From Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000).
Fralying on Leone: “Leone was drawn, throughout his filmmaking career, to artificial, faraway worlds where realistic surface details were carefully researched, so as to chime with the audience’s suspension of disbelief. But the stories belonged to the realm of myth, where the characters were not bourgeois Romans but giants and where theatre mattered more than the mundane. These were his fairy-tales for grown-ups. In this sense, it took him much of his life to see like a child, and to make the uninhibited Hollywood movies he, as an Italian, wanted to see…The words that critics were beginning to use to describe his world included ‘mannerist,’ ‘carnivalesque,’ ‘exhibitionist,’ ‘excessive’ (meaning bad), and ‘excessive’ (meaning good). What he was trying to do was to reenchant the cinema, while expressing his own disenchantment with the contemporary world and conveying the exhilaration he personally felt when watching and making films, a bridge between ‘art films’ and popular cinema, and a source of deep confusion to the critics” (Frayling, 2000, 487).
Jean Baudrillard on Leone: “The French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard called Sergio Leone ‘the first post-modernist director’–the first to understand the hall of mirrors within the contemporary ‘culture of quotations'” (Frayling, 2000, 492).
The Western as a Fairytale for Grown-ups
“The attraction of the Western, for me, is quite simply this. It is the pleasure of doing justice, all by myself, without having to ask anyone’s permission. BANG BANG!”
“Naturally, it was not my business to write or make history–in any case, I had neither the inclination nor the right. So I made Fistful of Dollars starting from my own history–a history of fantasy…Nevertheless, it was necessary to present a very precise historical debate, thoroughly documented, in order to address the problem…Within this debate, I could look at human values which are no longer around today…”
Note: Reminiscent of John G. Cawelti’s remarks on the game dimension of the Western (and other popular genres) in The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (OH: Popular Press, 1999), 18.
Frayling’s commentary: In all the best childhood games, the magic to a great extent depends on all the participants suspending there disbelief in the game they are playing. If they start to feel silly or self-conscious, the game will not claim their attention for very long. So a lot of detail, and a concerted effort to make the game look as realistic as possible, may well be required. This was also the case with Sergio Leone’s films. Leone is a puppeteer whose origin resides back in his childhood often recollected with the experiences of watching local puppet shows such as the burattini and the pupi Siciliani (Frayling, 2000, 15-16).
Note: For the influence of local puppet shows on Leone’s works, see Ibid. 8-10.
When asked about the imaginary nature of his West, Leone answered by citing a famous passage from Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: “‘A man cannot become a child again unless he becomes childish. But does he not enjoy the artless ways of the child, and must he not strive to reproduce its truths on a higher plane? Is not the character of every epoch revived, perfectly true to nature, in the child’s nature? Why should the childhood of human society, where it obtained its most beautiful development, not exert an eternal charm as an age will never return?’ I believe that a film director who is on the point of shooting a Western must bear in mind, above all else, this truth. So, I haven’t chosen the West as physical, historical evidence of anything, but rather as representative, or as emblematic, of these artless ways of the child” (Frayling, 2000, 17).
“Marx’s conclusion–that the artifacts and myths of ancient Greece exert ‘an eternal charm’–was treated by most commentators [cultural theorists and structural anthropologists] in the late 1970s as a little too sentimental to be of much value as a tool of analysis.” For Leone, however, fable and myth were still the most suitable means of getting to fundamental problems deep rooted in society (Frayling, 2000, 18).
Robert De Niro on Leone: “To work with Leone was almost child’s play. We were both perfectionists” (Frayling, 2000, 488).
Non-Psychological, Melodramatic (Affective and Expressive)
“The function of the flashback is Freudian…The Americans had been using it in a very closed way, too rigorously and literally [inserted according to the rule of narrative continuity]. This was a mistake; you have to let it wander like the imagination, or like a dream.” Leone’s flashbacks tend to be stimulated, not by the taste of a charming little piece of patisserie (as in Proust), or by the plot demands of a police investigation (as in Hollywood films noir), but by a sound such as a chiming watch, the wail of a harmonica, and the incessant ringing of a telephone (Frayling, 2000, 21).
Leone’s America (America in his fairytale vision):
“The Americans have the horrible habit, among other habits, of diluting the wine of their mythical ideas with the water of the American way of life–a way of life, incidentally, which isn’t of interest to anyone who has a head on his shoulders…While America itself…like every other society is really about conflict and truth competing with untruth…[and] I wanted to show the cruelty of that nation, I was bored stiff with all those grinning white teeth. Hygiene and optimism are the woodworms which destroy American wood. It is a great shame if ‘America’ is always to be left to the Americans” (Frayling, 2000, 24).
On Once Upon a Time in America, Leone had this to say: “What can possibly follow that dream of America lost?…Death. And this new film will certainly about death…My interest in America, indeed the universal interest in America, is because of the tale. America, to my eyes, appears like a long and cruel Arabian Night, which is why my cinema is populated with thieves of Baghdad, kidnapped princess, nasty magicians, birds which sing rock ‘n’ roll…I must try to tell the story of Scheherezade, and capture the attention of the public–or the death sentence will be carried out at dawn” (Frayling, 2000, 476).
When asked why he had dwelled upon America, specifically the West, and had neve made a film in Italy about Italy, Leone replied: “The Western is a consumer item in Japan, Nigeria, Columbia, England, Italy, Germany and France–all over the place. It belongs to the world now…When you write a story about Italy, unfortunately you can write only about Italy. In America, though, even in the smallest town, you can write about the world. Why? Because it is a conglomeration of all these communities. You can find the world in America. I mean the world, with all its customs, defects and strengths. As a European, the more I get to know America, the more it fascinates me and the more distant I fee–light years away” (Frayling, 2000, 486).