Tuesday, November 29, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 8


   From the silent era to the golden age to the blood-soaked decade of the spaghetti western, our genre has washed up on the shores of the 1980’s. It’s pulled a few films along with for weirdness’ sake, but there’s no rhyme or reason to account for them. They’re weird westerns for the simple sake they’re not completely western, same as the other way around. They’re not westerns for the sake of being so damned weird.
   The 80’s themselves made no strides for the cause. Not intentionally. Their westerns were boring. Pale Rider, Young Guns, Silverado. A few others. Big, glossy pictures, more from the golden age than anywhere else. Safe pictures. Bland pictures. The western wasn’t just dead, it’d been embalmed and put on display as some boiled-down template for the genre. “Oh, westerns? Sure, we remember those, here you go.”
   Big stars, bright costumes, happy endings and some action in between. The best of all worlds. But actual Westerns? Well, they were set in the Old West, but no, they never captured the gritty circumstance of say, the Acid or Spaghetti. That’s too much toward one end of the spectrum. All gloss and smiles? Well, no, can’t have Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn charging through, either. That’s too far the other end. It was the 80’s, after all.
   The 80’s saw through everything. Not cynical-like, but selfish. The 80’s weren’t the 40’s ‘Sell me a line of bullshit.’ Or the 50’s ‘Please, sell me a line of bullshit’ or the 60’s ‘I know you’re trying to bullshit me, don’t bother.’, or the 70’s, ‘I can bullshit myself, thank you.’ No. The 80’s were, ‘You have some bullshit, I’m in the market for bullshit. Let’s talk.’
   The 80’s were about compromise. Ironic then, that the western was as bankrupt as it could get, yet out of it, we get a new batch of weird westerns. Maybe because of what came before. The Acid, the Spaghetti, the Revision, even that golden age. We had turned the genre inside out, yet couldn’t let it go. It was baked into the American Story. And if we were done telling ones from the Old West, we’d tell them from somewhere else.
   See, we can’t let science fiction go, either. It’s our hope, our vision, a genre as ingrained as the Western. The Western was about how we got here. Science Fiction was where we were going. Star Wars, for example. It ain’t science fiction, but it is a fantasy and that serves us. And it’s somewhat of a western. It got the 80’s interested in sci-fi again in a new and bold way. Add to that the Cold War and you have the makings for redefining both the western and its weird cousin.
   As a result, we got a whole weird genre that’s part science fiction, part western, and all 80’s. And it ended up giving us a bunch of weird westerns we never saw coming. (Though to be fair, no one saw Comin’ At Ya! comin’, either) This new genre made us think about what the weird western was (well, makes us think now. Then, we had no idea what we were doing) But weird westerns they were. 
   After all, we only got two criteria for one.
   First: Old West setting. Oh, these new films weren’t set in the Old West, but they’re close. It’s a broken, lawless frontier, to be sure. Two, they have menace born out of that land. These have that. And strange and terrible villains and people in need of a hero. All that. Lots of menace. One look at the first film that started our new, weird western-type genre, and you can’t deny the way its menace boils right up out of the ground.
   It’s a manmade menace, true, but it’s a different sort than, say, the Acid or Spaghetti. While those came closest through their lens of insanity for our weird westerns, ultimately, their kind of menace is a known thing. It’s a man going insane. The Old West backs him into a corner and mad, strange things happen. Sometimes the world itself is strange and begets his strangeness, fair enough. Matalo, Django Kill, Get Mean, these are weird westerns. High Plains Drifter is the clearest, most obvious example. El Topo is its muddled, bizarre reflection.
   But boil that down, like 80’s Hollywood did to the western itself. Do we want the Old West, or something like it? We only need a lawless frontier, old or not. A weird menace? Well, let the eerie atmosphere of the land take care of that. Hell, what about both?
   What about the land and its men going insane? An entire country, losing their mind! As a result, creating a new world and our new frontier. Call it the New West, to be won by brave souls willing to battle fearsome creatures never before seen. To wrestle a world out of the ash and mayhem and call it claimed.
   Hell, for a film like that you’d need, well, a warrior I suppose.
   Maybe on some kind of road…

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 7


   Gene Autry’s smiling face singing to hidden Lemurians has given way to undead curses, boxes of dynamite and hippie cowboys and there’s no such thing as a ‘western’ movie anymore. Plenty claims to ‘types’ of westerns, but by the late 60’s, there was no guarantee of what you’d get if someone said “Let’s go see one.”
   Italy and the parts of Europe they shook hands with made their Spaghettis and Eurowesterns and America went on with Revisionists and Acids (and a few others) but there were still things happening in tucked away places. Not the countries, no. The countries were plenty big. But they had filmmakers with strange and hidden ideas. Weird ideas.
   When A Fistful of Dollars came out, the Spaghetti Western was truly born. And the weirdness followed. A new vision of the Old West. An iron stamp of how America itself would remember things had truly been. A lie, but a damn stylish one.
   Ironically, same time as this, Czechoslovakia would make a film said it knew how America actually was. Lemonade Joe (1964) is a contemporary parody in an Old west setting, putting Joe, the lemonade shill, into a town full of whiskey drinkers. He’s there to set up a franchise for his company’s lemonade and does it in the spirit of the old silent westerns. Sped up fight scenes, cartoonish villainy (and heroism) and a wink at the tired formula of classic American westerns where the hero always wins. Big Business against the Little Guy. In a saloon mixing it up.
   It’s not as weird as 1970’s El Topo, but few films can claim to be. If westerns of the 60’s were a forum, then Joe screamed right up to the ceiling. Everyone else’s new-type western had their things to say for humanity: who we were, what we wanted, but it was more a general look at the basics. Greed, Lust, Violence, Beauty, Brains, sort through all the dynamite craters and tortured corpses and take your pick. And something like El Topo, it’s even worse off. Maybe Jodorowsky’s questions were too hard, maybe he was asking the wrong ones. How he went about even bothering though, is still weird to the bitter end.
   When the film starts, El Topo is wandering on his horse with his son in tow. They find a massacred town and El Topo avenges them, going up against the Colonel. He rescues the Colonel’s slave wife who tells him about four gunfighters. If El Topo kills them, he’d take the crown as fastest in the land. He goes up against them, using his wits to kill each in a duel. At one point a woman shows up after the final duel, shoots El Topo and she and the slave wife take off together. El Topo is then carried away by a bunch of disfigured dwarves and mutants.
   And the movie ain’t even half over.
   Pretentious and heavy handed, sure, but hold it up to America’s own popular western experiments like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1965), Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966) or The Valley of Gwangi (1969) you get a little perspective. Can’t begrudge a man trying to form out his feelings on the universe and what it has in store when the biggest culture-state likely to judge him at the time does this:

  
   Luckily, we eventually made High Plains Drifter (1973) and got some dignity back. Ironically, turns out to one of the few true weird westerns in this whole damn discussion. Maybe the only one.
Well, 1971’s Daisy Town isn’t one, but it’s noteworthy for being a French-Belgian cartoon film. On the other hand, France’s A Girl is a Gun is plenty weird, being a French New Wave/Psychedelic Western about Billy the Kid. Sholay (not a ‘true’ western but influenced heavily by Leone and Peckinpah in its structure) was an Indian movie in 1975, still considered to be one of the greatest (if not the greatest) film ever made by that country. Bollywood Western, hell, how can you miss?
   But by then, around ’75, the western was through. It’d carry on, of course but the sun was setting on that ferocious need to explore its themes and carve out some new take on the genre. They were relegated to B-pictures, a few pornos, Blaxploitation, the last of the Spaghettis. Not even The Outlaw Josie Wales in 1976 – considered a masterpiece by some – could turn things around. Heaven’s Gate in 1980 sure as hell didn’t and neither did the 3D picture Comin’ At Ya! the following year.
There’s some bright spots in the coming decade, but not many. Even fewer after that and no, nothing after the millennium to change the fortunes of the western. The western, by and large, was dead.
   The weird western though, wasn’t going anywhere.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 6

In America, the ‘Golden Age’ of western film was over and time had come for a change. Filmmakers came up with a new approach in the Revisionist (more realistic) Western picture and others did a thing called the Acid (hallucinogenic) Western. Two related but different styles, that when added to Sergio Leone’s Spaghettis and a few things some others were getting up to, makes the final days of the western film genre one hell of a spectacle.
   Revisionist now, is just what it sounds like. Revising the western’s faults up to that point. That meant more accurate depictions of minorities and women, more realistic sets and costumes, more realistic consequences for things. The movement didn’t last long, only about ten years and there are only a big handful of good ones. It started around ’62 with Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, up to McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971. You get a lot of humanity. Good and bad. Love and hate, honor and betrayal, all that. And the way they were shot, you could damn near smell how desolate it all was.
   Some say McCabe, in fact, has the most realistic depiction of a western ever on film. Certainly Revisionist. Personally, I think it’s an Acid, way it all turns out. Any rate, in a nutshell, Revisions were an attempt to make a kind of time machine. Show how things really were back then. Show who was who back then.
   Can’t have much to do with our quest for a weird western, of course. Revisionists sound like as much reality as a western film could handle. Well, those pictures were a commentary. A way to hold America up to a certain lens and show we hadn’t just walked in and moved some furniture and made it our own. We suffered and caused others to suffer. That takes it toll on a people so a film about those trials is bound to elicit them same feelings. And if you could go the realistic route for that, well, think what you might say if you went surrealistic instead.
   This is where we get the Acid Westerns. Basically Revisionist pictures (Acids and Revisions change places in critics’ minds), but their focus was on philosophy, more than place and time. They were a direct result of the counterculture movement of the 60’s and so played a lot with hallucinatory and dream-like themes. Bloody as hell, too, a lot like the Spaghetti pictures happening overseas.   
   Despite the name, no, it wasn’t all drugs and swirly skies or anything like that (though at times it was) but more than that, was a sense of this warped and damaged world. If the Revisionist Western was about showing folks what the real Old West looked like, then the Acid Western was about trying to show what the Old West meant.
   They started with a movie called The Shooting in 1966. It was about a woman and we don’t even get her name. She’s driven on a quest into the desert, but we don’t know why. She’s got two fools with her, Gashade and Coley, who think they know why they’re with her, but turns out they haven’t got a damn clue. Villain by the name of Spears starts following them, but he’s only the villain because he’s in black. Really just makes him the most honest villain.
   Abstract as that all sounds, it pretty much is. And it’s a weird damn western. It’s surreal and creepy and don’t leave a lot of room for questions to be answered. Like a lot of the themes in Revisionist pictures, it’s not about knowing everything’s tied up neatly at the end. Life ain’t like that.
   From there, came Ride in the Whirlwind in ’66 too, but Acids, weirdly, were really a 70’s thing, despite the 60’s pedigree. Bad Company, Ulzana’s Raid, Zachariah, Dirty Little Billy and Greaser’s Palace, to name a few. This last one about a man shows up in a town claiming he can raise the dead. Zachariah is about a gang of robbers (played by actual band of the time Country Joe and the Fish) who go around causing trouble and spouting non-violence and vegetarianism. Finding a weird western in this case ain’t hard at all. In fact, some might even be a little too weird.
   And if we put something like Czechoslovakia’s Lemonade Joe on top of those, it gets even weirder. Not to mention Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Mexican film El Topo, which makes Joe look like a damn car commercial…

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 5


   From dime novels to western serials, to the ‘Golden Age’ of western film, we end up in the 1960’s, where Spaghetti Westerns were ready to reinvent the whole scene. They began at the turn of the century, but the ‘real’ Spaghetti films didn’t get going until Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964. With that film Spaghettis became something else. Bloody, cynical and often real eerie. They were loner pictures, boiling down the man and nature themes of the Old West into tales of betrayal, murder and revenge straight off the end of a gun.
   No, Leone wasn’t the first one to come up with that style of film, a couple pictures beat him to the punch, but he’s the one popularized it. His Dollars Trilogy cemented the standard for the ‘real’ Spaghetti Western and brought westerns as a whole to a more elegant place. A weirder place and naturally, everyone else followed.
   After Fistful, everyone had a lanky, killer-eyed hero infiltrating a gang of thieves to do some grief. After A Few Dollars More, it was music watches. After The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it was Lee Van Cleef. They all had latina spitfires and pissy old men sidekicks and sunwashed adobe buildings with the heat wobbling on the horizon. They all wanted to capture the soul of this new Old West.
   Which means what to weird westerns? Nothing and everything. No, the Spaghetti Western, or Zapata or Eurowestern or Ostern ain’t weird western. But they’re weird films. At their core, they embody a weird west atmosphere. Like photographs held underwater. You can’t quite make out the details for how the light keeps moving. Throw in Ringo Starr or some Kung Fu, it gets even weirder.   
   This, ‘cause if some film wasn’t a Dollars clone or some other interpretation of the trilogy’s themes and characters, it was a mashup of the Spaghetti with another genre. No robots or zombies, no, but they did plenty fine without.
   1967’s If You Live, Shoot! (AKA Django Kill or, in Italian, E Se Sei Vivo Spara) is one that borrowed straight from Leone’s playbook, but then heaped on the violence and supernatural undertones to produce the closest thing to a nervous breakdown ever filmed, aside from Jodorowsky’s El Topo in 1970.
   The Stranger rises from the grave after being buried by his comrades and sets out for revenge. He does this with pistols full of gold bullets, which are of course cut out of the corpses by townspeople who want the precious metal. A trio of identically clad gunmen, a crucifixion, an insane woman on fire, death by dynamite, a suicide, several torture scenes and a man turned into a gold statue, all make an appearance.
   Dynamite was real popular in these mashups, as you’ll see. 1967’s Dynamite Joe tamed his enemies using only sticks of it. No gun. It’s not tongue in cheek neither, so it plays even funnier than it sounds. Johnny Hamlet in 1968 was a combo Spaghetti Western and retelling of the Shakespeare play. This one though, ‘Hamlet’ rides off into the sunset at the end.
   1970 had They Call Me Trinity, (Trinity himself, like Eastwood’s Manco, or Nero’s Django, becoming a stock-type they’d bring back in other films) a Spaghetti-Comedy, but with some spiritual nuances. Trinity’s known as The Right Hand of the Devil, for his mythic prowess with a gun and naturally, he runs afoul of the Left Hand of the Devil, his own brother. The character would come back with a different name in 1976’s Keoma, who was a gunfighter prone to being visited by the ghost of a witch.
   Also in 1970 was Matalo!, which relied heavily on flower-child influences with its costumes and soundtrack, giving everyone medallions and fringe vests and bellbottoms as they strolled around a ghost town to psychedelic rock. Bit of an Acid Western/Spaghetti deal. Make no mistake though, it’s violent as hell, despite the counterculture flavor.
   But no reason to imply that culture when you can have it star for you. French rocker Johnny Hallyday played a hero in 1969’s The Specialists and Ringo Starr himself took a co-star role in Blindman (1971). Ringo’s the bad guy, torturing, killing and shooting the heads off snakes. Slavery, rape and the Mexican Army play against hand-cranked machine guns, marriage to a corpse and of course, dynamite.
   Then came the more obvious genre combinations. The Kung Fu Western with My Name is Shanghai Joe (1972) and The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974). A couple Samurai Westerns, with Red Sun (1972) and The Silent Stranger (1974). In the first, Charles Bronson teams up with a samurai warrior to recover a valuable sword, then Tony Anthony’s The Stranger (nothing to do with Django Kills) goes to Japan and battles machine gun wielding samurai. This is the third of four (or five) “Stranger” films and weird as it is, don’t hold a candle to the next one in the series, Get Mean (1975). Dynamite (yep), barbarians and a four-barreled shotgun. That’s all you need to know about that one.
   We barely touch on what was really going on with these films, but this is a taste. Not to mention the traditional ‘Leone-style’ Spaghettis themselves and their Zapata offshoots. Plenty weird in there, too. And we can’t forget everything going on the rest of the world.
   America had gotten wind and was certainly up to a few things itself…

