Wednesday 10 June 2009

The Evil Dead (1981)

Starring: Bruce Campbell
Music: Joe LoDuca
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Sam Raimi
Director of Photography: Tim Philo

Coming to this film of course aware of its inflated reputation (though not that the reputation was actually inflated), I was somewhat peeved when it turned out to be neither scary nor particularly funny (each ‘shock’ is signposted a mile off, lack of plot and incident made up for with endless P.O.V. and tracking shots). OK, Sam Raimi (this is very much a director’s film) is playing with the formulae of the horror genre – the sense of something stalking its victims, the zombie-movie gore, the cheesy ‘ancient curse’ scenario that gets all the mayhem rolling, and the stock characters so barely sketched that they only just register as stock characters, let alone human beings whose fate is of much interest beyond visceral identification at the most basic level (i.e. you don’t really care that a particular character is about to get their leg ripped off, but you do care/wince that someone is about to get their leg ripped off).

Sounds pretty good, no? And every time I criticise the film I realise that what I’m saying will probably be precisely what it gets praised for by others; horror reduced to such bare bones (yes, pun intended, ha ha) that it becomes nearly pure image and sound, without the need for the justification of ‘plot’, ‘continuity’, or ‘realism’ (compare this with Fulci’s supposedly Artaudian approach in films such as ‘The Beyond’), and/ or done with such zest that it’s a thrill and a pleasure to watch such obvious manipulation, even while one is aware that it is manipulation and that it is obvious. The enjoyment, then, unfolds in much the same way that we enjoy the cinematic virtuosity of a Dario Argento flick while realising that it is completely artificial – the red-herring shot swooping, down from a height, accompanied by the sound of fluttering wings, in ‘Suspiria’, throwing us off the scent of the attack from below; the endless baths of red light and red blood (maybe something that Raimi parodies in the scene where blood runs down the walls in front of a projector?), the close-ups of eyes and faces, the intrusive and absurd yet intimidating and insinuatingly disturbing prog-rock scores by Goblin.

OK, but actually try watching the cartoonish gore-for-gore’s sake (ketchup-spurt and various foodstuffs and milky liquids spilling around all over the place, with a few maggots thrown for good measure; amusing enough, I guess, in a Peter Jackson ‘Braindead’ kind of way, thought neither as extreme nor even as tongue-in-cheek as in Jackson’s film). Try the uneasy balance between laughter and the sort of lurid love of extreme violence (HIT that zombie with a wooden pole…CHOP that zombie’s limbs off) that characterises recent Hollywood actioners like ‘300’ or ‘Watchmen’ – a balance that, as in those films, isn’t made to feel uneasy and thus loses the impact it might have had (maybe ‘Evil Dead 2’ brings out that awkwardness out more; I haven’t seen it, so couldn’t comment).

And try enduring the film’s continuing misogyny. Consider this: all the demon-possessed characters who become zombies are women (apart from ‘Scotty’ towards the end, when the farrago of female evil has been going on for so long that it far outweighs the impact of this male transformation). Now that they’re zombies they can suffer violence at the hands of men – beating, slapping, and dismemberment. (Though the film’s hero does stop short of chainsawing his zombified girlfriend, said girlfriend is depicted (when in zombie form) as a laughing idiot, a kind of caricature of the ditzy, air-headed female, made sinister.) My problem isn’t so much with violence being shown to be done to women: ‘Witchfinder General’, for example, explores the persecution of women in a way that would lose much of its moral force if such violence was not shown, even if Jess Franco then exploited this in his rip-off ‘The Bloody Judge’, merging titillation and violence through the distasteful spectacle of torture scenes filled with writhing, bloodied nudes or near-nudes. What I object to is the gleeful relish with which it’s shown, the way it’s treated as a joke or gimmick (the ‘tree rape scene’, which is the film’s first full-blown horror set-piece), the lack of moral consideration to it, for which Raimi’s juvenile approach to horror has no place.

