Archive for the Politics Category

Beck X: Curtain Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2022 by dcairns

STOCKHOLM MARATHON begins with a tense scene of a clearly traumatised girl escaping from a window and walking across the roof of a glasshouse… the glass starts to crack…

It’s effective, though it doesn’t extend itself to breaking point and the music is unhelpful, and then the inevitable slomo… it also has nothing to do with the supposed source novel, The Terrorists, the final installment of The Story of a Crime, the ten-volume adventures of Martin Beck by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Start as you mean to go on. The entire movie has nothing to do with the book, despite a Stan Lee type cameo by Sjöwall.

Somebody in charge of this series of (straight-to-video?) Martin Beck films, starring Gosta Ekman, made the decision to strip out the CONTENT, the political attitude underpinning the detective story. No doubt the filmmakers weren’t Marxists. But you don’t have to be a communist to agree with a lot of the authors’ critique of Swedish society and western civilisation in general. In fact, rather than pushing their own worldview (Wahlöö “a little bit Stalinist” according to his partner), the authors mostly confine themselves to taking satiric/despairing potshots at the status quo, only offering a solution in the last word of the last book, in the form of a crossword puzzle solution, the single word “Marxism.”

Like most of the books after the first three, The Terrorists hares off in various narrative directions, splitting up the protagonists and assigning many of the key scenes to characters other than Beck. This apparently seems like a problem to those adapting them, but needn’t be: the most faithful films seem to be the most successful.

One strand omitted by screenwriters Rainer Berg & Beate Langmaack is the story of the naive girl done in by society. It’s central to the novel, showing how social services, the police, the justice system, can conspire to destroy one powerless individual. The heart of the book. Parallel to that is the story of the terrorist gang, the only thing retained by the moviemakers, though in fact their story about a threat to the Stockholm Marathon (shades of FOUR LIONS) is nothing to do with the novel’s scheme about assassinating a controversial American politician.

The big ironic twist in the book — spoiler alert — is that after Beck and his team manage to thwart the highly-trained assassins, a lone nut — the girl whose life has been ruined — slips past them and murders, not their right-wing yank, but the Swedish prime minister.

I can see how, just eight years after the real assassination of Olof Palme, the real Swedish prime minister, as he exited a middlebrow Swedish comic film, THE MOZART SISTERS, Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s childish glee at offing the country’s leader might have seemed in poor taste. All the more reason to do it!

The filmmakers double down on the “lone nut” approach in order to deliberately rob their story of any political significance. They really have a genius for finding the least interesting direction at any turn. Since there’s not much of value that can be said about an artefact like SWEDISH MARATHON, there now follows a short disquisition on the dramatic vs. the interesting.

“Many things in life are interesting; not many things are dramatic,” said Dan O’Bannon in an interview for, I think, Screenwriter or Screenplay magazine which condensed all the insights from all the screenwriting books on the market into a few short paragraphs. O’Bannon promised that by following the principles of dramatic structure, pretty much any chump could write an entirely worthless script which the reader would nevertheless feel compelled to finish, or at any rate were the atrocity to be committed to celluloid, the viewer would find themself watching to the end (and probably cursing themself for it).

Raul Ruiz, meanwhile, asked why only a three-act structure based around a central conflict could be interesting? Why couldn’t a film detailing all the activity in a Brueghel painting be interesting, for instance? O’Bannon has the answer: interesting, yes, but not necessarily dramatic.

Ruiz is not primarily a dramatic filmmaker, I’d say: he does something harder, I think, because he has to sustain the audience’s interest with less obvious hooks. Where he does detail dramatic problems, there are likely to be lots of small ones rather than one big dumb one. There are plots, often quite complex — related events unfolding sequentially, but a synopsis of a Ruiz film might indeed end up sounding more like a description of a huge, detailed painting.

We’ve all seen too many films where the filmmaker hooked us and reeled us in, but offered no reward for the journey. Since the three-act structure is a boringly familiar trope (one reason it works so well may just be that we’re subconsciously familiar with it, so that it’s comforting to know where we are in the story), it’s incumbent upon anyone using it to offer some Ruizian INTEREST — in the form of psychological or social insight, ideas of any kind, aesthetic surprise, behavioural authenticity, something thematic or stylistic out of the ordinary run, possibly connected to but extending beyond mere PLOT, which E.M. Forster, citing the example of Scheherezade, justly defined as a trap for brutes.

Sjöwall & Wahlöö obviously used their narratives for a sociopolitical purpose, which seems one of the most suitable uses for a detective story. Psychology is certainly possible, but the Mechano-set construction of a cop story can get in the way of that. Which makes it an even better trick if you can do it. These Martin Beck movies offer plots which, fascinating on the page, become sterile when rendered on the screen with the INTEREST strip-mined away, cardboard characters moving along the string of a murderboard without a centre.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: “…and lose the name of ACTION!”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2022 by dcairns

Quite enjoyed DJANGO THE BASTARD — the other vengeful ghost spaghetti western. Anthony Steffen is quite a compelling wraith-hero. As with this film’s unofficial twin …AND GOD SAID TO CAIN, there’s a certain loss of tension when your hero is an unkillable ghost and everyone else is a baddy. Best of the bad men is bleach-blond epileptic madman Luciano Rossi, doing the Kinski thing, as “Hugh Murdok.”

Director Sergio Garrone made a bunch of westerns and also some of those noxious Nazisploitation films. I was inclined to hate him, but couldn’t quite manage it in the face of his sheer misguided enthusiasm for wanky directorial gimmicks. His direction is lively but random. Cox picks, as an egregious example, an aerial view tracking Steffen’s hat — a shot that must have taken considerable trouble, and is over before it’s made an impression, replaced with something equally throwaway and meaningless. But I like the hat shot — it’s attractive. Some of Garrone’s other angles are just silly, but as I say, they’re lively. The kind of thing I get cross with Kenneth Branagh for doing in HAMLET, but can accept in something that is after all called DJANGO THE BASTARD.

Then we watched KEOMA together on our larger screen and that was… kind of impressive. My first Enzo G. Castellari film. I don’t know why but Tarantino’s championing him always put me off, somehow. QT’s enthusiasm can be sort of repellent, but in fairness the films he enthuses about are usually at least interesting. (I think BLOW-OUT is a poor film, personally, but it’s not devoid of interest, even just from a pathological viewpoint.)

Enzo is having fun with this very late spag western — it barely rates a mention in the Cox book because he takes the view that there are no good post-1970 Italian westerns, but this is very nearly a proper movie. Castellari’s flourishes are better-motivated than maestro Garrone’s, as when hero Franco Nero holds up four fingers in front of four opponents, a moment you can enjoy in the lengthy trailer.

Weird hearing Nero with his own accent, especially since Keoma is a halfbreed Indian. With his beard and bare chest and wolf-cut hair, FN is a new kind of gunfighter for a new-ish kind of western. Bits seem post-apocalyptic, prefiguring the genre Castellari and all the other genre hacks would dabble in after MAD MAX, other bits seem medieval — there’s a plague ravaging the land, ffs.

Woody Strode has quite a bit to do and has an extraordinary last scene — it is possible that Castellari was a bit too uncritical of his performers, or else urged them to “give it both knees” in Billy Wilder’s phrase when more restraint would have been advisable. But it’s the kind of mad choice that seems acceptable in a nutzoid oater like this.

Spaghetti westerns, unlike most of their American counterparts, always TRY to be progressive about race, though they often slip up in hilarious/uncomfortable ways, due to naivety — the spaghetti west is all like Kafka writing the Statue of Liberty with a sword in her hand: EVOCATIVELY WRONG — and a certain insensitivity that comes with the genre.

