I’m neither a fan of westerns nor Charles Bronson. So how is it that Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In the West is quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever seen? It is incredible. The opening sequence alone is worth the price of admission. If you have not seen it, carve out bout three hours and watch it. Ask yourself how a three-hour movie can be so austere in its story-telling.
Ask yourself, because I certainly can’t tell you. And that’s a problem.
I’ve been mulling over the idea of starting writing about movies again, but movies like Once Upon a Time In the West have always defeated me. What I discovered the last time I tried my hand at movie criticism was that it’s easy to poke fun at bad movies, but really hard to write reviews of the good ones. So Matt Zoller Seitz’s post on understanding the art you critique is pretty timely:
We see adjectives such as “visceral” or “gritty” or “shaky” or “elegant” thrown around like handfuls of confetti, with no elaboration as to why a particular scene or shot or moment earned those adjectives.
Seitz has a point, and it’s not restricted to film. The academic thought has been Marxist or Historicist or Postmodernist, focusing on political, cultural, and personal meanings and treating the actual manufacturing of art as though those were boring technical details. Mainstream and amateur criticism hasn’t done any better, devolving either into long-winded plot synopsis or “lifestyle reporting.”
This is a real shame, and not just because it’s robbed criticism of snootiness. The means of art production and mass distribution are cheaper than they’ve ever been, so discussions of form have never had more real, practical value than they do now. It’s crippling how make art, too.
So the problem is Once Upon a Time in the West is a fantastic film and I’m not real sure how to express that to you. The same is true for Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night … even Monsters vs. Aliens, although to a somewhat lesser extent. Realizing that has lead me to a greater appreciation of form than I’ve ever had. The other criticisms are interesting and useful, but they rely on understanding structure. I think that may have been so foundational that we didn’t even realize it was there.
Image Credits: Film Still / Once Upon a Time in the West