Beyond a series of endless trick effects and knowing or unknowing comedic moments, then, there’s basically nothing here – and the implicit values, or assumptions, that are there, are deeply questionable. Dead loss.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Day of Anger (1967)

Starring: Lee Van Cleef, Guiliamo Gemma
Music: Riz Ortolani
Director: Tonino Valerii
Screenplay: Ernesto Gastaldi/ Renzo Genta/ Tonino Valerii
Director of Photography: Enzo Serafin

Quick rundown of the plot: Guiliamo Gemma plays Scott, parentless kid who takes out the town’s shit and is generally brow-beaten. Into said town rides Lee Van Cleef’s gunfighter Talby, who invites the kid into the saloon for a drink. The town bully doesn’t want to sit next to someone who stinks of shit, provokes a fight, is predictably finished off in the film’s first gunplay. At the hastily-convened trial, Van Cleef’s acquitted because he drew in self-defence, leaving him free to get the plot proper underway. Turns out he was fleeced out of $50,000 dollars by the leading citizens of the town, and he proceeds to take his revenge, in the meantime taking Gemma under his wing (becoming a gunfighter allows him to become one of the leading men in town rather than the bottom of the pack). Turns out Van Cleef’s not so much interested in revenge, though, as in turning the situation to his advantage and taking over the town. Gemma comes to realise that his new mentor’s just as corrupt as his former oppressors, and the inevitable showdown occurs in front of Talby’s brand new saloon.

At first glance, this seems as if it’s ticking the standard spaghetti western boxes, and a few extra ones as well – it’s entertaining and well-shot, which already makes it stand out from much of the crowd, a pleasant hour-and-a-half for genre fans with little touches to make it stand out even more: Lee Van Cleef in mean form, all growling voice and squinting eyes, a jazzy Riz Ortolani score, making a change from all those Morricone-derivatives, details like a saloon decorated with giant wooden guns on the front (see picture below), and a focus on the machinations of what it actually means to be a gunfighter (however gimmicky – Van Cleef’s series of one sentence ‘lessons’ to his young protégée Gemma).

Also fairly standard is the cynical attitude whereby the ostensibly ‘genteel’ citizens of the law-abiding town of Clifton oppress the illegitimate hero (the son of one of one of the whorehouse girls) even as they thrive on the services that that whorehouse provides, and the gambling available in the saloon, and where the judge, banker, saloon boss and rancher are all corrupt (a la ‘The Great Silence’ or ‘High Plains Drifter’). That said, I think there may be something more to ‘Day of Anger’ in the way it treats such corruption (though it’s not nearly as bleak in the way it follows through on this as either of the aforementioned films).

Caught between them (the judge survives at the end, though most of the rest are dispatched) and Talby (Van Cleef’s equally cynical gunfighter), it’s hard to know what our hero’s meant to do. The film is clearly going to culminate in a showdown between him and his mentor, but that’s not necessarily going to solve much. Having been wounded, Talby begs for mercy – for Gemma to let him ride out of town – but Gemma, remembering the various ‘lessons’ the older man has taught him throughout the film, recalls a similar moment earlier in the film, where Talby was the one in control and another man lay grovelling in the dust. The cold-bloodedness of the killing is somewhat surprising, given Gemma’s baby-faced innocence and ‘hero’ status (for, despite this being a spaghetti western, its main character is more in the vein of a Hollywood-style likeable youngster than a seedy double-crosser), and it’s also something of a shock to see a Van Cleef character bite the dust in such undignified fashion (reinforced by the low-angle close-up of his face as it hits the ground, with Gemma towering over in the background, left screen).

There’s also an after-taste from Van Cleef’s final ‘lesson’: “when you start killing, you can’t stop it.” Years before Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’, that one line suggests not just that being a gunfighter is hardly glamorous, but that gunfighters might in fact be regarded as akin to mass murderers: for all the enshrining of western lore in the talk about Gemma’s gun belonging to Doc Holliday, for all the enjoyment in action set-pieces such as Van Cleef’s horseback rifle duel (a western update of the medieval joust), what this ultimately suggests is that such spheres of activity are merely those of serial killers. The film doesn’t exactly build on that, mind – it’s caught between being an action adventure, aided by the boisterous Ortolani score and by some well-shot and conceived set-pieces (which are, moreover, spread out through the film rather than packed in a dozen at a time, so the killings don’t lose their force) – and between this more questioning mode.

Still, in order to negotiate the afore-mentioned problems of finding a ‘conclusive’ ending, the film does attempt some resolution: Gemma’s gesture of disgust, whereby he throws his gun in fury through a window after finishing off Van Cleef (and anticipating the gesture of John Wayne’s youthful protégée in The Shootist, some ten years later). Nonetheless, what ‘Day of Anger’ ultimately suggests is that the town’s corruption can only be changed by the physical violence, the costly ‘gunlaw’ of the likes of Van Cleef, who are always waiting on the margins.

And that’s how the ‘legitimate’ forces of authority gained their power in the first place – not by committing the violence themselves, but by hiring (and double-crossing) villains like the suitably grimy ‘Wild Jack’ (played by Al Mulock, of ‘Once Upon in the West’ opening scene fame), who appears earlier in the film. What the film suggests, then, is that violence is endemic to peaceful law and order – despite the fact that the marshal at the beginning of the film and his replacement, Gemma’s initial mentor Murph, are opposed to the wearing of guns around town – as well as to the more rough and ready ‘frontier justice’ brought in by the destructive force of Van Cleef.

But it’s not just a simple contrast between the men who know how to control and exploit these more ‘primitive’ forms of coercion and the out-dated gunfighters who are thus exploited (as would be the case in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, with the railroad tycoon Morton providing an example of the former and Henry Fonda’s Frank an example of the latter); Talby is something of a wily businessman himself, burning down his rival’s saloon in order to establish his bigger, better whorehouse/gambling house/ drinking house as the town’s primary centre for entertainment. That this ostensibly swisher, more urban and sophisticated location, all plush red carpets and sweeping grand staircases, as opposed to the rough and ready wooden structure which it replaces, is built just as much on crime (is, in fact, probably more corrupt, given that it is less honest about its violent foundations – shootings happen out the back entrance, rather than in the saloon itself), is indicated by the aforementioned production design master-stroke: the giant guns that flank the entrance. Indeed, during the ‘new saloon’ sequence, I’m reminded of a prohibition-era film, a ‘roaring twenties’ crime pic. Given the music – a distinctly 20s-flavoured vocal feature with a backing band of banjo, violin and double bass – that’s hardly surprising.

Returning to the ending, after Gemma throws the gun away there’s a beautiful final touch (though, from the sudden deterioration in the quality of the print, it appears that most versions cut out the very small segment I’m about to describe): he goes off walking down the street, literally hand in hand with the half-blind old tramp who’s turned up at various points in the film as one of his few friends in the town. In a film which focuses even more than most genre pics on the standard spaghetti western trope of relations between young protégées and old mentors – Gemma is taught to shoot by the old ex-sheriff, now stable-hand, Murph, jokes with the old tramp, and is taken under Van Cleef’s wing – it’s perhaps a fitting ending, after two of those mentors have been killed. Yet it doesn’t feel so much like that: rather, what we see is two fools, two lost souls wandering absurdly down the street for no particular purpose, the tramp’s stick la parody of a prophetic staff, like those held by the old beggars in Breugel’s ‘The Blind Leading the Blind’.

And, indeed, the more one thinks about it, the more the film reveals the fundamental absurdity of the spaghetti western, replete as it is with generic formulae which we viewers find ourselves conditioned to believe as ‘natural’ or at least ‘expected’ through repeated exposure (‘naturally unnatural’, one might say). It doesn’t do this by outright parody, or even, perhaps, by intention (though, as I said before, its intentions are somewhat muddled). But think to a moment such as that when Talby rides from the western town of Clifton to a ‘For a Few Dollars More’-style whitewashed Mexican village (despite the name ‘Bowie’ connected with the Alamo – the anti-Mexican statement part excellence, at least in John Wayne’s patriotic hands – and run (for the moment) by a bunch of white gangsters). Rather than the character moving from one (real, geographical) place to another, it seems more like Lee Van Cleef taking a horse from one film set to another, highlighted as an ‘unreal’ movement, a movement between and within generic conventions rather than a ‘real (real-seeming), motivated’ action contained within the bounds of the illusion of the fictional world we’re being asked to suspend our belief towards. We might explain this historically – Clifton is on the edge of the Mexican border, Bowie is one of those border hide-outs beloved of westerns both Italian and American – but, even though Van Cleef is shown riding over the Almerian scrubland hills between his arrival in the two towns, it still remains, my impression of this disjunction.

