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Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: The Dollars Trilogy

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Aug 16, 2010 | 4:40am EDT

A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad and the UglyScott Pilgrim vs. the World is perfect in every way, and you should go see it, even if you’re over 40 and you heard somewhere that people over 40 don’t like the movie. Edgar Wright has taken a cute little comic and turned it into some kind of strange art form that I’m going to call 'Pop Expresionism.'

As you watch Scott Pilgrim and perhaps get confused by all of the wild stuff going on, think of it like a musical. In a musical when the emotions and passion and gusto of the characters can’t be expressed verbally they explode into song. Scott Pilgrim’s the same thing, but with pop references to video games, comic books, martial arts films, and all things geeky. Read these explosions not as hipster wink-winks, but as the character’s desperate attempts to express themselves in a world more concerned more with the language of the spectacle than the language of intimacy. Pop Expressionism.

Turning interiors into exteriors is just what cinema does best, whether it’s Bergman, Edgar Wright, or this week’s case in point:

The Dollars Trilogy: 1964’s Fistful of Dollars, 1965’s For A Few Dollars More, and 1966’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

The Western had fallen on hard times in the 60’s as the counter-cultural wave made mincemeat of Americana. Nobody bought it. The Italians, for some reason, after having been morally and economically demolished in the aftermath o WWII, thought this was just the right time to reinvent one of the few genuinely American genres, and gave birth to what we now call the Spaghetti Westerns.

There are a lot of these spaghetti westerns, and some of them boast fantastic titles (If You Meet Sartana Pray for Death; Django, Kill…If You Live, Shoot!; Go Kill Everybody and Come Back Alone), but the greatest of them are the ones made by Sergio Leone in the mid-60, the trilogy that made Clint Eastwood a star and revealed the genius of Ennio Morricone.

The Good, the Bad and the UglyLeone tells spare stories that revolve around Eastwood’s 'Man With No Name', a lightning fast gunslinger who like every good Western hero seems to have making money as his only moral agenda. In these movies, Leone turns everything into landscape, taking the John Huston aesthetic to an almost absurd extreme. Even reaction shots seem to play more to depict an aesthetic than to pursue narrative. Witness the first few shots of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, where Leone cuts between extreme close-up and panoramic landscape, each one treated equally.

Likewise the score, composed like a coyote call from the depths of a dusty hell by Morricone. The score is just like the landscape: repetitive, epic, unrelenting, violent, endless, and beautiful. The same riffs come back again and again, played underneath the action like another shot of another landscape: there to evoke emotion and sensation rather than impart a story beat.

People often call Leone’s work operatic. What they mean, or what I would mean if I said the same thing, is that in their visuals, cuts, framing, episodic narrative, and acting style the movies of the Dollars Trilogy build emotion. The characters of these movies are desperate and lonely, but the only way they can articulate these overwhelming feelings are to shoot, kill, torture, and carve out ugly new tools for vengeance. The dance of death is their articulation of the same emotions we struggle with every day, amped up to the heights of an aria by grating broken Americana against the struggling soul of Italy.

Pop Expressionism.

Next week: a movie directed by a woman. Cause it’s about damn time.

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