The Coen Brothers have always been motion picture archaeologists, mining the past for their perfectionist postmodern motives. But they managed something even more shocking with this celebration of fast talking, gun totting hoods—they discovered the art buried deep inside the artifice. The plot is nothing special; a series of double crosses leading to a final determination of loyalty and ‘ethics’, but the siblings’ bravura writing, their knowledge of visual potency, and their overall way with a camera makes for an intensely entertaining experience. Like all legitimate classics, it draws its own conclusions and leaves you breathless in the process.
You can have The Searchers. You can keep John Wayne and his flag waving pilgrim jingoism. As brilliant as that movie is, with all its flash and dramatic flourishes, this is where the Western was destined to go. Dirty, defiant, and dark, dark, dark, Sergio Leone infused the stodgy cinematic stereotypes with a foreign fire that burns even brighter today. While some still favor his Man with No Name Trilogy, this is the title that cements the spaghetti western’s import as a postmodern precursor. It also established Leone’s legacy as a legitimate master… where he remains to this day.
Another genre missing from S&S’s so called conclusive list is animation… and who better to represent the motion picture MIA than the man who turned cartoons into classics, Walt Disney. Some may argue for Snow White, or the far more experimental Fantasia, but when it comes to showing off the best of what the pen and ink approach has to offer, nothing can compare to this rich, robust take on Collodi’s celebrated character. Meticulous, detailed, both heart-stopping and heart-breaking, it cemented Disney’s idea that the fledgling film format could compete with the big boys. The proof is pure imagination.
Quentin Tarantino may still be the punchline to an indie item’s fad gadget dismissal, but no one can deny the power of this near-perfect film. Like a shot of aesthetic adrenaline placed directly into the motion picture pleasure centers of your brain, the ex-video store clerk turned cultural lynchpin took your standard cops and robbers routine, subtracted the law, and let his amazing way with dialogue drown everything in couplets of quotable splendor. Sure, there’s an insular cleverness that always keeps the audience guessing, but the results are so resplendent we’re happy to wait until later to figure it all out.
Yes, S&S has this poised at number 17, meaning it actually makes the Top 20, but it should be placed a lot higher than it is. A lot higher. Kurosawa’s influential epic may seem like nothing more than a stayed action thriller with sword wielding warriors battling baddies to save a small village, but it’s much more than that. It’s statement of Japanese pride, a post-war compact on a still warm national wound. It’s also an influential blueprint for the kind of ensemble excitement that would come later, with efforts like The Magnificent Seven (a direct remake) and The Wild Bunch.
// Notes from the Road
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