Sunday, May 06, 2012

Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)

The flick that fathered a hundred sequels

Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) might be called the bastard son of a bastard remake of a bastard parody. 

Arguably it was Sergio Leone's fault. He did not strictly speaking make the first Spaghetti Western (or as Italians call them western all'italiana)--Raoul Walsh did The Sheriff of the Fractured Jaw in 1958; Mario Amendola did Terrore dell'Oklahoma (The Terror of Oklahoma) in 1959; and you might say Puccini's 1910 opera La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the West) was an Italian production set in the California Gold Rush...

But--trying to stay on-topic here--Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) took Akira Kurosawa's jidai-geki samurai comedy Yojimbo (The Bodyguard, 1961), transposed it to the American West, and produced a hugely influential hit that turned genre conventions upside-down, morphed the noble white-hatted protagonist into a dark, cigarillo-chewing anti-hero, basically created a whole new mythology for a bastard new genre.

Which is doubly ironic--Yojimbo itself was a parody, Kurosawa's subversion of the chambara (or swordfighting, a subset of the jidai-geki) genre, his way of sending up ossified conventions that he himself helped establish (Of course Yojimbo would became a hit and revitalize the genre, spawning its own sub-genre with countless imitators). Adding just one more twist is the fact that Kurosawa himself was heavily influenced by classic western filmmakers--John Ford, Howard Hawks--and all we need to complete the circle is a Japanese ripoff of A Fistful of Dollars or Django (arguably Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) is just such a picture)...

Coming back to Django (and trying, again, to stay on-topic), Corbucci's film doesn't even try very hard to disguise its influences--as with Yojimbo and Fistful we have the lone hero; as with the previous pictures the hero comes between two warring factions (the Mexican bandits and a troop of renegade Confederates (needless to say, they're racists)). Corbucci does away with the cyclical nature of violence, the vision of man outdoing fellow man in greed and depravity--he probably felt the two previous pictures wasted a lot of running time and effort keeping the complicated plotline coherent, and damned if he wasn't right: Django lives or dies on its extravagant setpieces of sadism and suffering and little else (there's a subtext involving racism, a topic Corbucci would develop further in other films, particularly Navajo Joe (1966), but it's more subtext here--an additional sharpness to the stink in the air, almost--than anything bold, or especially memorable).

Corbucci's visual style unlike Leone's doesn't try capture the action through sweeping tracking shots, nor does he try create a sense of outsized scale (the vast barrooms, endless cemeteries, gigantic closeups of Leone's films). Corbucci's action is mostly fast and functional, stitched together with quick (but coherent) cutting; when Django faces off with a bandit Corbucci intercuts handheld, high-angled footage of the two struggling with even shakier footage of the breathless onlookers, giving the viewer a strong sense of you-are-there immediacy. 

When called for, however, Corbucci can serve up cinema as grand and operatic as anything from Leone. He introduces one confrontation with the sparely beautiful image of standing fences and a spindly water tower, a lonely flute playing in the background; renegade Confederates strut into view and Luis Enriquez Bacalav's baleful trumpets take over, a snare drum giving crisp accompaniment. 

Corbucci (unlike, say Leone) doesn't have his camera track backwards, following the soldiers; instead he shows us Django's patient point of view, angular rail fences pointing as if in alarm at the approaching soldiers, the reverse shots showing Django's doomed position, perched atop his coffin behind a gigantic felled tree trunk (remarkable the contrast in imagery--the soldiers' unstoppable approach, the tree trunk's implacable solidity). More soldiers appear, wearing Klansmen-type hoods, only (a baroque touch) dyed a bright blood-red. Django continues to sit on his coffin behind the tree trunk; the music, the editing, the emotions escalate to the point where the very frame vibrates with tension--you know the climax when it comes will be something...

It comes, and it is something; it's also the punchline to a long and elaborate joke, one that began preparations from the moment we set eyes on our hero. Here's another difference between Leone and Corbucci: Leone's Man Without a Name (played with lanky minimalism by Clint Eastwood) shows a trace of faint amusement at Leone's complex shenanigans; said Man embodies Leone's point of view, an Olympian sense of distance flavored with irony. Corbucci's Django (played with soulful earnestness by Franco Nero) isn't nearly as interesting a character--he's totally immersed in his situation, no distance or irony to his posture, a classic western all'italiana hero. If there is any humor in the film--and there is, considerably--it comes from Corbucci himself, who gleefully sets up intricate visual and narrative pranks which detonate, then with ceaseless enthusiasm begins preparations for the next gag. 

I'd earlier said there's little more to Corbucci here than sadism; I'm not a little wrong. Hands are a significant motif, from a bandit spitting into his hands preparatory to whipping a helpless prostitute, to a Confederate major pulling a blood-red scarf from his pocket to wrap round the neck, to Django tenderly slipping a woman's camisole off her shoulder...later clutching desperately at his coffin, and being as desperately clutched in return. Hands, Corbucci seems to say, are arbiters of one's fate and expressive of one's inner state; to damage them is a grave sin, to have them damaged a great suffering.

So, Corbucci or Leone--who is better? Leone is an epic lyricist, Corbucci a baroque sadist; Leone likes to build complex narratives that resolve themselves smoothly, in ingenious fashion; Corbucci can barely be bothered with narrative bumps (he can't even be bothered to hide the fact that his narrative was lifted from somewhere else). Leone is a poet, Corbucci a near-madman; the world is a richer place for having both artists, and I for one refuse to pick between them. 


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