Archive for 10000 Ways to Die in the West

Cox’s Orange Pippins: It’s not blood, it’s red

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2022 by dcairns

Giulio Questi’s only western, DJANGO KILL, which isn’t a Django film at all and was never intended to be one, is certifiably crackers.

“We need a name for this blood!” Fiona declared, astonished by the fluorescent red of the grue. “Not Kensington Gore, something else…” I suggested, since the film was shot at the FISTFUL OF DOLLARS town built at Hoja de Manzanares, a place which appropriately enough cannot be located by Google Maps, that Roja de Manzanares might be a good name for the lurid paint. There are great dollops of it splashed around in this, probably the most violent and demented spaghetti western ever shot.

Questi was planning DEATH LAID AN EGG, which is also demented — sort of a giallo only built around the theme of headless chicken farming — when the opportunity to make an Italian western fell into his lap. A producer had promised to make a bunch, and had no scripts. Questi saw this as an opportunity to deal with some of his experiences as a partisan in WWII, transposing them from the mountains of Italy to the deserts of the USA — except he had to recreate these in a quarry in Spain.

Questi chose a highly significant collaborator for his script, Franco “Kim” Arcalli, a film editor by profession. Arcalli would later co-writer LAST TANGO IN PARIS with Bertolucci and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA for Leone. Bertolucci, revisiting LAST TANGO, pronounced himself bewildered by “all this frenzy.” So I think Arcalli can be considered a major contributor to the frenzy of DJANGO KILL! (a film with several working titles and several that don’t work at all — Questi’s preferred name was IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!, but he acknowledged that the film’s spurious connection to the DJANGO pseudo-franchise had perhaps aided the movie’s longevity — “Films are forgotten, but genres go on forever.”

Without the biographical info, it’s hard to know what aspects of Questi’s partisan period are being dealt with here. A “half-breed” stranger, Tomas Milian, is betrayed by his allies after an army payroll robbery and shot. The film opens with his hand apparently reaching from a grave. two itenerant Indians nurse him back to health, and make him some gold bullets to kill his enemies, in exchange for him recounting his experienes of the afterlife. This he never seems to actually do, alas.

The film’s wildest scene, of many candidates, may be the bad guys arriving in the film’s nameless town, known to the Indians only as “The Unhappy Place.” Tracking shots show the usual glimpses of townsfolk from the newcomers’ viewpoint, but these are all wildly horrible and squalid: adults abusing children, children abusing each other, men hitting women, women biting men, weird, crippled animals, a madwoman at a window. A mysterious bit of cloth being dragged behind something. Remember the creepy hand fumbling with milkbottles in the stair in LAST TANGO?

This town might as well be called Bastard. By the time non-Django arrives, all his enemies but one have been lynched by the townsfolk, and the gold is in the hands of the bartender and the storekeeper, who would now be our de facto baddies except there’s also the bandit leader with his blackshirted homosexual muchachos. The two factions of FISTFUL have fragmented further. The townspeople commit random acts of violence on their own, like gorily scalping one on non-D’s Indian chums.

The other most unpleasant moments include a startling, Fulciesque sequence where the townsfolk turn into ghouls, manually digging the golden bullets from a still-living bad guy’s body. Prosthetics and blood capsules are rare in the Italian west, though Fulci himself seems to have used them in his two oaters, and Questi doesn’t hold back here with graphic closeups of digital penetration of a rubber torso or maybe a pork belly, enthusiastic assistants pumping the red red kroovy up from under the table.

Questi, supposedly no fan of Leone, Corbucci, et al, proves adept at cramming his Technicsope frame with leering, sweaty, sadistic, orange faces. I always think of Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross, and I certainly always think of Catholicism’s foundational execution and its crowds of unsympathetic witnesses.

And then there’s a Corman-style inferno, started by the Jane Eyre madwoman in the attic character. Rushing to get his gold, the miser opens a high-up unit and the melted loot pours over his head… all while townsfolk gaup idly outside, chuckling at the property depreciation on fiery display. The inhumanity isn’t just perpetrated man on man, or woman or child, fate or the filmmaker seems to take an active hand in it.

So, yes, this is a fucked-up picture. Arcalli’s editing includes lots of flash-cut PTSD blipvert flashbacks, including upside-down shots. The whiteness of the “desert” becomes a positive boon here, contributing greatly to the violence of the day/night strobe effect.

Everybody in this film is bad or mad or both. Questi describes the barkeeper’s teenage son as “an innocent,” but the film’s main attempt to characterise him shows him furiously slashing his stepmother’s clothing to shreds. Then he’s raped by blackshirts and commits suicide. So it goes.

And oh yes, the music. While AND GOD SAID TO CAIN enjoyed a fanfaretastic, high energy sub-Morricone score by Carlo Savina (LISA AND THE DEVIL), Questi here enlists experimental composer Ivan Vandor (BLACK JESUS), who provides mainly one nodalong horsey trot tune, whose effect, dropping unchanged onto the optical track at regular intervals to comment on the latest atrocity, seems to be to say “Nothing to see here, nothing’s changed, business as usual in The Unhappy Place…”

Much of the violence is curiously un-disturbing, thanks to all that vivid red goop acting as a crimson alienation effect. When non-D is crucified in a cell full of iguanas and fruitbats, it’s more surreal than horrific. But the tabeltop vivisection and the liquid gold facial are authentically horrific. Tonino Della Colli’s cousin Franco shoots the film, and it tends to look overlit, but there’s one great dingy saloon sequence and the slate-blue day-for-night scene’s are unusually realistic.

Questi was evasive and bland when asked about his film’s extreme content, according to Cox’s 10,000 Ways to Die. “The cross has no Christian significance… in a West made up essentially of men, the homosexuality was logical.” If this stuff had personal significance for him, it’s easy to guess why he might indulge in a sort of shuffle between acknowledgement and obfuscation.

Cox’s description of the film as Bunuelian seems apt, though the great Don Luis never made a vision of hell quite as extreme and Gothic as this. Still, for all their shared surrealism and extreme content, Bunuel seems to me more able to genuinely unsettle. DK(IYLS) is maybe too one-note in its parade of abominations to really get under the skin the way the townsfolks fingers do.

Cox: “I find the acting in DJANGO KILL excellent. But it;s a certain kind of acting. There’s a ludicrous, ‘coarse acting’ quality to some of the supporting characters: the ‘mystical’ Indians and the supporting townspeople who look like they’ve been shot from a cannon, through a jumble sale.” Yes!

Cox also notes the aberrant English accents in the dub: even one of the Indians seems to hail from Surrey or someplace, and not the sierras. He envisions some drunken late-night dubbing session in “a low-end Soho recording studio” and admits this madness enhances rather than harms the film’s deeply bananas affect. He’s not wrong.

I can’t quite bring myself to conclude that this film, whatever it’s called, is a GOOD film. But it’s certainly a wonderfully strange one, up there with EL TOPO in terms of crazed visionary zeal and misplaced enthusiasm. Genuine genius and delusions of same rub shoulders and strike sparks. Cox, as a lad in the Wirral, found Italian westerns to be the genre that most captured the insane, brutal anarchy of the comprehensive school playground. I felt more or less the same, though I never achieved temporary blindness through being bashed on the head, though I knew a boy whose vision went monochrome for a day for the same reason.

More pasta with ketchup soon! And more on the fascinating Questi.

DJANGO KILL / IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT! stars Tepepa; Terry Brown, 077’s partner; Odysseus; Frank Rainer; President Madero; Coronel Salcedo; Ernest Hemingway old; and Uncle Pink.

Cox’s Orange Pippins #1: A Fistful of Kinski

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2022 by dcairns

I picked up Alex Cox’s personal field guide to spaghetti westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die in the West, which is fun — he’s very opinionated, but his enthusiasm for the good and ugly entries, and his outrage at the bad, is infectious, so I decided to run a few of his recommendations.

AND GOD SAID TO CAIN… (either 1979 or 1970) lives up to Cox’s recommendation: a Gothic oater directed by Antonio Margheriti in a style close to his Barbara Steele horror movies (one of which, CASTLE OF BLOOD, was co-directed with DJANGO helmer Sergio Corbucci). Klaus Kinski is, ludicrously, a man called Gary Hamilton — “sounds like a football hooligan!” protested Fiona. Pardoned from his chain gang sentence, he embarks on a one-man vengeance spree against the rich businessman (and his private army) who framed him. In the course of this, he rapidly comes to seem like an avenging wraith or revenant, vanishing at will, striking from the shadows.

The movie begins with bright blue skies, bright blue eyes (Kinski’s huge watery orbs were made for ECU) and wobbly crane shots, but also artful use of silhouette and lens flare. Kinski/Hamilton rides into town on an empty horse — he apparently dematerialises from its saddle while his enemies are watching — and the whole last hour of the film is a running battle between KK and the private army. The only thing resembling a subplot is the baddie’s young son, a JFK type scion, wandering about wondering what’s going on.

There’s a strange meal where the rich folks, in their house full of red drapes, candelabras and mirrors — very American/Italian Gothic — try to ignore the sounds of mayhem outside while helping themselves to red wine, mountains of mashed potato, and a single apple, cut down the middle. An almost Chaplinesque repast.

Fiona was at once put off by a particular aspect of the spaghetti aesthetic: big orange faces in sweaty closeup. And hairstyles dyed into a dry crust. The main bad guy has the blorange waves but also a peculiar green streak, presumably some misbegotten clash of hair colouring and Technicolor. But the atmosphere and intensity won Fiona over, and even if none of the other actors was distinguished, Kinski was always around, “fully present,” as Cox says. “Languid, menacing, strong, mad, Gary Hamilton is one of his best Western roles.” That he’s dubbed is a shame: you could have German cowboy, though maybe not one called Gary. Kinski spoke German beautifully, was admired by Brecht for that reason. And his English was agreeable too, in a sinister sort of way.

Cox points out that the film’s classic unity of time, place and theme are unusual: it happens in one night, during a tornado. Margheriti fills the air with bits of straw, a striking effect I haven’t seen copied.

Kinski’s revenges take on almost Phibesian elaborateness: one thug is hanged from a bell-rope, causing his cadaver to dip and rise comically with each toll: another is carefully manoeuvred into position under the bell as it’s cut down. It’s not CONVINCING, but it is messy and horrid.

While Kinski SEEMS like a wraith — one victim calls him “a monster from hell,” and he comes in the French windows through billowing curtains to face his ex just like Chris Lee’s Dracula. But, according to the plot, he’s human. Cox seems torn between feeling the movie is weakened by a refusal to commit to the supernatural, as HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would do, and feeling that the fudging of the point actually creates a more inexplicable atmosphere, which was our reaction.

For a climax, we get a Cormanesque budget-conscious conflagration, and a Wellesian shoot-out in the mirrored house where the chief villain, losing his marbles, can’t tell Kinski from his multiple reflections. Which is also a bit unconvincing, it’s his house, after all, and while there are a lot of mirrors reflecting one another, they’re all around the walls. Kinski appears to be standing in plain view in the middle of the room. But Margheriti shoots it well, we don’t have to BELIEVE this stuff, do we?

AND GOD SAID TO CAIN… is on Amazon Prime for free. We found the blacks blotchy and blocky, but otherwise it looked good.