Sunday, 28 June 2009

"You became a priest because you were too much of a coward to do what I do"

When Eli Wallach's Tuco talks to his brother, the priest, in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, he sets up a structural equivalence between church and bandit. The central, unspoken third term here, as in Freud's A child is being beaten, is the state. Under Italy's postwar imperfect bipolarism, that left the Christian Democratic party in power, practically unchallenged, from the foundation of the republic after World War Two until the Tangentopoli scandals of the early nineties, there was a very real equivalence between church and state that may well have equivocated criticism of the former for that of the latter (just as when, interviewed in 1994, the year of Berlusconi's first abortive government, Lucio Fluci rails against the censors - "They should censor the news instead of my films" - there was a very real equivalence between the state and the news media). Anti-clerical themes would continue to pervade pulp Italian cinema throughout the seventies. If Fulci and Dario Argento tended to respond somewhat cryptically to accusations of anti-catholic imagery in their films, there is little doubting the intent of the sustained orgy of blasphemy that characterises such films as Bruno Mattei's L'Altro Inferno (ingestion of the eucharist leading a nun to vomit blood; a rotting, worm-ridden head in the tabernacle; nuns boiling babies, etc.).

There is a kind of direct continuity between the spaghetti westerns of the sixties and the gialli of the seventies - and if I use the term giallo in its broader, anglo-american sense, it is because their is an even greater unity between the urban thrillers of the early seventies - gialli proper - and the gore horror of the late seventies. This concatenation is marked most obviously by the music of Ennio Morricone and his repeated use of certain kinds of unorthodox instrumentation (such as the harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West and L'ultimo treno della notte). In fact there is a remarkable continuity of personnel and production: Lucio Fulci made several westerns before switching to horror and Argento wrote westerns (contributing the memorable opening scene to Once Upon a Time in the West). Leone's editors on the Dollars trilogy, Eugenio Alabiso and Giorgio Serrallonga, went on to work on several gialli, as did their assistant art director (graduating to production designer in the process). Also, the production company behind the Django series went on to make a number of successful gialli. What links these two filoni is this certain reference, alluded to, in relation to gialli, in a previous post, to the Lacanian Real.

Before Jodorowsky's El Topo, Leone had already captured the hallucinatory potential of the desert though the lens flares and dizzying photography of Clint Eastwood's ordeal in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The desert becomes itself a character and, like the Overlook Hotel, a merciless one. Driving through a "sidereal" America, Jean Baudrillard describes a desert denoting "the emptiness, the radical nudity that is the background to every human institution . . culture as a mirage . . . The desert is a natural extension of the inner silence of the body. If humanity's language, technology, and buildings are an extension of its constructive faculties, the desert alone is an extension of its capacity for absence, the ideal schema of humanity's disappearance." Preceding the desert of the Real, the Real of the desert; a Real at once compulsive and pulsional, like the undead persistence of a cat re-animated by another's murderous impulses in Il Gatto Nero, the hysteria of murder in Tenebrae, the knot of a memory that refuses reinscription in Profondo Rosso and L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo.