Archive for Once Upon a Time in America

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.

Property Values

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 10, 2020 by dcairns

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IL GATTO (1977) is by Luigi Comencini, one of my most exciting recent discoveries. I like how he makes political comedies where the social commentary is inseparable from the humour: LO SCOPONE SCIENTIFICO (1972) with Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten and Alberto Sordi and Silvana Mangano was the first one I saw that made that clear. Comencini worked in a variety of genres but so far his comedies interest me most. And Sergio Leone produced this one — I don’t see any sign of him getting hands-on, though, as he did with his Damiano Damiani films. Mind you, there are a few familiar faces in the cast, including Mario Brega, who I believe got killed in all three of the DOLLARS trilogy, and there’s a perky Morricone tango as theme tune.

But the stars are Ugo Tognazzi and Mariangela Melato as brother and sister landlords of a rent-controlled tenement building who resort to all kinds of dirty tricks to drive the tenants out so they can sell the property and get rich. When their titular cat turns up murdered, they show no sorrow but see it as an opportunity to investigate and possibly get at least one troublesome tenant evicted.

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It’s a wonderfully nasty piece of work — there are no really sympathetic characters (except the cat), but the plotting gets you involved in the vicious and creepy pair’s schemes, so this doesn’t result in loss of engagement. When a foot tries to kick the feline during the opening titles and then we tilt up to reveal the owner of the foot is a nun, the tone has been decisively set.

The two leads (the child-catcher from BARBARELLA and Kala “despatch rocket Ajax” from FLASH GORDON) perform with total lack of vanity or concern for our sympathies, though it’s true they’re in a hell of their own: they hate each other far more than they do their tenants, but are compelled to cooperate if they want to get rich. And they really, really want to get rich. Also, he’s always pilfering food, and she has a thing for the clergy.

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One can perhaps detect Leone misogyny amid the misanthropy — a gratuitous sequence of a guy mauling a girl in the back of a car anticipates similar unpleasantness in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA but is thankfully briefer and less pornographic. There’s a gay character who is certainly stereotyped and winds up dead. But it is hard to completely separate the retrograde elements from the capitalism-corrupts-absolutely message, which comes over strongly and with dark wit. If the ending weren’t a startling anticlimax this would be at least a minor classic.

IL GATTO  stars Mark Hand; Kala; Simon Charrier; Serafina Vitali; Col. Mathieu; Manu Borelli; and Cpl. Wallace.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Dead Soldier

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , on January 13, 2019 by dcairns

An impressive cinephile moment in the first, Scorsese-directed episode of Boardwalk Empire. A family trip to the cinema shortly after Prohibition takes effect. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, onscreen, discovered an empty whisky bottle and gives it a decent burial, using flowers he had gathered for his girlfriend.

   

Somebody did very well, finding out about or remembering this apposite clip. It ties in with an earlier mock funeral for booze, which in itself seems like a cinematic homage, referencing the jazzy wake for Prohibition held in Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.

We finally caught up with the start of this show as side-research for our latest podcast, which has to do with a certain real-life historical character and which should be appearing in time for Valentine’s Day. I think that’s a big enough hint.

P.S. Anyone know the name of the Arbuckle film?