The era of Morricone and Morricone-influenced scores is over, as we also saw in FOUR FOR THE APOCALYPSE. This one also has songs — a female vocalist warbling at a high pitch like the bastard daughter of Joan Baez and Tiny Tim, and a gruff, growly man (Nero himself) who mainly sings about what is actually happening in front of us, which gets very funny. (“How did I get in this meeeeeessss?”)

KEOMA — which also has supernatural-Gothic-Shakespearian vibes — led us to JOHNNY HAMLET, originally developed by Corbucci and intended to star Anthony Perkins, but was passed to Castellari and Andrea Giordana. The real star turn in this one is Gilbert Roland, as “Johnny Hamilton’s” chum, “Horace.” The first time Horatio has been the coolest and most impressive character, and the only time a real Mexican appeared in an Italian western (according to Cox — seems legit).

A Perkins Hamlet, even a wild west one, would have been something. An Andrea Giordana Hamlet is just fair. His green eyes look good in Leonesque ECU — this is an insanely colourful film at times — the dream sequence in which the ghost appears is pure Corman, or impure Bava. Funny how Castellari, seeking to present the sequence in a way that doesn’t violate genre conventions — no ghosts in cowboy films — except the aforementioned ones, and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and Elvis at the end of FLAMING STAR I believe — and he ends up with a sequence that has absolutely nothing in common with western aesthetics.

Elsewhere, there’s a cemetery in a cave — comedy gravediggers seem ready-made for an Italian western, with the strong antecedent of the coffin-maker in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

Castellari mounts the camera on a wheel as Johnny H realises the time is out of joint —

There are capering actors, so that we can have snatches of the bard, and an anticipation of Agnes Varda —

Kind of funny how the Shakespearian character who can’t make up his mind becomes this angst-ridden action hero who’s constantly shooting people and getting in punch-ups. Most of this action doesn’t much advance the plot, but neither do the Shakespearian soliloquies they replace (WH Auden observes that Hamlet is unusual in that the big speeches are all standalone bits of philosophising that work just as well out of context). It’s also funny to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern transformed into sadistic henchmen from the rather ineffectual stooges of the original. What “Claude Hamilton” needs in his camp is a deadly Laertes type, but none is forthcoming, though there is, instead, this guy:

A major spaghetti trope I haven’t mentioned — DISGUSTING EATING. Leone’s giant mouth closeups in DUCK, YOU SUCKER! are the apotheosis of this, but in both THE BIG SILENCE and this one, men deliver dialogue through half-masticated facefuls of chicken. There should, now that I think of it, be a spag western called A FACEFUL OF CHICKEN. In this movie the chickenlover is a Mexican bandit called Santana who seems to have no connection to the source text, which means he can do what he likes, so he does.

Johnny, like Steffen in DJANGO THE BASTARD, has just returned from the Civil War, fighting on the side of the South. Cox observes that this is unusual in Italian westerns, which aren’t suckered by the lost cause myth. Cox then embarks on his worst bit of pontificating, throwing out the right-wing talking point that the War wasn;t really over slavery, but over the southern states’ right to secede. I assume somebody fed this line to Cox and he didn’t question it further. But, as sf writer Theodore Sturgeon advises, we should be prepared always to Ask the next question. WHY did the southern states wish to secede? Turns out maybe the Civil War was about slavery after all…

This Hamlet does not go mad, or feign madness, nor does he (spoiler alert) die at the end, though most of the other characters do. These departures from the source text make this not really a version of Hamlet at all. One wonders if Corbucci, who conceived the idea, would have been more faithful, not so much to the play, as to the IDEA. What’s the point of doing Hamlet as a spaghetti western, after all, if you don;t actually follow through? And, while the opening dream sequence (deleted in America) is wonderfully outside the stylistic Overton window of the genre, an insane hero and a tragic ending (as with THE BIG SILENCE) seem perfectly suited to the revenge western. In place of all this, Castellari has his hero crucified — a ballsy move in a production of Hamlet, but rather standard for an Italian western (see also DJANGO KILL! and, in fact, KEOMA) — so that he has to tie his pistol to his hand for the final shootout, a variant on DJANGO. A shame — instead of throwing overly-familiar business at us, under the guise of a Shakespeare update, Castellari could have used the concept to hit us with material that would be genuinely unfamiliar, but perfectly in keeping with the revenge western format. A miss, a very palpable miss. But EGC is a fun stylist, and I’m perfectly willing to see more of his stuff now.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Except with Bullets

