Sunday, April 9, 2017

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.

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