The title above is a possibly-paraphrased line from “The Fisher King,” Terry Gilliam’s second or third-best movie, depending on how I’m feeling. The crazy Robin Williams character says it before presenting Pulp Fiction’s Honeybunny with a funky little chair made of twisted wire. He’s right: it is pretty wonderful. It’s like an accessory for a dollhouse if the dolls are dressed up as punks or Tim Burton goths, and the dust has been allowed to accumulate a little.
I like the line more than the chair, though. High art finally had its legs pried from around the neck of low art some time late in the last century, and despite the best efforts of art and music and literature elitists everywhere, there’s no sign of relapse. Art snobbery is in remission, Diane. Some bemoan it and some deny it, but when colleges are giving full courses on Madonna and Stephen King, it’s clear that the line in the sand has been rubbed out and kicked all over the place.
Fine by me. As you know I’ve always enjoyed a cup of black coffee and a slice of homemade huckleberry pie as much as champagne and caviar. Make that twice as much as. I would argue that a chicken taco from Moe’s, dripping with queso and salsa, is every bit the equal of the fancy-ass turkey foccacia sandwich I had at that restaurant on Sunday afternoon. No amount of mango remoulade or truffle pecan demiglas could improve a Big Mac. It’s perfect in all its artery-choking glory. (I suspect I may have eaten too small of a lunch today.)
I have nothing against high art; I’m just tired of its proponents holding down and spitting in the eye of my beloved crap. So I present here a list of the most wonderful things you can find in the trash. We’re going to start with:
THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN
If Westerns were low art already – blockheaded, crowd-pleasing “oaters” with dialogue and leading men cut from granite – then spaghetti westerns were the next step in the de-evolution. Early critics focused on the dire dubbing, the bizarre soundtracks, the often cut-rate cinematography and editing, and the excessive violence, en route to dismissing the genre as a waste of time. Best to leave that crud to the Italians and Spaniards that were churning it out.
It took me about half an hour one wintry afternoon to see the beauty and the genius in this maligned offshoot of cinema. I was sitting in a hotel room and flipping through the channels when I came upon the opening sequence for
THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY
Jesus H. Christ, was that an attention-getter. If you’ve never seen this movie, I’d advise you rent it right now and find out if spaghetti westerns are at all for you. This is the litmus test. Give it time to unfold. Let Lee Van Cleef, he of the rat face and the evil eye, eat his pepper stew and then cold-bloodedly kill a man in front of his family. Watch Eli Wallach’s ugly ass jump out of a window to escape an attempt on his life. Wait for Clint to show up – Clint, like a gold-haired, squint-eyed hardass on the baking surface of the sun. This is the proto-Clint, the one who speaks only a few lines in a movie that runs about three hours, who kills without blinking but also finds time and sympathy to comfort a dying soldier in the aftermath of a battle. This is the Clint to end all Clints.
Once all three of them have been introduced – the bad, the ugly, and the good respectively, and in that order, title be damned – you should have an inkling as to whether or not you’ll like this movie. The eerie, iconic Ennio Morricone theme will be echoing through your head as the opening titles flow across the screen like an electric Kool-aid acid test. You can hear and practically smell the horses; you can feel the hot lead in the air, ricocheting off the rocky ground with a zing and a kaPEEEEEER.
And if you’re like me, you’ll fall in love.
The rest of the movie is a grand and glorious adventure. There’s some ridiculousness involving missing gold, and the three characters wind around it like kites with their strings irretrievably tangled. There’s a war, a march through the desert, an exploding bridge, a three minute scene of Eli Wallach running through a cemetery, a five hour scene of Lee Van Cleef and Clint staring at each other, and so much more. This is the pinnacle of the spaghetti western genre, and for me, the pinnacle of the western as an art form.
THE GREAT (or grand) SILENCE
“Il Grande Silenzio” is a weird, wild western, even by Italian standards. The hero is mute, the victim when he was young of a nasty throat-slashing. The villain is Klaus Kinski, which is about all that needs to be said. The setting is not the bone-dry desert and ramshackle buildings of Almeria, but a snowy wilderness town surrounded by woods and mountains. There’s an interracial love affair and a a bumbling, comical sherriff. If it weren’t for standard-setters like “Django Kill! If You Live, Shoot” and “El Topo,” this would be about the strangest western I’ve seen.
As it is, “Silence” (which is the name of both movie and the main character) will have to settle for being among the top ten or so weirdest westerns. But it’s in my five favorites. This is due in large part to the elements that make it so unique: the pre-“Fargo” blanket-of-white look; the very depressing plot that involves murder, mutilation, rape, starvation, and the oppression of a poor widow; and the ending.
Oh Diane, that ending. All I can say without spoiling it is that it’s a real sucker punch, and not what you will be expecting. At all. If “Twin Peaks” had ended after season 1, with myself lying on the floor after taking three bullets to the torso, that would be roughly equivalent to the level of surprise in the ending to “The Great Silence.” (Actually, considering the way “Twin Peaks” DID eventually end, I think the two conclusions have a lot in common.)
DEATH RIDES A HORSE
Lee Van Cleef plays the title character. He rides a horse, and he doles out heapin’ helpin’s of death. Fuck yes. This is as Lee Van Cleef as a Lee Van Cleef movie gets. He gets to play a guy who is sort of good and sort of bad, which is a nice compromise between his best role (the awesome, cold-blooded Angel Eyes in “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”) and the other ones he got shoehorned into after the Italians started asking him to carry pictures on his own. There’s a Kid (there was often a Kid in these movies – usually an early-twenties, blond Clint-alike with a square jaw and earnest eyes), but Van Cleef kicks his ass all up and down the movie. There’s vengeance on multiple fronts, truly the best plot driver a western or kung fu flick can employ. “Death Rides A Horse” is a must-see in the genre.
If so many trash/exploitation movies can be boiled down to their most shocking scenes, “Django” is king of that disreputable heap. Particularly considering the year it was released, “Django” is completely appalling and grotesque at times – times like these:
- When a man’s ear is sliced off and tucked into his own mouth while he still lives (Tarantino homaged the hell out of this scene in “Reservoir Dogs,” and honestly, it was less disturbing there).
- When a central character’s hands are trampled by horses and smashed with the butt of a rifle. Try watching this scene without protectively cradling your hands in your armpits – it ain’t easy.
- When the same character spends two or three minutes near the end of the movie just trying to pick up a revolver. Bonus points for the gruesome smears of blood all over the handle.
Then there’s the coffin he drags along behind him, and what it eventually is revealed to contain – truly a golden moment in the history of film. Yes, “Django” is a sort of classic. And you’ll never get the title song out of your head once you’ve heard it. (“Ohhh, DJAAANNNGOOOOO!”)
It must be admitted, however, that the original “Django” runs a distant second to “Django Kill!” in grotesquery for the series. Once you’ve seen formerly helpful townsfolk dig through a living man’s body for the gold bullets that injured him in the first place, you’ll never quite feel clean again. (Let’s see ’em do THAT in a John Wayne pic.)
–Index for further research–
Sergio Leone (director of three of the most well-known and popular spaghetti westerns, the Dollars trilogy, which begins with “A Fistful of Dollars” and ends with “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”; also directed the monumental classic “Once Upon a Time in the West” and a slightly offbeat but still excellent movie called “A Fistful of Dynamite” in the US, and “Giu La Testa!” – “Duck You Sucker!” – in Italian)
Tomas Milian (MVP of the spaghetti genre, Milian starred in “Django Kill!” which I mentioned previously, but also in a few superior westerns such as “The Big Gundown” – with Lee Van Cleef – and “Face to Face”; both of these are very difficult to find in DVD form, just so you know)
Sergio Corbucci (second famousest Sergio behind Leone; directed “The Great Silence” and a handful of others which are almost as good)
Lee Van Cleef (I know I seem fixated, but the guy was a workhorse in this field; besides playing The Bad and being the mammoth pile of awesome at the heart of “Death Rides A Horse,” he was also in “Sabata,” “For A Few Dollars More,” and “Day Of Anger,” which are all excellent)
Ennio Morricone (should go without saying, but almost every movie he has scored is worth a viewing or two – his music for “Face to Face” [Italian title: “Faccia a Faccia”], “The Big Gundown,” “The Great Silence,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” and many others basically blew everybody else off the playing field; besides which, he worked in and around Hollywood later, and did some great non-western work in movies like “The Mission”)
Klaus Kinski (had a fascinating career playing maniacs and villains in spaghetti westerns and a lot of other oddball movies, and also teamed up with Werner Herzog to make some of my very favorite movies: “Aguirre, The Wrath of God”; “Fitzcarraldo”; and a remake of “Nosferatu”; as far as spaghetti westerns, he appeared in “The Great Silence,” “For A Few Dollars More,” “A Bullet For The General,” and others – refer to imdb.com)
Gian Maria Volonte (“For A Few Dollars More,” “A Bullet For The General,” “Face To Face” – he didn’t grace that many spaghettis compared to some, but the ones he appeared in were classics)