Friday, July 30, 2010
Neither would you see Lee's nightmare, or the interactions of Chico, Harry, and Bernard with the villagers. These moments slow down the pace a tad, but deepen the characters and story.
The idea with this kind of situation is to give each hero a distinctive personality. In The Iliad, Achilles is too dominating a figure, while the leader of the expedition, Agaememnon, is flawed and egoistic, though their conflict still carries weight. Homer has the time to develop other characters, so that we hear the craftiness of Odysseus, or the simple-minded strength of Ajax.
In "The Magnificent Seven," Chris, the leader, played by Yul Brynner, is the center of gravity. The film works because the moviemakers surrounded him with some of the most dynamic young actors from Hollywood and even Europe at the time. Britt, like Achilles, is "the best." This fact alone, and the presence of James Coburn, has to develop the character, because he's given very few lines. When he does speak, however, it's crucial, as when near the end he's the first hero to strap back on his guns to return to the village for the final fight.
Here are the seven and the actors who play them:
Chris: Yul Brynner
Vin: Steve McQueen
Chico: Horst Bucholz
Britt: James Coburn
Bernard: Charles Bronson
Lee: Robert Vaughn
Harry: Brad Dexter
Though they're similar on the surface, each gunfighter is in fact very different, with different problems hinted at through moments and gestures. Most play things very "cool," but the coolness is a facade covering inner turmoil. The only exception to this is Steve McQueen's character, who is what-you-see-is-what-you-get transparent and engaging. The most stoic of them might be the one with the most to hide, the leader, Chris. Except I guess for Lee, who's ethereal coolness is at every moment on the verge of crumbling. Each character adds to the overall balance of the team. Harry, for instance, is the most cynical of the seven, in it strictly for the money, and his cynicism is a counterweight to the enthusiasm of Chico and the conscience of Chris. Yet even this is pretense, as it can be seen that Harry's also the one having the best time. His worldliness hides his simplicity, his unworldliness, which at some point in his life he abandoned but didn't eliminate. He's there for the adventure, or as an escape from himself, as much as any of them is.
Ever seen this film? If not, it's well worth viewing. The famously rousing Elmer Bernstein score alone is worth the price of renting the dvd. Watch how each action in the movie is well underlined by different musical themes. Or maybe the music is underlined by the action of the movie!
My question, if anyone's seen the flick, is, with which of the seven hired gunfighters do you most identify?
Thursday, July 29, 2010
OUTCASTS, GANGS, AND SHEEP
The ULA was created ten years ago like the "Seven." We recruited a small number of the best outcast writers in America. We knew from the beginning that the odds against us were overwhelming.
"If God did not want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep."
This is the attitude of the Mexican bandit leader toward the villagers upon which he and his gang preys.
Contrary to a false narrative that was pushed against the ULA, our fight wasn't against all writers. Not in any way. The battle was between our gang and a rival gang which preys upon the lit world and, in my opinion, abuses American literature. They are a nasty group of people-- scoundrels in every way. I say that even though I've fully abandoned the fight. The mass of writers in this country was simply the terrain-- the village fought about.
"The Magnificent Seven," if it's about anything, is about character-- about how to be a man and how to live as a human being, which was a theme of the best Westerns of its time period. (See "Ride the High Country.") Character is what the ULA's opponents-- the "Billionaire Boys Club"-- has not a shred of. As they exhibited even on this blog time and again. Recently I reread a thread on this blog from 2007. It began with me being anonymously attacked for having earlier in the decade brought up quite a piece of uncomfortable information about the bandit leader. As the discussion progressed and the truth of the matter became apparent for all to see, the impact became greater, for what it said about the state of the literary scene and the rank cowardice which exists among established writers and mainstream publications. A sad chapter in U.S. literary history which will never see the light of day.
In the movie, when the going gets tough, the villagers lose their bravery and betray the seven do-gooder mercenaries.
Know this: the ULA campaign was an honorable one, and was fought honorably against the most ruthless of enemies. It was a case of good guys versus bad guys all the way, just like in the movies.
Monday, July 26, 2010
-Brad Dexter in "The Magnificent Seven"
Why am I discussing movies? Why not? Literature is a closed shop. The lit world is impervious to change. There's no room whatsoever in literature for new ideas. Even so-called "outsider" writers fear change and run from new ideas. There's certainly no room in the Lilliputian world of literature for myself. Literature to me is a dead art. I'm therefore looking for other arenas in which to express my talents.
Friday, July 23, 2010
Thursday, July 22, 2010
"El Cid" isn't listed in the New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. It's not in The Greatest Movies Ever by Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza, or the Time Out 1,000 Films to Change Your Life. Critic Leonard Maltin gives "El Cid" three stars out of a possible five.
Take the thousand-plus movies on the various best lists-- "El Cid" provides a better movie experience than any of them. That's not an exaggeration. "El Cid" is better as a pure movie, as well as being a moving and thought-provoking work of art, with incredible relevance to the world we live in now.
What's going on?
Once a critical consensus is reached about a work, the consensus becomes set in stone. Later generations of critics parrot the judgement without thinking about it.
Examine the two "Best Picture" Oscar-winners from 1960 and 1961, the time period of "El Cid." Both "The Apartment" and "West Side Story" are dated, yet remain highly rated. "El Cid" is a better movie than either of them.
What's wrong with film critics?
When criticism becomes disconnected from sense and reality, when it's not able to state or even see the obvious, then it has no usefulness to the art. This is the state of criticism today in arts from literature to movies-- the critics' loyalty isn't to art, isn't to truth, isn't to sense, but instead to themselves and their station.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Action sequences in today’s movies are emotionally ineffective because there’s nothing realistic about them. They’re like video games—movement that dulls the senses more than engages them. More is less.
For instance, the combat between Achilles and Hector in “Troy” isn’t remotely believable. There’s a lot of jumping around that’d be more in place in a Chinese kung fu movie. Too many fight scenes show the influence of video games, cartoons, and pro wrestling.
The joust between Rodrigo and Don Martin in “El Cid” by comparison is utterly involving and exciting. Great pageantry sets up the fight. Once it begins there’s not a wasted second—both combatants fight with complete urgency. Nothing looks easy. Swinging around heavy broadswords wasn’t easy! The viewer senses their weight. The large screen puts you into the contest. You feel like one of the participants. The result is a thrilling movie experience.
Monday, July 19, 2010
The supporting cast of the movie “El Cid” is uniformly excellent. The producers drew particularly on talented British actors who knew how to say lines with meaning, and project personas in an epic setting and story.
One example is Christopher Rhodes in the small but crucial role of Don Martin, the champion knight who faces Rodrigo/Heston in a joust. Rhodes has a limited number of words to establish himself as a fitting, believable opponent for the hero. The Don Martin character has killed 27 men in one-on-one combat. The actor needs to reflect that. Rhodes does. He looks rugged, tough, yet intelligent, like a champion, and says his few lines with authority. He projects, through his bearing and expression, confidence bordering on arrogance. He’s believable as a sociopath, without for an instant appearing cartoonish—not an easy trick to pull off. Unlike, say, Alfonso or his brother Sancho, there’s no trace of neurosis; not a molecule of self-doubt about who he is and what he does. Rhodes is the embodiment of the Spanish Christian warrior, the type later known as the conquistadore. More important for the film: that he appears formidable builds anticipation for the conflict against Heston’s larger-than-life persona.
(Next: The Joust.)
Friday, July 16, 2010
(It's difficult to watch this character, his costume, the way he speaks and enters a scene, and not see him as a direct influence on George Lucas's Darth Vader. Lucas transported "El Cid"'s knights and conflicts to a new setting, sanitized them a bit to make them ahistorical and harmless, but it's the same kind of movie.)
Ben Yussuf's understanding of the nature of theater is shown when he unwraps a new actor-- the Spanish traitor he's about to insert into his enemies' midst. The scene is disturbing because it reminds us that politics and history can be stage-managed.
As Ben Yussuf plots, the knight Rodrigo adopts the role history and legend have ordained for him: The Cid. His career is made through public display. Like Yussuf, Rodrigo always seems to be declaiming before an audience, which by the end of the movie reaches the size of a large army. The strength of the Cid and his force comes from the part he plays.
(Charlton Heston, who plays Rodrigo, was always a tad theatrical, as if when he jumped to films early in his career he was unable to leave the stage behind. The huge 70mm screen was an appropriate venue for him. He's an able match for Lom's Ben Yussuf.)
The joust-- a tremendously thrilling sequence-- is Rodrigo's first major performance. He revels in it, shown by his dramatic words to the head of the rival Spanish camp afterward.
In due time, Rodrigo becomes the role. There's no escape from it.
The theater of politics is best shown at the end of the film.
With art, sometimes we're most affected by what we're not allowed to see.
The Cid is dying. Chimene, the King, and the Cid's lieutenants are in the room with him. Has he expired?
The camera turns off. The next shot is of his army in the morning, waiting silently at the gate for its leader.
What we're not shown is what's happened in the interim. Chimene and the others have had only a few hours before daylight to get the play ready-- to get the Cid clothed in his armor and placed atop his horse. As with a stage play, we don't see what took place backstage: the frantic activity of preparation. Our minds fill the gap.
The army waits-- then we're given a quick glimpse backstage, the costumers and dressers putting the finishing touches on the star performer.
He's led to the front, on his snorting, clip-clopping horse. King Alfonso, after kissing a cross, draws his sword and shouts encouragement to the other players. The gates open. (The curtain rises.) In a blaze of light: the Cid. On stage. One final appearance. He's seemingly overcome death itself.
Powerful, powerful, powerful.
Ben Yussuf is beaten by a better actor, or at least, by a better prop.
(In my next post I'll reveal how "El Cid" was undoubtedly a huge influence on Lucas, as I discuss that which "El Cid" does best of all.)
Because of theory, status quo intellectuals are unable to view art with fresh eyes and an open mind.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Chimene (Sophia Loren) is the centerpiece of the Spanish camp. All the major men characters focus on her. (As does Alfonso's snarky sister, who appears both jealous and in awe of Chimene.)Note that both her father and her husband, at the moment of their deaths, cry out for Chimene. Both plead for her to follow their wishes afterward. After losing a battle to Ben Yussuf, it's to Chimene that King Alfonso flees. It's to her that he seeks to prove his courage. ("It takes more to be a king than courage," she tells him.) Alfonso imprisons her, holding her and her children as hostage to get the Cid to do his bidding. Rodrigo is about to abandon the siege of Valencia to go after her-- until she's freed by the Raf Vallone character, Ordonez, who lives only for her. She is the dominating personality of the narrative.
At the outset of the story, Alfonso is the weakest of the two princes, dominated by his sister Uracca (ably played by Genevieve Page). As the movie progresses he struggles to match the model Rodrigo sets for him. Rodrigo and Chimene have what seems to us absurd self-discipline-- which the weak king seeks to adopt. They are his antagonists but at the same time his role models. At the end he overcomes his preening self-involvment to join the Cid for the final battle. He's able to step into the Cid's spot.
THE RELIGIOUS CONFLICT
"El Cid" gives the viewer a great deal to consider: namely, the nature of the two great faiths whose clash is at the heart of the story. From the desert comes the primal Islamic faith in its purest version, or so Ben Yussuf assures us. Contrasted with this is the historic Islam known for its great intellectual and cultural accomplishments. Which is the genuine Islam? The pampered emirs appear unable to challenge Yussuf's voice of authority.
On the other side, remember that European Christianity was always a pagan-Christian hybrid. The Spanish knights have adopted the trappings of the religion, but remain in their behavior thoroughly Visigoths. Rodrigo's break with them comes when he begins behaving like a Christian, to the extent of forgiving his enemies after defeating them. He's not sure himself why he does so-- it happens after he encounters a burned-down church. Those he ends up forgiving include the Moor Moutamain; Ordonez; and Alfonso himself-- all who eventually come to his side. Rodrigo of course is the strongest knight, but also the farthest-seeing and most honorable.
I hope I've shown that this is a complex movie-- deeper in its themes than most films have been, yet the themes are well-blended to be inseparable from the artistry of sound and image and the momentum of the narrative. The Big Questions are addressed, including fate and destiny, how to live, life and death. Yet wait-- there's more to talk about.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Chimene (Sophia Loren) spends much of the movie trying to get Rodrigo (Charlton Heston) killed. He explains to her that his killing of her father in a sword fight was a question of honor. She tells him that her avenging her father's death is also a question of honor. They're fully serious, and completely understand each other.
And so, at the big joust at which Rodrigo seeks to clear his name, Chimene asks his opponent to wear her color, which is "deepest black" for her state of mourning. After Rodrigo wins, handing her scarf back covered in blood, she then plots with a nobleman in love with her to ambush the new King's Champion. This plan fails when Rodrigo is rescued by his Moorish ally.
Chess move answering chess move, Rodrigo forces Chimene to marry him, using the legal pretext that he owes her his protection, having killed her father! She complies-- but denies him sex after the wedding; the only way she has left to get back at him.
Both individuals are locked into their code. Thwarting each other only serves to increase their mutual respect. They're equals, and know it-- are each other's perfect mate. When "The Cid" is banished into exile by the young king, Chimene, as Rodrigo's wife, decides to join him in his ignominy. The marriage, at long last, is consummated-- yet she quickly realizes this is temporary. As "the purest knight" he's forced to follow his code and rescue Spain from its opponents.
