New Retrospective Redefines a Genre

Spaghetti Westerns, Film Forum’s current retrospective (now through June 21) may be the most important series that redoubtable, unpredictable New York institution has ever shown. This extensive three-week, 26-film survey of the 1960s Italian film genre reexamines its history but most compellingly asks the question “Do we watch movies as adults or as children?”

That crucial question is raised by no less an authority than Alex Cox, director of Repo Man, who confers approval on the genre in his new book 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western. It’s an affectionate compendium of the genre’s peculiarity: Spaghetti westerns were an exotic refashioning of Hollywood’s most exportable narrative form that occurred at the precise moment popular culture reflected certain temperamental upheaval.

Cox’s commendation means something. As cinema’s best representative of the British Punk-era ethos, Cox is attuned to the social significance of popular art; his perspective restores principles that have been lost over film culture’s past two decades when genre scrutiny gave way to genre hedonism.

If for no other reason, Film Forum’s retro is a significant intervention in the heretofore unquestioned reign of Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic decadence–an insidious culture-wide perversion significantly derived from his undigested consumption and imitation of the violence and hysteria in Spaghetti Westerns (as well as Blaxploitation). QT’s infamous, sadistic moment of cutting off a man’s ear in Reservoir Dogs originated in Sergio Carbucci’s 1966 Django, a Western about a Civil War vet who opposes assorted marauders. (Django Unleashed will be the title of QT‘s upcoming flick combining Spaghetti and Blaxploitation. Children throughout the Internet express pants-wetting anticipation.)

Cox’s examination of the Spaghetti Western pinpoints the genre’s immature appeal. This is essential to understanding its influence on the aberrations of American pop culture several decades later. Cox importantly fesses up to affections that QT confuses with cinephilia. In a 2009 Financial Times article, Cox recognized his love for Spaghetti Westerns as “mad-boy stuff.” He wrote “Sure, I could appreciate a film such as Tony Richardson’s Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962) with its northern anti-hero who refused to play by the rules. But the world I knew best [from boys school education] had more in common with the psychos and testosterone freaks depicted in the new Italian” films.

It is the berserk reinterpretation of American social and political history in these films that makes the Spaghetti Western an eccentric moral testing ground. (Surely the moniker connects to the giallo–melding Italy’s outre horror genre with American horse opera.) The films have little to do with the actual historical events sometimes obliquely referenced; they are, instead, expressions of a prevailing, obviously European post-WWII pessimism.

That this is rarely understood in what Cox identifies as “pedantic” defenses of the genre (Film Forum bills its retro with a puerile reviewer’s quote “The Greatest Genre Ever!”) prevents helpful appreciation of the Spaghetti as individual films or a cultural phase. In fact, an abominable Spaghetti survey in a recent film magazine praised the genre’s traipsing through Communist sympathies; another critic praised the proto-terrorist A Bullet for the General as “zestily anti-American.”

Ironically it is the absence of British Punk’s revolutionary ethos that limit’s most Spaghetti Westerns with the special exceptions of Sergio Leone’s lavish and inquiring Duck, You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in the West where Italian cinema’s political strain vies with the spectacle of human perversity without drowning-out meaning by generic excess. Cox cites the overall “infantile male violence“ in Spaghetti Westerns. He distinguishes the “sense of radicalism, of anarchy, of a moribund fantasy world being turned on its head to reveal terrible truths, social and political” that links up with British Punk’s ethos. For intellectually lazy Americans, these films are just cool, the birth of hipster cynicism.

Some of the Spaghetti are like watching satirical Mad Magazine versions of American history–more precisely, of American legend. These films interpret America in terms derived from our more traditional romantic classical westerns, crossed with European envy and derision. But as culture, even these films must reflect the mores and tensions of the society that produces them. So Spaghetti westerns, if thoughtfully considered, are primarily about Europe (and Europeans’ fantasies about themselves operating within American contexts and American idioms).

They could also be considered Socialist reactions to the Democracy that Hollywood has exported (especially in a film like A Bullet for the General written by Battle of Algiers’ insurrectionist scenarist Franco Solinas and starring political movie icon Gian Maria Volonte, the Italian Olivier as an anarchic bandito). WWII response and resentment have more to do with these perverse fantasies and how they twist political enlightenment and historical revision into new fables devoted to the commercial exploitation of immediate gratification, sadistic violence; subverting the virtues of American westerns that dealt with the problems of American history from manifest destiny to complicated developments of morality and heroism. Interestingly, in Japan, Akira Kurosawa‘s quite modernist films avoided the perversion of Spaghetti westerns, perhaps because he relied on his cultural traditions and respected the Samurai tale, believing in their sense of chivalry and concern with the problems of civilization. Despite being inspired by American narrative eloquence, Kurosawa was not alienated from his nation’s legacy and so produced films that were an authentic national narrative. (Strange to see these genre films taken seriously when Luc Besson’s contemporary genre revisions are routinely ignored, along with Neveldine-Taylor’s post-cynical Jonah Hex and Ghost Rider.)

The Western’s basic civilization vs. wilderness theme gets travestied by Spaghetti westerns into nihilistic prognostications about mankind‘s depravity. Cox confesses the young person’s conventional fascination with cynicism as a rejection of sentimentality which hipsters consider weak and untrustworthy (especially in counterculture terms that dismiss established moral tenets). The cynicism of Spaghetti westerns now seems an inevitable development of the skepticism following mid-20th century American imperialism and triumphalism. It was a way for Italian Communist anxiety (a luxe privilege) to express itself within a critique of the American ideals it cannot sustain. This resentment is perfectly expressed in Yankee cast-offs and the second-act career desperation of imported actors from the young Clint Eastwood to the has-been Charles Bronson, Dan Duryea, Henry Silva, etc.

Corbucci’s Django evidences an anarchic sadism that threatens to turn old Western tropes into absurdist bromides. His vision is consistently absurd (and very different from Leone’s grand moralizing with its political undercurrents). Corbucci’s films rework Western motifs into a self-consciously decadent essence. The image of Django (Franco Nero, Hollywood would brighten his blue eyes in Camelot but they are dulled here) dragging a coffin behind him challenges Samuel Beckett’s audacity then traduces itself with the revelation of what’s inside–not the post-nuclear unimaginable as in Kiss Me Deadly, but the mundane dread of a machine gun. It’s a symbol that fetishizes annihilation. As a coup de theatre, this “surprise” is unimaginative. It simply appeals to “psychos and testosterone freaks,” encouraging the adolescent thrall for “infantile male violence.” Like all exploitation cinema, its true purpose is to stave off the audience’s boredom.

This cynicism bred a different kind of romanticism; allowing even Americans to scoff at their own distrusted sentimentality. This would seem to fit neatly into Cox’s British Punk attitude but an important difference separates British Punk from Spaghetti western cynicism: Punks articulated their social disenchantment and political rebellion with a humor and energy not found in Spaghetti westerns (other than Ennio Morricone’s berserk, anachronistic music). The derisive attitudes audiences have to these modernized moral tales is childishly inchoate; it isn’t even the same as the mock violence enjoyed by heavy metal fans and the original American punk bands.

Similar distinction can be made between Cox’s films (Repo Man, Repo Chick, The Winner, Highway Patrolman, The Searchers 2.0) and Tarantino’s films–and must be. QT’s love of cynicism is an insufficient response to the issues dealt with even in perverse genre films. It’s understandable that a hipster looking for something to embrace as his own would claim the cynicism of Spaghetti western. Instead of a hip way of responding to generic conventions, it becomes a way of ignoring their meaning–and in QT’s case eliminating meaning. Are Spaghetti Westerns moral tales or not? Is morality believed in any longer, or is it simply mockable? It’s a geek’s delusion.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair