Thursday, September 07, 2017

Leone at war

If, like perception, a film is a pausible hallucination, some films really are hallucinations. They persist as an image, a single image. Or a theme tune composed by Morricone. Everybody has seen them, believe they’ve seen them or believe that everybody had seen them. They’re no longer distinguished from the impact they had, the landscape they’ve opened up or the clones that have followed them. So much so that when we come across them on the small screen we are staggered to find again that state of freshness they – and we too – had at their birth. This is the case for instance with Sergio Leone’s first three westerns (called ‘spaghetti westerns’ no doubt because one hundred per cent durum wheat is probably the stuff good humanists are made of, including their director) and with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which Channel 3 showed on Monday evening. 
The film starts with what in the end was left of it, with that exhibitionism that makes entrances into shot and into the action comparable (this has been observed so often that it’s a cliché) to the great arias of verismo opera. Three actors who belong to three worlds of the cinema (Wallach comes largely from working with Kazan, Van Cleef was Ford’s second string and Eastwood isn’t Eastwood yet) indulge in three jubilatory recitatives and slowly prepare to argue about a lost haul of $200,000. Everything is enacted through their eyes (rather than their acting), eyes that are there more to be seen than to see. Whether widened, narrowed or mean, these organs of sight do not prevent their owners from missing the only reality of the time: the Civil War. 
For this is where the TV re-viewing of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns out to be a fascinating experience. The real film does not resemble the memory it left behind. There aren’t three but four characters, and where it takes forty minutes to introduce the first three, it takes even longer to allow the fourth – the war – to creep into the picture and carry more and more weight. So much so that between the moment when we learn that the booty is buried in Sad Hill cemetery and the moment when we finally reach it, the word cemetery (and its image) has changed meaning. It’s the film that undertook to remind us that in a cemetery there are more corpses of dead soldiers than buried treasures. How subtle is Leone’s didacticism; there’s no mention of a war, it’s encountered during the film and suddenly you realise it’s been there for a long time and is horrifying. 
What’s beautiful and makes this a great film about War in general is that Sergio Leone isn’t mixing genres. Either out of artistic honesty or out of a prescient intuition of what awaits the cinema. He offers a new way of showing bodies floating in dust coats and figures adrift in the desert of a landscape too vast for them. Tautological figures, disconnected from virtually everything, their only know-how being a touch of cunning and a lot of style when it comes to handling objects. Faces that advertising, fashion and music videos have looked at a lot thereafter. At the same time, once the screen fills up and the war crams it with little flesh and blood soldiers, Leone films differently. In wide shot, with the greatest reserve and a respect for distances and characters that can only remind us of that other great sentimentalist who had little time for photogenic slaughter: John Ford. Precisely as if Leone were prolonging Ford’s legacy for a few years while simultaneously showing the new landscape, the one coming after and altogether of a different order
It can happen (though this is a defect) that a film contains several films. It is rare that a film is located precisely at the crossroad between a classical art whose secret will soon be lost and baroque proposals whose recipes will be a huge hit. It is rare that a director is honest (or schizoid?) enough to simply juxtapose, without any possible reconciliation, what is no longer quite compatible. It is even rarer that instead of suffering from this split, his talent thrives on it. It is later perhaps that the Leone of Once Upon A Time in America will suffer, when he will want to restore the classicism at the heart of a cinema that will by then have absorbed Leone’s mannerism beyond recognition. In 1966, it is different. Sergio Leone is both ahead of everyone and late behind everyone, he is therefore on time. 
First published in Libération on 1 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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