Perhaps it’s reinforced by the way in which the music – for all its use of hard-edged Shadows-style electric guitar, Dollars-trilogy style – has more of a spy-film vibe than any of the western score Ennio Morricone or Luis Bacalov or Bruno Nicolai might have penned. There are no vocal choruses, there’s no Edda dell’Orso, no Spanish-tinged trumpet melodies; instead, swelling brass flourishes accentuate particularly dramatic moments in a manner so over-the-top it must be at least slightly tongue in cheek. Given all this, when, towards the end of the film, Gemma shoots a harmonica-playing deputy, it seems at once a pseudo-plausible ‘historical’ reference and another knowingly deployed generic gambit designed to catch one just slightly off-kilter: the harmonica deployed not so much as a western prop but as a ‘western’ prop, a genre-object fore-grounded as such.

That’s not to say that the film is as wilfully surrealist as Questi’s ‘Django Kill’ or Jodorowsky’s ‘El Topo’ (which, for all its art-house qualities and refusal to be boxed into any one genre, still frequently has the feel of a spaghetti western). Historical touches are present: the detail about the best way to fire a gun, the court-room scene (saloon shootings are shown to have consequences, rather than just being set-pieces which everyone forgets about after they’ve happened), the appearance of a fire engine during the saloon fire. After all, the more careful film-makers, like Leone, undertook meticulous research to make sure that their vision at least appeared accurate, in contrast to the distorted Hollywood stock-image of what the west was like, even if historical accuracy went out of the window if it could be replaced by a visually arresting shot or by some parallel or symbolism (think the trench warfare-style scenes in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, or the assassination of James Garfield reconfigured as that of JFK in ‘The Price of Power’), and even if their vision of the west was as much as the commedia dell’arte background to a twisted morality play as a representation of ‘how things were’. (Perhaps that’s why the western lends itself to the sort of odd generic fore-grounding mentioned above: though tangentially more related to historical reality than a superhero movie or a space opera or even an Italian gladiator pic, perhaps even more so than those it’s actually composed of highly artificial elements from which the film can be pieced together, jigsaw-puzzle style. Thus, it can feel self-conscious even when not self-consciously self-conscious).

All that being said, there are a number of anachronisms which are presumably intentional: as previously mentioned, Van Cleef’s grand new saloon (see pictures below) seems more reminiscent of the 1920s than of the early 1900 setting which, presumably, is the film’s approximate temporal location. I’m not sure whether this is meant to underline a thematic point at all – America as a land built on crime, ostracizing its criminals, its gunfighters and its gangsters as individualists in the bad sense, rather than the ‘good sense’ wherein everybody has equal opportunities to pull themselves to the top of the ladder, as long as they do it with ostensible appearance of fairness, confining themselves to ‘lawful’ pursuits (by which I mean those which the rules allow, rather than those which have any moral weight behind them – bankers take note). While condemning Van Cleef’s gunman and attempting to phase out the guns which are associated with the old, rough and tumble west, the town authorities are still perfectly willing to do deals with him, and to hire ‘heavies’ like him when it suits their interests. They are no less criminals for sitting behind desks than he is for openly making killing his living. Given that this sounds like a plausible interpretation, I’m not sure that such a bleak historical analysis is within the scope of ‘Day of Anger’ – though it certainly emerges through Leone’s films, particularly ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, though with more optimistic qualifications – notably, the great railroad scene which ends ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’.

Still, the temporal and generic blurring contributes to an atmosphere occasionally reminiscent of the McCarthy-era delirium of the American western ‘Silver Lode’ (1954). Like that film, it creeps up on you ‘reasonably’ and insinuates itself in with you, before suddenly catching up with jolts like the transition between the two towns, or the harmonica moment, or the saloon design, inner (as above) and outer (the giant wooden guns affixed to the entrance).

As usual, there’s little interest in women, and the few female roles that do exist are presented in a way that’s borderline misogynistic – the largest is for the judge’s daughter, on whom Gemma has a crush but who he is forbidden to see, given his lowly origins. Later, however, when he’s become a big-shot, the judge hatches a plan in which his daughter is used as bait to lure the youngster in to an attempted assassination: willing bait, it seems, as she is well willing to go along with his duplicitous schemes (although, given the scarcity of screen time, it would be a stretch to say that even this motivation could be elucidated from the on-screen evidence with which we’re presented). With the opening of the new saloon, another actress makes a speaking (and singing) appearance, though only briefly, as a sex symbol and as a prop to further the plot.

It’s a regrettable blindspot in the genre as a whole, and one which few films attempted to redress (‘Hannie Caulder’, starring Raquel Welch, is the only example I can think of). In fact, it’s doubly regrettable, because the spaghetti western tended to have a fairly safe Italian Marxist background even when not being overtly political as in the Zapata westerns: an opposition to racial and class oppression (abused old tramps, or, as in ‘Keoma’, abused old black tramps played, with his usual nobility, by Woody Strode) and even, in ‘Day of Anger’, an opposition, however tentative, to macho individualism (as much as that’s a trait whose celebration is integral to most films in the genre). It’s by no means a bad thing that the Italian western rejected the Hollywood western’s relegation of women to love interests who could ‘humanise’ the gunfighter hero and settle (or re-settle) them down to a life of law-abidin’ domesticity, home-baked pies, and red-and-white check-patterned tablecloths. But the alternative presented – where women were, at best, ignored (Leone actually cut a love scene out of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’), featuring only briefly as whores or virgins most likely to be raped or murdered – was hardly much of an improvement. One might argue that presenting women as either irrelevant to the macho world of gunplay, or as oppressed figures, was historically accurate (aside from such unusual cases, ‘manly’ women like Belle Starr or Calamity Jane). But the Italian westerns end up celebrating this – at last, we’ve managed to get away from the sissy feminine touches of Hollywood to present some gritty masculine truth! – or, at least, accepting it as a generic pre-requisite, part of the way things are in the world of the 60s western.

I guess a paragraph of summary, some sort of concluding remark, is expected, but I think I’ve said most of what I had to say on this particular viewing. If you haven’t seen it already, go watch it – the whole things’ up on youtube, and it’s also available on a DVD from Spaghetti western experts Wild East.

Monday 1 June 2009

Dunois Jazz

Quick heads up on a fantastic channel I just discovered on youtube - short (1-2 minute) videos featuring many great jazz and improv performers during the 1980s, recorded at a jazz club in Paris. American jazzers like Sonny Sharrock (kicking out the jams in typically mind-boggling fashion and breaking a guitar string in the process without missing a beat - total, joyous concentration - just look at his face in the clip embedded above! - and then spinning out some surprisingly gentle jazz balladry) and Mal Waldron (with some great, hard blowing from saxophonist Richard Raux), British free improvisers Lol Coxhill (doing one of his wonderful spoken word pieces with the Recedents), Steve Beresford, and John Stevens, and European mavericks like Jac Berrocal (swinging bells and cymbals around while dressed in leather trousers and jacket). Of particular interest for me are the two videos of a band I've recently discovered - Ted Milton's British No-Wave-style band Blurt. Great chance to see his performative antics as lead singer and saxophonist. And then there's the extremely powerful vocal stylings of Basque singer Benat Achiary, duetting with soprano saxophonist Michel Toneda: a blend of raw folk tradition with the unpredictability of improv that reminds me a little of the work of Ghedalia Tazartes. Will have to track down their recordings together - I could do with some more of that! Would be nicer if the clips were longer, but, as it is, it's a great cross-section of things - give yourself half an hour, pop all the videos into a youtube playlist, and watch multiple delights unfold.

Link is here: