Friday, June 10, 2016

TL;DR - Spaghetti Watch-tern (Again): Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) isn't just one of my favorite Spaghetti Westerns or Westerns, it's one of my favorite movies.  I try not to watch it too often as I'm afraid I'll reduce something about the film by making the viewing of the film rote (I've come dangerously close to this with Superman I and II).  Instead, each time I watch the movie, I feel like I get something more out of it, see some detail, appreciate some nuance a bit more.  If you ever want to see my ideal for combination of camera work, design of scene, score, acting and blocking to drive story and ideas - look no further.

The film features a tremendous central cast.  Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson of course.  Jason Robards.

Woody Strode and Jack Elam have guest spots as gunmen.

And, of course, we have Claudia Cardinale as Jill.

I wrote up this movie in August of last year.  You can read my write up there with many loving screengrabs I stole from the internets.

SimonUK and I took in a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz on Wednesday evening.  It was the second time I'd seen the movie on the big screen, the first being one of my first trips to The Alamo Drafthouse at its original location on Colorado Street.  This time we didn't get the large theater, but the projection was phenomenal.  I assume it was s digital projection, as we weren't told otherwise.

While I don't have anything particularly new to say about the movie itself, I have been thinking about one aspect of the film in relation to current trends in how we interact with media in 2016.

At the risk of sounding like a privileged white male over 40...

When the conversation turns to what should and should not be shown or talked about in movies, both in the present and retroactively, I think about this movie a great deal.  No one has decided this movie is a problem, and there's no current politicking against it, but when I see a movie like this and think "wow, 1968 movies were edgier than 2016 movies.  I'm not sure you could do this now," it starts my puzzler puzzling.

At times it seems the films of the past are not just poorly understood by modern audiences projecting their own sensibilities, tastes, phraseology, etc... onto an era not their own, it all too often seems the audience lacks  an historical perspective, in a sociological context, in a "current events" context or from a filmmaking perspective.  I'll roll my eyes through people snickering through a film made before 1970 because it's "old timey" and therefore wrong.  But I'll forgive an audience chuckle at some of the more overt sexism that can pervade films from prior eras - you gotta release steam somehow.

But I also think about how the desire to correct the ills of the past and present begin to create rules for what is and is not allowed when it comes to thought and action not just in real life as we ask those around us to consider their standards of behavior, but in what we portray in cinema, in books, etc... as acceptable, for any character, insisting on not just right action between characters, but the correct reaction when that barrier is breached.

In this new era of high ideals paired with hashtag activism and social media viral inception of ideas - I sometimes squint at the conversation and wonder if we are entering into an era in which an adherence to well-intentioned discussion has turned into a sort of semi-voluntary Hayes Code.  It's a lefty brand of purity test enforced not by the MPAA, but by social police using the echo-chamber of social media.  Even as movies and television have gone about finding new and ever more intense depictions of violence (particularly man on man, or woman on man) we've dialed back a lot of the nudity and sexuality in film (it now shows up more often on post 10:00 PM cable than in movies), and we have invisible rules of the road of what we can and cannot say.  Which has always been true.

And, whenever there are a whole lot of people saying you can't do something, I immediately want to start defending that thing.

I think a lot about the scene where Cheyenne encounters Jill for the second time, this time while she's alone in the house of her slain husband and the family she never met.  She'd met him the day before, saw Cheyenne as the killer and outlaw he is, and now, while she's seemingly friendless and defenseless, he's inside her house, his men waiting patiently outside.  There's an unstated threat of rape in his very presence, a clear and present danger.  There's also a threat of murder, but Jill's death seems somewhat less likely.

The scene is not that unusual in that aspect.  Threat of sexual assault is a common and powerful narrative device and taps into real sympathies and fears.

What's different here is that Jill says in response to Cheyenne's increasing hostility:

If you want to, you can lay me over the table and amuse yourself, and even call in your men. Well, no woman ever died from that. When you're finished, all I'll need will be a tub of boiling water and I'll be exactly what I was before - with just another filthy memory.

There's no way this would make it into a movie today.  And that's something I think about a lot, because while we're likely no less removed from film or television using rape as a narrative device, we now give our seemingly helpless female leads an out.  A pot of boiling water to throw.  A hidden gun.  A knife.  Kung-Fu.  Something empowering and kick-ass that makes the audience cheer.  Our protagonist will retain her honor, and our antagonist will pay dearly.  And I support that.


It's a character moment.  It doesn't relieve the tension for the audience and give them an easy out, exactly.  It shades in the blank slate of Jill.

Rather than going for an action trope, Jill's reaction is not one that would be expressed by a male character, it doesn't define her as a woman, but as a woman, she responds to her threat in a way that's purely of her character.  And it's a bold goddamned statement.

It's just a few sentences, but it's here we learn that Jill isn't the lady from the East we may have believed she was, some flower who couldn't make it in the rough climate of Arizona.  And, as murderous and awful as the past might have been for our other characters, Jill's been through worse, and knows it's possible it could happen again at any time, but she'd still pick herself up and keep on moving.  No law has protected her before, no matter where she's from.  She's not counted on saviors and white knights.  Whatever power Cheyenne might have had is stripped away and replaced with not just respect but admiration.  It's what sets Cheyenne to stand up for Jill for the rest of the film's run time, and seeing someone with a will to surpass his own, he falls for her (even if he never says it).

None of that says nothing good about Cheyenne, and we suspect he's done things beyond murder that go unmentioned in the film (although it's arguable that the movie is in part about his redemption and attempts to make good).

But it changes from Cheyenne's scene to Jill's.  In a scant few words, she shows she's made of iron, whether or not sometimes she's been a victim.  She's found ways for living with what's happened to her, ways to take away the powerlessness and fear and even upend it upon her would-be aggressors.

It may not make Jill "relatable", but Leone doesn't really make movies about highly likable, relatable people any more than Scorsese.  And as much as I'll agree there should be opportunities for female characters to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in representation in any genre of film - there need to be movies that work outside of the rubric of what is and is not okay in some Film Studies 101 class.  It's a useful tool, but it's a tool, not a weapon, and does very little but create a template for an ideal fictional persona that's pretty far away from the far-ranging experience of actual humans in this or any era.

This was also 1968.  Elvis was still making movies (he made 6 between 1968 and 1969) and Mike and Carol Brady were still a year away from showing the first television bedroom where a couple shared a bed.  You can review a lot of movies from just prior to this era and this sort of grit wasn't exactly par for the course (although '68 and '69 are definitely the tipping point for what was to come).

Again, to be clear - no one is actually attacking Once Upon a Time in the West, Jill, Cardinale, Leone, etc...  And the scene was a singular scene in a singular movie from an era in which much was changing both on screen and in the real world.  I'm not asking for a repeat of this scene in every movie or as an ideal for a female character.

But what I am concerned about is that any film released today needs to toe so many socio-political lines, we're going to lose some of the more interesting stuff that makes up films that push characters and boundaries of narrative.

If film matters as something other than product, if fictional stories serve a purpose, as our brains wrestle with the details and logic of a film as something to consider as simulation, of lessons learned without going through the experience ourselves, then we can make room for life in its variations.  We can accept that not all people who appear on screen should operate under a list of prescribed rules.  And it seems an ever more precarious ledge as the power of social media can be used for positive change, but so often the nuance gets lost in 140 characters, or reasonable arguments are never seen, failing to penetrate the cacophony.  Complex characters should not just be indicated by what sort of leather jacket they wear.

It's a movie of its time and of a more distant time, and it has the "issues" of objectification and all the usual "male gaze" stuff they load you up with in narrative studies classes.  But there's also another current running underneath all that - and like a lot of Westerns (or war movies or noir), it's the women living on the edge of the world where these stories take place in supposedly masculine worlds, who are the ones who are the most unbreakable.  And, I think, in the end that's what all of the men in Once Upon a Time in the West look to Jill for.  She's going to be the one to master this wild of killers of outlaws and make it civilization by will alone.

There are many ways to give and take power in a story (and we're not talking about an actual, real-life event).  And I'm not giving a prescription for how people should behave in their personal lives when the unthinkable occurs.  But what I am interested in is that point where we say "okay, we've crossed the polite-conversation barrier.  We've created these characters and this scene.  Can we tolerate that conversation in a fictional simulation, no matter the perspective of whomever put it to film, or are we going to take offense and ask that the film no longer exist?"

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