allegory (based upon a novel, The Melancholy of Resistance, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai), but for what is left up to the viewer. Certainly it dwells on the theme of order versus chaos, reason versus fear. But the film is so awe-inspiring that it's best to leave the themes hanging in the gray mist, beautifully photographed in black-and-white, and in the awestruck eyes of Janos as, standing in the darkness, he gazes at the dead, glassy eye of the whale.

Cumartesi, Eylül 16, 2006

All You Need is a Girl and a Gun, Part 1

Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) (France, 1959) * * * 1/2
A Woman is a Woman (Une Femme Est Une Femme) (France, 1961) * * * 1/2
My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie) (France, 1962) * * * *
D: Jean-Luc Godard

This semester the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque is hosting the first half of a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective, this one, "All You Need is a Girl and a Gun," highlighting his films made before 1968. I have pledged to see as many Cinematheque films this year that I can; the summer only offered a brief series on contemporary African films as well as American road movies, of which my busy schedule just allowed me to see two in the latter series (Two-Lane Blacktop and Road to Morocco). This fall/winter they're also doing a series on the great Indian director Satyajit Ray, films of the 1910's, martial arts movies, and the Hungarian director Bela Tarr, whose seven-hour-long Satantango promises to be grueling and/or life-transforming.

I've always been ambivalent toward Godard. The first film of his I saw, Breathless, should have been the perfect introduction to the seminal New Wave director; instead, I was indifferent, and felt it was just an excercise in style--here is a "great" film that may have worn to threads with age. For Primer I also watched Contempt, which I loved, and which made me briefly consider that I was wrong to dismiss him, though I was already devoted to Truffaut, as though one had to take sides in that battle (I saw the two sides as "story" vs. "style"). Contempt pressed me to give Godard several more chances: Notre Musique, Les Carabiniers, Alphaville, Le Petit Soldat, Band of Outsiders, Week-End. Regardless of my varying reactions to those films, none of which I hated, by that last film I felt I had seen enough, and with Primer over, thought I could begin exploring other French directors such as Rohmer, Melville, and Rivette. Then, a few months later, the Cinematheque announced that its director of the season was Godard, and I was handcuffed to plunge.

Appropriately, the first film of the retrospective was Breathless.

The screening changed my mind. I was wrong to watch this at home. The tiny Cinematheque at Vilas Hall was "sold out" (all screenings are free, and naturally draw a mix of students, film buffs, professors, families, and hobos), and by the scheduled start-time the organizers were turning people away at the door. Consider that they could walk a few blocks to Four Star Video Heaven and rent it on DVD. But that's what I did the first time, and the experience doesn't compare; Breathless must be seen with an audience, and preferably--like this one--a very green audience.

When you go to the first film of the fall semester, you get a lot of freshman who are seeing, perhaps, their very first foreign film (or, at least, their first foreign film to not star Jet Li). You get the requisite unintentional laughter. That laughter changed rapidly as they began to laugh with Godard rather than at him: he was too quick for them. He was making a film for the young; he was only 29 when he made the film, after all. The infamous jump-cuts (removing frames of the film to create "edits" in the middle of a sequence) have been appropriated into weekly dramas on TV ("Homicide," notably); they pass almost imperceptibly now. No, it was Jean-Paul Belmondo, the crooked-nosed, impeccably immature young French actor who was the hit of the evening. Maybe it was how he was given to address the camera directly, or suddenly leap out of a taxi in order to lift up a passer-by's skirt, or maybe it was the fact that he kind of looks like Owen Wilson, I don't know. But whatever he dished in spoonfuls they were eating up. He plays a casual criminal--emphasis on "casual"--who seems to rob and point his gun for the joyful spirit of anarchy more than anything else. His girlfriend is played by Jean Seberg, who I just saw in a very different role in the Peter Sellers vehicle The Mouse That Roared. There, she was Hollywood, sexlessly glamorous. By contrast, Breathless seems to be the behind-the-scenes documentary of Seberg, catching her looking completely natural: there was one moment when she was merely climbing a staircase, and I had the strange feeling that she was unaware of being filmed. But that's the point: Godard is trying to transform the banal. The bravura setpiece of the plotless film is one long evening (and the following morning) spent in an apartment while Belmondo pleads for sex and Seberg dismisses him. He seems like a child at first, his pleas hopeless, but by the end of this stretch we see how dearly Seberg seems to care for him. Nevertheless, the nature of their relationship is constantly in question, and the famous finale is classic Godard cynicism.

The film's weakness is Godard's naive tendency to put a point on matters; his characters frequently underline what the film is about. "We always talked about ourselves but we should have been talking about each other." (Godard wrote the screenplay but Truffaut is credited for the story, which is pretty spare.) But what struck me about this second viewing is how deliberately vulgar it is: Godard was delighting in offending the older, straightlaced generation. His film points the way to the varying rebellions of the 1960's generation, the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, as he defined it. If you didn't get his film, if it was too violent, too anarchic--then you are the enemy; what's worse, you're old. There's still a little of that spirit in his most recent film, the otherwise solemn Notre Musique. (And I couldn't help but think that the extended scene in which Seberg interviews a renowned intellectual, and he disdainfully tosses off his world-summarizing pronouncements, directly, and probably unintentionally, parallels the scene in which Godard himself looks down his nose and makes pronouncements to a classroom of students in Notre Musique. He's finally become what he seemed to admire.)

"Groundbreaking" is the word for Breathless, but it doesn't offer that much more; but the well doesn't have to be that deep in the second film of the series, A Woman is a Woman, which is kind of like if The Umbrellas of Cherbourg had none of the songs. This "idea of a musical," as Godard once called it (thank you, program notes) stars Godard's muse, Anna Karina, as a young woman whose boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) doesn't take well to her new obsession over having a baby. Distraught, she turns to another friend, "Lubitsch" (Belmondo again, who at one point, expressing his disgust, says he's going home to watch Breathless on TV). This is Godard at his most audience-pleasing, and expectedly, the Cinematheque crowd had a blast with it, treating it with as much enthusiasm as The Road to Morocco had received. Yes, Godard is witty here, and addresses the artificiality of the production as much as Bob Hope did, but there is a weird conceit that dominates everything: it's a musical with no music numbers. Well, there is one, within a set context. As Karina strips (her day job), she sings a song by Michel Legrand, who wrote the music to Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, and composed the scores to other French New Wave classics such as Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7. Even here, there's a conceit: each time she actually sings, the orchestration drops out of the soundtrack, and we're left with Karina's pale voice whispering the seductive words. Godard's attempt to sabotage the song somehow enhances it. Imagine what Marilyn Monroe could do with the technique. Of course, Godard is fond of screwing with the soundtrack, and frequently in A Woman is a Woman you can hear him playing with the mute button on the score. Here is sweeping music, here are the sounds of the street, here is the same sweeping music, here is the dialogue--Godard wants you to think about the process of creating a film, and wants to draw attention to the artificiality. He always wants to do this, which is why I always thought a little of Godard goes a long way, but I'm slowly changing my mind: you can be buffeted about from one Godard film rather deliriously. It's true, as the presenter said before the screening of Breathless, that each Godard film is radically different than the one that came before. True, he's always in the act of deconstructing, alluding, and sabotaging, but if you treat his films as cinema commandeered by Spy Vs. Spy, you can get in the spirit of things.

A Woman is a Woman is, in fact, a cartoon for adults. The peek-a-book nudity, the discussions about sex, the playful infidelity all suggest a tone which A Woman is a Woman cheerfully avoids: nothing here can be taken too seriously. My wife has picked this as her favorite Godard (the other, I think, is Band of Outsiders), and I can see why; no wonder she also loves The Young Girls of Rochefort. This is a lot of fun, and the Lubitsch reference is appropriate.

How perfect that it was on a double-feature not with a Jacques Demy musical but with the film's negative-image, My Life to Live. (It's even in black-and-white.) Here Karina is cast as a woman too pretty to be as desperate for money as she is; with hopes of an acting career dwindling, she turns to prostitution, but always with a philosophical attitude (this is Godard, after all): the situation, perhaps, will not be sad and desperate if she refuses to see it that way. Or perhaps not. The key scene here is when Karina talks to an acquaintance who resorted to prostitution to make ends meet, and eventually married a successful actor; the hopeful story is immediately offset by a shooting in the street, and a bloody victim staggers into the cafe before Godard cuts to the next "chapter." (The film is in 12 parts, with descriptions of the action before each.) Individualism can carry you so far, until you're set against another, stronger force, and the threat of violence hangs over this prostitute's life as it does in other treatments on the theme, such as Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan. If the story is well-trod, at least the style is refreshing. Godard tones down his distracting styles, allowing you to lose yourself in the character's journey. That's not to say there isn't the Godardian, rigorously intellectual approach to camera movements. For a film that reveres the close-ups in Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which Karina goes to see at one point, it deliberately keeps the camera distant, and in the opening cafe scene hides the faces of Karina and her husband, instead eavesdropping from behind as they discuss the end of their relationship, as though we're just sitting a table away. Karina is consistently isolated in the frame throughout, culminating in an abrupt final shot that is deliberately pathetic. Yes, it's a very sad film, but it's elegantly constructed, and reminds of Robert Bresson's Mouchette or Au Hasard Balthazar. It is a film that is so passionately made that it cannot be considered "depressing." I could watch Karina's seduction dance over and over: she tries to pick up a young man at a pool table by playing a song on a jukebox and dancing hypnotically around and around the room. I could use more Godard like this; it seems more essential, and seems to have more to say, than the later Godard experiments I've seen.

Cumartesi, Eylül 02, 2006

The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man (U.S., 1957) * * *
D: Jack Arnold

Every night on Turner Classic Movies is a theme night, and last night's was, somewhat inausipiciously, Jack Arnold Night. No slight to Jack Arnold, it's just that he's not frequently the subject of movie marathons. Best known, perhaps, as the director of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the last of Universal's great monsters, Arnold also directed films as varied as The Mouse That Roared (the other film I watched last night) and Tarantula. He quickly retreated into television work, and his last credits include episodes of "The Love Boat."

The Incredible Shrinking Man might be his seminal science fiction film, and one of the most distinctive of the 1950's. For that reason, as a lifelong science fiction fan, this was a much overdue viewing. I already knew the ending, which is rather famous. It's everything that precedes it that was foreign.

Grant Williams turns in a surprisingly interesting performance as Scott Carey, a--um, white guy--who is sailing with his wife when he passes through a radioactive cloud (she's busy belowdeck, and doesn't suffer the exposure). He wipes some glitter off himself and doesn't give it much thought, until he goes to his doctor to find out why all of his clothes have lately seemed a couple sizes too large. "Have you been exposed to any radiation lately?" Actually, it's the combination of exposure to insecticide and radiation that caused this particular condition, which I suppose explains why other people just get, you know, cancer from radiation exposure. (So remember that combination, kids: DDT and radiation!) After a while he begins to look like Lily Tomlin in that big chair, and he's downright adorable, but he also feels like a freakshow, and takes solace with a midget carnival performer (April Kent) who, wouldn't you know, is just played by an actress also sitting in a big chair. He can't believe his luck, and neither can we. But as he prepares to cheat on his wife with someone his own size, the shrinking (which comes in waves) returns, and he becomes so small that his wife keeps him in a doll house, leading to the famous scene where he's attacked by his household cat. Which makes the viewer immediately wonder how his or her own domestic animal would treat the owner when suddenly shrunk to doll-size. Judging by the leisure activities of my own two dogs, I can only assume they would whip me back and forth and then chew until they found my hidden squeaker. At any rate, Scott is tossed into the cellar and now must contend with new problems--such as how to remove the cheese from the mousetrap, and how to avoid the giant tarantula.

