Sunday, May 17, 2009

Currently Watching: Once Upon a Time in the West

If you never knew this, the title of my blog (Once Upon a Time in the Cinema) stems directly out of a pair of Sergio Leone's films, Once Upon a Time in the West (68) and Once Upon a Time in America (84).  They're not related at all.  But they are two of the best films I've ever seen - both grandiose and small, operatic and intimate, slow but ferocious.

I watched West again for the first time in many months (with a commentary track in tow), and was reminded again of its beautifully coordinated structure.  Firmly in the Italian school of filmmaking, Leone believed the world was the frame - the audience cannot see beyond it so its boundaries control the flow of information in a scene.  The cutting of related frames (much like in Eisenstein montage) creates a development of action that pivots around character looks, camera pans, and changes in focus.  Many critics have echoed that West is "an opera of gazes," and I agree - it's basically two hours and forty-five minutes of people looking at each other, but the whole damn thing is beyond mesmerizing.

As the historians note on the soundtrack, Leone is making a revisionist's post-modern Western.  It's a film crammed with allusions to Stevens, Ford, Zinnemann, et al, but Leone stylizes, subverts, and exaggerates the conventions and quotations to create his own notion of the West.  Even the use of Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jack Elam, and Woody Strode evokes reminders of their previous Western incarnations, and each piece of casting almost wickedly plays on the dynamics of the star system, going radically against type and expectation.  Why I love Leone's film, beyond its intense in-frame and between-editing contrasts that border on almost perverse stylization, and beyond its intricately constructed relations between aural and visual elements in each sequence, is that he lets the "spaghetti Western" mean something else.

Even in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Leone's filmmaking is a stylized response to Ford, even insomuch as its Spanish locales erode the red dust of Monument Valley.  The characters in that film all reach points of moral ambiguity, swept up in history and consumed by greed to form a menacing tri-character dissection of American ambition.  Using the train as a simple symbol for the simultaneous progression and corruption of the Western ideal, Leone again skewers cultural perceptions (from a mediated standpoint) while giving each character an archetype that merges with others while uprooting traditional genre roles.  Even Jill (Claudia Cardinale) emerges out of the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold syndrome to become a full-bodied worker, embodying the kind of rugged idealism her late husband tried to possess and carrying the hope and progress of the West through the symbol of water, even as Bronson's Man With No Name rides into a faux sunset fulfilled but aimless.

Also, I just have to note, we kind of take Cinemascope for granted now.  Big productions come in big widescreen, and big vistas demand to be captured in the widest possible lens.  While yes, it had been around for decades and yes, other filmmakers had used it remarkably (Wyler comes instantly to mind...), Leone gives us provocative new ways to think about the intermingling of extreme close-ups and extreme long shots, how the landscape evokes humanity and how human characters evoke traits of their dusty surroundings.

I'm cutting myself off now -- this is just a scant overview of why this film will always be somewhere in my Top 50 films

1 comment:

Ben R said...

Aside from what I see as blatant sexism in all of Leone's works those are two of my all-time favorite films, too, and I loved reading your comments. Have you ever seen the youtube video of the final duel set to Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage"? It provides an interesting alternative to Morricone's version.