It’s an interesting time for the once dead film genre known as the Western. Ever since Clint Eastwood snagged an Oscar for his “revisionist” revival of the spiraling cinematic favorite, post-modern moviemakers have embraced a more deconstructed version of the oater. In their mind, the standard element of black hat/white hat, good vs evil no longer holds sway in a society far more ambiguous and ethically unsure. While recent horse operas have tried to trade on those wholesome, old fashioned values (the recently released 3:10 to Yuma), others have actually tried to dig deeper into that dilemma. The 2006 Australian hit The Proposition was one such example, as is the upcoming Brad Pitt ‘epic’ The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both movies see the stereotypical symbolism inherent in the category as a means of making larger, more metaphysical points.
It’s the very reason the spaghetti interpretation of the material made such a splash 40 years ago. Treating the genre as a combination of considered iconography and classical tragedy, the mannered, manipulated imagery created by these foreign films generated a whole new emblematic appeal. Unlike the Hollywood way of the sagebrush saga, which used character as a catalyst for its bigger right/wrong dynamic, Italian directors like Sergio Leone skipped the personal and went right for the problem. They elevated disputes into wars of karmic calculation, and blurred the lines between villain, victor, and victim. It’s no wonder the western faded away after the influx of the Mediterranean influence. With the exception of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s brilliant El Topo, few could find a way around the contrasting combination of clipped heroics and glimpsed Hell. That is, until now.
To call it genius would be a gross understatement. To label it a homemade homage to an equally endearing artform would also be too simplistic. For filmmakers, musicians, and friends Mike Bruce and Kirkpatrick Thomas, the Once Upon a Fistful
fabulousness of the pasta prairie parade is merely a jumping off point for a combination lampoon and love letter to the works that rewired their cinematic sensibilities. The result – the magnificent Legend of God’s Gun
, a shot on video fever dream filtered through the latest high tech post-production optical candy factories to produce one of the most original and unforgettable films of the newly crowned “noughts”. While it may seem like nothing more than a copycat compilation of Leone, Corbucci, and Barboni riffs, with just a little sidewinding psychedelia thrown in for gonzo measure, the opposite is actually true. What Bruce (director/actor) and Thomas (writer/actor/composer) manage is nothing less than a brilliant distillation of everything the reformulated artform stood for.
The story is devastatingly simple. A one time gunslinger turned Preacher (his woman was murdered by a band of ruthless outlaws right before his eyes) wanders the desolate desert countryside, seeking salvation and revenge. He’s after the scorpion poison drinking desperado, El Sobro. Along with his gang of craven killers, the villain has cut a trail of death and destruction all across the West. Sought by a Bounty Hunter desperate for recognition – and financial returns – these divergent individuals will eventually face off in the small town of Playa Diablo, a place where the Sheriff senses his wife is cheating on him, and the Deputy is the dog doing it behind his back. Of course, there’s some sacred gold involved, and more than one personal vendetta to settle, as gunfights turn into glorifications for everything the winning of the Wild West ever stood for or signified.
Sadly, such a description doesn’t do The Legend of God’s Gun justice. It’s one of the most artistically accomplished and visionary self-made movies since Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut and Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family. Not only does it flaunt our expectations of spaghetti worship, but it takes the era in which the cinematic revolution occurred and channels it through the genre formulas as well. The results rip through your brain and sever your synapses, shredding what you know about film and replacing it with a brand new celluloid language. There are moments here of visual grandeur that top the most accomplished moviemaking recreationist. There are also sequences of significant reinvention that speak to Bruce and Thomas’ talent both in front of and behind the camera. This is not just some celebration of cinema. It’s a bow to all the media this duo dig – comics, the music of Morricone, pop art, action movies, and the always systemic image of a poised gun.
In its mannerism and make-up, The Legend of God’s Gun plays like a series of climaxes waiting for the context to catch up to them. Backstory is hinted at and inferred, while characterization is kept to costuming, quirk, and straightforward sonic signatures. This is not the Penny Dreadful style of shoot ‘em up that monopolized the Western myth for the first 60 years of modern moviemaking. Instead, Legend channels more bizarro attempts at reviving the genre, like the works of Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie), Marlon Brando (One Eyed Jacks), and the Sams - Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), Fuller (Forty Guns), and Raimi (The Quick and the Dead). It also invests in its own naiveté, understanding completely that it can never fully recreate the slow burn significance of the films that came before it. Instead, this is an effort of insinuation, to use a more Madison Avenue approach to the subject matter, meaning it hits the high notes, the recognizable rigors, and then invents its own clever combinations to compensate for the lack of legitimacy.
And it’s not just an internal conceit. As stated before, this is a basic camcorder production, a shot on video version of every other outsider attempt at moviemaking the new science can support. But thanks to the computer, and its ability to tweak colors, create age, provide purposeful defects, and give each frame the full Peter Max dynamic, Bruce and Thomas can indulge their every creative whim. They exploit long forgotten film elements like split screen, freeze framing, multiple exposures, fish eyed lens, kaleidoscope effect, and insert montages. In combination with the astounding score by Thomas’ band Spindrift (so sonically right it’s frightening), the amateur acting from the cast (complete with mandatory ADR voiceover work), the backdrop’s bravura grandeur (it’s ghost town-irrific) and the many little moments of outright gadgetry make for a movie that revives your faith in filmmaking.
Since it is only available directly from the filmmakers (through their production company, Razor Tree Films) and lacks the full blown digital directness of a professionally distributed product, there will be those who dismiss the polish of this project. They will look at the self-helmed hucksterism and argue that it’s no different than dozens of other moviemaking wannabes selling their wares out of the metaphysical back of their van known as the Internet. But that would be missing the point. Decades ago, Francis Ford Coppola argued that cinema would finally find a populist position, technology allowing anyone with an idea to bring their vision to the otherwise myopic masses (it’s a position supported by such diverse entities as Martin Scorsese and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman). The Legend of God’s Gun is a clear indication of this new media mandate. It’s an explosive, eye popping expression of full blown film geek love measured through an aesthetic sensibility that flawlessly recreates its own insular inspiration.
Not only that, but it’s a nod to the filmic forbearers who had the wisdom and wherewithal to see that the Western wasn’t dead, just in need of a major artistic overhaul. Bruce and Thomas follow the footpath carved out by brilliant, bloody works such as The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West and then invert it all for the socially hip. It’s a blatant doom trip, a droning drive directly into the sand washed mythos of the cowboy, the gunslinger, and the cruel, callous killer. In The Legend of God’s Gun, we are not dealing with law and order, civilization vs. savagery. Instead, this is the amazingly muddled and fertile fields of the genre expressionists, people who propose there existed more going on behind the scenes of any storyline than just upright citizenry, quiet desperation, and wanton wickedness. There was a meaning that reached far beyond humanity to address the very nature of being. Luckily, these filmmakers found a way to guide their vision. It’s now available for all who are interested – and it’s amazing