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Sergio Leone (#110 of 12)

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

TCM Classic Film Festival

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

At the risk of invoking the spirit of the perpetually weary Lili Von Shtupp from Blazing Saddles, long before I ever hopped the red line train to Hollywood Boulevard in anticipation of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival last Thursday night, I had already been beset by a heavy sense of festival fatigue. Such bemoaning might seem misplaced coming from someone who attends exactly one festival a year—this one. But after a noticeable slump last year, in my energy and in the level of the festival's programming overall, I had begun to worry that after eight TCMFFs in a row the dip in enthusiasm I'd registered last year might blossom into a full-on festival hangover before this year's fun had even had a chance to begin. However, as news of the specifics of the festival began to trickle out, there became apparent a reason to suspect, if not outright hope, that 2018 might provide a tonic to address the comparatively flat spirits which earmarked the previous gathering.

Back in the Saddle: An Interview with Kevin Stoehr About the Film Western

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Back in the Saddle: An Interview with Kevin Stoehr About the Film Western
Back in the Saddle: An Interview with Kevin Stoehr About the Film Western

“It was Chico Marx, of all people, who uttered one of my favorite lines, ’I’d like the West better if it was in the East,’” says Kevin Stoehr, a professor of humanities at Boston University. It’s an hour into our interview and we’re finally back on topic. After all, the whole reason I made the long journey to Stoehr’s seaside condo in Portland, Maine was to discuss his acclaimed new book, Ride, Boldly, Ride: The Evolution of the American Western, which he co-authored with Mary Lea Bandy. But the professor, a conversationalist without equal, has been on a roll.

In the past half hour, this master of the non sequitur has discussed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the hidden homoeroticism in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the origins of kick boxing, Rod Steiger’s unforgettable performance as Mr. Joyboy in The Loved One, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And if all that weren’t enough, he’s treated me to a killer imitation of Truman Capote in Murder by Death.

Now it’s back to cowboys. And it suddenly occurs to me that the ruggedly handsome Stoehr bears more than a passing resemblance to one. He’s a strapping six-foot-four, the same imposing height as western icons John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. When I suggest that the professor wouldn’t look at all out of place outfitted in steel spurs and leather chaps, he blushes and is for once totally speechless. That sort of compliment may be a bit too Brokeback Mountain for him. But he recovers quickly.

“This project has been a genuine labor of love for me on so many different levels,” Stoehr says of his comprehensive study, which has been earning rave reviews. Dave Kehr of the New York Times calls Ride, Boldly, Ride, “a sweeping, insightful account of this most rich and resilient of movie genres.” In celebration of the book’s publication, the Museum of Modern Art recently held a month-long film series and invited Stoehr to introduce screenings of two rarely seen silent westerns, D.W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting.

"Long Live Anarchy!" Two by Lina Wertmüller

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“Long Live Anarchy!”: Two by Lina Wertmüller
“Long Live Anarchy!”: Two by Lina Wertmüller

Lina Wertmüller is a bundle of contradictions: an avowed anarchist who was born into the rarefied upper strata of the Italian aristocracy, a feminist filmmaker unafraid to delve into realms of sexual grotesquerie many self-professed feminists would unhesitatingly anathematize. She imbues her films with the popular (and populist) traditions of commedia all’italiana, a style of humor that traces back to medieval puppet theater—a tradition she trained in extensively. Heiress to the filmmaking legacy of directors like Mario Monicelli and especially Pietro Germi, Wertmüller fuses together high-minded political seriousness and a gleeful delight in transgressive lowbrow comedy. Wertmüller also displays a fundamental fascination with the finely tuned communicative potential of bodily gestures and facial expressions, even when they’re expressed in flamboyantly histrionic and broadly comedic fashion, often employing as a result the kinds of extreme facial close-ups usually identified with the films of Sergio Leone.

After taking on political corruption and the Sicilian mafia with her first international success, The Seduction of Mimi, Wertmüller set her sights on the bad old days of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in Love & Anarchy, a sort of costume tragicomedy that reunites the stars of the previous film, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. Giannini plays Tunin, an ugly-duckling bumpkin who journeys to Rome in order to assassinate Mussolini after his friend, whose mission it was originally, is murdered by Il Duce’s secret police. Even though we witness the aftermath of this killing early on (what starts as a bucolic pan across a riverside idyll turns horrific when the shot ends on the image of a man’s body draped over low-hanging tree boughs), Wertmüller holds back until late in the film the reality behind Tunin’s motivation, that he’s nothing more than a hayseed out for revenge and in way over his head.

