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August 21, 2010

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bill

Dennis is, roughly speaking, the nicest guy on the planet, so this is no surprise.

Jimmy

I agree, the timing of the piece @ SLIFR is perfect. It's been a trying week. Good to reaffirm, there's still quality stuff around created by people who care. Thanks to all for making it happen.

And bill, if you don't mind me saying so, you seem to be a pretty nice guy yourself. Congrats on your two year anniversary.

bill

Goodness, why would I mind?? Thank you very much, Jimmy.

The Siren

This is a beautiful compliment, Glenn, and I am touched. Dennis is the best. There can't be too many bloggers out there willing to take someone to heart even after they diss your blog's namesake. Although, if it makes you and Dennis feel better, I'll reiterate that I think the opening of OUATITW is great, and I do like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Tom Carson

Not to embarrass the Siren or Mr. Cozzalio, but after the painful nonsense provoked by a thankfully no longer welcome SCR commenter this past week, I just want to thank them (and you too, Mr. K.) for reminding me of what Nabokov -- probably not anticipating the Internets -- once called "a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, kindness, tenderness, ecstasy) is the norm."

D Cairns

Leone does create problems for himself whenever he attempts to deal with women in his films. Men seem to be willing to overlook those problems more than women, which isn't necessarily a good thing...

I do think OUATITWest is great, but not particularly in the character sense, or in the sense of presenting a world view that's particularly congenial, so the Siren's critique made sense to me. It depends where stuff like mise en scene and editing stand in your list of aesthetic criteria compared to believable motivation etc. And even if the latter doesn't matter to you one jot, you may still need the filmmaker to be good company. I think, to stereotype grossly, guys may be more willing to overlook Leone's boorish and insensitive side.

Illustration: my partner gave up on OUATIAmerica not after Noodles rapes Deborah, but after he shows up (very much uninvited) at the railway station to see her off, afterwards. I suspect only Leone would have attempted to play that scene for ROMANCE.

Glenn Kenny

@ D. Cairns: I don't know if "overlook" is necessarily the exactly correct word. (A phrase that comes to mind is "plow over!") It's true; Leone's depiction of women in his films, even when ostensibly "positive" (e.g. Cardinale's Jill in "West") is so unfailingly tone-deaf that one dearly wishes, when one thinks about it, that the man had worked only with all-male casts, such as that of "Ice Station Zebra." One is also pretty happy that the subject doesn't come up that often; "America" really is the only one of his films in which he presents a, um, sweeping perspective on male/female relations, and that's the film's most disastrous aspect. Leone's films have many virtues, but in a sense they belong in the science-fiction genre rather than the Western or Crime genres, as most of the "human beings" depicted therein might as well be extraterrestrial beings for all the sense they make as human beings. Good luck, on the other hand, trying to explain the multiple rapes committed by the "heroes" in "America" according to that rationale, or sweeping them under the rug with effusions about the complexity of the film's structure. It's a vexed issue. But I really don't think one ought to define Leone by it. One can sit through "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" and experience little to no discomfort in this particular respect.

For me, the most moving moments in Leone are kind of, well, abstract: the stagecoach ride through Monument Valley with the swelling of Morricone's score makes me blubber like an infant damn near every time.

The Siren

@DCairns and our gracious & esteemed host: Once Upon a Time in America retains the distinction of being one of the only films I have ever walked out of in a movie theatre, and lo and behold, it was the same scene that caused the lovely Fiona to throw in the towel. The music, the camera, the whole thing was telling me to feel SORRY for Noodles because he just raped the love of his life. To me it wasn't vexed, it was irredeemable.

I saw the whole thing later, in the uncut version, and hated it again, only at length.

No, as David says, I don't find Leone good company, although OUATIA is the only film where he actually makes me sink down in the seat and start wondering where the hell I left my copy of Against Our Will. I acknowledge the truth of Glenn's point about the characters' lack of humanity, but then again I wonder why make a movie with human characters if you can't get in touch with that surely necessary quality?

And I agree it's no coincidence that GBU is the one film I like, as Glenn astutely points out. But the beauty in Leone is sparing and I have to fight my way through all the stuff that's appalling me. I have no such trouble with John Ford, just to name the filmmaker Leone is obviously aiming for, among others, in OUATITW. I would, to be brutally honest, swap that stagecoach going through Monument Valley in the Leone film for one single frame of My Darling Clementine.

See, I don't just dislike Leone, I really really really dislike Leone. I have more love for Preminger, ultimately. And yet Dennis and Glenn and I (and David) play nice. If I may philosophize a moment, I thnk it's because none of us get personal, or read character judgments into aesthetic differences, or fear summary dismissal from the Valhalla of Nerds should we commit an unforgivable taste error...

The Siren

Just ran the OUATIIAmerica discussion past my husband, who is very much in the pro-Leone camp, and mentioned the train scene and the attempt to play it for romance. He demurred, saying it's really more melodrama. I said no, it's attempted romance all right. Pause. Then, impishly: "Well, it IS the end of the relationship, after all."

Glenn Kenny

@ The Siren: Having had the privilege of spending social time with you and your spouse, I can testify that the husband does impish really well. And in a fashion that doesn't even hint at the coy or unmanly. So your description of his observation carried some added value for me.

It occurred to me that you and other dislikers of Leone must be heartened in a sense that he really is sui generis—there are a lot of filmmakers out there influenced by some specific aspects of his work, but there's nobody out there trying to do work on the scale, and with the tone, that he did. Nobody is able to make films that play like his, and I'm not sure the current economic model for filmmaking could support them—not that it really could when Leone was active, which is a not insubstantial reason his filmography is reasonably sparse. Even his most obvious and enthusiastic acolyte, Tarantino, goes for something rather different. And thank the gods (the "Movie Gods," maybe?) that Tarantino's overall perspective on women has grown more—what's the word?—enlightened over the years.

The Siren

Yes, one thing I do admire about Leone is his determination to stick to his way of filming the world. I would never accuse him of playing to the expectations of anyone but himself; he's got real thematic and artistic consistency.

jwarthen

Don't mean to butt-into a congenial confab of first-name buddies, but the discussion you've just been through of Leone's infrequent women brings to mind a related personal sort-spot: reasons why I find Kubrick's post-2001 films so repellent. The signature image is that gross thing he kept doing with marginal actresses, of having them walk slo-mo toward the camera with one thigh rolling massage-like across the other. The girl who torments poor Alex in ORANGE, the wraith in SHINING's hotel, the sacrificial whore at EYES' orgy-- they all do it. If he could have gotten Berenson to affect that walk under period gowns, I suspect she would have been called-on to tread similarly. Details, sure, but consistent with the awful eyeball-rolling carnality he foisted on poor Sobieski in EYES, the sprint off-proscenium of the naked rape victim in ORANGE, the whole "Me so horny!" set-piece in JACKET. The sensibility of these films as a whole gives me the creeps but my cringing finds its icon in those images.

Glenn Kenny

@ Jwarthen: Kubrick's enthusiasm for certain aspects of the female anatomy is chronicled at some length in John Baxter's biography. Actress Adrienne Corri was a friend of the Kubricks, and for whatever reason she lobbied hard for the part of Mrs. Alexander in "Clockwork," and Kubrick half-kiddingly asked her "What if I don't like the tits, Corri?" That he was thinking of liking the "tits" in a rape scene speaks of a certain, perhaps Bronx-cultivated, um, crudeness. By the same token, taking reflexive pity on the marginal actresses strikes me as a bit of, you'll forgive the phrase, self-righteous projection. People get naked in front of photographers for all sorts of reasons, and for all we know the woman who torments Alex may have had the time of her life doing the film. (I can't quite place her name exactly from the imdb credits else I would have cited it.) Also, I think it's a trifle unfair to say that Kubrick would have foisted the hip-rolling move on Berenson in "Lyndon" if he thought he could get away with it. Point being he knew he couldn't get away with it—it's not appropriate to the material. And given that "Eyes" is all about dreams and fantasies, it's entirely appropriate that the filmmaker incorporate—well, whaddya know!—elements of his own dreams and fantasies into the piece. So you find Kubrick's fetishes repellent; well, it takes all kinds to make a world.

By the same token, someone should write an essay about how the collapse of the Production Code and such resulted in certain revered old-school filmmakers revealing aspects of themselves that maybe we'd rather not have seen. Kubrick's coarse, some might argue banal carnal predilections; the rape scene in Hitchcock's "Frenzy;" the anti-Lubitsch carousing of Preminger's "Such Good Friends." And so on.

Oliver_C

The sheer gratuitousness of that shot early on in OUATIA, when a gangster hurriedly looking for Noodles suddenly stops and finds time simply to stuff a woman's nipple into the barrel of his gun (in extreme close-up), actually bothers me more than any of the rapes.

To quote Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown: Can't you make your point just by hitting her?

Kent Jones

This is interesting. I have to admit that I never really thought of Leone in this light.

