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“A Fistful of Dynamite”: Director Sergio Leone’s Overlooked Masterpiece

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Italian film director Sergio Leone took the film world by storm with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. In the process, he singlehandedly created the spaghetti western subgenre and established Clint Eastwood as a screen icon. Initially panned by critics in Italy, Fistful nonetheless found a cult following; American critics, on the other hand, got the joke, and the rest is history.

Fast-forward to 1971. After three more westerns (For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and the glorious, epic, Once Upon a Time in the West) a tired Leone once again took to the dusty hills and arroyos of Andalusia, in southern Spain, to make the final, and most mature, of his western masterpieces.

I’d known of this film for many years, but somehow — despite being a lover of the subgenre — never got around to seeing it until this week, when I found it on Amazon Prime*. If you’re also a Leone fan, I can’t recommend this film highly enough: it’s jaw-dropping, spellbinding, and hugely entertaining.

A meditation on and a critique of both oppression and revolution, the film is visually sumptuous, with many sequences of sheer art — if you’ve seen Once Upon a Time in the West, you’ll get my drift. Coburn and Steiger’s (the latter fresh from In the Heat of the Night) acting is flawless. And Ennio Morricone’s score contributes a perfect, teasing, brilliant counterpoint to the action and the dynamic tension of the film, which balances tongue-in-cheek and sober social commentary.

Set in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, the film, whose main themes are friendship, the dawning of social conscience, and class struggle, opens with a quote from Chairman Mao**:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Enter Rod Steiger as Juan, a raggedy-assed and apparently illiterate Mexican peasant; he soon turns out to be a wily bandit, modeled on the character of Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with a gaggle of bastard sons for a gang. The first scenes of the film see an increasingly feverish, near-surrealist scene in which Juan is degraded and humiliated by a stagecoach full of rich upper-class Mexicans, who soon get their comeuppance.

As the bandits loot the stagecoach, an explosion up the trail interrupts their business. Moments later, James Coburn appears on a vintage motorcycle from a cloud of dust, very much in the manner of The Man With no Name. The initial face-off between these two is priceless, and Coburn soon reveals himself as Irish Revolutionary John Mallory, a man not to be toyed with on account of the fact that his duster coat is lined with enough dynamite and nitroglycerin to reshape large parts of the landscape.

As the plot develops, the continuing tension between the two protagonists develops into a strong, if unacknowledged friendship, and the initially simple story grows around them. One of the movie’s set-piece scenes, depicting a massacre of revolutionaries by the army, is straight from World War II… as is the German colonel who is the film’s rather surreal antagonist.

The movie’s name went through some interesting changes. In Italy, it was released under the title, “Giú la Testa,” which in English approximates, “Get your head down.” Originally titled, “Duck, you sucker!” in the U.S., the title was later changed to “A Fistful of Dynamite,” to tie in with Leone’s Dollar films. In France, where the film did very well, it was named “Once Upon a Time… the Revolution.”

The genesis of the film was equally tortuous. The screenplay was originally written for Jason Robards and Eli Wallach, who’d starred in Leone’s 1968 epic, Once Upon a Time in the West, but ended up with James Coburn and Rod Steiger in the leading roles. Additionally, Leone didn’t want to direct the movie himself, but after three other candidates (Sam Peckinpah was the second) didn’t pan out, and at Steiger’s insistence that Leone direct the movie, he finally acquiesced.

The review site Rotten Tomatoes gives A Fistful of Dynamite 91%. Brilliant, thoughtful, visually rich, and immensely entertaining, this is a film that deserves to be seen.

Are you a fan of Leone’s work? Have you seen this film?

Notes

* You can watch the movie here on Amazon Prime, or buy it here in various formats

** It’s worth mentioning that the Mao quote, along with several scenes, was cut from the initial 1972 release as they were deemed too politically sensitive for U.S. audiences. The film was banned in Mexico until 1979 as offensive to both the people and the Mexican Revolution.

 

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Panverse, Publishing, and Hollywood: I’m Back.

Last night my wife and I watched the 1997 Science Fiction film, “Contact.” And, like 95% of the SF movies I see, it annoyed the living hell out of me. Why? Because it was a copout*.

The movie was a copout because it took no risks. In a genre where you can do anything, here was yet another contemptible example of the failure of imagination, the refusal to take risks. The movie fails largely by resorting to tedious tropes: the ambitious politician, the evil, scheming intelligence baron, the tedious attempt to reconcile the dichotomy between faith and science, the heavy-handed, tired message that humanity is at a crossroads between self-destruction and transformation. Oh, please. We knew all this five decades ago.

In trying to reduce the ineffable mystery of being to a comforting, human scale, the movie manages only one thing: to reassert traditional, even Christian values and fill the viewer’s mind with a bland mush—which, comforting as it may be to some, gets us nowhere. It’s the cultural equivalent of the heliocentric view of the world. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch something like “The Core,” which, though truly awful, is at least honestly and unpretentiously awful, and actually provides a good deal more entertainment value.

The last good SF movie I saw was the 1971 Tarkovsky film, “Solaris” (my impressions of which can be found in this post). Beyond being a daring, exceptional film by any standards, “Solaris” was true Science Fiction because it rejected convenient tropes and succeeded in communicating the inexplicable strangeness of the universe and the ultimate isolation of the human condition, rather than trying to simply comfort the viewer and rake in maximum bucks. “Solaris” was art; “Contact” was visual junk food. And no prizes for guessing which made the most money.

Publishing today has just about caught up with Hollywood. Art and vision long ago went out the window, taking theme and relevance with them. Like Hollywood, no novel gets published without being heavily breathed on and hammered into formulaic conformity by several people, which likely include at minimum the author’s agent, the publishing house’s editor, and the marketing department. The result—at least in genre publishing—is an interminable deluge of fast-moving, relentlessly formulaic stories which are all event and movement without much content. If a story doesn’t conform to the iron requirements of genre and category dictated by marketers (e.g., no Romance without an HEA—happily Ever After—ending stands a chance of publication); if a protagonist isn’t relentlessly proactive; if the characters don’t all change in direct conformity to the industry-standard arc; if  the ending doesn’t resolve with all the  plot strands tidied up; forget it. Under these parameters, many of the  world’s greatest classics and most thoughtful, interesting novels wouldn’t ever see print today.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course. Once in a while, a standout will get through, like, say, “The Good Fairies of New York,” but those are very likely coming from an indie press or self-publishers.

And therein lies the only hope for risk-takers and nonconformist writers who put art, integrity, and theme front and center. Because if it doesn’t fit the suffocating template of Big Publishing’s category and genre obsession, it isn’t going to be published. I know too many good writers, even agented, Name writers, with excellent mss. that don’t stand a chance with the majors.

Which brings me to my own venture, Panverse Publishing.

I started Panverse in 2009 because I wanted to provide a venue for new SFF writers working at novella length, a then very underserved niche. As an example of how shortsighted even the relatively open SF market can be, I had the incredible fortune to be offered—and was delighted to publish—Ken Liu’s searing novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which went on to receive terrific reviews and was nominated for both the  Hugo and Nebula Award. How telling that it took an unknown to publish it.

After publishing three annual anthologies of five novellas each, stories from which garnered several award nominations and one win (The Sidewise Award for Alan Smale’s 2010 novella, “A Clash of Eagles”), as well as a collection of short stories titled “Eight Against Reality,” I published my own bittersweet travel memoir, “Aegean Dream.”

“Aegean Dream” had been with my then agent over a year; but despite her best efforts, and several nice notes from editors saying how they loved the writing, nobody would touch it because it (i) didn’t conform to the saccharin “A Year in so-and-so” travel memoir formula, and (ii) at 135k words, it was at least 40% too long for the market category.

With zero advertising and no bookstore presence, “Aegean Dream,” published in both digital and POD edition by Panverse, sold almost 4,000 copies in 2012, was #1 book in both Greece categories on Amazon UK for over three months, and is looking set to sell strongly again in 2013. In addition, I was approached by Poland’s largest travel book publisher, Pascal, who noticed its success in the UK and are now in the  process of preparing the Polish language edition, due for release in July.

After a great deal of thought, I decided to call it a day with Science Fiction as both a writer and (with rare exceptions) as a publisher, for two reasons. First, as a lifelong fan and voracious SF reader, I’m rather disappointed by what’s going on in the field today (not much, IMO); secondly, it’s too limiting. And not just SF—any genre is limiting. When our very lives don’t observe genre boundaries, why on Earth should fiction? Readers, in my experience, are far, far smarter than most publishers give them credit for: they largely don’t give a fig about all the formulas, templates, and constraints the industry’s barons and gatekeepers typically try to impose on them—readers want a good book which is both well-written, well-produced, and which, most of all, entertains them, period. And if it breaks a few “rules,” and still works, all the better.

So, after much consideration, Panverse has moved from simply publishing SFF anthologies and my own work to being a real indie press. We have six novels and one nonfiction title coming out this year, and more scheduled for 2014. We have no separate imprints, no genre or category restrictions—our single and overriding mission is to publish books that absorb, reward, and stimulate the reader. Books that make the reader think, that affect them, that surprise them. Books that are about something rather than just being a breathless succession of events; books that are well-written and produced; books that stick with the reader long after the story ends.

The first Panverse title of 2013 is out, and it’s my own caper/thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules” (reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, et al). Best described as an intelligent caper/thriller with elements of the police procedural and the spy novel, finished off with just a shimmer of the fantastic, “Sutherland’s Rules” moves fast and introduces the reader to characters I hope they’ll enjoy and remember. Most of all, the novel is about something—in fact, several “somethings”—beyond the externalities of the plot; please check it out, and read an excerpt here.

As the year progresses, I’ll be posting more about Panverse’s upcoming books, my own work (I’ve just begun on the next novel), and, as usual, my occasionally eccentric and even contrarian musings on life. If you care to send your friends a link, I’d be absolutely delighted. You can also find both myself and Panverse Publishing on Facebook and Twitter, and of course sign up for this blog’s feed via the “Follow” link on left sidebar.

Thanks for visiting, and come back soon!

* The original Carl Sagan novel was rather more interesting, but not much.



What’s your take on this?

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In Praise of the Slow: A Meditation on (Free) Time

The first in a series of essays in which I air aspects of my own strongly-held, evolving, and sometimes contrarian worldview. Indulge me–this is about so much more than TV.

 

Fit the First

I hate television. Fortunately, my wife isn’t too fond of it, either. My dislike of the medium is so strong that I find it difficult to be in someone’s house with the damned thing on. It’s a social catastrophe, at once degrading conversation, distracting people, and filling everyone’s head with a stream of endless chatter, as if the chatter of our own minds weren’t already enough to contend with. The invasion of every public space—gyms, waiting areas, bars—by the plasma screen upsets and offends me.  Are we insane, that we allowed this to happen?

Why do I dislike the medium so much?  Let me count the ways.

First is the near-catatonic passivity of both body and mind that television induces in the viewer. Whereas reading or listening to radio or audiobook engages the imagination in active creation, TV puts those faculties to sleep and, I believe, dulls them by negative reinforcement. Worse still, since we humans are primarily wired for visual input, so that around 70% or more* of our sensory information comes through that channel, the images we see on television, especially those of high emotional content, such as soap operas, angry mobs, murder, mayhem, and political rhetoric, tend to slip past our conscious filters and embed themselves deep in our psyche. It promotes fear and perpetuates stereotypes.  Television is the perfect mind-control tool.

Other gripes, such as the low quality of most offerings and my monumental disdain for advertising, pale by comparison. Nor do I for a moment buy the defense that educational content such as the History Channel’s offerings or Sesame Street in any way redeem the medium: the former is padded and extended with useless filler and silly, unnecessary dramatization (read a book instead, dammit!), and the latter simply teaches innocent young minds that the idiot box is their friend and surrogate mummy.

So the fact that we’ve allowed the internet to be turned into something largely indistinguishable from television is—to my mind—a profound tragedy and an affirmation of our collective disinterest in any kind of societal growth. We are clearly not serious about building a better world or improving our minds and knowledge. We’d rather just watch YouTube.

Fit the Second

Although we have neither a cable nor a satellite connection in the home and we don’t stream, we do we have a TV, which we use to watch movies on DVD and VHS media. In recent weeks, we’ve been enjoying a run of classic and cult movies from the 1960s and early 1970s (many of these are part of the excellent Criterion Collection). I want to talk about three of these: Blow Up, Solaris (the Tarkovsky original) and If.

Apart from the power and heft of the films themselves, one thing that struck me in each of these was the pace at which people’s lives (I’ll come back to this shortly) flowed just two generations ago, and, not coincidentally, the depth in which our inner lives are examined in these three films.

Even though the lead character (played by David Hemmings) in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up lives life in what then would have passed for the fast lane, he doesn’t lack for down time. In the film, set in the swinging London of the mid-60s, Hemmings plays a young photographer who realizes that a series of pictures he took on a whim in a London park document a mysterious murder. When he tries to cut through the distractions and banality of the everyday and arrive at the truth, he finds himself thwarted at every turn until, in the end, the antics of the traveling mime troupe with which the film opens becomes a metaphor for our lives.

The 1971 film Solaris (at the time dubbed ‘the Russian 2001’) will, to some modern viewers, appear glacially slow. It’s not: although the action appears to unfold slowly, the film is so rich in psychological content and imagery as to almost overload the psyche and push it into overdrive. With its meditation on human relationships (do we love the person or our concept of that person?), our aggressive instincts, the relationship between reality and consciousness, and the vast barriers to communication with alien species, this film made me feel I’d come home, rediscovered what it is to look inside and dwell there, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the endless bombardment of external trivia.

The last of this trio, Lindsay Anderson’s If, stars Malcolm McDowell as an anarchic adolescent antihero who takes on the British establishment. Although the film mostly concerns itself with the regimented brutality of the 1960s British social order and its suppression of and reaction to non-conformity, the strong surrealist currents in this movie (as in the former), the transitions between colour and black and white, and the power of the film’s apocalyptic final scene (unthinkable in today’s fear-saturated sociopolitical climate), and above all, the absence of high-speed action and external momentum culminate in a psychic impact that—like the previous two films—makes modern attempts to do the same laughable.

Fit the Third

We live in a world and at a pace where the inner life and dialogue, as well as the flexing of the creative imagination at a level beyond the superficial, is both difficult and discouraged. Television—along with the internet, the smartphone, and all the rest—has replaced religion as the opium of the masses. As long as we have these things we trundle along, perhaps not happily but at least tolerant of all social and economic ills. It’s not inconceivable that we’re rewiring our neurons and building new cortical pathways in our brains to such an extent that we’ve begun to evolve into a new species of human.

I can envision a near future in which millions would accept, and even welcome, indentured servitude as a means of keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads; but if all TV broadcasts, networked media, and game systems were to break down tomorrow, I think our social fabric would disintegrate. I don’t believe that a generation of adults raised in daycare and suckled at the terrible altar of the glass teat could cope with being suddenly thrust into a situation where they have time and are forced to explore their inner space, to reflect and think, and to communicate with others on a level beyond the banal.

An elitist view? Judgmental? Perhaps. But don’t get me wrong: I’m no luddite. My argument is not with technology but with the way we choose to use it. Hardwired as most of us are for short-term benefit (the technical term is ‘hyperbolic discounting’), we seem to have a tremendous gift for turning powerful technologies into either weapons, tools of mass control, or time-wasting frivolities.

If you find it difficult or are too young to remember a time before modern communications technology had become a central part of our lives; a world of just a handful of TV channels with limited broadcasting hours; without email, smartphones, or even answering machines; a world with half the population of today, and in which a person with even a half-decent job could enjoy a good middle-class life; a world in which ADD referred to an arithmetical operation; a world in which we actually spent time with ourselves and our thoughts; try the following.

Take a weekend alone somewhere without your phone or laptop or any device, and where there is no television—don’t cheat. Try to go into nature instead of a B&B, or at least spend as much time as you can out of doors and away from people; if you can go somewhere remote, all the better. Don’t even wear a watch. I’m talking about being somewhere you can watch the clouds go by, or a stream flow, or ants go about their business, for an hour or more without interruption or the ability to measure time.

At first, you’ll probably be bored, maybe restless. You may experience anxieties. The time will stretch weirdly: an hour will feel like four or five. Note these impressions without feeding or buying into them.

Before long you’ll find yourself easing into an internal state, reconnecting with your inner life in a way that you haven’t in a long time. For those of us who are writers or artists, that’s the wellspring, the place it all comes from; it’s hard to create without having at least some contact, however imperfect, with that place. For those of us who don’t regularly go there, perhaps haven’t since childhood, this reconnecting can—and will—be an amazing, maybe transformative experience.

So humour me, will you? Try it out, then come back and let me know what it was like. It’s eminently possible, whatever your current lifestyle, to claw back your time and reconnect with your inner life. It might take determination and will, but it can be done.

And the first step is to ditch your TV.

* Some researchers suggest the number may be as high as 80%

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Deja Vu All Over Again

Two news items on the excellent website io9 got me thinking about memes and the failure of the artistic imagination. The first of these concerned itself with aliens, the second with zombies. Only one really pissed me off. Here’s why.

Annoying as it may be, the remarkable popularity of the zombie in popular culture is at least defensible in that the condition of the mythic undead seems to correlate pretty closely with a real-world phenomenon, namely, rabies. As the article points out, many of the symptoms, particularly the ‘silent, semi-lucid, unending aggression’ of the rabies victim, are precisely those that typify the movie zombie. Well, fair enough. I still have sub-zero interest in reading or seeing movies about them, but I buy zombies as somewhat believable, a pop-culture meme with some basis in fact.

The other news item was about a 14-minute short made for literally a zero budget. ‘This no-budget short film captures the creepiness of an alien encounter on a shoestring’, trumpets the io9 headline. Since I generally like io9, I decided to go with it and commit 14 minutes of my time to see why this ‘science fiction film’ (io9’s words, not mine) was in the running for a grant from Ridley Scott’s production company.

I should have known better.

This short, about a young woman whom nobody will believe trying to resist yet another alien visitation, is the worst kind of meme. Oh, the cinematography and production is fine, until the alien comes along. At which point we’re treated to bright white lights, electrical and electronic  malfunctions, things rattling and shaking, and a three-fingered alien hand coming around the victim’s bedroom door: in short, the generic alien encounter meme that has been around for something like three decades, at least since the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The pop culture meme of the skinny alien, with its childlike, elongated head, slitty eyes, three-fingered hands, blinding light, undampened electrical fields, and fond use of rectal probes, is out of control. But unlike zombies, we have no data point whatever on which to base the alien meme: it’s made up, people! And it wasn’t a very good effort in the first place! The chance of aliens looking like this is no greater than aliens that look like octopi, or ambulatory potatoes, or nothing we can even begin to comprehend.

To my way of thinking, this is the worst kind of laziness. When there is the opportunity to do something entirely fresh and original, why does every filmmaker do exactly the same thing as has been done before? If the answer is, because that’s what audiences expect, all I can do is bury my head in my hands and say they deserve to be fleeced at every opportunity. You can tie a pink ribbon around a turd and put it in a Tiffany box, but it’s still a turd. And yet, we continue to reward these pathetic, uninspired imitators.

Once in a very, very long while, a filmmaker comes along who gets it. Unfortunately, we have to go back even further than Close Encounters for that one, to the 1972 film (based on a 1961 novel), Solaris. Surreal? Hard to understand? That’s exactly the point, though, isn’t it—a real alien encounter is going to be confusing and incomprehensible.

And startlingly, memorably, original.

So the fact that millions (probably hundreds of millions) of people are already convinced that the generic movie alien is representative of the real thing (as though we had even the shadow of a clue) is something I find both maddening and depressing. Haven’t we been here with angels and fairies?

When an artistic form runs out of, or refuses to embrace, fresh ideas, it’s usually considered dead. I think we can safely declare the science fiction film—at least where aliens are concerned—to have entirely flatlined.

Zombie article link

Alien short film link

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