Sunday, September 22, 2013

Random Double Features: The Man With No Name and the Kid With No Shame

Welcome to another edition of Random Double Features, where a friend makes a random selection of two films from my library and then I sit down and watch them. Then I come back here and let you know if there's any way the two can be tied together.

An old theatre school buddy, Mary Beth, picked our latest Double Feature: A Fistful of Dollars and Scott Pilgrim vs The World.  On the face of things, they couldn't be more different; one is a Spaghetti Western released nearly 50 years ago and one is a comedy set in Canada made by a Brit and is one of the most 21st Century films around. But, when I watched them, I was actually surprised by how well they fit together.

Let's take A Fistful of Dollars first. It wasn't the first so-called Spaghetti Western, and it wasn't the first film that Sergio Leone directed, but it cemented the stylistic cornerstones of the Spaghetti Western, and it announced the arrival of a major filmmaker, one who whose bold visual style would resonate far beyond cheap rip-offs of an American genre. Leone didn't try to simply imitate American westerns, rather he combined John Ford's approach of vast landscape shots with extreme close-ups of his actors. He staged action unlike other filmmakers in that he chose to focus on the anticipation of violence rather than the violence itself. While many of the time did consider his films to be excessively violent, Leone didn't fetishize violence by gorily lingering on the act as directors like Sam Peckinpah did. Rather he shot the moments leading to the violence as grand opera, but without dialogue, all focused on faces, eyes and grimaces. They were arias to murderous intent, and it created an energy that hadn't been seen in film before. The actual acts of violence themselves, when they came, were usually over quickly, though brutally.

The film begins when a stranger rides into the Mexican border town of San Miguel. Learning that the town is in the midst of a war between two crime families, he resolves to manipulate events for his own profit and sets about playing one side against the other. The stranger, named Joe in the film, is played by Clint Eastwood, who had agreed to appear in the film mainly as a break away from playing the juvenile squeaky-clean sidekick on TV's Rawhide, and for the Italian and Spanish vacation the shoot offered. It has to be one of the luckiest casting decisions ever. Eastwood's effortless laconic, ruthless cool is in perfect sync with the character Leone is trying to create. Joe is an amoral, selfish, ambitious gunfighter, who's only real concern is to look out for himself and gain as much money as he possibly can. Eastwood, seeing the chance to play a true anti-hero, and shrewdly recognizing his own gifts, fought to actually have less dialogue. The result is one of the most iconic characters in film. Joe commits precisely two heroic acts in the whole film, and only one is really pure. He frees a woman who has been sold into sexual slavery to one of the crime families and reunites her with her family, even giving her some cash to run. But we are given no explanation for this other than his line, "I knew someone like you once and there was no one to help." But that's really it. He also confronts the bad guys in the climax ostensibly to save his innkeeper buddy, but it's more unfinished business than any kind of principles.

Though Leone wrote the film with Victor Andrés Catena and Jamie Comas Gil,
 A Fistful of Dollars was nowhere near an original script and it has one of the most unusual pedigrees in film history. I mean, name another Western shot in Spain by Italians, with a story ripped off from a Japanese Samurai movie (Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo) which in turn had been based on a noir novel set in America during the Depression (Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest). You ain't gonna find one.

In 1964, when the film came out in Europe, it was a huge hit. It was released in the States in 1967, and it was followed by the next two Leone films in quick succession. They became blockbuster hits as the morally complex tone, star-making performance by Eastwood, and Leone's operatic style perfectly meshed with the mood of the  late 1960s. Of course, there's one more factor that contributed hugely to the success of the Leone films, and that's the music of Ennio Morricone. Combining Rock and Roll, classic Hollywood scores, unusual instrumentation and vocals, and operatic elements, the scores to these films became famous in their own rights. And here's where our first film connects really well with our second, because music, both the score and the songs in the film, play an important part in Scott Pilgrim vs the World.

Based on the comic book series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, the film tells the story of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), an aimless and callow young man still unable to get past a bad breakup and struggling to move past adolescence into adulthood. He's dating a high-school girl, playing in a band and without a job. He meets Ramona Flowers and thinks he's found the girl of his dreams, but is shocked to discover that in order to truly win her, he has to face her seven evil exes in battles to the death. With a really great cast of basically the best young talent around (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mae Whitman, Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Chris Evans and Aubrey Plaza to name a few) the film is directed by Edgar Wright, who also directed Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Wright's direction here is not that far off from Leone's, actually. I typically hate when directors attempt to inject a "comic book" feel into a film, but Wright does this extremely well, using captions and camera movements that feel like an attempt to create a different world, one that uses the iconography of comics, manga and video games, as well as the indie rock scene, to give the viewer a type of film that you can honestly say you've never seen before. The script, written by Wright and Michael Bacall, is hilarious and the score by Nigel Goodrich (with songs written by Beck, Metric, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala) is amazing and integral to the feel of the film.  While the styles may be completely different, both Leone and Wright's confidence in committing to a bold visual style connects them. 

Interestingly, Scott Pilgrim is also somewhat of an anti-hero in that, for most of the movie, he's kind of a jerk. Few of his friends in the film seem all that connected to him, indeed several of them actively hate him, and Scott's behaviour towards people is kind of reprehensible. But while Eastwood's Joe is definitively static, leaving town the exact same man he was when he arrived, just a little richer, Scott does go on a journey and ends the film a better man than when he started. Though another film would argue that love saved Scott Pilgrim, Wright's film argues that Scott only wins by honestly confronting his own actions and owning up to them.

All in all, as a combo, you could do a lot worse than these two films, and if you looking to enjoy a night of films that make style a major component of the storytelling, I'd recommend popping both of these on.

So, what's up for our next Random Double Feature? Well, another theatre school buddy Damian picked two numbers between a certain range, and the Nerd Report Randomizer spat out some results.

For the second time, we've got a Hitchcock film paired with a big budget blockbuster! First up, it's Hitch's early classic The 39 Steps, followed by Peter Jackson's 3 hour CGI update of what was originally a 100 minute film, King Kong. Tune in October 13th to see how I link up those two bad boys!

No comments: