Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Story of Film -- an Odyssey / Fistful of Dollars

Episode 7 of Mark Cousins’ “The History of Cinema -- an Odyssey” focuses on the precursors to the French New Wave with a nod toward Italian directors like Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni and Sergio Leone. Turner Classic Movies airs Cousins’ documentary on Monday nights and follows each episode with a selection of films featured by way of clips and commentary in the series. The presenter is an Irishman from Ulster and some of the encyclopedic documentary’s appeal comes from Cousins’ lilting brogue and his strangely affected singsong prosody, a musical accompaniment as it were to the images that he presents in swift succession, a glimpse of famous films, just enough to whet the viewer’s appetite. “The Story of Film” is a brisk tour of cinema history, fairly conventional, although with post-modernist grace notes -- Cousins’ likes to show nondescript street-corners or unprepossessing buildings that were once famous studios or the homes of great directors and there is a lot of pointless globe-trotting, extended shots of African villages or Indian slums or Chinese streets, sometimes viewed from the back of a moving tram, curiously unadorned and non-dramatic images that make the point that film has always been international and that any history that is so blinkered as to emphasize only Hollywood or, even, European films, for that matter, is deceitful; the history of film, Cousins seems to assert, is nothing less than the history of all the world and all of its peoples. Cousins’ picture delivers lots of information and, unlike many surveys of this kind, he provides useful technical information, facts about cameras and focal lengths and different lenses and professional-sounding tips on editing and sound composition. These insights are never less than fascinating and a good deal can be learned by attending to this documentary. Further, Cousins has apparently seen every film in the world and each episode introduces the viewer to a couple of films, sometimes even a four or five, that were pretty much unknown before highlighted in this documentary. As an example, Cousins’ admires Sergio Leone and notes that the Italian director, and his technicians, invented a new technique called “Techniscope” -- this was a lens system that allowed deep focus in an extremely wide-screen format. Cousins’ observes that America.n wide-screen pictures, for instance “Rebel without a Cause,” flattened and elongated the action into a narrow field of focus -- everything is presented like the frieze on a Greek temple, a flat panorama of action stretched out longitudinally but without depth. “Techniscope” allowed directors like Leone to film panoramic action with extreme depth of field -- the leads to effects characteristic of Leone films: a huge sweating profile occupying a third of the frame while riders approach from a half-mile away, both far and near shown in perfect focus. Leone’s films have the depth of field that we see in Orson Welles but also arrange figures laterally across the wide-screen format. The effect, I think, is like Tintoretto or the Italian mannerists, a weird space composed of figures that are either exceedingly close to us or fleeing into a vast, illuminated distance -- it is a kind of spatial hysteria, the sort of disposition of pictorial space that occurred when Renaissance perspective went slightly mad during the Mannerist and early Baroque periods. (The aura of Mannerist furor in Leone’s pictures is enhanced by many sequences shot in a profoundly unnatural, silvery day-for-night.) “A Fistful of Dollars” was Leone’s first film starring Clint Eastwood and it was made in 1964, although not released in the United States until the late sixties -- by which time the trilogy of films made in Spain by Leone and starring Eastwood had become world-wide hits. Fantastically mannered and stylized, “A Fistful of Dollars” illustrates Leone’s strengths and his limitations. Leone is not an effective action director -- an early scene in the picture showing a vicious bad guy massacring a crowd of soldiers with a Gatling gun is amateurishly staged and lacks the kind of dynamic, jaw-dropping montage effects that Peckinpah was to develop for this same material toward the end of the sixties. Leone just cuts between leering figures firing their guns and amateurishly managed horse-falls -- the animals seem reluctant to drop over on their sides and the stunt men slip off the beasts gingerly as if afraid to get hurt. Leone’s gunfights are modeled after Kurosawa’s sword battles (“A Fistful of Dollars” is a remake of “Yojimbo”) and they are over before they begin -- Clint fans his six-shooter and the bad guys drop like flies. Leone doesn’t have the balletic or choreographed approach to violence that Kurosawa displays and he lacks the feral, viciousness of a genuinely savage director like Fritz Lang. Leone is interested in long showy stand-offs, huge close-ups of scarred and weather-beaten faces, curiously intricate sets with lots of depth and odd nooks and crannies (consider, for instance, the mine where the badly beaten hero recuperates garishly equipped with all sorts of cubist shafts and timbers arrayed across a deep soundstage that seems to leak bluish fog from the depths of the grotto.) Like other Italian directors, he is fond of lengthy brutal torture scenes -- these images have some of the gory splendor of martyrdoms portrayed in Catholic churches and Leone amplifies the sound so that each punch has a thunderous impact. Pasolini, Bertolucci, and Leone all have an unsavory taste for bloody sadism and, of course, Rosselini’s “Rome Open City” was renowned for its references to torture -- a subject that is given really unseemly attention by horror film makers like Dario Argento, Jesse Franco and the hack directors of Roman sword and sandal epics full of half-naked women being flogged and crucified slaves. Leone’s pictures are about confrontations and squinting ice-cold eyes glaring at one another across vast arena-like and dusty Western streets. He’s not much interested in sex. Romance and sex in Leone films is generally just some form of rape. But the pictures are designed in terms of tableaux that are undeniably impressive even if somewhat static. Leone characters don’t act; rather, they mime passions with grotesque intensity and the dialogue is all epigrammatic threats and portents. There are a lot of toothless codgers and nasty-looking villains with Civil War beards and shaggy Friedrich Nietzsche moustaches. In the few scenes where Eastwood attempts to act -- one image in particular where he rolls his eyes girlishly after accidentally slugging a woman in face -- his efforts are laughably inept. Furthermore, Eastwood is not a particularly convincing action hero. One sequence requires him to scale a wall -- one images the “joie de vivre” with which a genuinely talented and athletic action star like Douglas Fairbanks would have hurled himself at this task. Eastwood is rigid and his body doesn’t seem to bend and he seems to have trouble climbing a little adobe wall that Fairbanks would have vaulted with ease, perhaps, doing a somersault on the way over the obstacle. Furthermore, Eastwood isn’t very good on horseback either -- in one shot, he seems to almost fall off his mount. But Clint learned from these pictures and, unlike most other Hollywood stars, he wasn’t content with merely posing for the camera but watched Leone, and ultimately mastered both his trade as an action mannequin as well as the craft of directing, becoming, at last, not only the equal of the great Italian director, but surpassing him as well.

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