Thursday, January 28, 2016

ChernFest 2016: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Some day, either before I kick or even after, I want my very own film festival. (Of course, if I'm dead, it would really ruin the experience for me) It could bear my name, which of course would be an honor unless, of course, I named it myself. (I am nothing if not self-serving) But I can also rock out the self-deprecation like nobody's business which explains away my other suggestion, the Some Dunce Film Festival. But since it's my birthday and this is the date I designate for my this fauxtival o' mine, I decided to settle on the more self-reverential ChernFest. Yeah, it's all about the Self. (But truth to tell, Some Dunce is better and probably more accurate)
 ChernFest will obviously center on my favorite films of all time, but the feature attraction of the very first cinematic celebration has to be what I consider the King of the Hill. Here, in an excerpt from my book In the Dark: A Life and Times in a Movie Theater, is my take on Sergio Leone's masterpiece, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Sergio Leone used his camera like the baton of the maestro he was, conducting his grandiose shoot-‘em-up horse operas with a robust flair of an outrageous master with a lust for life. Never was this more evident than in his masterpiece The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the last of his Dollars trilogy, which were akin to Wagner’s Ring Cycle on horseback. This became the epic film of my youth. Never before had I seen the western set in such a bold canvas as the Civil War. When I tasted this spicy mesh of fact and fiction, stirred together in a cinematic bowl of rich minestrone, my palate was changed forever for it made me want to sample more complex flavors that existed in thecinematic world, which I soon did.
Due to their familiarity to American audiences, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood almost seem like astronauts stranded on a distant planet against the backdrop of Leone’s vision. It takes but an instant to realize that they are the great director’s boldest colors on this magnificent painting of his and they are unforgettable. Van Cleef had such a distinct presence on screen that it is difficult to believe and the shame of Hollywood that he was so unsung an actor and underutilized by producers. Wallach, in the role of Tuco as the credits state and “also known as The Rat” as Eastwood says in the film, is nothing short of fantastic. It is to his credit that he goes so far over the top in his portrayal without becoming obnoxious, not an easy task in a film not in one’s native tongue.
Then there’s Clint. He is so laid back that he appears to be slumming and allows his co-stars to outshine him. The majority of critics had already misdiagnosed his acting style as “wooden” at this point. They ignored the inherent cool he projected which became part of his signature style. But, it is evident that this is still his movie. One of the most poetic moments in GBU (Good, Bad, Ugly) occurs when the Man with No Name (or Blondie as Tuco calls him) tends to a dying young soldier near the end of the film. He allows the boy a drag off his cigar, a last smoke for comfort. Suddenly, there is a decency about this man that surfaces momentarily. While this small act of charity is fleeting, this Man with No Name more than earns the title of “The Good”.
The first movie soundtrack album I ever bought was GBU. I’d play it incessantly and discovered the inspirational qualities of music while I wrote my stories as a kid. Many a time, that familiar strangulated cry from the main theme blasted out of the stereo speakers in my bedroom. I often wondered if anyone in my neighborhood thought someone was being murdered in our house. Later, I compiled several tracks from this and other soundtracks to create a mix tape that I used for atmospheric purposes at a western theme park called Pollardville Ghost Town. I was the entertainment director for a couple of years there as well as a cowboy stunt player in the various skits we performed on the town’s main street. (I even wore the poncho I bought ten years before in Tijuana after I’d seen GBU)
One afternoon, I was in downtown Portland, Oregon waiting for a light rail train nearby what is now known as Province Park, the home stadium for the 2015 MLS champion Portland Timbers soccer team and other sporting events. It was near five o’clock on a Friday and I was fatigued by a particularly grueling work week. Like everyone else, I just wanted to go home. Music, very familiar music at that, caught my ear. This was a melody so esoteric and personal to me that I began to feel as though I were imagining it, scoring my daily life like music sometimes does.
But no, it was indeed Ennio Morricone’s music from GBU. The piece from the film soundtrack is entitled “The Strong” and its melancholy tones echoed throughout the streets of SW Portland. It was coming from the stadium across the street from where I was standing. I walked to the curb and just stared at the stadium when another cut called “The Ecstasy of Gold” began. In the film, it plays when Tuco (Wallach) discovers Sad Hill Cemetery and searches for the grave holding the buried treasure he seeks.
It was then that I discovered my own treasure. I smiled from ear to ear as I heard the magnificence of Morricone enrich my soul and an actual tear came to my eye in recognition. It was right then that I found that I wasn’t alone in the world. Some one had the chutzpah to play Ennio goddamn Morricone for a sound check at a sports arena and that person was just as big of a freak as me. When you’re an eccentric weirdo, you never know when you’re going to run across a kindred spirit.
I’ve always resisted making Top Ten All-Time Best Film lists. I dunno. Maybe it’s fear of commitment or something. What’s more likely is that I’d end up obsessing over the damn thing. “Oh no! I left off Megaforce!” It’s all relative anyway. Do I really know what’s the best? I can only state my own preferences. To tell you the truth, I didn’t actually come to terms with what my very favorite movie of all time was until just a few years ago. I had in my head it was either Citizen Kane or The Godfather Part II. But after I took in a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (with restored footage) in 2003 at Portland’s Cinema 21, it all come home to me. I sat in that theater on a Saturday afternoon, bouncing up and down in my chair like I was 12 years old all over again. (Thank God I went alone) The film was as vibrant and spectacular as I had remembered and reminded me of the influence it has made on my life. Therefore, I can emphatically proclaim without any reservations whatsoever that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
moved into the number one spot, making it my favorite film of all time. (Yeah, I know. Way to make a stand.)

                                                        
Happy birthday to me.


In the Dark: A Life and Times in a Movie Theater is available on Kindle at Amazon.com and in paperback at Lulu.com This is the Special Edition too. It says so right on the book jacket.