Monday, March 14, 2011

A Few Words on Cinematic Titanic

I was back in Phoenix this weekend to join the family (mother, mother's husband, sister, sister-in-law, sister's mother-in-law) for one of the most delightful stage experiences I've had in a long time: Cinematic Titanic Live.

What is Cinematic Titanic? Well, it's one of two continuations of the brilliant cable series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the other is Mike Nelson's Rifftrax). Cinematic Titanic takes five members of the MST3K cast -- creator Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl -- and has them "riff" on bad movies. On their non-live DVDs, the group perform in silhouette, much as Joel and the 'bots did on MST3K. I've been a fan of MST3K since before I was a pre-teen and I continue to be a fan of its offspring projects, but especially Cinematic Titanic.

Let me say this: seeing this group on DVD is nothing compared to seeing them live. It's not just that the immediacy of the performance allowed for on-the-fly riffs both topical (re: the Wisconsin union labor crisis) and localized (re: a bunch of stuff, but most memorably John McCain). It's that good ol' fashioned live show energy, the great feedback of give and take. At one point, and my memory is fuzzy so I might get this wrong, a character in the movie (Rattlers, if anyone is interested) said something like, "There are better ways to die" and Weinstein riffed "Sure! Just ask David Carradine." There was a smattering of uncomfortable laughter and he shot back "Uh, Michael Hutchence, then?" The line firmly recrossed, the audience was back with him and the riffing could go on.

The previous paragraph demonstrates something painfully true: live comedy retold is almost always retold badly. Even with an eidetic memory (which I'm nowhere close to having) and a beat-by-beat breakdown, I would fail to pass along what a great time I had.

I can say that there were moments of failure, mostly in the pre-riffing warmup acts. Conniff's standup was painfully unfunny and labored and Hodgson's very welcome performance of the KTMA-era MST3K theme song was marred a bit when he forgot some of the lyrics (but then again, I should give the guy a break: that version of the song is over 20 years old). I will say this, though, J. Elvis Weinstein's Elvis Costello impersonation while performing "Watching the Detectives" was uncanny and warmup act Dave (Gruber) Allen was hilarious.

The movie itself was appropriately awful; I can say this in full confidence because I'd actually seen it without benefit of comedic accompaniment. If Cinematic Titanic releases a DVD of their Rattlers performance any time soon, I'd recommend picking it up. It's a film just bad enough to make for good riffing fodder, but not so bad that it's dead boring.

Mostly this post is to direct people, out of a sheer sense of community service, to the Cinematic Titanic website to either find a show coming to their area or to buy a DVD. This is a project that the folks involved are doing simply for the love of the game and it deserves as much support as possible.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

52 Perfect Movies: Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

"How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants..."

Upon first viewing Sergio Leone's masterpiece, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I couldn't help but think to myself, "This is the epitome of the western. It can get no better than this." Leone's unique, European-tinted vision of the American West was so fascinatingly realized that I couldn't imagine it ever being surpassed. And it is perhaps the greatest testament to Leone's genius that he did actually surpass it--although that may be open to argument.

For as sublime and transcendent as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is, I am now of the opinion that Leone actually outdid himself just a couple of years later with that magnum opus of the spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West. For whatever reason, it gets a lot less attention than its predecessor (perhaps owing to the lack of Clint Eastwood), and it deserves a lot more recognition. TGTBATU may be quite the tough act to follow, but it is my opinion that Once Upon a Time in the West not only follows it with style, but actually overshadows it in terms of quality.

Ennio Morricone's score is just as iconic, if not more so, washing over the film and commanding the viewer's attention. It literally merges with the narrative in a way that happens in very few films. Whether it's Frank's jaw-dropping theme of villainy, the happy-go-lucky Cheyenne motif, or the unforgettable Harmonica riff, this is movie music at its finest. It may not have produced the big hit that TGTBATU main theme became, but no matter. This is music worth listening to and savoring, even without the accompanying images.

Joined with the images, we get a visual feast realized in a way few films ever are. Leone's brilliant cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli, who had previously outdone himself on TGTBATU, once again triumphs, with spellbinding shot after spellbinding shot. For those who thought John Ford was the high watermark of the Western, this is material to give one pause and force a reconsideration. So many of these shots have been mimiced so many times by inferior filmmakers that it's easy for their power to be lost. But this is the kind of movie that requires viewer sto strip all preconceived notions and thoroughly immerse themselves in the experience.

Charles Bronson is no Eastwood, but the majesty and quiet, almost native nobility he brings to the role of Harmonica thoroughly grounds the film. He is truly a classic Western hero, and one only wonders what would have happened if Clint had actually accepted the role, as Leone wanted him to. I happen to believe, that as great as Eastwood was, Once Upon a Time in the West benefits from the new blood. Eastwood's Man With No Name had run its course.

Then we have Henry Fonda, whom Leone specifically chose in order to achieve the jarring juxtaposition of having one of cinema's most beloved figures playing a deeply evil, despicable character. In an interview once, Leone stated clearly that when Fonda's blue-eyed visage first appears on screen, staring down a little boy he's about to murder, he wanted his audience to mutter to themselves, "Holy shit! That's Henry Fonda!" And that was indeed my reaction, having been so trained to believe in the pathos of Fonda's screen presence. Nevertheless, he manages to turn Frank into one of the most enjoyable screen baddies of all time.

Jason Robards excels as the very memorable Cheyenne, an amoral outlaw with a heart of gold who gets caught in the middle of the epic conflict. The gorgeous Claudia Cardinale is far more than just eye candy, once again adding a unique Mediterranean flavor to one of the Western's most tried and true tropes, that of the beautiful widow with a coveted inheritance. Together, the film's four leads form an ensemble which, for my money, is more effective than that of any Leone western.

To watch Once Upon a Time in the West is to experience all that the cinematic medium is capable of, in pure, distilled form. The script, spare as always in dialogue, nevertheless crackles along with kinetic energy, and boasts one of the single most gripping opening scenes in movie history--with barely a single word uttered. This is the kind of scene that film students should be required to watch in order to understand the power that can be achieved without having to rely primarily on language. Leone and his collaborators understand that they are working in the genre of another country and language, and so choose--very effectively--to work visually, first and foremost. And we get to enjoy the fruits of that effort, which is one of the great pleasures of film.

It's almost as if Leone had learned so much about making Westerns via his previous trilogy, which began with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, that he felt the need to put all of those lessons to their best use by making one massive, stand-alone film that would synthesize everything good about the previous three, and take it to whole other level of greatness. And that is what he does, transforming the American West into a mythic place beyond any historical reality.

There are those who will always prefer The Good, The Bad and the Ugly to Once Upon a Time in the West. The former is certainly the more well-known. But I will contend that most who have actually seen and digested both of those films will side with me that the later, more underrated of the two is actually superior. I invite those who may not have seen Once Upon a Time in the West to give it a chance and decide for themselves.

The Western is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of American moviemaking, and it's quite ironic that it's greatest examples have come not from America itself, but from Italy. With an objective eye that came not from within the nation itself, but rather from an entirely different milieu, Sergio Leone was able to elevate the Western into something previously unimaginable. It's very fitting that the film's title seems like something out of a fairy tale--for Once Upon a Time in the West is more than just a period film. It is quite literally history transformed into legend. It is majestic; it is archetypal; it is absolutely glorious.

NEXT UP: The Godfather (1972)