Music and Western Movies (1971)

I am male. I love films, ergo I love Westerns…cowboy pictures. Hey, a man’s gotta do what…you get me. It was not particularly the cinema that satisfied this impressionable adolescent’s passion for horse operas. Too many stars were past their best-by date in the 1960s. James Stewart  in a toupee was, at best, unconvincing. John Wayne, be-wigged, wearing a corset & ultra-reactionary, was part of an old guard that the world had passed by, left blinking & chewing dust from the slipstream. It was on TV that we saw “High Noon”, “Shane” & others from the Occidental canon. It may have been a miniature, monochromatic screen but when John Ford pointed a camera at some Mojave Desert scenery, war-painted Apache braves on the ridge, we knew that we were getting epic, iconic America.

Those mature actors like Stewart, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster & others had made some memorable Westerns. The studio system, which kept such a tight rein on production, fractured, creating opportunities & greater independence for stars to select writers & directors. By the end of the 1960s this formula had become moribund. While there were still some estimable American westerns around it was a European director who brought it all back home on the range.

Italian director Sergio Leone, born  in 1929, did not speak American, had never visited that country. What he knew about the West he had learned at the cinema. His “Man With No-Name” trilogy was, incredibly, complete by 1966. Filmed in Spain, dismissively tagged as “Spaghetti Westerns”, starring a former TV actor, the films took some time to head West. Leone’s movies were gritty, violent, morally ambiguous, stylish & funny. As cool as Quentin, without Sergio telling us just how cool. By the time he made “Il buono (the Good), il brutto (the Bad), il cattivo (you know it).” he had established a style, a star & was going for it. The first 2 of the  trilogy are better than good but they don’t have Eli Wallach in them. “The Good…” is a masterpiece.

Leone did come to Hollywood to make his films. “Once Upon A Time In The West” (1968), a wonderful impressionist epic which confused Paramount purely by casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy…well, another time. The maestro returned for  the awkwardly titled “Duck, You Sucker” (1971) his 5th consecutive Western. It’s another cracker but while Tinseltown welcomes the revitalization of tired convention it was  flummoxed by the director’s hallucinatory flashbacks, by the imaginative accents of Rod Steiger & James Coburn. There was not even a consensus on what to call the thing. “D.Y.S”, “A Fistful Of Dynamite”, “Once Upon A Time In The Revolution”…all the same film. There’s much  to praise about the film but what we have here is the soundtrack because…well, click on the clip, it’s beautiful.

Composer Ennio Morricone, a schoolmate of Sergio, was a player in Italian music (I missed “Go Kart Twist”) before beginning a 20 year long partnership with the director. His creative use of effects/samples reflected & punctuated the films perfectly. As Leone’s ambition (& budget) increased it was matched by Morricone’s talent. He became a prolific, much decorated composer of film music. This, the theme from “Giu la Testa” (another title !), is an astonishing thing. If Morricone was ever better then I look forward to hearing that.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, another cinema maverick was enjoying the largesse of a major studio. In 197o Robert Altman directed “MASH”, a black comedy about war paraded as “what the new freedom of the screen is all about !”. A year later the box office money was still coming in by the truckload & Altman released his western “McCabe & Mrs Miller”. There are few heroics in this film, no sweeping vistas of Monument Valley, no-one heads anyone off at the pass. Set in the damp, dreary Pacific Northwest (hi there Dave) “McCabe &…” is a haunting, mournful, magical glimpse of How The West Was Bought. The mining camp, where life is muddy & cheap, attracts disparate, desperate folk with their own takes on the pursuit of life, liberty & whatever. “Revisionist Western” ? You what ! This is an anti-Western.

The opening music & credits gave up a whole lot about the film but there’s a lot to give & more to come. Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” is an obvious inspiration for  the mood &  the pace of the following two hours or so. The 3 Cohen songs used were not written for the film but they would not be bettered by a taciturn, log cabin troubadour from 190-something. Altman’s direction, the murky cinematography of Vilmos Zgismond, Lenny’s music…triple whammy.

McCabe (Warren Beatty) may be a fool but he’s our fool. It does not end well for him & it bothers you. Julie Christie, a tart without a heart of gold, steals the movie. The whole story may have been one of Constance’s opiated reveries. If it was then that’s OK, so it goes. Better judges than myself consider “McCabe & Mrs Miller” to be a perfect film. I know that men love a list & recently, on a social media site, I was diverted up a tiresome “my Top 10 is better than yours” cul-de-sac. All I will say is that if this film is not included in your favoured Westerns then just stay the fuck away from me.

Peter Fonda, a Hollywood prince, blew things wide open with “Easy Rider” (1969). He had made a couple of films with the exploitation don, Roger Corman before , with Dennis Hopper, he invented the youth market. Universal, spotting a bandwagon, hired young directors including Milos Forman, George Lucas &  the 2 Easy Riders to make some low budget films. Dennis took the money, a load of drugs & his friends to Peru to make “The Last Movie”, a film which so confused & disturbed the studio that he did not get to direct again for almost 10 years. Peter made a cowboy movie. His father, Henry, had starred in Westerns by John Ford, Fritz Lang & Anthony Mann. Even Captain America would have to respect such an established tradition.

“The Hired Hand” (1971) was dismissed as a “hippie Western”, the old guard were not ready to hand it over just yet. It is an elementary movie, a 3-hander about love, friendship, a man’s gotta do what…There is a lovely slow burn about the story-telling. Peter Fonda may lack the ponderance of the likes of Gary Cooper or Glenn Ford but it was time to challenge that stereotype anyway. He was helped by some talented people . Verna Bloom & the great Warren Oates did their acting thing while cinematographer Vilmos Zgismond, straight off of “McCabe &…” infused the film with an impressionist beauty which precedes landmarks like “Days Of Heaven” (1978). The memorable , chimerical soundtrack is by guitarist Bruce Langhorne, part of Dylan’s Greenwich Village cohort. An existential Western ? I’m not going there but “The Hired Hand” is a rewarding, thoughtful film.