I guess I always thought that a) everyone in Leone is so completely and relentlessly mythic, and b) all the stories are so centered on men and male identity - OUATIA in particular - and c) the men in OUATIA are such irredeemable creeps that it all seemed acceptable. But why should it be?

I'm remembering something now that's always bothered me. I thought the rape in that movie was, and was intended to be, a sickening experience, and that the romanticism of him going to see her off was pathological. The rape of Tuesday Weld seemed like a weirder and more troubling choice, though, along with that gun barrel/nipple close-up. But strangest of all, to me at least: why make Elizabeth McGovern's character relatively "ageless" in a movie so preoccupied with time and aging? The answer is obvious, I guess: that's the way the men see her. I find it affecting, but it certainly does lock women down and seal them off within the movie, once and for all. One might argue that something similar happens with Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, but the time span is much shorter, and her revulsion and fear are front and center. She doesn't conform to his vision of her. The women in the Leone film are molded according to the visions of the men.

I've never really worshipped at Leone's altar. I like the movies, and I like the sensibility in them to a certain extent, but there's always something a little bit limiting for me. Maybe it's the "movieish" factor? Not sure. Anyway, thanks for a provocative line of thought. And GK, your point about the Production Code is well-taken. That stuff that Welles shot of Oja Kodar in the car in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is another case in point. A little more complex, though, since it's from a film within a film and reflects the macho director's attraction to his young male star.

Siren, I have to read your thoughts on the TCM Festival, but I went with my son and we had a blast. He's 12, and he loved NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH!

haice

Just as an aside in this awesome Sunday discussion: the actress in CLOCKWORK ORANGE who torments Alex is Virgnia Wetherell. She in fact discusses working with Kubrick on that very scene during the audio commentary for DEMONS OF THE MIND dvd which validates Glenn's point of performer/performace (as if Mr. Kenny ever needs validating).

I.B.

Years ago, on mentioning Leone in two diferent conversations with two diferent girl friends, the first thing both said was "have you seen 'Once upon a time in America'? The one where De Niro rapes his girlfriend?". And giddily, almost dreamily at that, or I got that impression. So reading now a woman who actually finds that aspect of the film troubling is... sort of comforting.

lazarus

OUATITW is basically about regret, no? The abbreviated childhood, the death of friends, betrayals, lost time, etc. Hell, the entire film's final scene is going back to a moment where Noodles is sinking into an opium haze so he can forget everything; it's probably where he'd most like to be again. The idea that the train station scene is played for romance is ridiculous. It's mournful and somber and Noodles is there to watch what was left of his soul leaving on that train. Deborah's reaction to seeing him there him is cold and completely without emotion; I could understand a viewer's disgust if she was crying or acknowledged him in some way.

As for Elizabeth McGovern not aging, this was clearly a stylistic choice for Leone, as they had no trouble with the make-up on De Niro, Woods, etc. And of course there's Noodles quoting "...age can not wither her..." If you look closely during that dressing room scene you can see that she has been aged to an extent, and of course the cold cream covers most of that up, but in the follow-up scene where Noodles sees Deborah again at the party it's more noticeable that she's older.

The Siren

@Lazarus, "mournful and somber" is another way of saying what I am saying -- that Leone wants me to feel the end of love for poor Noodles. And your phrase "watch was left of his soul leaving on that train" also shows the intended romance of the scene--me, I would say 100% of Noodles' soul left him back in the car the night before.

bill

@Glenn and haice - Yes, Wetherell talks about that scene in the DEMONS OF THE MIND commentary, but as I remember it, she talks about it in relation to her nude scene in DEMONS..., which she wasn't at all happy to do, and tossed off the CLOCKWORK nudity as "Well, it was Kubrick." I don't think she particularly relished doing either scene, but in the context of a Kubrick film she was more willing, whereas in DEMONS... she felt more pushed.

Kent Jones

Lazarus - of course McGovern's subtle aging is noticeable in her character's last scene; of course her eternal "youthfulness" relative to De Niro and Woods is a "stylistic choice"; and I'm sure we all agree on what the film is "basically about." I've always found it an extremely powerful experience myself, somewhat apart from Leone's other films. But maybe The Siren has a point? Maybe it's great and problematic at the same time? Like a lot of movies.

Jean-Pierre Coursodon

Glenn, I completely agree with your remark on Hitchcock's and Preminger's wretched libidinous excesses as a result of the collapse of the Production Code. Let me throw in Cukor in "Reach and Famous." (Kubrick being of a younger generation, his own excesses seem less disturbing as the older men's).

Off topic, could you explain the following cryptic words I stumbled over yesterday on another GK venue: "the looming presence of Jean-Pierre "the enforcer" Coursodon"? What is it exactly that I "enforce" -- or try to? I haven't a clue.

But I must say that being called a "looming presence" is sort of flattering, even if it wasn't intended as such.

Jean-Pierre Coursodon

For a first post on this blog I should have been more grammatical. End of line three shouls read: "...less disturbing than the older men's."

Jean-Pierre Coursodon

Well, I give up... "should."

lazarus

Kent & Siren: Can't the tragedy work both ways? Yes, this young woman was raped by a man she may have/could have loved and will be scarred forever because of it, without any implication by the supposedly misogynistic director that she was somehow "asking for it". But is the only way for the film to morally work to have Noodles be a completely unsympathetic and unfeeling monster for the remainder of the story? Can we not also feel sorry for a kid that seemed relatively decent who winds up spending most of his adolescence and young adulthood raised by the penal system, so that he's unable to express his feelings in a way other than his brutal display of force?

He is punished for his sin by the loss of everything: his friends, his city, his money, etc. He goes into exile and presumably has to recreate his life from the bottom up, and he certainly doesn't return to New York looking like he's happy, content, or anything other than regretful. There isn't what one could really call closure at the end of the film, and all that can be said about Deborah's feelings at their reunion is the sense that she pities him. It's not like she appears to let bygones be bygones or wants to establish any kind of connection with him.

I don't find this issue nearly as morally disturbing or offensive as the sex scene with Rod Steiger near the beginning of Duck, You Sucker.

Kent Jones

Lazarus, you raise an interesting point. How does a film "work" morally? I'm stumped for a good answer myself. I think that art allows a lot of room for ambiguity on every level, and I am not an advocate of going around with a moral yardstick and measuring a movie or a novel for moral soundness. I can't speak for The Siren, but I'm fairly certain she feels similarly. But sometimes, something troubling comes into view, something that can't be comfortably filed under "artist's personal vision." I have a close friend who now finds himself unsettled by the scenes with the Indian wife in THE SEARCHERS. I find myself pondering the coziness in certain Hawks films, just wondering how well it all sits with me now as opposed to when I was 15. On the other hand, Glenn and I were talking the other day and we agreed that Alec Guinness' performance as Godbole in A PASSAGE TO INDIA didn't bother us at all, whereas it did when it came out. Nothing systematic or automatic about it. Just revisiting things, holding them up to the light. I guess I'd part company with The Siren at her rejection of the film BECAUSE of the aftermath of the rape. For me, this discussion just confirms a phantom feeling, raises a question or two.

But you know, not to get too lofty about it or anything, but aren't all works of art provisional in some way? The older I get, the more comfortable I am with imperfection. Everything is an attempt, everything fails in some way. Especially if you look at it closely enough after having placed it on the highest level of your Pantheon shelf. We expect perfection in politics, with disastrous consequences, and I don't think it works in art either.

Enough musing. I haven't seen DUCK YOU SUCKER in ages. Can you refresh my memory?

lazarus

It's been a couple years, but there's that intro on the train where all these wealthy people make fun of Juan as some uneducated bum, until he turns the tables and robs all of them. He then corners one of the women in an old building and pulls out his penis in front of her, and I don't remember if they have sex or not but she's molested by him in some way and it's clear that she's meant to be enjoying what's happening despite her earlier disgust.

I agree with what you've said above, most of our best artists are through their work going to reveal aspects of their obsessions or psyches that many people aren't going to be comfortable with. But I think this purity of expression is something I treasure for its candor (consciously or not) despite whatever unsettling residue is left. Acceptable artistic collateral damage, I guess.

Glenn Kenny

@ Jean Pierre Coursodon: I am extremely flattered that you stopped by and dropped a few words.

The reference to you was a bit of a jest on my part in the Twittersphere. Jaime C., of the blog "Unexamined Essentials," asked on Twitter why it seemed that Dave Kehr's website was the only cinephile's blog that wasn't under regular siege by trolls such as the one who recently came to this blog and told me I was bald and would soon be working at a gas station and asked whether I had fantasies about Sasha Grey while I "fucked" my wife. A bad person of the sort that does not frequent Dave's sight, for which we're all happy. And my response on Twitter was that I thought Dave's blog did not attract such trolls because they were discouraged by the Gordon Douglas fandom often articulated therein, and also because they were kept away by you, who I dubbed "The Enforcer" just to be (affectionately) funny. T'was all in good drollery.

Dennis Cozzalio

Come on, people, all this is taking my focus away from writing my PIRANHA 3D review!

I would have chimed in here earlier, ladies and gentlemen, but as Eric Idle’s obsequious restaurant manager says over that infamous dirty fork, I’ve only just heard. I have to second the Siren’s sentiment that this acknowledgment, and this discussion, is the best kind of compliment. My sincere thanks to Glenn, and Mr. Carson, and Bill, and the Siren, of course, who makes talking about movies fun, even when disagreement is on the menu. I have twisted and turned for a month or so over my ability to creatively procrastinate in undertaking the transcription of the discussion between this wonderful person and I— with fully half the talk still left to go (I’m thinking Tuesday…?)—so I’m really grateful that, through no prescience of intent, it has managed to serve as a kind of corrective to the corrosive pro-wrestling atmosphere that has erupted in the comments here and elsewhere. (I would, with tongue fully in cheek, blame Edgar Wright here, but I don’t want to get anything all stirred up again, even in jest.)

GK says: “It's true; Leone's depiction of women in his films, even when ostensibly "positive" (e.g. Cardinale's Jill in WEST) is so unfailingly tone-deaf that one dearly wishes, when one thinks about it, that the man had worked only with all-male cast… One is also pretty happy that the subject doesn't come up that often…. But I really don't think one ought to define Leone by it. One can sit through THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and experience little to no discomfort in this particular respect. For me, the most moving moments in Leone are kind of, well, abstract…”

Speaking as one whose tolerance for on-screen rape is just about ground zero—and one, perhaps significantly, who hasn’t seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA in any form for close to 20 years-- I share the perception about the movie (not opium-shaded) that it leaves you with a definitely romanticized, painful, even benumbed feeling for the loss of the soul of these men, particularly Noodles who, I would agree, had lost his soul at just about the time Siren makes the call. But I’m not sure in that romanticizing the loss of the souls of corrupt men Leone insists that we should ignore or excuse the implications of their behavior. Of course the attitude of the filmmaker is central to how we receive the imagery, but it is not all there is—there is the conversation we have with the filmmaker in which we have to decide whether Leone is using the medium to suggest things to color our emotions in contradictory ways, or whether he’s just nuts. At the same time, I also agree that Leone can be as crude and insensitive a filmmaker as there ever has been—what more evidence does one need that of that nipple moment—we’re a long way from Jack Elam catching a fly in a the barrel of a gun here, yet such imagery is strong evidence that Leone is either unaware or carefree about the truth of the matter.

But I think I see Leone, in general, in much the same way Glenn does—emotions, characters, character types, archetypes, landscapes, music, are all abstracted to one degree or another. Boorish, criminal behavior, whether sexually oriented or not, is part of that landscape, and I say that not as a route toward excusing it when it comes down to the way the director sees Jill (Cardinale) but as a route toward gauging his attitude toward those elements in the movies that he is using, manipulating, in presenting his flawed but persistently fascinating vision of the world, in the Dollars trilogy and in OUATITW. Personally, I’d like to think I’d take a much more "sensitive" attitude toward Claudia Cardinale if I were Jason Robards. (I’d be much more of the laying-my–buckskin-jacket-over-mud-puddles, “Anything you want, ma’am” variety of Old West Male, much like her new husband, the one slaughtered by Henry Fonda near the beginning of the film, undoubtedly was.) However, given the creepy strain of equating rough sex with business as usual in the old West (particularly for an ex-prostitute) I will admit that Robards’s kind of aw-shucks appearance at the end is a bit of a head-scratcher and makes dealing with Leone’s feelings about women more problematic, even if I cannot define my own reactions to Leone by them.

I’d like to thank Glenn also for mentioning that shift brought on by the dissolution of the Production Code—every time I think about the Hitchcock of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN vs. the Hitchcock of FRENZY, I wonder what kinds of films we might have seen by some of the other master directors who didn’t live to see the freedoms that allowed for the rather frightening glimpse into the abyss Hitchcock gave us in that late period picture.

And thanks also to Kent for this: "The older I get, the more comfortable I am with imperfection." I just saw LISZTOMANIA last night and loved it even more than ever before. How else to explain THAT reaction?

Kent Jones

Lazarus, I have to say, I'm with you. Because if it's a choice between someone who's been motivated to make a film because they want to present "a positive image" of someone or something, and someone who NEEDS to communicate something and shoots first and asks questions later, I'll take the latter every time.

Glenn, if you want to make sure that Jean-Pierre sticks around, you might want to assure him that it's okay with you if he says nice things about John Huston, Billy Wilder and the Coen Brothers.

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