Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Quest for spaghetti

Since I started preparing for my Alex Cox interviews (below), I've become very interested in a form I've sort of neglected: the spaghetti western (Cox has written a book about the form and Straight To Hell Returns is a homage to it). Until recently, I've only seen the Leone films, which are so highly praised and widely marketed that one might innocently assume they're the only spaghetti westerns that exist. In fact, they're a very, very small, rather exceptional, and (dare I blaspheme) not entirely satisfying example of the form, which, I'm told, contained some 400 films made over a ten year period. I'm actually of the opinion that after his first two, the Fistful movies, whatever his abilities, Leone had such success that his films bloated, with Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck You Sucker (at least) both erring on the side of excess, with bigger budgets, bigger spectacle, increasingly operatic sensibilities and a lot more FAT on the bone than any film can easily support. (I need to revisit The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America to see if they fare better, but I doubt either will change my feeling that his most satisfying film is actually For a Few Dollars More; meantime, I'm much more interested in films NOT by Leone, which have a freshness and a discipline that the rather over-focused on few films he made lack). My early forays into lesser-known macaronis are proving highly fruitful: both Death Rides a Horse (even tho' I've only seen it in a crappy pan-and-scan version) and Between God, the Devil and a Winchester are highly inventive and engaging films, with more than their share of cinematic surprises that made me laugh out loud at their audacity, their inventiveness, and their cynicism. I'm reminded by both of my fondness for Montaldo's Machine Gun McCain; though it isn't a western, the best films in this subgenre seem to share a certain sensibility with it - a kind of blackly existentialist savagery and a certain Euro craftsmanship, which, particularly in terms of its visual sensibilities, has more in common with other great Italian filmmakers - Antonioni, say - than with the American exploitation films it connects with. (I'm also reminded, tho' it's a visually dissimilar form, of my fondness for 1960's and 1970's Yakuza films, especially those of Fukasaku Kinji).

The other nice thing about spaghetti westerns is that it's a very cheap subgenre to plunge into. I picked up, for instance, a 20-movie DVD collection at a local Zellers, to find that about six of the movies on the set are presented in widescreen versions; they look like VHS transfers, and may be slightly cut, but they're still a lot better than I expected, given that the set cost $6.99. There's another box set by Mill Creek Entertainment with 44 Spaghetti Westerns packaged together, apparently including the film that Straight To Hell owes most to, Django Kill, and a Klaus Kinski film that I've read praised, And God Said to Cain. Most of them are doubtlessly pan and scan and a few are probably completely unwatchable, but if the same ratio of keepers-to-clunkers obtains, there's probably some great cinema-watchin' to be had here. (One note: read the Amazon reviews with caution, they've taken to tacking on reviews from OTHER box sets with completely different films). Zellers doesn't stock it, alas, nor London Drugs... maybe I could strike a deal with the devil and go shopping at the Coquitlam Walmart?

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