Friday, February 19, 2010

Christopher Frayling on ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

We're not watching Once Upon a Time in the West because we don't have enough time and because, as clever as the cinematic choices are, I think The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the better film, but what I hope you get from Frayling is just how conscious Leone is of the choices he makes and their effects.  The man is a craftsman par excellence.

Complicating Easy Categorization

One of the things I most love about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is the way it breaks down easy categories.  From the first moments of the film (the titles, the labels good, bad, and ugly), we’re instructed how we should think of each man.  The men themselves construct binary definitions for one another: “There are two kinds of men…” is a refrain throughout the film.

Yet also from the film’s first moments, the categories break down.  The first words spoken to Tuco are “You have such a beautiful face, it’s word two thousand dollars”—so is he ugly?  Angel Eyes, the “bad,” does not kill out of malice but because he is a mercenary, and in his profession, he seems to behave honorably, always finishing a job.  Blondie, the “good,” aids a known felon to escape over and over.

The movie makes it easy to label people while simultaneously showing the labels to be false.  The audience is left wondering who defined these people to begin with and by what arbitrary markers.  I’m curious to see whether, ultimately, the class thinks all three men are good, bad, and ugly as labeled, or whether none of them are, or whether some are and some aren’t—and if so, which are what?

I wonder too if this the idea of categorization and identity extends into some of the film’s artistic choices.  For example, the over-dubbed sound makes it seem as if the character’s voice is coming from something beyond them rather than exactly meshing with their own voices in the same way identity seems at least partially proscribed by some outside, unnamed narrative force.  I thought too of the rope, which ties things together in the same way prejudice does but also can kill, leaving each man facing his completely individual demise.  (Note: even I feel I’m stretching on this last one.)  Better, what about the cinematography?  It alternates from extreme close-up to panorama, from the individual to the grouped. (Note: here, I’m being very clever, just as I was when discussing the sound, and you should all be totally impressed with my brilliance.)  The fact that many of these men having multiple names (Jackson/Ben Carson, Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez) or no name at all (Blondie, Angel Eyes) also seems to hint at the impossibility of knowing anyone on an individual level.

SUCH a great movie, no?  So much packed in to such beautiful images.