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Once Upon a Time in Italy

Sergio Leone no va ser l'únic europeu que va dirigir films del salvatge Oest a Europa. Hi ha prop de 500 spaghetti westerns italians. El director i guionista britànic Alex Cox ens explica quins són els seus favorits.

When film critics refer to the spaghetti Western, they tend to mean four films directed by Sergio Leone: his "Dollars" trilogy with Clint Eastwood, and his epic, "Once Upon a Time in the West." This focus on Leone's work is understandable: he was a great filmmaker who made Eastwood a star. And it also acknowledges Akira Kurosawa, the form's spiritual godfather, whose film "Yojimbo" inspired Leone and his colleagues to see Westerns as cynical samurai films. But the spotlight (1) on one director has tended to obscure the rest of the Italian Western subgenre, which may include as many as 500 films.

No one can say how many there were for sure. Throughout (2) the late 1960s and early '70s - every European producer had to have at least one Western on the runway, if not two. Serial Western heroes were created out of thin air. A copyright-lite atmosphere prevailed in Italy, and multiple films were made simultaneously about characters with improbable names: Django, Cjamango, Sartana, Sabata, Arizona Colt. Most of these pictures were all-Italian, quickly shot in studios just outside Rome. Some were bigger-scale affairs, with international casts, exteriors in Spain, and money from German and - eventually - American studios.

Higher-end spaghetti Westerns often featured extraordinary music (usually composed by Ennio Morricone), extravagant production design (at its best in the hands of Carlo Simi) and leading players (3) from the United States: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles among them. Perhaps because more money was at stake (4), these films tended to have the most familiar plots: adventurers go in search of buried (5) treasure; a boy grows up to seek (6) revenge on his family's killers. The cheaper Italian Westerns often seemed more original, and certainly far more bizarre.

And thus (7) it was that this young filmgoer, in the late '60s, discovered not the Summer of Love but the Summer of Spaghetti. On a high school trip to Paris I encountered that city's network of second- and third-run movie theaters, which played the most obscure Italian Westerns any enthusiast could wish for, dubbed in French.

In Paris again the next summer I got a job as an office boy at Les Films Marbeuf. This didn't provide much valuable work experience, but I didn't care. Marbeuf distributed the most legendary of these B Westerns, Sergio Corbucci's "Django." It is to this great, mad, violent spaghetti Western - and its many sequels - that Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming film, "Django Unchained," alludes. In the Corbucci film Django (played by a young Franco Nero) arrives in muddy(8)  shantytown (9) on foot, dragging (10) a coffin (11). In the coffin is a machine gun with which he will shortly kill many enemies. Why does he do this? Apparently they are racist Southerners who wear red hoods (12) rather than white ones. In a brief scene Django visits his wife's grave and reflects that she was murdered by the leader of the bad guys, Major Jackson. Why the major killed her, and why Django has waited so many years to take revenge, is entirely unclear. And, equally, unimportant.

My enthusiasm for "Django" and its contemporaries rivaled that of a young Elizabethan treated to the London theater of the Rose or the Globe. Who cared why the Dane waited so long to murder his uncle? There was mayhem (13)! There was murder! There was madness! There was music! And a ghost! The enthusiasm for these things shown by the best Renaissance playwrights (14) - Marlowe, Webster, Kyd, Middleton - rivaled the spaghetti Western auteurs' equal passion for arbitrary killing, crucifixions, loud music and scenes with white- clad (15) villains abused by talking parrots.

On those Paris trips I saw many Italian Westerns, and very few other films. Among the most vividly memorable are:

-Carlo Lizzani's "Requiescant," a fierce revenge tale (16) in which the director Pier Paolo Pasolini and several of his actors appear in strange character roles.

-Corbucci's "Navajo Joe" and "Great Silence," also pessimistic revenge tales, in this case ones that do not end happily for the hero. ("Navajo Joe" is the best of all possible Burt Reynolds vehicles; "Great Silence" is one of the finest Westerns ever).

-" Quién Sabe ?" ("A Bullet for the General") and "Tepepa," parables about third-world revolution and the Vietnam War disguised as Westerns.

-Giulio Questi's "Django Kill," which had nothing to do with "Django" but displayed a surreal aesthetic worthy of Buñuel, featuring gay outlaws, murderous townsfolk and that talking parrot.

-Tonino Valerii's "Price of Power," which restaged the Kennedy assassination, in Dallas, circa 1880.

-"The Price of Power" works on many levels: as an adventure story about a displaced Southerner who fought for the North (a typically conflicted role for Giuliano Gemma, most handsome of all spaghetti Western heroes); as an urban detective Western (it was shot on the locations of "Once Upon a Time in the West," where Valerii had been the assistant director); and as political agitprop (17) anticipating David Miller's "Executive Action" and Oliver Stone's "JFK."

These were all formidable films. Visually extremely striking (18), aurally distinctive, wonderfully acted, violent, mystifying, perversely inspirational. Watching these films - so individual, so strange, frequently so bad - encouraged me to think I might make films just like them, in the cowboy hovels (19) of the same surreal Spanish desert. When it came about in 1986, my own spaghetti Western, "Straight to Hell" (a digital redux released last year as "Straight to Hell Returns"), was nowhere near as good as even the worst of these films. But it was shot in the same desert where they made "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly," just across the street from the Leone ranch. And it was the most fun, and the best experience, for me, of all the films I've made.

How I miss that desert! No matter the 110-degree weather and collapsing wooden boardwalks and adobes dissolving back into the sand.

GLOSSARY

1. spotlight: punt de mira

2. throughout: al llarg de

3. player: actor

4. to be at stake: estar en joc

5. bury: enterrar

6. to seek: buscar

7. thus: així

8. muddy: fangós

9. shantytown: barri de barraques

10. to drag: arrossegar

11. coffin: bagul / taüt / fèretre

12. hood: caputxa

13. mayhem: caos

14. playwright: dramaturg

15. clad: vestit

16. tale: conte

17. agitprop : propaganda política

18. striking: impressionant

19. hovel: barraca

EXERCISE 1

Find the following words in the text.

1. A person who directs or produces films.

2. An influential person in an organization or field of activity.

3. The legal right to distribute a creator's work.

4. A group of interconnected people or organizations.

5. Something that is about to happen or appear.

6. The apparition of a dead person.

EXERCISE 2

Complete these sentences, adapted from the text, with the correct word.

1. Perhaps because more money was _____ stake, these films tended to have the most familiar plots.

2. In Paris again the next summer I got a job _____ an office boy at Les Films Marbeuf.

3. My enthusiasm _____ "Django" rivaled that of a young Elizabethan treated to the London theater.

4. "Django Kill," had nothing to do _____ "Django" but displayed a surreal aesthetic worthy of Buñuel.


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