Archive for Luis Bunuel

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.

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.

Page Seventeen II: The Second Story

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2021 by dcairns

As usual, seven passages from seven page seventeens. I’ve recently enjoyed the rather mysterious short stories of Walter De La Mare. It was particularly fun to read Missing, a story narrated in a tea shop in a heatwave, while being in a cafe in a heat wave. So when I picked up WDLM’s novel of possession/reincarnation The Return from the St Columba’s Bookstore, I turned eagerly to page seventeen to see if it would offer me a suitable extract.

To my surprise I found a previous reader had bookmarked the spot with a scrap of paper. One the paper were the haunting words S.W. BRITISH CHAIN FREQUENCY GROUP 1B. Printed in green ink that closely matched the green hue of the Pan Books paperback itself. On the inside front cover the book was stamped WARDROOM LIBRARY H.M.S. SEAHAWK, and since S.W. can stand for shortwave, it seemed possible that this little piece of paper dated from the book’s use as light reading at sea.

On page seventeen I encountered a character called Sheila, which is my mother’s name. Here’s the passage I’ve selected, along with six more from six different volumes.

Lawford shut his mouth. “I suppose so–a fit,” he said presently. “My heart went a little queer, and I sat down and fell into a kind of doze–a stupor, I suppose. I don’t remember anything more. And then I woke; like this.”

I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder–I believe she stole it from her mother’s Spanish maid–a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingles with her own biscuity odour, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing–and as we drew away from each other, and with aching veins attended to what was probably a howling cat, there came from the house her mother’s voice calling her, with a rising frantic note–and Dr. Cooper ponderously limped out into the garden. But that mimosa grove–the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since–until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.

Mr. Hutton was aware that he had not behaved with proper patience; but he could not help it. Very early in his manhood he had discovered that not only did he not feel sympathy for the poor, the weak, the diseased, and deformed; he actually hated them. Once, as an undergraduate, he had spent three days at a mission in the East End. He had returned, filled with a profound and ineradicable disgust. Instead of pitying, he loathed the unfortunate. It was not, he knew, a very comely emotion, and he had been ashamed of it at first. In the end he had decided that it was temperamental, inevitable, and had felt no further qualms. Emily had been healthy and beautiful when he married her. He had loved her then. But now – was it his fault that she was like this?

To kill or not to kill an insect is a decision which faces several characters. It is morally all the more indicative as the act involves no retaliatory consequence, because it is a matter of impulse rather than reflection, wile from conventional viewpoints it has no moral significance. Thus the insect motif sometimes suggests a reverence for life. But this reverence is amused and sardonic, and has its markedly un-Schweitzerian aspects. The sudden death of an insect can also imply that a man can died a abruptly, and as unimportantly.

In the folklore of the doppelganger (German for double-goer; defined by the OED as “wraith of a living person”) to meet your duplicate is a premonition of death. Sellers, who had visited Roger Moore on the set of The Man Who Haunted Himself, must have felt as if he’d toppled headlong into a similarly horrific plot. As The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, on Sellers’ orders, was being re-re-re-written throughout the night, by teams of hacks, belletrists, ex-playwrights, and just about anybody who could stay awake and hold a pen, this was exactly an element which was worked in at the last moment (though it was lost again when the film was edited after Sellers’ passing). As Sellers intended it (and he through the leaves of the script other people had concocted to the ground, in order to improvise it), the rejuvenated Fu, and Taylor as Nayland, were to walk off into the sunset together, the opposites reconciled, the doubles united. ‘You are the only worthy adversary I ever had, Nayland. They were the good old days. We can recapture them and start all over again.’

‘I admit I can’t make him out,’ resumed Barker, abstractedly; ‘he never opens his mouth without saying something so indescribably half-witted that to call him a fool seems the very feeblest attempt at characterisation. But there’s another thing about him that’s quite funny. Do you know that he has the one collection of Japanese lacquer in Europe? Have you ever seen his books? All Greek poets and medieval French and that sort of thing. Have you ever been in his rooms? It’s like being inside an amethyst. And he moves about in all that and talks like – like a turnip.’

Suddenly I found myself lying awake, peering from my sandy mattress through the door of the tent. I looked at my watch pinned to the canvas, and saw by the bright moonlight that it was past twelve o’clock–the threshold of a new day–and I had therefore slept a few hours. The Swede was asleep still beside me; the wind howled as before; something plucked at my heart and made me feel afraid. There was a sense of disturbance in my immediate neighbourhood.

Postscript: Fiona is now reading The Return, and in conversation with friend and Shadowplayer David Melville Wingrove she has learned that it was HE who originally donated it to the charity shop where I found it…

The Return by Walter De La Mare; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Gioconda Smile, from Mortal Coils by Aldous Huxley; Luis Bunuel by Raymond Durgnat; The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis; The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton; The Willows, from Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood.