Saturday, July 17, 2021

Giulio Questi | Se sei vivo spara (Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!)

the unhappy place

by Douglas Messerli

Franco Arcalli and Giulio Questi (story and screenplay), Giulio Questi (director) Se sei vivo spara (Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!) / 1967

In Italian director Giulio Questi’s 1967 gay Spaghetti Western Se sei vivo spara (Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!), no one is spared, particularly the members of the audience. There are no heroes, but the closest character to such a designation, simply called The Stranger (Tomas Milian) along with one of his Indian saviors are the only two central adult figures who survive. The only others left are a few of the townsmen from “The Unhappy Place” and their abused children. And given their generally violent behavior it is hard to imagine that they will get on alone for very long. This is a western without heroes, without leaders—no sheriff, no wise and loving saloon girl, no one. Even the dead corpses from the town cemetery have been dug up to rot, and there is no one left who might imagine burying the dozens of corpses left behind as The Stranger slowly rides his horse outside of the hellish world which he has miraculously survived.

    This is certainly the most violent film ever produced.* Dozens of men and one woman are shot to death, some forced to dig their own graves beforehand. Several men are blown up by explosives tied to a horse. Three men are hung. A man and a woman burn to death in a fire the woman has herself started, the man also suffering burns from molten metal pouring over his hands and face. A young boy shoots himself after being gang-raped by the dozens of ranch hands who have kidnapped him. Another man is scalped alive. And yet another is killed by the doctor and others trying to extract gold bullets from his wounds. Children are regularly stomped and kicked. The Stranger, who himself has accomplished a number of these murders, and is tortured--perhaps the least of his sufferings given the fact that he has been previously shot and left for dead, and is in danger of being shot and killed again throughout the entire film. The Stranger’s Indian friend finally kills two men with blow darts in order to free The Stranger from his torture. Even a jabbering parrot is shot to death.

     There is also a lot of sex, none of which—strangely enough given the almost joyful depiction of every last drop of blood and pained agony of violence—is actually shown, despite the fact that we know that a whole gang of gay ranchboys have had sex with the seemingly unwilling young boy Evan Templer (Ray Lovelock); The Stranger has sex with her husband’s knowledge with his supposedly “mad” wife Elizabeth Alderman (Patrizia Valturri); and Templer’s woman Flory (Marilù Tolo) almost has an orgasm on screen while listening to her lover Bill (Milo Quesada) and Reverend Alderman (Francisco Sanz) argue over gold. One pre-teen boy is shown naked (although only from the back) early in the film.

      As you might guess since the local “Reverend” is one of the villains of the piece, there is little value given to religion in this film, and, as I mentioned above, even the dead are dug up, their coffins mutilated. No one that I ascertain, except perhaps for the two Indians who save The Stranger’s life have any moral scruples. Flory and Bill are perfectly happy to hide their gold nugget horde in Evan’s coffin. And even the town’s doctor kill’s his patient, the head of the gang killed by The Stranger’s gold bullets, in his hurried attempt to get to pull out the valuable lure of his operation.

      Women are not only treated brutally, but this work actually portrays, as in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the mad woman in the attic, locked away, in this instance by Alderman because she has attempted to escape the horrible inhibitions of his household. And like another woman forced to suffer something in the attic, Paula Alquist Anton in George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), Elizabeth has even been made to believe she may actually be going mad. Templer’s unmarried lover Flory, moreover, is represented merely as a money-grubbing whore without any real desires except her endless lust for gold.

         This sad town is controlled by a gang of gay rancheros headed by a man named Sorrow (Roberto Camardiel)—who has evidently taught the band of boys he has gathered around him how to love gay sex, food, and liquor—they are portrayed, as several critics have noted, like Mussolini’s blackshirts (the paramilitary wing of the National Fascist Party) in Italy, or Hitler’s brownshirts headed by the homosexual Nazi Ernst Röhm. Indeed these gay ranch boys are all decked out in all black attire with the ranch insignia’s embroidered in white. This film has no sympathy whatsoever for any LGBTQ behavior.

      Even the young Evan, who attempts to team up with The Stranger in order to get out of town to seek something better, sounding very much like a gay boy stranded in a small US town, spends his spare time in taking a scissors to his step-mother’s dresses and robes, which surely represents a kind of vengeance if not also a fetishistic act.

     The only one who seems to care for anyone other than himself is The Stranger, who appears to care about the boy, and even suggests he will try to help Elizabeth escape. Yet he is not a man who cannot keep his promises. He not only takes Evan into harm’s way as he temporarily joins up with Sorrow’s ranch gang—which forces one to wonder what he is seeking in accepting employment for a man who he must recognize is just as dangerous as Templer and Alderman back in town, but also is clearly interested in The Stranger’s good looks—but, after saving the boy’s life, at least for one more night, he apparently watches the men having sexual intercourse with the boy as a willing voyeur. For all we know, in his drunken state he might even have joined in. 

     As the Sorrow and his men sleep, satiated by their liquor, food, and sex—reminding one of a scene in Mauro Bolognini La notte brava (The Big Night) (1959), after a similarly all-male orgiastic event—the boy steals one of the men's’ guns and, and as I mention above, shoots himself.

     Since he has no gun and no way to escape being recaptured by Sorrow’s men, The Stranger has no possible way of coming back for and saving Elizabeth. When tortured by Sorrow and his gay soldiers—quite ludicrously given that the gila monster they send after his near-naked body seems to have no interest in attacking the man, and the so-called vampire bats mostly hover near him without even attempting to bite—he breaks down and tells them what they want to know, who in town has the gold and where it’s hidden. And he seems to have no compunction in destroying an innocent animal in order to make his escape—far too late to save anyone, including his Indian friend who the townspeople, as they seek out The Stranger’s whereabouts, scalp. And he leaves town without any of the gold and little of the righteous vengeance he sought. Moreover, we must recall, he was one of the original robbers of the gold stolen from the governmental Wells Fargo shipment. The reason why he was killed was because the evil head of the gang of which he was part was so racist that he couldn’t bear to have Mexicans or even half-breeds like The Stranger around him once he had helped accomplished the robbery.

     No, there is no even subtle thread of moral salvation in this story!       

     But for all that, if you’ve got a strong stomach and you keep your wits about you to realize that this is all an absurd, surrealist fiction using ketchup or, I like to think, spaghetti sauce instead of real blood and that the contortions of suffering of the faces of those we see are really little different from the two children at the end of this film, forcing their faces into contorted and grimacing expressions in order to entertain through the use of a few threads of twine, this film is utterly fascinating to watch. 

      It reminds me some of the graphic S&M fiction written by the great Italian poet Guillaume Apollinaire who wrote such porno works for a wealthy male who presumably paid him well for  violent sexual fantasies; if you don’t read them as expressing real worlds, their language and images are thoroughly absorbing as entertainments—even if, as in my case, you have absolutely no particular interest in violent images of sex.

     In both cases it is as if the Apollinaire and director Questi (who was Fellini’s assistant director on La Dolce Vita) were suggesting in their absurdist extension of the myths surrounding their genres—in the writer’s case porn fiction and in the director’s case the violence inherent in cinema Western myths, particularly those as explored by Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly  and  Sergio Corbucci’s Django, both of a year earlier. Their argument might well be that if there is no longer any moral resonance remaining in the genre, then art is all you have left.

     Ignoring the ridiculously badly dubbed English of the characters (two scenes in Italian remain, cut from the US showings), the complex story interwoven between four strands of evil groups—the original Oaks’ gang who rob the Wells Fargo stage, Templer’s men, Aldermen and the local townsmen, and Sorrow and his ranch workers, all of whom attempt to manipulate and desire to kill The Stranger—is equally intriguing (the screenplay is written by Franco Arcali, who with Bernardo Bertolucci wrote The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris and with Michelangelo Antonioni penned Zabriskie Point and The Passenger).

     And finally, the film, despite its endless splashes of blood, is truly quite beautiful to watch (under the camera of cinematographer Franco Delli Coli, who shot Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone and Mamma Roma and Luchino Visconti's The Leopard).    

     Through both the plot and its images, this is story about trapped individuals, figures who truly cannot escape their destinies, mostly because they have sold their souls, like Faust, not precisely to the devil but to the monster of greed, to money and, in particular, gold. Gold may represent for each of them, in different ways, a kind of escape: in Sorrow’s and his mens’ case an escape into the body (through food, drink, and sex), in Templer and his lover an escape into luxury, for Alderman to a refuge of himself alone with his Narcissus-like spirituality, for Oaks simply a way out of the desert into some more pleasant world, and for figures like Evan and Elizabeth simply a ticket out of town to a “better” place; but in each case in order to get the money or make their “escape,” they have to find some way to control everything else around them which obviously leads to the violence we witness throughout.

     But the very knotted nature of this tale into which he of them is tangled and the images we observe make it clear that there is no way out of any of them. Moreover, they live in a world haunted by imprisonment and burial. The Stranger begins this story as a buried man clawing his way back to life from the grave, and from then on is constantly witnessed in tight window frames, locked rooms, and true imprisonment. So too is Elizabeth imprisoned. But then all of these figures, as we witness, are locked away in their ranch (Sorrow), home (Alderman), and saloon  (Templer) and before the end of the tale will be buried, perhaps like all the others to be dug up without The Stranger’s transfiguration. Only the dead and dying are visually allowed any space.

     If in his rebirth The Stranger becomes a kind of Christ, he has no moral value in this world and is forced to remain passive when it comes to preventing human destruction. He is the Christ of the spirit rather than the flesh. And throughout the film all he seeks out is a good night’s sleep, something he is never truly permitted.

    In short, even though he rides out of The Unhappy Place alive, his desire is to sleep perhaps for a very long while, perhaps forever given what he has just experienced.

    And yes, finally, this film is also somewhat campy with its army of gay rancheros who are, after all, in control of things. But make no mistake, this is not a gay friendly film. As Vito Russo argued, if in early cinema LGBTQ figures were almost invisible, sometimes so difficult for the ordinary audience goer to even perceive as being queer that we describe them as coded, as time progressed queerness, if more visible, was represented as evil, something surely worth being destroyed as much as the greed of selfishness of other evil characters. Questi’s film is worth watching—as are the other so-called gay Spaghetti Westerns such as Alberto Mariscal’s Los marcados (They Call Him Marcado) (1971), Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescent (Kill and Pray) (1967), and Giorgio Capitani’s The Ruthless Four (1976)—as evidence of how the growing visibility and power of gay figures was met at first with a sense of horror, fear, and hate. In the myths of these films gay men lived in power-hungry groups seeking out the innocent to convert or destroy in their lusts.

*In saying this, however, I am aware that in many of day’s films based on comic book heroes and fabulist adventures thousands of men are mowed down with all kinds of magic weaponry and armies of robots in a way that someone like Questi could not even have imagined. But I have the feeling that in those works the deaths are more like gaming statistics instead being representative of actual human deaths. Questi’s film might better be described as the most gruesome.

Los Angeles, July 16, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2021).

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