Thursday, November 10, 2016

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 4



   Now, there were some ‘weird western’ films being done at the time. With the backslide of the traditional, ‘Hollywood’ western came the need to jazz it up (like it had been with the serials during the late 30’s) and the 50’s saw a lot of horror and sci-fi that producers figured might go nice into a flagging genre. Beast of the Hollow Mountain in 1956 and Curse of the Undead and The Living Coffin – both in ’59 – are the big ones, but that wouldn’t quite do the trick.
   Neither would El Jinete Sin Cabeza or “The Headless Horseman”, a three-part serial released in Mexico in 1957. In it, Pancho Villa’s head goes around in a box until it ends up in the hands of the Headless Horseman, who goes on to make trouble with it. Fun little picture.
   But adding horror or sci-fi elements don’t make a weird western, poof, just like that. No, the ‘weird’ of the weird west comes from something else. A mood of the Old West itself, an eerie sense of the landscape, of all that unknown all around you. And that feeling, that creepy lurk of how a town sat, or a man looked, would truly come to pass with the Spaghetti westerns. This best exampled by the films of a gent known as Sergio Leone.
   The release of his Fistful of Dollars in 1964 really led the charge toward taking apart the western film and as a result, lending it a true sense of the weird. Leone wasn’t the first to do so, as the Spaghetti western itself wasn’t new (Sergio’s dad invented the genre in 1913, remember) and there were plenty of Eurowesterns going on at the time. British, German, even Russian productions, but unlike the early Spaghetti westerns – which were merely Italian-produced films – Fistful would give a new definition to the term. From them on, when someone would make a Spaghetti western, they’d be making a certain kind of film. When folks would talk about them years later, they’d be talking about a certain kind of film. Not an ‘Italian-produced’ film, but a ‘Leone-type’ film.
   Now, those Spaghetti pictures in the early 1900’s were, as mentioned, just Italian-produced western films. There was no real commentary going on about putting new life into American westerns (the American western had barely started when the Spaghetti western set off) or criticizing the American western genre. Or America itself. But by the 1960’s, well, the American Western was done with. Hell, if you can’t save a genre with a title like Curse of the Undead, it’s probably time to pack it in.
   Truth is, folks were bored with westerns and the attitude seemed to be, to foreigners, that America thought it had the rights to the Old West, just ’cause it’d happened in their country. Like America was the only place could make a western and make it right. To America, well they’d keep making the western as it had been, where the larger facts of history got ignored, the obvious consequences of certain actions could be sidestepped and Hollywood could show how white men had won the west singlehanded. Failing that, they’d fight ghosts and vampires and whatever else they had to for the price of a movie ticket.
   Well, that just wasn’t gonna stand for a lotta new filmmakers looking to make their mark and take a shot at a genre that’d sat too long on its laurels. To those making Eurowesterns and Spaghettis, the dying American western was perfect for criticizing the country’s current place in the cultural landscape and its dated ideals. This perspective gave these new films an edgier, gloomier quality, almost a surreal one. Too, there were simply social and cultural differences in the writers and directors which influenced how they interpreted the Old West. These folks made the ‘white hat hurrah’ of the classic western a bloody, cynical and unsettling affair.
   In a word:
   Weird.
   So, western serials at the turn of the century had given way to a decline in popularity, then a resurgence in the late 1930’s of western films that kept up for the next two and a half decades. But now, those films were tired and mediocre and due for a change. It was about 1960, and a few folks had an idea how they might get that done. The result would redefine the western and give us a whole new type of weird western, while they were at it.