All of which is redeemed by Richard Matheson's screenplay. Matheson wrote many of the most fondly-regarded "Twilight Zone" episodes, though among genre cultists these days he's best known for his novella "I Am Legend," which was filmed as The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man (and was the uncredited inspiration for many an apocalyptic zombie film). I tend to regard Matheson as the genius who wrote Hell House, one of the creepiest haunted house novels ever written; he wrote the screenplay of the pretty-good 70's adaptation, The Legend of Hell House, which is ripe for a remake by someone other than Jan de Bont. Robert Osborne, introducing The Incredible Shrinking Man, cited Matheson as the guy who wrote What Dreams May Come, to which I reply by throwing a book at the TV. With Shrinking Man, Matheson treats the premise as a post-film noir science fiction film: there's no way out for the shrinking Scott, no cure to be found, and no martyred death, either. That's what makes this a cut above most genre SF films. Scott is forced to adapt to each new size on its own terms, and--as he directly observes in the film's voluminous voice-over narration--each time he shrinks he's forced to grapple with a completely alien world. The entire second half of the film takes place in the basement, as he waits forlornly for his wife to come downstairs, scavenges for food, makes a home out of a matchbox, and then, weak from starvation, struggles to climb toward a piece of cake that sitting abandoned by a window (for some reason). When he shrinks again, he can finally pass through the grate and walk outside into the vast jungle of his backyard--and here the film ends! Poor Scott tries to be an optimist about the whole thing, and the ending narration is optimistic, hopeful: he'll be a pioneer in one new world after the next, and soon the rest of the human race may be joining him, should they continue to experiment with new and strange sciences. The ending is actually very reminiscent of the end of The Time Machine, as Wells thrusts his time traveller ever forward, past the Eloi and the Morlocks into new future worlds, past the end of the human race. But the time traveller does so willingly. Scott has no choice, and will soon be exploring among the microcosmic.

Perhaps I've been watching too much film noir lately, but it all seemed very noirish, from the voice-over narration to the forlorn outcast walking past the nighttime carnival (think Nightmare Alley) to the despair of finally being cornered by one's Fate, and resigning oneself to the end. But, of course, he doesn't end. The final line is remarkable, because it is, at once, hopeful and terrifying: "I still exist!"

Sergio Leone's Man with No Name Trilogy

Roger Ebert points out, in his "Great Movies" review of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, that the famed "Man with No Name Trilogy" by Sergio Leone isn't really about a man with no name, and could possibly be about 3 different characters; Eastwood is "Joe" in the first film, A Fistful of Dollars, "Monco" in For a Few Dollars More, and "Blondie" in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Well, yes. But Blondie is clearly just a nickname because the guy has no other name to go by. Furthermore, we can assume by the titles that Few Dollars More is a sequel to A Fistful of Dollars, so the always-poncho'd Eastwood is playing the same fella; the fact that he uses a different name in each film implies they're only aliases. He is, after all, a cold-blooded killer.

The fact that he is a cold-blooded killer, yet by default the hero, is just what makes the Dollars/No Name trilogy so much fun. He frequently shoots people in dishonorable ways simply because they'd kill him first. Sure, he kills for the money, but he is hunting down the grimiest, sweatiest, black-toothed villains in screen history.

I saw Fistful of Dollars many years ago, on TV, cropped, and with commercials, I'm sure. I found it exciting at first, and then sort of dull. I always wanted to return to Leone, but thought I'd grown out of it before I got a chance. Like most folks these days, I didn't think I had much time for Westerns, not with all the great novels to read and the acquired pretensions of college. It was only when I started my "Primer" project of watching first 100, then 500 films, that I came to love the genre. I even loved John Wayne movies, something that seemed as likely as suddenly coming to love Elvis. But it wasn't Wayne that I loved so much as his directors and the vehicles in which they placed him: Stagecoach, the iconic and prototypical Western, is thrilling thanks not just to Wayne, John Carradine, and the other players, but because John Ford knew how to pace the action with the nostalgic prairie scenes, just as he does with The Searchers; Red River, which I will always think of as "my favorite Western except for the last, terrible ten minutes," glows with Howard Hawks' striking use of characterization, which he applies to more sardonic effect in Rio Bravo. All of these films I adore, in addition to the non-Waynes Destry Rides Again, Seven Men from Now, Winchester '73, and The Gunfighter. Now I'm more of a typical film buff, in that I'm always open to watching a Western when it comes on TV.

The Leones work much better with all that preface of film history. He subverts every Western trope, strips them (mostly) of their nostalgia, and gets right down to the nitty-gritty. When you see Eastwood, his unshaven face that seems to be chiseled, the squint, the teeth chomping down on the cigar (always), you're amazed at how iconic and original the image is, like a moment out of one of Kubrick's 60's films, instant film history. It arrives out of nowhere. Yes, James Stewart was playing some cold-blooded folks in Anthony Mann films, but at least he had a stuttering, soft-spoken history in films with which audiences could identify; Eastwood, inexplicable, is capable of anything.

A Fistful of Dollars--like all the "spaghetti Westerns" (a genre that began here)--was an Italian production set in the American West, filmed in Spain and Italy, and entirely dubbed. The dubbing was a thing of necessity for Italian productions: low-flying planes near Rome's Cinecitta studios made live recording virtually impossible. Regardless, Eastwood provides his own voice on the English track, and his words match his lips, so it's not too distracting. (It helps that his lips don't move much, with that cigar perpetually in his mouth.) The film, like The Magnificent Seven, is a Western remake of a Kurosawa samurai film. While The Magnificent Seven borrowed just the outline of The Seven Samurai, Leone's film copies Kurosawa's Yojimbo very closely--so much so that if you'd only read the screenplay, and didn't bear witness to Eastwood, Leone, and composer Ennio Morricone, you'd think the film unremarkable. A man whose only talent is killing arrives in an isolated town run by two rival gangs; essentially, a powderkeg. The killer, desperate for cash, decides to maximize his profits by working for both sides, playing one against the other. Eventually, the plan backfires, and he's beaten and tortured to death's door, only to recover just enough strength to enact a revenge. The reason Kurosawa's films were among the first Japanese films to become popular in America is that his characters, setting, and style were not so foreign; films such as The Hidden Fortress deliberately transposed American genre trappings into Eastern culture, so naturally they can easily be adapted back into a Western culture. Leone's love of American genres rivalled Kurosawa's, and so A Fistful of Dollars, this bizarre Euro-American-Japanese hybrid works like a charm.

But let's get to the point: it's Leone's show, and his distinctive over-stylization, defined by its quick and detailed cutting, so that every action scene is dissected into pieces like the shower scene in Psycho, is matched only by Morricone's score, which deliberately imitated the form of pop music. Morricone's music, when heard in full on a soundtrack CD, is actually just a really solid Western score, with plenty of harmonica, fiddle, and even a square dance number. Of course, no one remembers that. It's the opening titles that Morricone made so iconic; animated--showing gunslingers blowing each other away--they're set to Morricone's whistling Western pop song with no lyrics except for the occasional shout of...something, I'm not sure ("Whip that flag?" "Wave that bat?"). Originally conceived as a lullaby, Morricone transformed it into one of the most famous pieces of Western film music of all time, only surpassed by his theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

For all this, Fistful does drag a bit, even to these adult eyes. (To be fair, so did Yojimbo.) The sequel, For a Few Dollars More, has nothing to do with the sequel to Yojimbo, which is probably a wise choice, as Sanjuro would not have made for great Leone; instead, it slightly improves on the original by keeping one's interest held throughout. Lee Van Cleef plays a bounty hunting rival to Eastwood's returning gunfighter--they're so well-matched that in the film's most memorable sequence, they face off in a deserted townsquare at night by simply shooting at each other's hats, like two animals snapping their jaws to prove their ferocity without actually inflicting harm. They're both pursuing "El Indio" (Gian Maria Volonte), a psychotic killer recently escaped from prison, and plotting a major bank heist. (For some reason, the biggest bank in the Old West, and his intended target, is in a deserted village with no discernable commerce.) After a long courtship, Eastwood and Van Cleef reluctantly team up and hatch a plan: Eastwood will infiltrate El Indio's gang as one of their own, while Van Cleef will wait in ambush near the bank. How their plan unfolds--and unravels--is one of the real joys of Fistful, so I won't spoil it. Needless to say, it all comes down to another shootout in the street, but this time it's between Van Cleef and El Indio, who will both draw when a tiny music box winds down. With For a Few Dollars More, you can sense Leone attempting something slightly greater, with deeper characterization and more emotional impact. For one thing, the villain has a crippling anguish over something in his own history, which is gradually revealed through the course of the film--a technique that will be repeated, to better effect, in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Eastwood pretty much sits the climax out, though he has a great final scene.

When Leone made the final film in what was now a "trilogy," the first two films had been such an international success that he had a much larger budget with which to work. Appropriately, the scope of the film is expanded: at almost three hours in its recently-restored "director's cut," it's a veritable epic. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly are defined on-screen in the opening twenty minutes of the film (a really long opening credits sequence, really). Surprisingly, Van Cleef here returns as "the Bad," and it took me a space to realize he's not playing the same character as in the last film; a relief, really, as that character would have had to take a pretty tragic turn to become this bad--on the trail of a treasure, he kills innocents in cold blood in the opening minutes of the film. "The Ugly" is, unflatteringly, Eli Wallach, the character actor who had played the villain in The Magnificent Seven. A scoundrel with a preposterous criminal record, he works with Eastwood to perform a scam on one town, then the next: get arrested so that Eastwood collects the reward, prepare to get hanged, and get freed by Eastwood at the last second, so they can split the cash. The problem, as Wallach belatedly realizes, is that too much of the scam depends upon Eastwood following through on his side of the bargain, and as Eastwood leaves Wallach high and dry in the middle of the desert, the words "The Good" brand Eastwood as he prepares to ride off, a devilish grin on his face. This is Leone's world, where there is no purity to be found, but shades of gray at best.

One of the reasons that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is my favorite of the trilogy is that it's a quest narrative, and I'm nothing if not a big sucker for those. Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef are all after some stolen gold buried in a Confederate grave. Eastwood and Wallach both stumble across the gold's location, although because of (improbable) circumstances, neither can find it entirely on his own, forcing them into an awkward partnership, each ready to betray the other should the opportunity arise. Van Cleef has been hunting the gold from the start, and smugly attempts to manipulate the two killers to reach it. That's all there is to the plot. What's left is an episodic journey in which positions of power shift among the three, and we see a Wild West torn to tatters by the Civil War. Long stretches pass without shootouts, but when they come, they're exciting as hell. The final showdown is stylized--and drawn out--to such an extent that you think Leone wanted to make this the Last Spaghetti Western Ever. It wasn't, but it's still the best.

The keen interest in amorality gives the Leone Westerns a direct connection to the heritage of American Westerns, despite the fact that his use of amorality is meant to subvert that heritage. After all, the best Hollywood Westerns were existential dramas, in which the "right thing to do" isn't always so obvious, particular when the Law is so often in a helpless position, if not completely absent. On one end of the spectrum, there's a B-movie like Tin Star, with Anthony Perkins as a spineless sheriff who needs to learn from Henry Fonda to be a bully, if not a killer, in order to save the town from bandits and act as a force of good. On the other, there's the John Wayne of Red River, a good guy who becomes the villain when his ideology and anger conquer his reason and his morality. More distinctly existential is The Gunfighter, with Gregory Peck as a wanted man who's reformed his gunslingin' ways, but can't return home to the girl he loves, since every would-be Billy the Kid wants to be known as the one who finally shot him: dread drapes this film even more effectively than in High Noon.

But yeah, the heroes of Leone's Westerns might be wounded by a trauma in their past, as Charles Bronson's character is in Once Upon a Time in the West, but they don't anguish over whether or not to shoot somebody. In that sense, Leone's films belong to the second stage of Westerns, dominated not just by his films but by Sam Peckinpah's. In this stage, the life of violence is the issue to be explored. (I see a third stage to be vaguely defined by McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the recently-cancelled HBO masterpiece, Deadwood.)

My wife was quick to point out that there's no prominent female characters in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the women are relegated to roles as extras; for this reason, she prefers Once Upon a Time in the West to this film, though she enjoyed both greatly. I think Leone thought women would complicate the already stripped-down motivations of the characters: these guys are after money, and women would give them something else to fight over. At three hours, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is astoundingly simple--as all Westerns are. Nothing Dickensian about the Old West. In the vast, uncluttered landscape that Leone imagined, men stand in silhouette in clouds of dust, wait for the hyena-like Morricone music to suddenly silence, draw, take the cash, and ride off. Amazing how many playful permutations Leone could find in these three films, or that he could turn it all into something resembling profundity! There's no shame in loving these films.