The Unabashed Complexity of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Tara Zdancewicz

“There are two types of people: those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” – the Man with No Name

 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly might seem like a straightforward Spaghetti Western; Within the first half hour of the three hour-long epic, the representative characters of the titular good, bad, and ugly are introduced. While director Sergio Leone presents three types of people in the West, the ugly Tuco consistently reminds the audience that “there are two types of people in this world…” giving a new opposing binary every time. Black and white oppositions of morality are constantly being made throughout the film. This clear moral dichotomy harkens back to the uniform moral lines of earlier Westerns that showed the egregiously bad antagonist overcome by the incorruptible and scrupulous protagonist. However, the ethical certainty of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (and the rest of the Dollars trilogy) is not as incontrovertible as the Westerns that preceded it. This film is not straightforward or simple, rather it is a highly complex and reflective film that changed the landscape of the western genre inspiring the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers.

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Vanishing Point or: Have Car, Will Travel

By Kerry Fristoe

In 1970s films, nothing signified independence and a disdain for authority like a muscle car with a V8.

Driving a car is a rite of passage. Teenagers are thrilled the first time they can take the car out without Mom and Dad. Owning your first car is an even bigger deal. It means you get to decide where you’re going. It also means you can go there alone. The makers of counterculture car films of the 1970s took that desire to go your own way further than most teenagers. For them, hitting the open road was less of a weekend pastime and more of a lifestyle. In vehicle-centric films of the late 1960s and 70s, the car was an extension of the man. Insulting a guy’s car was akin to questioning his manhood and stealing his wheels was like rustling in the wild west—punishable by hanging (or the modern equivalent).

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Swept Away: Wertmüller’s Maze of Sex and Politics

By Selin Sevinc

Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away is at once outrageous, weird and guiltily seductive. As the poster suggests we’re in for passionate love and sex on a beach. The affair’s unlikely pair of counterparts are a rich socialite, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), and a communist deckhand, Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini). The pointedly ironic mismatch, namely the rich girl vs. poor boy tale, seems at first to be the basic premise of the film. But soon enough, Wertmüller’s unapologetic boldness in handling her material makes the film truly stand out. The film has four distinguishable chapters that differ drastically in tone and content, and provide evidence of Wertmüller’s unique storytelling technique.

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Seven Beauties: A Satire of Survival

By Eli Boonin-Vail

The cinema of Lina Wertmüller dangles before feminist critical theory like a poisoned carrot. One of the sharpest female auteurs of her time, Wertmüller is – in the modern vernacular – “problematic.” Her films present us with problems, often ones which we have no hope of solving. Seven Beauties is one such film, a slick and clever cavalcade of ugliness and grotesqueries on a historical scale that sees fit to incorporate pretty much every type of unpleasantness conceivable, from sexual assault to electroshock therapy to dismemberment to holocaust. Few filmmakers other than Wertmüller can flirt so openly with such nauseous subject matter and get away with it. She produced a picture that somehow achieves moments of great beauty and hilarity amidst the chaos, pain, and despair of abject human suffering.

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Love and Anarchy

By Eli Boonin-Vail

Lina Wertmüller leaves us with a lengthy quote and a mystery at the end of Love and Anarchy (1973). The quote is from diehard anarchist icon Errico Malatesta and the mystery is how we as an audience are supposed to interpret it after what we just saw. Malatesta advocated violence against the state and its agents as an essential component of class struggle and glorious revolution, yet died an elderly man far from home and conflict. Giancarlo Giannini’s dirty-faced provincial Antonio “Tunin” Soffiantini, the world-weary protagonist of Wertmüller’s film, is a young man heavily entrenched in a violent struggle against the state.

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The Palm Beach Story: The Runaway Bride

By Christian Gay

One of the earliest and best-written “gold-digger” or “grifter” narratives, Preston Sturges’ 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story is a fast-paced, entertaining farce with witty dialogue that still captivates audiences, decades after its release. The premise of the film is a provocative one: after several years of marriage, Gerri Jeffers (played by Claudette Colbert) leaves her husband in pursuit of more profitable relationships with men. She openly and unapologetically acknowledges the role that sex and beauty play in social status and access to money, and as such, the plot dances around the notion of prostitution, or at least, of “sex as commerce,” while strictly adhering to the neutered demands of the Production Code. Thus, a film that at first blush appears to be a formulaic screwball comedy is actually quite radical, relying upon (and critiquing) certain norms and notions of gender and economic class in 1940s America.

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Catching Up with Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

By Victoria Large

It’s worth noting that David Lynch’s 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me–a prequel to the legendary TV series that Lynch co-created with Mark Frost–was booed at Cannes. Writing about the film in the New York Times at the time of its release, Vincent Canby opined, “Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree.” The film was widely viewed as an incoherent disaster (to Canby, “an undifferentiated mess of story lines and hallucinations”), and it fed into a backlash against Lynch that began with the swift decline of Twin Peaks’ television popularity and continued for much of the ‘90s.

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Le Samourai

By Greg Mucci

Cigarette smoke hovers above him like the morning fog after an early battle. A light grey fedora rests atop a stone gaze that pierces the air around him, searching for warriors that aren’t there. A tan trench coat is the armor, protecting an exterior exuding the particular cool that has befallen the French New Wave for almost a decade, cutting through celluloid with samurai precision. It’s the kind of cool that Akira Kurosawa encapsulated since Drunken Angel (1948) had shown the world that he wasn’t just katana’s and kimono’s, or the cool that Seijun Suzuki fires with a single jazz-note using a loaded gun in Tokyo Drifter (1966) just one year earlier. Genre is not necessarily the common ground where these films meet, but the roles portrayed by the gangsters that disappear amidst the urban battlegrounds. These aren’t men imitating gangsters, but gangsters becoming samurais, their one hand resting on the hilt of a gun that slices through the night with a piercing definitude.

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Malcolm X and The Historical Epic

By Natalie Jones

Spike Lee’s films communicate through an emotional, empathetic connection established by his adept classification of complex characters. Lee recognizes that for the viewer to ultimately connect with the protagonist, the film must present this character with all of their conflicting motivations and occasionally uncomfortable characteristics. In many biographical films, the protagonist is depicted as a sort of virtuous specimen whom the audience should revere and automatically consider morally superior. With Malcolm X, Lee deconstructs these thematic undertones that are prevalent within historical biopics whose protagonists never struggle with internal contradictions or conflicts. With his unflinching and deliberate characterization of a controversial figure, Lee utilizes a more panoramic approach to explore the intricacies of the protagonist’s life from his childhood beginnings as Malcolm Little to his untimely death as the revolutionary Malcolm X. Through Lee’s sympathetic, revealing lens, the complexity of this important figure’s life is presented to the viewer with all defenses consciously broken down.

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Hard Boiled: Art in Violence

By Michael Roberson

John Woo’s 1992 magnum opus Hard Boiled is spoken of by serious action movie fans in the awed, reverent tones usually reserved for films like Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai. Like those films, Hard Boiled displays an exceptional director at the top of his game, telling an engaging story with all the technical wizardry available to him.

John Woo burst onto the international film scene in 1986 with the smash hit A Better Tomorrow. He had been working as something of a journeyman director for eighteen years, a productive span during which he directed roughly a movie a year in genres ranging from martial arts films to screwball comedies, to varying degrees of commercial success. A Better Tomorrow, his sixteenth film as a director, changed all that. This gritty, sensationalistic tale of two brothers – one a gangster and one a cop – introduced two major elements to Hong Kong cinema: frenetic, two-fisted gunfight set pieces, and Chow Yun-Fat. With his signature matchstick clenched in his teeth and a pistol in each hand, Yun-Fat was instantly iconic, even inspiring a fashion trend in Hong Kong of young men dressing like his character in the film.

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