What movie was that...?

14 June 2012

Scene vs. Scene: Once Upon a Time in the West vs. Gomorrah

At the risk of turning OMFBC into a long winded and intellectual affair, I want to try something a little different from my usual formula. I have always loved comparing different aspects of various movies to demonstrate to casual film watchers the kinds of things I notice and synthesize when I watch movies. Then again, doesn’t everyone? For instance, when watching the disaster of a feel good comedy What to Expect When You’re Expecting (I know, I know! But I drug my wife to The Cabin in the Woods, too.) I looked at my wife and pointed out the obvious Jaws homage during the sequence when Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford compare cooking scars. I mean, everyone noticed that, right? But the real question is what does that do for the film, aside from getting a few of us to say, “Oh yeah, Jaws was a great movie. Why am I here again?”

Art references art for myriad reasons, to tap into an expressed idea, to evoke a feeling, to draw parallels across genres and styles, but always with intent. In film, we often identify these references as homage, an effort by a filmmaker to comment on a component or concept or innovation set forth in an earlier work. Some filmmakers use homage as the context for their entire work, like every Quentin Tarantino film (QT even homages other film scores in his scenes that homage other scenes in other films. Whew). Tarantino is an extreme case in which his reverential referencing of the grand film canon is like a collage work essay about cinema history, but in QT’s case the homage is deliberate, purposeful. Tarantino wants you to know that when he samples the score from White Lightning, it means you should remember the themes or the style or the scene of that film in which the score originally played. Cartoons invoke the explicit homage most often, and some films do this in a more subtle way. Two such films that do this to wonderful effect are Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah. And what both filmmakers do perfectly, they do in the opening sequences of their classic films.

Sergio Leone was very much a Quentin Tarantino style filmmaker himself. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and film design, and he made it no secret when he crafted his scenes and sets. His legendary Dollars trilogy is filled with iconic moments, many of them homages to other works. The story of how Once Upon a Time came to be is well known: Leone had finished his Dollars trilogy and wanted to do something new. Paramount desperately wanted him to make just one more western under their banner before he was free to pursue his other interests. And so one of the greatest westerns ever to grace the silver screen came to be as the result of a compromise, and with it one of the most fantastic opening sequences ever filmed.
"Did you bring a horse for me?"

3 hard as nails, gun toting goons wait on a rugged, sun scorched train platform. The ambient and operatic sounds of the platform permeate the silence. A train roars in. The 3 wait for their target. The train begins to depart and the goons have nothing to show for their acrimonious efforts. The train reveals a lone man waiting expectantly for them on the other side of the tracks, playing a harmonica. The loner spies the 3 horses and mentions that the goons didn’t bring a horse for him. The head goon chuckles and mentions that they must be shy one horse, and now we as an audience know that the 3 are not here to meet the loner, but to kill him. The loner shakes his head slightly and says, “You brought 2 too many,” and now we know who’s the baddest in the land (of course, we already knew this because the loner is Charles Bronson.). A blaze of gunfire and all four men sprawl in the desert dust. Only the loner gets up. Thusly, Once Upon a Time in the West begins.

There are a million wonderful aspects of this opening scene, from the foley to the set design, the cinematography to the editing, but the most wonderful of all is what unfolds between the characters. The 3 goons are played by western regulars Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Al Mulock, well recognized by audiences at the time. Elam was a great character actor and Strode was part of the Ford family, playing in many of John Ford’s westerns. As a trio, the 3 goons represent the Oater, the American western in all its stoic, clear cut, black and white depictions of good and bad. And Leone guns them down in the first few minutes of the film using a character just as (for all we know) sinister.

So, why does Leone do this? Perhaps to add a bit of tension and exciting action to the opening sequence? Absolutely. To give us a taste of Bronson’s Harmonica character early on so we root for him? Of course. But Leone also does this as a final symbolic act as an artist and a filmmaker. He kills the traditional western, guns down the Oater film before his movie begins to let his audience know that his film isn’t going to be like all those traditional westerns. But his audience would have already known that (the Dollars trilogy is well known for that way it breaks down the genre), so that wouldn't have been the sole reason. With such an opening sequence, Leone also makes a statement about the genre itself being dead, a caricature that must be slain by Leone himself. He kills the trio off with a man with no name (nearly synonymous with Leone films at this point), asserting both his temerity as a filmmaker and his competence to subvert the American film system the way he subverted the western genre with his Italian western trilogy.
Leone kills the traditional western in his opening sequence, and he would have done another astoundingly wonderful thing if the fates had aligned just once more. Leone originally wanted the 3 gunmen to be played by Dollars alumni Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood. Just think: The three would have arrived to a cheering crowd and been killed before the audience knew what hit them, and Leone would have added his own trilogy to the list of things he killed off in his opening scene. That act would have been genius, but the universe could not let it be so (scheduling conflicts, lack of enthusiasm, etc). Even so, Leone’s trio of goons are still, for all intents and purposes, his Dollars trio; three men all handy with a gun, bound together by greed and violence. In one marvelous sequence, Leone manages symbolically to make a statement that Once Upon a Time will be one of the finest, grittiest, wildest westerns you will ever see, and he holds up his end of the bargain in spectacular fashion.

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, an absolute classic of the crime genre, follows a similar path in the opening sequence in which the members of one family get whacked by another family. The scene begins with a group of men at a salon, preening and primping, lazing in tanning booths and having their nails manicured as they chat about nothing of consequence. Another group (joined by one man posing as a salon goer) enters and kills the men in the salon, then flee. Because much of the film is true to life and based on Robert Saviano’s book of the same name, Garrone (during his DVD commentary) talks of the two feuding families depicted in this sequence as being from the city and the country, respectively, with the more rural family doing the murdering. This sets up the tension of the film as well as its ruthless tone, but Garrone also manages with this opening scene to execute a symbolic hit on Hollywood as well.

Garrone is an Italian filmmaker making an Italian movie about organized crime in Italy, about the dealings and doings of the Comorra family, no less. The Comorra family is one of the oldest crime families, predating the Costa Nostra family that we know in the States as the Mob, or the Sicilian Mafia. So straight out of the gate we know that this is not going to be The Godfather, but Garrone sets up his opening scene with a group of glamorous narcissistic mobsters concerned more with their own vanity than anything else. And it is this vanity that makes them not only vulnerable, but apparently deserving of a massacre. In a few moments, Garrone shows us the vacuous and candied world of the westernized mob movie genre in all its vain and plastic unrealism, and then he guns it down. These guys are Goodfellas, mobsters, glossy and unrecognizable and inauthentic, taken out by the real world of Garrone’s filmic statement. In this way, Garrone makes a strong statement about his film what his film is going to say, but he also makes a strong indictment of Hollywood’s treatment of organized crime to date and the way it seems to glamorize the world.
Both of these essential films contain internal homage that comment on their respective genres and film as a whole, from Leone’s train tracks that he lays like a symbolic coffin nail through Ford's iconic Monument Valley (further assassinating the West as we know it), to Garrone’s Scarface obsessed teens who only see glamour in the violence, but it is these opening statements that are the most powerful, the most shocking, and the most audaciously gratifying to the discerning filmgoer. It is interesting that both of these films were made by Italian filmmakers, and that both films are genre films (one could make the argument that all films are genres films, but I’m using the term in the traditional sense), and it is interesting that both genres in question are genres that are widely considered staunchly Western and overtly American. Sometimes, it takes the eyes of an outsider to see and comment on something in front of our collective faces that we don’t even notice.

Do you have a favorite homage scene from a film that does something similar?

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