Sunday, October 14, 2007

Closeup Blog-A-Thon: The Necessary Entry --

  • Tim Lucas at Video Watchblog often indulges various movie-related 'blogathons,' in which many bloggers create a virtual-community event; the latest Tim is participating in is a "Closeup Blogathon," and his posts start here (and continue afterward),
  • springboarding from Matt Zoller Seitz's The House Next Door blog post, " The Eyes Have It: Close-Up Blog-a-thon, Oct. 12-21," which explains all.

  • I usually don't participate, but this one was irresistible -- because there is one film that forever altered my understanding of the human face in cinema; one film that forever changed the function and importance and language of the closeup for this (then teenage) viewer; one film --

    Sergio Leone's Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo/The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966; US release December 29, 1967, so I saw it in the fateful year of 1968, the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey and so much more) transformed what movies were, are and could be.

    From it's opening shot, in which a desolate western landscape was suddenly eclipsed by Albert Mulock's face, without a cut (Mulock loomed up into the frame from below, left, placing him between the viewer and the blistering vista), Leone's masterpiece literally transmuted landscape into face, face into landscape, as no previous film or filmmaker ever had.

    Was there ever a western hero -- excuse me, anti-hero; the "good" moniker is pointedly ironic in the context of Leone's moral universe -- who filled the screen the way Clint Eastwood did? To my impressionable 13-year-old eyes, there wasn't, and to my 52-year-old eyes, there hasn't been a contender since.

    Before Eastwood's Blondie (The Man With No Name, named at last, though he was of course dubbed "Joe" by the undertaker in A Fistful of Dollars) dominated the film, the first iconic face -- moving with unnerving feline grace from full-figure framing in a darkened doorway, stepping into that door frame and locking-and-loading the convoluted tale with his first interrogation (over a noisy meal of beans) of a very nervous fellow about one "Bill Carson" -- was none other than the man who shot The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Lee Van Cleef.

    Since that monster movie had been the first powerful movie experience of my childhood, my earliest movie memory, Van Cleef was already hard-wired into my brain. Seen in this new context (though I'd seen Van Cleef in many westerns as a boy, those had been experienced on TV -- and he'd never been engraved on my retina in the way Leone was doing so here), synapses fired and exploded in my head.

    This lean face, hawk-like nose and narrowed eyes were those of human raptor: "The Bad" indeed. I can hear the Ennio Morricone guitar riff in my head whenever I recall this image:

    But greatest of all, my all-time favorite character in any film from any era, was and remains Eli Wallach as Tuco, "The Ugly." If Blondie was what we wished we could be in a dog-eat-dog world, Tuco is what we know ourselves to be. He is everything we fear we appear to be, and know in our hearts we are, however hard we try to transcend this sweaty shell of meat we're locked into. Tuco is appetite, hunger, need, desire, avarice, greed, passion, impulse, that which drives us all, a survivor above all, scraping out whatever he can from the dirt and stupidity of others. Tuco is a ruthlessly Catholic vision of man -- Tuco crosses himself constantly, though he wallows in the mud and dust far from whatever image of God he harbors.

    I fell in love with Tuco, this feral mirror image of myself and every man I've ever known, and the love is undimmed from then to now, the fans flamed whenever I re-experience this most magnificent of all westerns.

    I could go on and on, but there's really nothing more to say. Leone says it all in the film -- see it, for the first time (oh, how I envy those of you in that place of cinematic virginity!) or again and again and again, as I have and do and will this week.

    There's nothing more to say, ah, but to show -- I must to share the final images of Leone's cast of characters, their final closeups. Morricone's blessed score -- amplifying the bird-call I once heard in New Mexico, outside of Cerillos, a cry I laughed aloud at in recognition -- shrieks anew in my head:





    Have a great Sunday, and safe drive back from SPX, all you CCSers -- hope you all did well and have many fond memories and great tales (and sales!) to share...

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    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    That opening shot was one of the first things that came to mind in the discussion of closeups; it's one of those things that's totally imprinted on my memory of film (as are many other shots from this movie). As I wrote to Matt: I didn't even like Westerns, and had never deliberately sat down to watch one before, but, you know, I'd heard that this Leone guy was interesting. And then the movie opens with a a guy leaning sideways into his own closeup, like a second hand snapping to zero... whoa.

    Blogger SRBissette said...

    As noted, that opening shot was the absolute turning point for me and my connection to Leone -- and all film, in new terms. Though I'd seen (and loved) A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, every cinematic aspect of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY amped, refined, and reinvented what was comparatively crude, roughhewn and unfinished in the first two films. Thanks for weighing in!

    Anonymous George Loch said...

    I have been so in love with Leone's approach to film. My first real introduction was Once Upon a Time in the Old West. His use of all the cinematic elements create such a powerful storytelling experience.

    His use of closeups has certainly been a key element for me. The characters became important, dimensional and full of texture. Add a musical theme for them and you have the most engaging, truly three dimensional experience possible - sans glasses.


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