Archive for Alex Cox

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Michael J. Pollard’s ass is a dish best served cold

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2022 by dcairns

This piece contains spoilers and in fact they’ve already started.

The Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel identifies the four horsemen of the apocalypse as Sword, famine, Wild Beasts and Pestilence but in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations their names are given as Conquest, War, Famine and Death. But here’s Lucio Fulci to settle the debate: they are Stubby, Bunny, Clem and Bud. As played by Fabio Testi, Lynn Frederick, Michael J. Pollard and Harry Baird. The judge’s decision shall be final.

We really enjoyed FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… (1974). It’s unusual. Alex Cox is fairly dismissive of it, as he is of all post-1970 spaghettis. He points out that with its pop music soundtrack and soft-focus, backlit, long lens cinematography, it strongly resembles a TV commercial of the period. I’d Like to Buy the World a Gun. This is true, and the songs are fairly diabolical, though they do add to the weirdness which is one of the film’s key virtues, and Fulci’s love of diffusion is evident in his horror movies too. Giving a romantic gloss to hardcore prosthetic gore is agreeably perverse.

The violence has a point, which coincides with what I take to be the point of Fulci’s horror films, which aren’t scary but deal with a disturbing idea — human beings are composed of meat. Fulci being a doctor (!), like George Miller (!), he seems to have had a sense of mission in teaching us this valuable if depressing truth. (The sadism in Fulci is clinical and lacks joi de vivre, it’s more squalid and abject.)

The colour-supplement beauty may have a point too, but at any rate for those who don’t enjoy the Leone aesthetic — orange makeup, clogged pores in massive close-up, dust — here’s an alternative. Scenic beauty and spouting rubber appliances.

As with his previous (1966) western, MASSACRE TIME (haven’t seen it yet, but going by Cox’s report), Fulci stages a lot of squib-splatter effects, not otherwise seen much in the Italian west. If he was doing that in ’66 he was really ahead of the curve — ahead of Penn and Peckinpah. I’ll check that one out and report back.

Fiona christened these guys “the notorious Elephant Man Gang.”

This one begins with multiple “explosive bullet hits” spurting red, red vino in an opening massacre largely unconnected to whatever plot the film has (arguably, it has none). While it’s going on, our main characters are spending a night in the jail, which introduces them. Fabio Testi (literally “Fabulous Balls”) is a smooth gambler, Lynn Frederick, soon to marry Peter Sellers, is a pregnant hooker, Michael J Pollard is passed-out drunk (and, in reality, apparently high as a kite) and Harry Baird is a gravedigger who sees dead people. While the town’s other undesirables are being slaughtered by white-hooded vigilantes, and the sheriff stuffs his ears with bread, Fulci crash-zooms in on Baird’s frightened face…

Run out of town on a cart, our ill-matched quartet head for the next town — and never get there. That’s the closest thing to a plot. Also, they meet up with outlaw Tomas Milian, who carves inverted crosses carved under his eyes and is basically a wild west Charles Manson, an idea I suppose someone was bound to explore at some point. Manson’s actually living on a wild west movie set makes it inevitable.

Milian, much less appealing than in DJANGO, KILL! (a Christlike Yojimbo) or THE BIG GUNDOWN (a scrappy underdog), is a horrific villain. His arrival triggers a spate of actual animal killing, in the Italian cannibal movie vein: he’s a one-man REGLE DE JEU hunting party. Getting the foursome high on some ill-defined peyote or something, he stakes them out in the desert and rapes the stoned Frederick. This is staged in a very spaghetti western manner — a lingering build-up with a startlingly sudden conclusion. It’s at once highly exploitative and slightly squeamish, as if Fulci wanted to get the sadists aroused and then leave them high and dry.

The four, having briefly become five, are now reduced to three, two, one. Pollard, a veteran of the European western, having played romantic lead (!) in LES PETROLEUSES/THE LEGEND OF FRENCHIE KING, dies (too soon!) from a gunshot wound. Baird goes fully schizo and serves Pollard’s severed buttock to his friends as a meal, then capers off. ALWAYS ask what the “large animal” your crazy friend found and butchered actually is.

Frederick gives birth, and dies. Her baby, born in an all-male town of eccentric outlaws, is adopted by the whole community, and christened “Lucky.”

“What’s the surname?” wondered Fiona.

“Bastard,” I suggest.

The slender thread of plot running through the latter half has been a revenge quest — Testi gets his revenge, in a messy and unpleasant manner, and walks off, crying.

W.H. Auden said that works of art are not divided into the good and bad (and ugly), but the interesting and boring. This movie is, I submit, interesting. Lots of implausible, childish stuff, but Fulci for once seems to actually care about and like his characters, or at least made us do so. Everyone is post-synched but apart from Testi, their real voices have been used — Frederick’s combination of wild west saloon gal and stage school brat is rather adorable, and Baird just plays it with his Guyanan accent. Revenge is an imperative, but it’s main value is, it seems, to allow the hero to grieve.

The acting is, as Cox might say, “a certain kind of acting.” Or certain kinds. Frederick strives to condense as many facial expressions into as short a space of time as possible. It’s strange to see such a porcelain doll countenance moves so much. Her line readings are frequently incomprehensible, even though she has perfect elocution — it’s that opera singer thing, where everything is enounced beautifully but has no relation to natural speech and so the brain stumbles over it. The protean features, however, are the natural uncontrolled expressiveness of a child, something Frederick never offers in any other performance. Pollard is just out of his face, agreeably so. Baird is given a lot of conflicting stereotypes to contend with (singing spirituals AND cannibalism) but his character’s craziness is benign, and atypical. Rather than being afraid of spooks, he likes them. Testi’s character arc is, on one level, the retrieval of his shaving kit, on another it’s the classic revenge motive, but on some other unstated level it’s an attempt to become involved with humanity. It’s not at all clear if this is a good idea for him.

Maybe the film’s unusual sentiment and humanity comes from the Bret Harte stories it purports to adapt; maybe from Ennio de Concini, co-writer, whose varied credits include DIVORCE: ITALIAN STYLE and Bava’s likeable THE EVIL EYE/THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Maybe Fulci was in an unusually sympathetic mood: perhaps DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING had a brief purgative effect on his toxic sensibility.

There is, as usual with Dr. Fulci, a lot of unpleasant imagery, and the prosthetics are as usual gloated over until the seams show. But there is very attractive imagery too. The sense of the west as a nightmarish world of anarchic violence, in which our protagonists are defenceless innocents, is touching and scary and unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s like if you digitally erased Clint from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and left the weak and the bad to get on with it. The title is hard to parse, since these four are not powerful destructive forces, and do the 1880s count as an apocalypse? One is forced to conclude that, in Fulci’s universe, the apocalypse is happening ALL THE TIME.

FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE… stars Zorro; Tatiana Romanoff; C.W. Moss; Big William; Provvidenza; Tatum, the killer; Agente della Pinkerton; and Dr. Butcher.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Spaghetti is a dish best served cold

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2022 by dcairns

Fiona was enthused about seeing THE BIG SILENCE, because as it’s a snowy western, she assumed the people would be less orange. The orangeyness of everyone in spaghetti westerns, their pores clogged with tangerine pancake makeup, really bothers her. She really liked this one.

Before that, we had quite a good time with THE PRICE OF POWER, an interesting, unusual and original spag western from 1969 — the first film, as Alex Cox points out, to directly tackle the Kennedy assassination — though there are all those weird foreshadowing films like SUDDENLY and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE — and then there’s Mr. Zapruder’s magnum opus, which really wins first place.

