Friday, October 16, 2015

At the Movies: "Once Upon a Time in the West"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone, 1968.

imbd: 8.6 (imdb 250: #28)
Ebert: Two and a half Stars, at the time.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98% Fresh

Watched on the big screen a few weeks ago at the fabulous Hollywood Theater with Mrs.5000 and Maddy.

When we left the theater after Once Upon a Time in the West, I remarked that it was a real muddle of a story, with a plot that was mostly there as something on which to hang lovely scenery and memorable episodes. Then, somewhat to my chagrin, Maddy explained the whole thing with economy and precision, including some bits I hadn’t been quite sharp enough to be confused about. Well.  I think I would prefer to suppose that OUTW “rewards a second viewing” – Maddy had seen it before – than to confess that I’m too dumb to follow a Western if the hats aren’t color-coded. Although, I suppose the two notions are not mutually exclusive.

The film starts with a very long sequence – perhaps fifteen minutes – in which three men wait for a train at a tiny frontier station. There is no music and almost no dialog, only ambient sounds like a squeaking windmill, the buzz of a fly, or the quiet clatter of a telegraph. This sets the tone for a movie that will feature a lot of tense waiting, usually for something unpleasant to happen. Director Sergio Leone, I read somewhere, was far more interested in the rituals preceding violence than in the violence itself. That’s not to say there won’t be violence. There will be plenty of violence. But it takes a back seat here to the dynamics of masculine posturing.

That’s not to be dismissive. Masculine posturing comes in many varieties, and although it can be tiresome it is also a pretty important vehicle of power. As such, it’s interesting stuff. So is moral ambiguity, and so I’m pleased to report that there are no unnaturally good “good guys” in this movie. Some of the bad guys, however, are pretty damn bad.

A title like Once Upon a Time in the West almost preempts any discussion of realism or the lack thereof in the film. Having said that, the world of this movie is an odd mix of relative realism and sheer fantasy. The little settlement of Flagstone, for instance, is not so far off the historical mark.  It's a bustling little prefab, multicultural hive offering a cut-rate selection of the fruits of civilization at a remote Western railhead. It is so busy building itself that it hasn’t had time to realize that it has already reached the peak of its civic energy.

Cattle Corner, the hamlet where the film begins, is by contrast the ruined hulk of a Western ghost town the way it might have looked in 1968, except with people living there. This is sheer fantasy, since ghost towns didn’t look like ghost towns when they were newly built. They looked like towns. The other two places we encounter in the film, the roadhouse and Sweetwater, are similarly disjointed. Sweetwater looks like a place of its time; the roadhouse is a squalid twentieth century Western fantasia. The fantasy locales in Once Upon a Time in the West are places of grim menace. But then, the realistic places aren’t so safe either.

My sister, who loves movies and loves the mythology of the West, told me before the show that “I remember trying to watch it once many years ago and finding it excruciating.” The fellow who introduced the film at the Hollywood gushed about how it was “one of the great films of all time” and complimented us in the audience for having the excellent taste to turn out for it. What did I think? Why, I thought it was beautiful, confusing, charming, sometimes a bit hokey, occasionally a little disturbing, and thoroughly diverting. The big screen helped. Some folks, hooked on the pace of modern action films (I would not, to be sure, include my sister in this group) would certainly find it slow. “It’s not about the violence itself,” I would say to them. “It’s about the rituals preceding violence.”

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.

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