The Real Tuesday Weld

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The Real Tuesday Weld
The Real Tuesday Weld

Tuesday Weld will not be attending the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective “American Girl: Tuesday Weld,” running from September 21—25, which will showcase 10 performances by the unconventional actress. Weld hasn’t made a public appearance in more than a decade. Perhaps she’s gone into self-imposed exile a la Marlene Dietrich, wanting to preserve the public’s memory of the brazen, luminous beauty that made her an icon of the ’60s and turned the heads of everyone from Elvis Presley to Pinchas Zukerman. But then again, Weld has made a career of not giving the public what they want, or expect.

From the time she first entered America’s consciousness in the ’50s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, it was obvious that Weld was different from the Sandra Dees of the world, and not just because of her improbable first name. Weld’s apple-pie looks hid a dark, dangerous undercurrent. In her characters, sex and violence were inevitably linked. Her persona was innocent yet amoral—a fille fatale. Weld was Kubrick’s first choice for Lolita, but she turned him down, later claiming “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita.”

Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Sleeping Beauty, The Woman in the Fifth, & The Lady

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Sleeping Beauty</em>, <em>The Woman in the Fifth</em>, & <em>The Lady</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Sleeping Beauty</em>, <em>The Woman in the Fifth</em>, & <em>The Lady</em>

Sleeping Beauty: Having already portrayed a Pussycat-Doll Alice in Zack Snyder’s CGI derangement of Carroll, Emily Browning embodies a drowsy Princess Aurora in Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s archly Lacanian investigation of Perrault. First seen playing lab rat with a medical balloon being inserted down her throat, the first of the film’s sundry invasions of body and psyche, Browning’s blank, creamy college nymph (a naked performance in every sense of the word) is an opaque creature of impulses whose sexual adventurousness and need for money lead her to a lavish chalet for upper-crust sybarites, Leigh’s version of the dark castle in the woods. There, she tastes the magic potion that turns her into an unconscious canvas for the carnal needs of sagging, goatish clients; “No penetration” is the sole rule in these sessions, though it isn’t long before the somnolent Belle de Jour becomes obsessed with finding out what takes place while she’s drugged. Though she’s clearly studied Haneke and Breillat, Leigh isn’t a natural filmmaker; symmetrical compositions and unheated long takes abound, yet concepts and monologues that might have worked on the page turn arid on the screen. It’s about passivity and revolt, ritual and discovery, the excavation of a fairy tale’s psychosexual text, and the thorough debasing of it. It’s also enervated, ludicrous, and the sort of unique debut that makes one impatient to see what comes next.

“William Lustig Presents”: Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe and The Mercenary

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“William Lustig Presents”: Sergio Corbucci’s <em>Navajo Joe</em> and <em>The Mercenary</em>
“William Lustig Presents”: Sergio Corbucci’s <em>Navajo Joe</em> and <em>The Mercenary</em>

Second only to Leone, Sergio Corbucci is the king of the spaghetti western. In the same years that his two most successful films—Django and The Big Silence—respectively came out, Corbucci made Navajo Joe and The Mercenary, which New Yorkers have the privilege of seeing in their Techniscope glory thanks to “William Lustig Presents,” an annual showcase of overlooked genre gems at Anthology Film Archives. B-sides though they may be, Navajo Joe and The Mercenary both bring on euphoria as assuredly as hit singles.

On the other hand, westerns are as gritty as pop music is sugar-sweet, and Corbucci’s, which celebrate violence even more so than sex or money, are no exception. Navajo Joe is such an overt ode to blood-spilling that the pre-titles sequence features the grisliest opening sight gag imaginable: A bandit on horseback shoots the title character’s wife, then rides off with not just her jewelry, but her scalp too.

A Movie a Day, Day 16: Kites

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A Movie a Day, Day 16: <em>Kites</em>
A Movie a Day, Day 16: <em>Kites</em>

Producer Rakesh Roshan wants everyone to know that Kites is opening wider than any other Indian movie to date, playing on 2,000 screens in India and more than 500 abroad, including 208 in the U.S. That’s a gimmick, of course, but it got me to watch.

I’m embarrassed to admit that the only Indian films I’ve seen before this one were art-house fare by people like Satyajit Ray and Deepa Mehta, so I have no way of knowing how much this emotion-drenched melodrama borrowed from other Bollywood movies. But I can tell you that it hoovers up Hollywood movie tropes like a contestant downing wieners at the annual Coney Island hot dog-eating contest.

Set mostly in Las Vegas and a mythical American West that looks like something out of a John Ford movie, Kites stars producer Roshan’s son Hrithik as Jay, a pumped-up, moonwalking dude who dresses like Tom Waits. He also has a lot of Elvis in his mischievous grin and contagious self-confidence. A penniless immigrant, Jay is a dancer and a bit of an operator who runs little scams on the side while waiting for Vegas to make his dreams come true. One of those scams is marrying illegal immigrants who need a green card, and the last of his “wives” is Linda (an appealingly spunky Bárbara Mori), a Mexican beauty whose green eyes, impoverished background, and ambitious dreams match his own.

Review: The Book of Eli

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Review: <em>The Book of Eli</em>
Review: <em>The Book of Eli</em>

There’s a reason why superheroes were originally dismissed as naive power fantasies for impotent men. Several, actually, but one in particular comes to mind: Superheroes represent and reflect ideals that society at large usually considers to be outmoded or outdated. When they save people, they (should) do it out of pure selflessness—a utilitarian sense of necessity that goes well beyond individual needs. Eli (Denzel Washington, armed with an omnipresent wince and a squint) in The Book of Eli is a lousy superhero because screenwriter Gary Whitta and directors Allen and Albert Hughes make him more of a necessary evil than a truly good guy. He’s born from a uniquely unsettling kind of cynicism, one that cloaks its misanthropy in the guise of holier-than-thou religious faith.

Eli is a compromised hero, one who assumes that, because the world is fallen, he’s better than everybody else (because God told him so). He has no obligation to immediately share his wealth of divine wisdom, and though his mission is in fact to spread the word of God, he does it in such a way that one can’t help but look askance at him. His faith is his strength, but it’s a selfish kind of faith, one that places the prophet and the medium that it’s communicated through before the essential lessons he’s guarding. Trust me: I’m a Jew. I know things.

Kingdom of the Blind: Clint Eastwood and Revenge, Pt. 2: “Snappy Comebacks”

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Clint Eastwood owes a great deal to Sergio Leone, who jump-started the actor’s movie career with the Dollars trilogy of “spaghetti westerns.” His collaboration with Leone gave him the seeds of his screen persona. It also foretold many of Eastwood’s obsessions as a director. Obsession No. 1 is revenge.

The most unusual treatment of the subject occurs in the second Dollars film, For a Few Dollars More (1965), in which Eastwood’s Man With No Name teams up with a bounty hunter, Col. Mortimer, to track down a bandit named Indio. While flashbacks reveal that Indio raped Mortimer’s sister and killed her lover, Leone and his co-screenwriters complicate the audience’s feelings, portraying Indio not as a stock bad guy, but a man who acted from dark compulsion—and who uses opium to dull the memory of his crimes. Eastwood’s post-Leone films are likewise interested in the psychic toll exacted by violence and corruption on heroes, victims, and society. Eastwood’s violence is also Leone-esque, mixing operatic exaggeration with a down-and-dirty quality reminiscent of exploitation films and battlefield atrocity photos. When wronged characters finally get revenge, they receive only dark, momentary pleasure from it—nothing lasting, much less healing.

The undercurrents of despair, numbness and ugliness in Eastwood’s movies demand that they be taken seriously, as psychic X-rays of the species. Should they be? For all Leone’s sensitivity to fine shadings of feeling, the Mortimer-Indio conflict in For a Few Dollars More is still settled—finito!—with a bullet. Eastwood’s post-Leone pictures are similarly loyal to genre basics, whether the film is a star vehicle directed by someone else or a labor of love helmed by Eastwood himself.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door. To watch more of his video essays, visit Moving Image Source and The L Magazine. To read a full transcript of the video’s text, click here. To read and/or view Part 1, click here.

Kingdom of the Blind: Clint Eastwood and Revenge, Pt. 1: “Hell Rode With Him”

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And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, hand for hand, foot for foot.—Deuteronomy 19:21

Clint Eastwood’s long career as both actor and director is a homestead built atop a graveyard. From his breakthrough role as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s mid-’60s “Dollars” trilogy through the Dirty Harry series, High Plains Drifter (1972), Unforgiven (1992), Mystic River (2003), and Gran Torino (2008), many of his best-known films follow traumatized people on missions of revenge. Some treat revenge lightly, ritualistically—as a mere ingredient, something one expects to see in westerns and thrillers, Eastwood’s signature genres. Others treat it more seriously—as a response to evil that creates more evil; as an extralegal means of seeking justice that society botched or denied; as the result of unseen cosmic forces passing judgment on humankind; as a traumatized person’s desperate attempt to regain authority over a life that’s spun out of control; and as metaphysical narcotic—an activity that momentarily lets emotionally numb, spiritually dead people feel alive.

All Eastwood films that deal with vengeance are torn between two impulses: to show that, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”; and to feed the nonrational, lurid, savage craving for revenge—a craving experienced by both the wronged character who seeks it and the moviegoer who lives vicariously through the avenger.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door. To watch more of his video essays, visit Moving Image Source and The L Magazine. To read a full transcript of the video’s text, click here.