But Tonino (MY NAME IS NOBODY) Valerii’s film, written with Massimo Patrizi and gothic/giallo specialist Ernesto Gastaldi, really goes for it, in the oddest way. In order to make the story of actual president James Garfield’s actual assassination feel a bit more resonant, they jettison all the facts and transport the event to Dallas, represented by standing sets from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Van Johnson is imported to play the doomed prez, and the basic events we can all agree upon — sniper kills POTUS, patsy is arrested and assassinated, shadowy cabal of political/business interests pays the bills — are recycled all’Italiana, with many additional massacres featuring electronically amplified gun blasts (every gunshot has a ricochet PANG! even if there’s nothing around for the bullet to carom off of. And I generally liked the racial politics — there’s much talk of slavery and the slimy businessmen led by Fernando Rey are trying to undo the outcome of the Civil War. I loved the way the trauma of the actual hit-job causes the camera to come off its tripod and Zapruder around, panic-stricken. Valerii also throws in a lot of wacky diopter shots.

What, to me, stopped the film from really coming off, was the role of Giuliano Gemma, not because he’s absurdly handsome and has five hundred teeth, but because he wins, saves the day for democracy, and all is well. Alex Cox observes that “The necessary assumptions of the conspiracy film (almost-universal racism, total corruption of the police, double-dealing by the forces of authority) are already those of the spaghetti western, so there’s no conflict of interest.” But the Italian western mainly follows the required pattern of good guy versus bad guy, good guy wins. It’s just that usually, or in Leone anyhow, the good guy is less good. Even so, it’s impossible to imagine Leone ending a film with Volonte offing Eastwood (though he wanted to start OUATITWEST with all three of his stars from TGTBATUGLY being shot down by his new hero).

There are some stories, however, that don’t benefit from the popular and gratifying heroic triumph ending. Polanski noted that for the audience to care about CHINATOWN’s story of corruption, it shouldn’t end with the social problems being cleared up. They’re still with us, after all — capitalism, corruption and abuse — so suggesting that a lone private eye with a bisected nostril solved them in the 1930s would be dishonest.

This is where THE BIG SILENCE comes in. I’ve resisted Sergio Corbucci after being underwhelmed by the original DJANGO — the mud, the coffin and the sadism were all neat, but it was extremely poorly shot, and how dare anyone compare a poorly-shot film favourably to Leone?

THE BIG SILENCE is also photographically iffy, but at the same time has many splendid wide shots, thanks to the snowy Tyrolean locations. What uglifies Corbucci’s shooting is the messy, out-of-focus, misframed and herky-jerky closeups. Like Tinto Brass, Corbucci seems to position his cameras at random, stage the blocking without regard to what can be seen, and throw the whole mess together in a vaguely cine-verita manner. And one of his operators here is incompetent. What beautifies it is the costumes, actors, settings, and wide shots. And he has Morricone (with Riz Ortolani) providing a unique, wintry, romantic score.

The set-up is stark and simple: outside the aptly-named town of Snow Hill, a raggletaggle band of outlaws is starving, picked off by bounty hunters. A new sheriff (Frank Wolff) has been sent to impose order. A military man, he means well, but is of uncertain competence: on his way to town he’s robbed of his horse by the desperate outlaws, who eat it.

The movie’s sidelining of the “new sheriff in town” is amusing — our main characters are to be Loco (in the original language version, Tigrero), a preening, psychopathic bounty hunter played by Klaus Kinski, and Silence, a mute killer of bounty killers, played by a Mauser-wielding Jean-Louis Trintignant in what’s apparently his favourite role. Silence has no dialogue but he does have a traumatic flashbackstory, as was becoming de rigeur in Leone films.

There’s also Vonetta McGee, later borrowed by Alex Cox for REPO MAN, rather magnificent as a widow who hires Silence, paying him with her body, to kill Loco. And the usual corrupt manager of the general store. Spaghetti westerns are communistic in a low-key way, the business interests are usually the real bad guys.