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2022 by dcairns

I knew I’d be looking at a tortilla western or Zapata western in this series — maybe more than one. The Italians visited the Mexican Revolution a fair bit, either because their Spanish locations and swarthy extras made it a natural fit, or because, unlike Hollywood filmmakers, many of the writers and directors could get behind a leftwing revolution con mucho gusto.

Having enjoyed some Damiano Damiani in the past — THE WITCH/LA STREGA IN AMORE (1966) is fascinating, GIROLOMANI, IL MONSTRO DI ROMA (1971) is fascinating but maybe doesn’t quite come off, I was excited to see what he could do with the genre. Spaghetti westerns are frequently unbeautiful, even the best ones frequently partaking of that orange pancake makeup approach that gives this series its title; but the Damiani movies I’ve seen are lustrous.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL aka QUIEN SABE? hits the ground running — Lou Castel as the smart, dangerous Americano is cool and ambiguous. We meet him buying a train ticket. “Do you like Mexico?” asks a cute little boy. “No,” he smirks, “Not very much.” With his long, angular head, like a child’s coffin, he’s a unique presence.

The train is soon held up by bandit-revolutionaries — the line here is less blurred than eradicated. They are led by Gian Maria Volonte, backed up by Klaus Kinski as his half-brother (?), a fanatical, grenade-throwing priest, and pistol-packin’ Martine Beswick. The latter two sporting faces you don’t expect to find under a sombrero. Alex Cox, an enthusiast for the genre, does bemoan the fact that there’s only one instance on record of a Mexican being cast as a Mexican (Gilbert Roland — and with him you get a less stereotypical performance, I bet).

Written by Franco Solinas and Salvatore Laurani, the film rapidly arrives at a compelling situation: the train, carrying troops and weapons, is stopped by an officer tied to the tracks. Anyone who gets out of the train to rescue him is picked off by snipers on the hills bordering the track. The soldiers in the train are picked off too. The alternative is to advance and run over the officer, something the officer in charge of the train isn’t willing to do.

During all this, Volonte’s excitable, childish Anthony Quinn act is really hateful. His boyish enthusiasm is meant to be likeable, possibly. Yet we’re involved in the soldiers’ horrible dilemma, so this jovial madman, who sees it all as a big joke, is unbearable. But it’s something the movie overcomes. By pairing him with Castel’s cool dude, who dresses like an American gangster, we get something theoretically comparable to Eastwood and Wallach in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. What transforms it is politics — Volonte is at least somewhat motivated by sincere revolutionary fervour, while Castel has an entirely hidden agenda of his own — and sex. This becomes uncomfortably obvious to both men when Volonte’s El Chuncho kills a friend who has attacked Castel’s Bill “El Nino” Tate. He can’t explain why he’s done it. He’s not very bright or very articulate. But he seems to sense it. And so does Tate.

Fortunately, there are lots of violent missions to carry out — both their overt ones, and Tate’s private one, which brings things to a head. It’s all really interesting. Cox identifies it as the first western with a gay subtext that’s inescapable. I think RED RIVER might beat it out there, but the Volonte-Castel love story is more central here. (The Monty Clift-John Ireland love story might have been more prominent in RED RIVER if Howard Hawks, who was responsible for it, hadn’t drastically cut down Ireland’s role, peeved that Ireland had taken up with a female co-star he’d had his eye on).

Music is by Luis Bacalov, a good choice if you can’t get Morricone or Ortolani. Alex Cox is particularly keen on the film’s art direction — I think you never really believe an Italian western is happening where it says it is — even the undeniable presence of Monument Valley in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST feels like a trick — which it kind of is, since we’re in Spain the rest of the time — but this is a pretty convincing Mexican revolution.

Cox gets very irate about the opening VO, which didn’t bother me at all. Unnecessary, perhaps, but these things can have an atmospheric value, giving a spurious documentary sheen to fictionalized settings and action.

The film’s two titles are both good — A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is quite literally what Castel is carrying. It’s a golden bullet, as in DJANGO KILL. A favoured image (see also RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL) which literally combines the two obsessions of the genre, money and violence. Alex Cox has pointed out that the spaghetti western hero from Leone on is not too interested in sex or love or justice, and money is secondary, but killing is ALL-IMPORTANT. QUIEN SABE? (WHO KNOWS?) is a key line of dialogue that really resonates in the film, and seems to stand in for everything poor dumb El Chuncho can’t verbalize.

Volonte’s appearance in the film made this one of the few Klaus Kinski pictures where Kinski wasn’t the director’s biggest problem (Kinski was TWICE in movies where people plotted to assassinate him, he was such a pain). Volonte, objecting to his costume, showed up on set naked. Damiani got angry with him and shoved him off his horse. I’m not sure if this was all the same incident or two different occasions.

But Volonte is really good, and Castel, more subdued, is a great acting partner for him. The movie has some of the best acting I’ve seen in a spaghetti. (The leads in the Leone films are always iconic, and James Coburn reacting to the firing squad in the rain at night in the uneven DUCK YOU SUCKER gives the greatest reaction shots of his career.)

Kinski is very fine also, though with him it can feel as much a triumph of physiognomy as acting. But at a certain point, the two are inseparable. Beswick has less to do, and her best scene is hampered by her worst facial expressions, but it IS an interesting scene. Some of the bandits want to rape a rich woman they’ve captured. Beswick’s “Adelita” is all for this. She was raped at 15, so why should this woman be spared. It’s a depressing but believable sentiment. Compare it to DUCK, YOU SUCKER! where Leone seems to consider rape as an amusing form of class revenge. Here, the unacceptable views are at least coming from a character, not (seemingly) from the filmmaker.

Big spoilers now — Volonte’s El Chuncho has a serious case of star worship about his General. Ushered into the man’s presence, he is promptly sentenced to death for abandoning a village he’d earlier liberated. Heartbreaking interrogation where Chuncho, an honest man, is talked into proposing his own execution. Here, Volonte starts to be absolutely incredible. Your heart breaks for the murderous bastard.

Kinski volunteers for the job of his brother’s executioner (he would), but is killed by Tate/Castel, who is fulfilling his true mission, to get close to the General and assassinate him.

El Chuncho now follows Tate back to his spymasters, planning to murder him, but then learns that he’s rich — Tate has set aside half his huge fee for him. He takes the bandit to get a makeover and to get laid. El Chuncho goes along like a man in a dream. He had intended to avenge the general, but suddenly he has everything he could ever want, including Tate’s friendship.

It flashed on me suddenly what this reminded me of: the section in Tess of the D’Urbervilles where she becomes the lover of her rapist, because she can’t process what he did to her. Volonte plays everything with exactly the right sense of concussed daze. In his new city clothes, he’s like a strange shaggy child.

And then he wakes up. Tate can’t understand why El Chuncho suddenly wants to kill him. Neither can El Chuncho. Who knows? But, the deed done, El Chuncho recovers his revolutionary fervour, so it’s a happy ending. But you have questions, which is good.

A proper movie! It transcends its genre while still providing the pleasures associated with its genre. And while DD’s closeups don’t have the iconic/comicbook impact of Leone’s and his epic sweep isn’t as epic or sweeping, his less explosive style allows for more depth.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL stars Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano; Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald; Sister Hyde; Cesare Borgia; Man Friday; and Dr. Choma Kruvajan.