I don’t think that 3 films all from the same year makes for a renaissance of the Western. Post-Leone the genre had a new energy & potential  & young directors were eager to reinterpret the stories they had grown up with. There were some fine Westerns made around this time. Hey, as long as the saloon had those wonderful swinging louvred doors, the good guy knocks a gun out of someone’s hand with just one shot &, every so often, rides off into the sunset then I’m a happy man.

Music And Movies (Adults Only)

These 3 films were rated “R” in the USA because of scenes of a sexual nature, violence or offensive language. I do now want to shock or offend anyone so  if you are not of an age to watch this or are offended by such scenes, please check out the rest of my blog which is much more wholesome. Now…on with the filth !

In 1995 Christopher McQuarrie wrote a script that was a hard sell in Hollywood. “The Usual Suspects” is about 5 guys who meet in a police line-up. It is a dialogue heavy, multi-layered story, the plot is set out on Wikipedia if you have an hour to spare. The movie’s budget was $6 million & the box office take in the USA was over $23 million. McQuarrie won the Oscar for Best Original Script so he had a little leverage. It was though 2000 before a “written & directed by” was released. “The Way of The Gun” is another crime film & it starts like this.

Well all right, that’s rated “R” for restricted right there ! The frenetic rockabilly bluster of “Rip This Joint” thrusts the viewer into the world of two not-so-wise guys played by Ryan Phillippe & Benicio del Toro. (” So, you the brains of this outfit, or is he?” asks James Caan in a reprise of his seen-it-all turn in “Bottle Rocket”. “Tell ya the truth, I don’t think it’s a brains kind of operation” replies Benicio). An ill-planned kidnapping of Juliette Lewis, the crazy, beautiful ingenue of choice in the 90s, & away we go.

Any violent movie at this time was inevitably labelled “post-Tarentino” but there is a lot more to “The Way Of The Gun” than dogging the trail of “Reservoir Dogs”. In this pulp fiction there are no heroes, the relationships between all the characters are complex. There are double-crosses, puzzles & the dialogue is as smart as a whip. Oh &, as we saw, Sarah Silverman gets her lights punched out ! The progenitor of this movie is the work of Sam Peckinpah , the hard-boiled “The Getaway” & the Modern West of “Junior Bonner” not just the famed Westerns. I make no claim that the “The Way Of The Gun” is in the class of these classics but from a sound base the violence is proper, there is intelligence & flair on the screen. Christopher McQuarrie… Wha’  Happened ?

So Vincent Gallo, painter, rapper, model, musician, Renaissance Man, does a fair turn in that movie about the dorks who try to rob a jewellery shop & get doughnuts (Palookaville, 1995). From this he gets to write, direct & star in his own film. “Buffalo 66” (1998) is a gem of an independent movie with a simple plot, a fine cast & cinematography by Lance Acord, who now works with Spike Jonze & Sofia Coppola. Billy (Gallo) is released from prison, he will return to his parents (Ben Gazzara & Angelica Huston…enough said) & will take revenge on Scott Norwood the kicker of the Buffalo Bills who missed a game-winning kick in the 1991 Superbowl &, indirectly, caused Billy’s imprisonment. He kidnaps Layla & presents her to his parents as his fiancee. Er…that’s it.

Billy’s violent fantasy of revenge in the strip club is accompanied by “Heart Of The Sunrise” by Yes. It’s by no means my kind of music but the movie is Gallo’s thing. His slacker, self-indulgent, whiny character, unable to recognise or respond to any genuine emotion is a dickhead but respect to Vincent for showing out. The heart of the film is Layla, played by Christina Ricci, the ingenue of choice in the 00’s. Another bruised individual she is just so attractive in this film. Little Wednesday Addams, who knew ? Here she awkwardly performs a self-absorbed tap dance to King Crimson’s “Moonchild”.

I did not see Gallo’s follow-up film “The Brown Bunny” (2003). By this time his narcissism, performance or not, had become tiresome & I did not want to see what he & Chloe Sevighny had going on. I may have been wrong & it is worth a view but “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be” (Kurt Vonnegut). Come on Vincent too cool is just not cool.  “Buffalo 66” is a fine personal vision of stunted masculinity & a memorable movie.

Atom Egoyan, the Canadian film maker, made a breakthrough movie with “Exotica” in 1994. The film revolves around the lives of characters who coincide at the eponymous nightclub. It was promoted as an erotic thriller but it’s a  complex non-linear intrigue with a lot of sadness & tragedy. I preferred Egoyan’s mature films to his contemporary US directors like Soderbergh for example. “Exotica” is a tough watch but rewarding. Elias Koteas, as DJ Eric, proves he is some actor.

Christina (Mia Kirshner) dances to “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen from the “I’m Your Man” LP which added orchestration to his caustic, spare lyrics. Cohen’s sardonic & arch commentaries on the modern world and its strange ways are perfect for the tone of “Exotica” They are often very funny. That line in “Closing Time”, “she’s a hundred but she’s wearing something tight” is so perfect. His songs are in so many films now. “Pump Up The Volume” used this same one. There are two in both “Natural Born Killers” & “Watchmen”. “Secretary” has Maggie Whatsit crawling around to his music. These films aspire to a similar accurate & pithy observation as the songs. “Exotica” does the trick & other films will continue to use Cohen’s music but please, not “Hallelujah” again. Here is a full length video to “Everybody Knows” which I find most alluring.