Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at the Vancity Theatre

An interesting conversation sprang up shortly after the Vancity Theatre screening of The Wild Bunch, the other week.

As I had mentioned previously on this blog, that's a film I had always struggled with. What I saw as Sam Peckinpah's glorification of male-on-male violence, and nostalgia for the days of "real manhood," had always kinda left me non-plussed, on my frequent previous attempts to engage with it. Somehow that changed for me this screening, maybe because I finally figured out that that Ernest Borgnine and William Holden's conversation at the fire, about pride and having the sense to know when you're wrong, was actually meant to have deep thematic echoes, to create a conversation that resonated throughout the rest of the film. Cluing into that, this time, I enjoyed teasing out the implications of that conversation, which seemed rewarding and worthwhile; and I loved how the film looked and sounded. I have seen the film on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, and projected once at UBC (from what source I am unsure), and it's never looked better than it did that night. About the only complaint I could muster, once it was all over - besides the guy beside me chatting with his friend during the film and noisily rustling his popcorn - was that it sure did sprawl: it was hard holding onto the thread of meaning, introduced at that early juncture in the film, through endless shots of canyons and trains and people riding on horseback. I'm sure it's heresy to say it, to some, but the film could have lost 20 minutes, easily, and been punchier and more effective (which is probably what the studio execs who chopped it down initially thought, too).

With an awareness that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was coming up at the Vancity (on July 9th), I took to Facebook, where I ended up in conversation with a fella who goes by the name Nick Mitchum, who, as NO FUN and DOA fans might know, is also an artist named ARGH! He'd been present for The Wild Bunch, and we ended up in a discussion about the tendency of later Leone to sprawl. It's something you first see in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (which, I gather, in its longest cut, runs a fullsome three hours; the version coming up at the Vancity Theatre, which they're describing as the "definitive cut," is actually 20 minutes shorter). I opined, as I have been given to do, that I preferred, of Leone's works, his first two spaghettis, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, which are much more efficient engines for generating meaning and entertainment: there's very little in the way of fat on either of those films, whereas later Leone gets pudgier and pudgier, going from sprawl (TGTB&TU) to bloat (Once Upon a Time in the West - which never gets better than its first fifteen minutes) to two films of his that I can no longer watch at all, Duck You Sucker! (for all its well-meaning political posturings, a naive, self-indulgent mess) and Once Upon a Time in America, which was so bloody dull the last time I tried to sit through it - in its full, restored, draggy glory - that I had to turn it off.

I am not alone in noting this tendency to self-indulgence in later Leone. Alex Cox - the Repo Man and Sid & Nancy director, who wrote one of the most entertaining books on spaghetti westerns ever written, 10,000 Ways to Die, says of the longest cut of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly:
There's a tendency among critics to think that 'longer is better' and that the director always wants/ deserves/ should get the longest possible version of his film. But that isn't always true. Directors of very long films can sometimes be accused of losing the plot. In this instance, what is the point of the (rediscovered) scene where Tuco visits a cave and his gang slide down on ropes to meet him? It's cartoonish, not very well lit or shot. The scene where Sentenza visits a ruined fort is beautifully photographed, but it's irrelevant, and its dormitories of wounded soldiers reappear in later scenes. The long 'restored' sequence in the desert where Tuco further tortures Blondie is embarrassing, childish and slow...
Alex Cox, mind you, loves The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and it appears on his list of the top 20 spaghetti westerns (but after For a Few Dollars More, note). The only question is how long it should be. (I am guessing some of the scenes he finds unnecessary, above, are actually not present in the "definitive cut" that is to screen on July 9th - so others out there might agree with him, too.)

What was interesting was discovering from Nick Mitchum that he actually prefers the late Leones to the early ones, and thinks the director's cut of Once Upon a Time in America, which I hold to be unwatchably dragged-out, is Leone's masterpiece. "I do love the Man With No Name trilogy," he wrote on Facebook, "but I also find them kinda cartoony... I like the Once Upon a Time trilogy more... they could be hours longer... I wouldn't care... I find myself entertained by every frame... and of course the Morricone scores... I could close my eyes and love those movies..."

No argument from me about the scores, but I was kind of shocked to find he thinks the Once Upon a Time movies (presumably also including Duck You Sucker!) are better the first three Leone spaghettis. I took this discussion to Tom Charity, programming director of the Vancity Theatre and the man who is responsible for programming both The Wild Bunch and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, to see what he thought, and it turns out, he agrees with Nick! "Early Leone is pulp," Charity writes, whereas
late Leone is literature. He grew into himself as an artist. The later work just has more dimensions. Not only (but obviously) in terms of its technical / aesthetic sophistication, but crucially (what you don't like) in Leone's command of time. The films expand, they become symphonic, replaying motifs we can recognize even from the Dollars movies, but with greater complexity that allows room for the surge and sweep of history, politics, and a less callous, more nuanced and forgiving take on human nature.
Charity continued to mete out high praise for Once Upon a Time in America, last night at Lucinda Williams. I must admit his esteem for the film - which I couldn't even make it through - intrigues me, makes me want to revisit the movie. I still suspect, at the end of the day, that I'll prefer the leaner and meaner early Leone's - because I don't really have much interest in cinema as literature, and am just fine with pulpiness if we're talking about spaghetti westerns. My favourite examples of the genre, like The Big Gundown, are equally pulpy... which is not to say they aren't jam-packed with meaning; they're just efficient in how they articulate it. (Charity also has more admiration for Heaven's Gate than I do, too, which says something).

Whether or not I'll come to appreciate Once Upon a Time in America, I can't say, but I already appreciate The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and am very excited to be given a chance to see it on the big screen, in this "definitive" version. It's sort of the middle ground between Leone's modes, expansive but focused, and playful throughout. It's great to have a chance to see it on the big screen, in a top-notch projection. It happens July the 9th, screening one night only. How can we not attend?

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