Honor is all. I think theirs is the deepest kind of love, because it's survived so many obstacles. At the end of the movie, when he's seriously wounded in battle, he has her promise that he'll lead the army, dead or alive, in the morning. The request has enormous poignancy because of all that's gone before. SHE is the one person he can count on-- the one person who understands why it's important he be there. She understands because she knows his code-- because it's been her code. They'd proven to each other in their cruel fights that they each know it. Honor is what the fights were about. It's a brutally harsh kind of love they share, which adds to the emotion of the film. I should add that for this relationship, for these two characters, Heston and Loren with their accompanying personas are perfectly cast.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
The experience of "El Cid" is rapturous because of its overwhelming sound and images, accompanied by a magnificent Miklos Rozsa score. Beyond this, the movie is unsettling in ways I can't fully describe.
In part it's Ben Yussef's sweeping screen-filling army with its thunderous drums. In part, the realistic one-on-one combats. In part, Ben Yussuf displaying the Spanish traitor he's about to insert into the Christians' midst. In part, without question, the strange bond of love-hate between Rodrigo and Chimene. Or maybe it's because the film portrays a world where there is no peace and there can be no peace; that in this tale of knights there is no Star Wars fairy-tale outcome. The strange, melancholy ending, better seen than described, is haunting.
This is a question without meaning to our nation's intellectual class, to whom all is conditional, and their only eternal truth is that there are no eternal truths.
Yet it's a question which obsesses "El Cid"'s hero, Rodrigo, played by Charlton Heston. Moderate though he is, he's no less a warrior, no less imbued with the knight's code, than the two Spanish champions he kills. The first, his lover Chimene's father, is a rigid ideologue. The second, Don Martin, is a professional killer. Neither is capable of a strategic vision of Spain. They are the two strongest men in Christian Spain, yet are inadequate to face the threat of Ben Yussuf.
The young king, Alfonso, has neither vision nor strength. There are three main storylines to "El Cid." One is the battle for Spain between Christians and Moors. The second is the love story of Rodrigo and Chimene, which isn't much about love when all is said and done, but something more. The third storyline is the education of a king, who begins the movie as a weak and neurotic prince, but by the end is able to credibly speak the film's final powerful sentence.
Setting the storylines into action is Ben Yussuf, who is fully Bin Laden's "strong horse"; for whom all questions of strength and weakness have been resolved. He holds Spanish Moors in more contempt than he does the barbaric Christians he's come to conquer. An example of the movie's use of strong contrasts is when Ben Yussuf barges into the sybaritic salon of the soft Moorish prince who holds Valencia. Yussuf's eyes express all.
Underlying all the action in the film is the contrast of strength and weakness. The ultimate attraction between Rodrigo and Chimene is because they're the two strongest individuals within Christian Spain. As much as Chimene hates him, he's the only man who can live up to her image of her uber-strong father. Other men-- especially Alfonso-- she holds in contempt.
Which brings us to the film's love story. . . .
Monday, July 12, 2010
The main character, Rodrigo, quickly gets into trouble with his fellow Christian Spaniards for following a path of moderation. Soon enough he's in exile. Spain's moderates, Christian and Moor, are caught between the vise of unwavering fanaticism on one side, unyielding stubbornness on the other. Rodrigo-- "the Cid"-- pursues a middle path. Is this the path to take today regarding the so-called "clash of civilizations"? We are at war this very moment over the same question ya know. This is why "El Cid" right now is a very relevant movie that should be widely viewed. Not solely because it's a stupendously exciting movie-- but because its questions are our questions.
CRITICISM IS PROPAGANDA
"El Cid" played for one day, two showings, at New York City's Film Forum. Meanwhile, "Breathless," another classic, has been shown for seven weeks. This is because, as with literary stories, there's a built-in brainwashed audience. For fifty years "Breathless" has been hailed by film critics and in universities as a great work of movie art. Which it may well be-- but "El Cid" is better, as a movie, as a viewing experience, as art. In addition, it's a more intelligent film, with more for an intelligent person to think about. Given our post 9/11 world, there is much in "El Cid" to think about. It's more relevant today, by far, than when it came out.
More important is the viewing impact, which is tremendous, and can be fully sensed only if the 70mm epic is viewed on a movie screen.