The body count is high, as we’d expect. The blood is very red. The bad guys are very bad, and they have it mostly their own way. The typical baroque whimsicality of the genre’s violence is in evidence: rather than shooting his opponent, Kinski shoots the ice he’s standing on, dropping him into the freezing water. But, unusually, none of this is funny. The sadism is intense: even our hero has a tendency to shoot men’s thumbs off when they surrender (stops them from unsurrendering). There’s a really intense focus on INJURY TO THE HAND, which goes back to Django but becomes demented here. Paul Schrader attributed this motif to writers’ anxiety — hands are what you write with.

Cox points out that, though the film is terse and devoid of subplots, the author of the English dub, Lewis Ciannelli (son of actor Eduardo Ciannelli), has used the Utah setting to insert some stuff about the outlaws being victims of religious persecution, suggesting they’re Mormons. At least they’re treated more sympathetically than in THE BIG GUNDOWN… up to a point.

Introducing the film on Moviedrome back in the day, Cox remarked, “And the ending is the worst thing ever.” Meaning it as praise, you understand.

The movie’s ending is its most astonishing element. It stands comparison with CHINATOWN, and is even more startling in a way since there are, after all, plenty of noirs with tragic endings (but none quite like the one Polanski imposed on Robert Towne — Towne’s ending was a tragedy that solves the social problem — Polanski’s instead sets it in cement).

Corbucci came up with the story, penning the script with the usual football team of collaborators. His widow, says Cox, “told Katsumi Ishikuma that her husband had the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X in mind.” Che’s murder happened right before the shoot. This gives the film its unusual seriousness, and what makes it more effective than THE PRICE OF POWER is Corbucci upends the genre conventions that would prevent the horror from staying with us.

THE PRICE OF POWER stars Erik the Viking; Dr. Randall ‘Red’ Adams; and Don Lope.

THE BIG SILENCE stars Marcello Clerici; Don Lope de Aguirre; Proximates the Tyrant; Father Pablo Ramirez; Chico; Fregonese the Tyrant; Principe di Verona; and Marlene.

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Lee’s Rough Rider

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2022 by dcairns

THE BIG GUNDOWN is a really fun Italo-oater directed by Sergio Sollima and written by Franco Solinas, Fernando Morandi and Sergio Donati, with Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian in the leads.

Alex Cox, who writes favourably about the film in 10,000 Ways to Die, is a big Bunuel fan, and I perceived a Bunuelian parallel with this one: Van Cleef is hunting Milian’s Mexican rascal, who is accused of raping and murdering a twelve-year-old girl. It’s basically The Fugitive, in terms of the plot dynamic. What’s surprising is that the movie doesn’t let us know that Milian is innocent for quite a stretch of the runtime. The parallel is with Bunuel’s excellent, underseen THE YOUNG ONE, which does the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD thing of having a Black man falsely accused of rape, but in this case confuses our feelings by not revealing his innocence until halfway through or so. In his memoir, Bunuel may be misremembering the film when he credits himself with making the Black man both good and bad — in fact he’s good, but we’re not allowed to know this for a while.

While we might guess, based on the incidences of misogyny in the genre, that the filmmakers figured their protagonist’s guilt was unimportant, but I don’t think that’s credible: Leone might shrug off rape on several occasions, but not child murder. I think it’s a bold and interesting strategy — our sympathies are with Van Cleef, we’re curious about Milian, and our negative attitude to him is undermined then reversed.

Not that the film isn’t breathtakingly cynical. At one point, anti-hero Cuchillo falls in with a Mormon wagon train — the weather immediately gets overcast and muddy. Van Cleef tracks him down and seems to be on the verge of rescuing the Mormon leader’s fourteen-year-old daughter from almost certain overfamiliarity. After Cuchillo has escaped, Van Cleef learns that the girl is actually the leader’s fourth wife.

Of the writers, Solinas, who co-wrote SALVATORE GIULIANO for Franco Rosi and BATTLE OF ALGIERS with/for Pontecorvo, wanted to write a political western, and succeeds subtly. Morandi was AD on that film, and they both went on to write Joseph Losey’s M. KLEIN. And Donati worked for Leone on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER. So it’s a really interesting mix of people (Italian movies seem even more apt than Hollywood ones to feature whole football teams of writers).

All this background comes from Cox’s book, where he says that the Solinas-Morandi draft conceived the Mexican fugitive as older, the American pursuer as younger — a Tuco-Blondie set. Sollimo and Donati flipped the ages so that Lee Van Cleef could be Corbett and Tomas Milian could play Cuchillo, young and reasonably attractive under the obligatory stubble and dirt,

The film should be political, but the references to Cuchillo as one of the “dogs of Juarez” don’t add up to much. And as Cox observes, for a tale of American adventurism — Corbett follows Cuchillo into Mexico despite it being out of his jurisdiction — it all turns out very nicely. Of course, Cuchillo is innocent (as charged) and the corrupt rich dude (Walter Barnes) and his son who’ve sicced Corbett on him are really to blame. Which is an implied social criticism, anyway. Spaghetti westerns are good that way — the villains are often wealthy businessmen and politicians who play with toy soldiers.

The chase story allows for picaresque developments — there’s a weird episode involving a sadistic female landowner (Nieves Navarro as “the widow”) who is so beyond-pathological she seems more like a character from Greek myth — someone Odysseus would have some trouble with. And Van Cleef’s realising that Milian has been framed coincides with a miniature political awakening in Mexico, where he’s reduced to the status of prisoner and pauper. And there are entertaining novelties like the Austrian duelist, complete with monocle, who LVC has to square off against.

Cox rightly appreciates the plotting, stating that it deploys “genuine reversals rather than the contrivances of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.” Sometimes I wonder if he even likes Leone, but in fact he’s just clear-eyed about his weaknesses: tackling the DOLLARS films and OUATITW, he’s both extremely critical and wildly enthusiastic. Anyhow, the twists in TGTBATU may be contrived, but they make the contrivance amusing — Clint being saved from hanging by a cannon-blast that destroys the entire building is a bravura moment and I can’t understand anyone not enjoying it. Van Cleef being tricked into thinking a rattlesnake has bitten him, so that Milian can escape, is clever, but still depends on the serpens ex machina showing up at just the right time.

Cox is a very opinionated commentator, which can be bracing, but he baffles me when he (rightly) praises Morricone’s score, then (wrongly) complains about the “hideous, screeching vocals of Edda Dell’Orso, and the diabolical song, ‘Run, Man, Run.'” I first knew this movie via its soundtrack, several tracks of which appeared on the LP of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY I bought when I was twenty. Enjoying Dell’Orso’s soprano seems to me a necessity if you’re going to appreciate spaghetti westerns in general and Morricone scores in particular. Cox obviously finds enough to enjoy without liking this component, but I can’t help but feel he’s flat-out wrong and ought to WORK ON IT. Personal taste is a weakness we should all strive to overcome. I like this and I don’t like that is what keeps us from broadening our minds. The only thing a canon is good for is leverage to convince us we might be missing something.

I also like the song — I like Morricone’s pop arrangements too, and I like the naked emotionalism of it. That’s a key part of the Italian western thang — deeply cynical stories about horrible violence, venality and casual betrayal, with soaring, romantic music. I think it’s also part of why English-language critics not only disliked the films for their inauthenticity and sadism, they were thrown by the weird two-tones-at-once approach, and concluded that the filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing.

RUN, MAN, RUN is also the name of THE BIG GUNDOWN’s sequel, starring Milian sans Van Cleef, which I plan to watch.

THE BIG GUNDOWN stars Angel Eyes; Django; Porthos; Emanuelle; Zorro; Yevtushenko; and Stevens.