There's a scene toward the end, briefly showing the torture of a major character, when members of the audience audibly gasped. A standard "movie" moment which can be experienced only when the film is viewed as a movie. A better example is right before the end, when the Cid on his steed rides out of the Valencia gates in a blaze of sunlight. This is one of the most beautiful single shots in movie history-- no way would it have the same impact if not experienced properly; and so without seeing it properly, the overall film wouldn't be assessed properly. That one shot alone, for a film buff, is worth the price of admission. It's a strikingly beautiful moment within a strikingly beautiful movie.
Friday, July 09, 2010
In the 1961 film "El Cid," which I saw on a movie screen in New York City yesterday, a champion knight throws a gauntlet loudly onto a castle floor. In the same way, I here throw down a gauntlet and claim that "El Cid," as a movie, as film, as art, is better than all but a handful of motion pictures ever made.
An absurdity? An impossible case to make?
Over the course of the summer, along with other posts, I'll make that case. In the process I hope to awaken intelligent people to new ways of viewing art and questioning it, and so enable them to better create it.
(Chapters in this process will include "Movie-as-Movie"; "The Supporting Cast"; "Visual and Aural Splendor"; "The Joust"; and "The Prophetic Plot." I've reopened comments to all to allow challenges to my ideas.)
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
First, they obviously mean recorded songs, from the rock era. Otherwise, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin,, & Co. would be on the list.
Even so-- when Del Shannon's "Runaway" is #472 and Joan Jett's "I LOve Rock N Roll" #491, you know something is severely wrong with the list and with those who made it.
One could write a volume on everything bad about the list, from the underrating of artists like Janis Joplin ("Down on Me"?), Jackie Wilson, and Bill Haley, to the many songs which don't belong on a rock n roll list ("Wichita Lineman"; "Penny Lane"; "Mack the Knife"; "Piano Man"; "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"; etc.), to the promotion of musicians favored by the intellectual establishment who weren't very good and scarcely rocked (Bonnie Raitt; Jackson Browne; James Taylor). The list, you see, is a POLITICAL list. It's all politics. One quesions whether Joy Division would've made the list had not two recent movies made the band acceptable to elites. Or, Johnny Cash, a mere country singer in the 1960s, gained cred by recording Bob Dylan songs.
What the list truly reflects are the biases of rock's intellectual establishment-- the professors and magazine writers who compiled it. The list is centered on the years 1964-65, which happens to be when the nation's intelligentsia at long last embraced rock after many years, if not decades, of scorning it. Being intellectuals, they favor intellectualized rock, not seeing that the two words are oxymoronic, or that the intellectualizing of rock n roll was the first step in the form's artistic death.
The list is top-heavy with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, as would be expected, in that these artists, for the intellectual crowd, marked the birth of rock n roll. Not rock's actual birth in the mainstream culture, which happened in 1955, but the late birth of rock n roll in the intellectual head, when the form was so popular there was no choice but to accept it.
Methinks, though, that they still don't understand rock n roll, which is why they overvalue songs which moved away from it like "Hey Jude." Sacrilegious to say, but a fun ditty like Herman Hermits' "Henry the Eighth" is more in the spirit of rock n roll than the McCartney-penned standard.
Because the intellectual mind promotes the myth that rock died before Beatles arrived, monster hits pre-Beatles like Chubby Checker's "The Twist" (#457) and Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou" (not on list, despite having just enough cowbell) are undervalued.
The real greatest rock n roll song? I'd nominate "Gloria," possibly the most played-by-garage-bands song ever, and which boasts four classic versions: Them's great original; Shadow of Knight's smash hit cover; The Doors' amazing live version; and Patti Smith's 70's punk vision version, which goes beyond, and is the culmination of, just about every other rock song. recording.
Saturday, July 03, 2010
THE LITERARY STORY IS DEAD
No one disputes this, though few wish to publicly acknowledge it. Even if the audience for literary stories were truly healthy, and not kept on artificial life support through universities and nonprofits, the literary story writer would be one of 400,000+ other literary writers whose product is pretty much the same as yours. Those aren’t very good odds. The alternative is to create a different, better product.
The place to do this is at the American Pop Lit blog— www.americanpoplit.blogspot.com —where the writer becomes one of less than a handful of daring story writers willing trying to create a new pop story model. A much better mathematical ratio, ya know, accompanied by the satisfaction of blazing a different path. Once you accept using a pop/plot framework, with readable prose, the experimental possibilities become endless. Try it. History remembers the pioneers of an art, not those who blindly follow stagnant things-as-they-are.