Steven Soderbergh, Magic Mike, 2012, color film, 110 minutes. Magic Mike and Brooke (Channing Tatum and Cody Horn).

OK, PEOPLE, YOU CAN BREATHE EASY: Your guilty summer pleasure is finally here. The new Channing Tatum vehicle, endlessly referred to in recent weeks as “Steven Soderbergh’s highly anticipated male-stripper movie,” arrives in theaters today in a whirl of smooth, muscled torsos, hooded bedroom eyes, and thrusting and grinding pelvises. Loosely based on Tatum’s real-life, pre-breakout days as a member of an all-male revue, Magic Mike centers on the titular Mike, the thirty-year-old lady-killing centerpiece of a Tampa-based male stripping crew run by the drawling, genially Machiavellian former stripper Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike’s real passion—though, curiously, its practice isn’t once depicted in the movie—is for making custom furniture, and his hope is to turn this inclination into a business. But the economy, as he explains early on to one of his multiple bedmates, hasn’t hit “the sweet spot” yet. And so, putting his dreams aside, he details cars, works construction, and, most profitably, strips on the weekends, for throngs of howling “bachelorettes” and “cougars.” The movie’s animating conflict arrives in the form of the Kid (Alex Pettyfer)—a new recruit to the stripping business, who Mike grooms, Pygmalion-like—and his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), a medical-claims administrator whose sharp tongue and slim hips position her immediately in the movie’s moral-compass/love-interest role.

The central question Magic Mike poses, at least initially, is an important one: What happens when passion—sexual, professional, sociable—gets traded in for money? And this, in fact, is a question that Soderbergh should be quite capable of answering, as his past work has often chronicled the ways in which desire is translated into the impersonal language of the contemporary American marketplace. Soderbergh’s films—whether their plot, characters, and budget are more conventionally Hollywoodesque or less so—have consistently been distinguished by a professionalized, even-keeled directorial detachment, so omnipresent that it often becomes a thematic preoccupation. His movies are both instances of and comments on a culture saturated with impersonality—a culture turned product.

This tendency has been evident from the first in Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), which examined, with cool detachment, people who are able to engage with one another only through the mediation of a video camera, through the documentary-like Girlfriend Experience (2009), in which a high-class call girl struggles to build herself as a “brand” as 2008’s financial markets collapse around her, all the way up to Contagion (2011), where individual lives are effortlessly swept away by a cruel, abstract, global virus. And now, too, Magic Mike, which—despite its superficial lasciviousness, the expanses of bare, toned flesh it exhibits—isn’t really a movie about sex. Rather, it’s a movie about “sex,” and it goes some way toward depicting how particularized, felt experiences can be converted into abstract currency—of bland social banter, of narrative cliché, of spectacle, of money.

But although the movie’s trajectory inexorably, and predictably, leads toward Mike’s refusal to continue being converted into a tradable commodity—in a pivotal moment, he insists to Brooke, “I am not my lifestyle!”—the snag is that we’re only interested in Mike because of this lifestyle, certainly not because of his life. In other words, the movie still dares us to ogle Channing Tatum’s abdominal muscles even as it tries to sell us on his desire to leave the nightlife behind him to make coffee tables and go on monogamous dates with Brooke. And while God knows there’s nothing wrong with Channing Tatum’s abs, the earnest blandness of this rom-comish turn does disappoint. For all his vulgarity, the franker representative of Magic Mike’s true ethos may very well be the Kid, who, as the movie ends, is just beginning his reign as the new stripper king of Florida. In a speech that the movie seems to suggest is misguided, but that, in fact, reflects the credo that covertly animates it from the get-go, the Kid expresses his gratitude to Mike for showing him the ropes in the world of stripping. “I have money,” he says. “I can fuck who I wanna fuck. I have freedom. Thanks to you.” God bless America.

Naomi Fry

Magic Mike opens in theaters in the US on Friday, June 29.

Wild Bunch


Tim Sutton, Pavilion, 2012, still from a color film, 70 minutes.

BAMCINEMAFEST RETURNS with another superb lineup of independent movies, many hyped and headed for summer release and others flying under the radar. In the first category, Benh Zeitlin’s glorious Cannes Camera d’Or and Sundance Grand Prize winner Beasts of the Southern Wild is the one to see. BAM will give it the quality projection it deserves, and the promised postscreening Q&A features the articulate director and some of the actors, hopefully irrepressible Quvenzhané Wallis (now eight years old) who plays Hushpuppy, the film’s guiding consciousness, and Dwight Henry, who plays her tough-loving father.

Beasts aside, the most exciting movies in the festival don’t have distribution. In fact, their makers—Tim Sutton, Keith Miller, Dan Sallitt, the team of Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy—ignore the rules that have turned the once promising independent film moment into Hollywood cheap and lite. Only one of them, Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, has a hopeful ending; only one, Shatzky and Cassidy’s Francine, employs a “name” actor. All of them eschew glamour but have moments of rare beauty. And one of them, Sutton’s Pavilion, is exquisite beginning to end.

An impressionistic coming-of-age movie, Pavilion depicts a fifteen-year-old-boy and friends hanging out in the summer. The first half is set in the lush green woods and sparkling blue lakes of upstate New York, where the boy is vacationing with his mother. The second half switches to the flat, arid Arizona desert, where he stays with his unemployed father in a series of motels that are an embarrassment to both of them. Shooting with the lowly Canon5, cinematographer Chris Dapkin finds the light in both settings: The sun’s rays pierce through foliage and reflect from the water to dapple and dance on faces and bodies and the surfaces of objects, and the harsh unfiltered light bakes the highways and strip malls of the Southwest and turns the metal-fenced parking lot that the boy sees from his motel window into a prison. Seth Bomse’s editing is just as essential as the camerawork to the movie’s balancing of the ephemeral with the concrete.

Pavilion is, in the most basic sense, an action film; that is to say the kids—mostly boys but, at significant moments, also a girl or two—spend their time biking, hiking, swimming, climbing trees. The movie shows them doing all of this for real in extended shots and sequences. They are not particularly skilled or graceful, but they have the kind of adolescent recklessness that occasionally makes you fear for their lives. As the elliptically constructed, elusive narrative gathers force (it’s barely an undercurrent until the understated final scene), you might become aware that your growing anxiety has as much to do with the central character’s fragile psyche as with the physical dangers he sometimes courts. Sutton’s direction of his nonprofessional cast is as marvelous as his control of all of the movie’s elements. Pavilion is one of the rare films to depict the beauty of young teenagers without either neutering or exploiting their sexuality.

BAMcinemaFest privileges music, and many screenings are followed by live performances. (Sam Prekop of the Sea and Cake, who supply the subtle but pulsing score for Pavilion, will perform with Archer Prewitt after the film.) In this context, indeed, in any context these days, a film without a score can seem bare and awkward, as did the first two or three scenes of The Unspeakable Act. But soon the movie established its own rhythms, and the intelligence and emotional clarity of the script and of the central performance were more powerful for being thus exposed. It’s an American Rohmer movie, I thought, an insight then confirmed in the closing dedication. The tip-off came largely from the casting of Tallie Medel, in a remarkable debut as Jackie, a sixteen-year-old girl who is passionately in love with her slightly older brother. Medel resembles the young Béatrice Romand of Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), in both her idiosyncratic dark beauty and her forthright, intelligent presentation of self. Jackie’s desire is not primarily sexual, and the titular “unspeakable act,” while much spoken about, is never consummated. What she claims she really wants is to live with her brother forever, a desire that is explored and gradually transformed in the course of the best psychotherapy sessions one could wish for.

If the festival gave an acting award, I would hope it could be split between Medel and the equally brilliant novice actor Shannon Harper, who stars in and is in multiple ways the reason for the existence of Miller’s powerful and poignant Welcome to Pine Hill. The movie opens with a scene in which a burly black man and a spindly white man argue about who is the owner of a dog. The black man is played by Harper, the white man by the director (this is evident from the credits), and the scene bristles with the kinds of antagonisms produced by race and class differences and which are important to get out on the table; while they never occur in the narrative per se again, they do underlie the movie’s production. If you go to Welcome to Pine Hill’s website, you will discover that the scene is a variation on the real-life first encounter of the two men, which led to Miller’s desire to build a film around Harper, despite the issues surrounding a white director making a movie that is set in a black milieu. But if ever there were an example of an actor making a film his own, this one is it. Harper gives a stunning, fully immersed performance as a former gangbanger who’s done his time and is working as an insurance claims adjuster. No sooner has he begun to enjoy having a regular paycheck than he discovers he has a rare form of stomach cancer that will kill him, painfully, in a matter of weeks.

If Welcome to Pine Hill sounds like a downer, it’s not near as difficult to watch as the two unsparing films by Shatzky and Cassidy: The Patron Saints, a documentary shot with intimacy and great respect in a nursing home, and Francine, the team’s debut fiction film, which stars Melissa Leo as a woman who loves animals too much to keep from damaging them and herself. On the other end of the emotional spectrum are several charming programs geared to both children and accompanying adults. In Crazy and Thief, basically a black-and-white home movie, Cory McAbee follows his two-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter as they invest the streets of Brooklyn with the magic powers of their imaginations. “Take Me to the Balloony Bin!” is a compilation of shorts built around balloons including three classics and Josh and Benny Safdie’s captivating The Black Balloon. This edition of BAMcinemaFest made me believe that the American art movie has returned to life.

Amy Taubin

BAMcinemaFest 2012 runs Wednesday, June 20–Sunday, July 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Left: Warwick Thornton, Samson and Delilah, 2009, still from a color film, 115 minutes. Right: Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, Ten Canoes, 2006, still from a color film, 90 minutes.

THERE WAS A VERY GOOD REASON that it took until the twenty-first century for the Inuit people of Canada’s far north to craft a cinematic epic of their own. In order to make Atanarjuat (2001)—which plays the opening weekend of First Peoples Cinema, the most ambitious program on the summer slate for Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox—director Zacharias Kunuk and his team coped with extremes of climate and terrain that would have rendered conventional film equipment useless. For Kunuk’s bracing modern telling of a one-thousand-year-old legend, using a digital video camera was less an aesthetic choice than the only option—at the subzero temperatures common to northern Nunavut, film becomes brittle and breaks apart.

Ironically, it wasn’t the cold that fouled up an earlier effort to introduce audiences to Inuit traditions: Robert Flaherty made his 1922 documentary Nanook of the North only after footage of his first voyages was destroyed in a fire caused by a carelessly disposed cigarette. Film stock’s vulnerability to the elements has been just one of many impediments in the efforts by aboriginal peoples to take control of how they have been represented on screen. For all of its sins, Hollywood is not the only film industry to caricature indigenous groups as either violent savages or mystic exotics. That’s why the emergence of an avidly self-determined brand of aboriginal cinema has been such a welcome trend in the eleven years since Atanarjuat won the Camera d’Or at Cannes.

Billed as the largest and most extensive series of its kind ever mounted in North America, First Peoples Cinema launches with a musical event that pairs Flaherty’s iconic doc with a new live score by throat singer Tanya Tagaq, a fitting gesture of cultural reclamation. Traveling far and wide to portray the astonishing diversity of films by (and sometimes about) the world’s indigenous peoples, the program risks becoming overambitious. Some patrons may struggle to perceive the links that connect, say, the fiercely polemical documentaries of Canadian/Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin and the rather cheerier Aussie musical Bran Nue Dae (2009). As for the many key works by nonaboriginals, surely this is the only film retrospective to ever find room for both the lyricism of The Anselmo Trilogy (1967–86)—Chick Strand’s 16-mm portraits of a native street musician she originally met in Mexico in 1964—and the proto-Rambo heroics of Jim Laughlin’s grind house staple Billy Jack (1971).

Yet if there’s anything that unifies the program’s boldest contents, it’s an emphasis on storytelling modes that are at once more ancient and more radical than cinema typically tolerates. That urge is especially palpable in the most freewheeling entries, movies like Ten Canoes (2006), a bawdy and knotty fable from Australia’s Northern Territory by directors Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, and Busong (2011), a beautiful if baffling fantasia made by Auraeus Solito in collaboration with the people of the Filipino island province of Palawan.

Just as extraordinary are the films that prefer a more melancholic register. Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009), another Camera d’Or winner, manages to encapsulate the history of Australia’s marginalization of its indigenous population in the harrowing but ultimately hopeful story of two teenagers from Alice Springs. The first feature film made in the Samoan language, Tusi Tamasese’s The Orator (2011) is a richly textured drama about a farmer forced by personal woes to redefine his role in a community that has long treated him and his family as pariahs.

And the team behind Atanarjuat would forgo its first triumph’s sweep and swagger in the more muted films that complete the Fast Runner Trilogy. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) and Before Tomorrow (2008) are equally haunting in their portrayal of the devastating effects of new values (and new viruses) on Inuit communities after their first encounters with outsiders. Yet both films demonstrate the enduring value and vitality of a culture in the face of subjugation and despair, thereby sounding a note of defiance that recurs throughout the series.

Jason Anderson

First Peoples Cinema runs June 21–August 19 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

Bambi Beltran, Keith Deligero, Norbert Elnar, Donna Gimeno, Christian Linaban, Idden de los Reyes, and Remton Siega Zuasola, Biyernes Biyernes (Friday Friday), 2011, still from a color film, 87 minutes.

This June, Yerba Buena presents twenty-nine films in its second year of programming for “New Filipino Cinema.” Even if one sees only a few of these works, which range from short and abstract works to serious documentaries to whimsical fabrications, a somewhat comprehensive view of contemporary cinema and culture of the Philippines may emerge. The most striking commonality throughout the series is the forthright disposition of the people who appear in them—some actors, some not. For instance, in the documentary Kano: An American and His Harem (2011), by Monster Jimenez, all the women involved speak candidly about their experiences, even at times admitting their lack of understanding of their own experiences.

Kiri Dalena’s short film Requiem for M (2010) opens with the harsh voice-over of a woman ranting about social injustice, blaming those in power and blatantly calling for revolution. This scene is followed by a funeral procession played backward, during which participants often face the camera directly, revealing their grief. Walang katapusang kwarto (An Endless Room, 2011), by Emerson Reyes, another intimate portrait, confronts the audience with continuous close-ups of two lovers in bed, arguing, kissing, and laughing.

Struggle is evident in the lives portrayed in many of the stories, whether real or fictional. The severity of rural life is treated as a given, yet a strong sense of community emerges again and again. One film that veers away from a focus on such hardship is Jade Castro’s playful Zombadings (2011), which deals with rampant homophobia and murder against drag queens in a small village. It weaves magic and folklore into the story to facilitate acceptance within the fictional community.

Each film shares the backdrop of the Philippines’ lush vegetation and the relatively simple ways of life that come from a connection to the land. Still, there are depictions of contemporary life—children at carnivals, teenagers on cell phones, women gossiping. An emphasis on women is found in many of the films, such as Biyernes Biyernes (Friday Friday, 2011), which focuses on the lives of fictional strangers as they search for different forms of comfort. What is most impressive in this program, aside from the stories themselves, is the range of styles and the apparent momentum for independent filmmaking that is building in the Philippines. Increasing interest in and support for filmmakers there suggests that this energy will expand to venues around the world in the years to come.

“New Filipino Cinema” runs June 7–17 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

Courtney Malick

Ben Rivers, Slow Action, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 45 minutes.

ONE TYPICAL SUNDAY at Migrating Forms, the annual ten-day marathon of film and video at Anthology Film Archives, offered screenings of the following: Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth, Not the Moon (2011), a patient study of everyday life on the mid-Atlantic island of Corvo; Madison Brookshire and Tashi Wada’s Passage (2012), an abstract film with two simultaneous projections overlapping to create shifting fields of color; and Fritz Lang’s big-budget Indian Epic (1959), a thoroughly unhinged Teutonic fantasy of the Orient.

Curators Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry describe Migrating Forms, now in its fourth year, simply as a “festival of new film and video,” vague parameters that allow for expansive programming. While primarily dedicated to showcasing aesthetically ambitious, unconventional work, the 2012 festival also blurred hard distinctions between commercial movies and avant-garde experiments—as Indian Epic attests, even the definition of “new” is flexible.

This is not to say that Migrating Forms is an exercise in scattershot pluralism. Contained within the festival’s name is a subtle thesis about the sprawling nature of contemporary cinema. With work by more than fifty artists from some dozen countries, the festival’s international scope implies migration. But many of the most exciting films screened this year also move freely across institutional borders on itineraries that intersect with the global art world as much as the international film festival circuit. What makes Migrating Forms so relevant is its sensitivity to the fact that a specialized theater in the East Village may be just one possible site for works that can also exist as multichannel gallery installations, YouTube videos, or components of a performance.

Amie Siegel’s Black Moon (2010) is emblematic of this kind of migration. The twenty-minute video follows a band of armed female guerrillas wandering through a postapocalyptic landscape of foreclosed suburban homes. After the screening, Siegel projected still photographs of the work as she had recently installed it in a gallery alongside other related videos and images. When viewed in its entirety, a loose narrative develops over the course of Black Moon, but it’s easy to imagine how the striking visuals and roughly episodic structure could appeal to the ambulatory museum viewer, who might catch only a five-minute glimpse of the financial crisis figured as a battleground.

As museums and galleries continue to embrace film and video—and artists shape their work for those contexts—institutions like Anthology remain, as always, on the margins. Yet Killian and McGarry have also recognized how the unique context of their venue can serve to aggregate an otherwise fragmented field. In a nod to auteurist comradery, Migrating Forms’ printed programs identified all festival contributors, from the late Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz to Jacob Ciocci of Paper Rad, as “directors.” Documentaries, experimental narratives, and Ciocci’s Internet-inspired freak-outs, all found a place in Anthology’s Maya Deren Theater, where they could be viewed together as part of a shared cinematic culture.

In fact, glimmers of a common discourse did emerge amid the festival’s diversity. No fewer than three feature films, for instance, dealt with the 1970s militant group the Japanese Red Army. Naeem Mohaiemen’s The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) (2012)—a festival highlight—investigated negotiations between Bangledeshi authorities and JRA commandos who landed a hijacked plane in Dhaka in 1977. More broadly, Mohaiemen’s film considered the power of utopian thinking—and its failures, a theme that recurred in several other works. Likewise, Ben Rivers’s beautifully shot Slow Action (2010) is structured like a catalogue of fantastic utopian communities in various states of decline—imagine Italo Calvino and Robert Smithson teaming up on a science fiction movie produced by Semiotext(e). Redmond Entwistle’s Walk-Through (2012) examined more prosaic utopian impulses in the radical pedagogy of Michael Asher’s post-studio class at CalArts in the late ’70s.

Fritz Lang, The Indian Tomb, 1959. Debra Paget.

There may be a hint of something utopian about Migrating Forms as well: How else to account for the huge amounts of labor and energy expended for the relatively small audiences the festival draws? Migrating Forms’ mission seems less aimed at bringing challenging film and video to a “wider public” than at cross-pollinating specialist audiences that, while operating in adjacent cultural spheres, are often largely isolated from one another. Indeed, all of the works benefited from the special economy of attention that the cinema facilitates: The practice of coming together as an audience, wedging into theater seats, and watching something difficult with full attention is an experience that cannot be replicated in the white cube or on a screen littered with browser windows. The possibility of such a public experience, even if the public is limited, justifies all the effort. Well, that, and Debra Paget’s cobra dance from Lang’s Indian Epic.

William Smith

Migrating Forms ran May 11–20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Sergio Corbucci, Django, 1966, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.

THE HISTORY OF SPAGHETTI WESTERNS is a series of increasingly diluted copies and diminishing returns. The first movie in the genre, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), is already doubly derivative. Not only an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), A Fistful of Dollars is also a B-movie repetition of John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, which had turned Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) into a star-studded Hollywood western in 1960. And the hundreds of spaghetti westerns that followed in the wake of A Fistful of Dollars consisted mostly of imitations and spurious sequels of one film: Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), itself a loose reworking of the major elements of A Fistful of Dollars. A movie like Django Kill . . . If You Live, Shoot! (1967) is therefore at some remove from its original material in Yojimbo. (A Fistful of Dollars, Django, and Django Kill . . . are among the twenty-six movies screening in “Spaghetti Westerns,” a three-week-long survey of the genre at Film Forum in June.)

Django is less “about” its own material (a taciturn, haunted Civil War soldier caught between Mexican bandits and Ku Klux Klan–style vigilantes) than it is a metacommentary on Hollywood’s idyllic version of America’s past. Before it is a story, it is already an interpretation. While Hollywood had produced its own “de-mythologizing” westerns—John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962)—Django is the bleakest revisionism: the old West as Hobbesian war of all against all, openly and murderously racist, with rape as the national pastime. Instead of a Manichaean clash between good and evil, or between civilization and savage Indians, Django pits a hateful, filthy mob against its exact double, with the nominal hero a selfish, humorless killing machine. The love story is an intentionally off-putting travesty: such well-defined cheekbones, so little human kindness.

Just as Euripides (history’s first hack) looked at the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus and saw only eye gougings and bathtub axings, which he sought to amplify, Django appropriates the “dark” tropes of late-1950s Hollywood westerns (Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie [1955] and Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock [1959]) and empties them of psychology and nuance. Where James Stewart or Henry Fonda brought a kind of desperate, embarrassed sadism to the self-righteousness of the Law of the West, Django’s Franco Nero (badly dubbed) is without the kind of principles that can really get a man in trouble. Among the spaghetti westerns, this quality of being pushed beyond decency by an incensed, bitter claim is achieved only by Nero himself in Enzo Castellari’s very late Keoma (1976), and by Henry Fonda in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But as Django, Nero is unmoored and unmotivated—driven by a kind of general, free-floating revenge. Perhaps it is this detachment and lack of specificity in the character that opened the door to so many sequels and rip-offs.

If all that Hollywood classics like The Naked Spur (1953) or Destry Rides Again (1939) required was, in Godard fashion, “a girl and a gun,” Django—which began filming without a finished script—imports all manner of atrocities to sustain the action, most memorably a scene where an ear is cut off. Lacking a coherent plot, like most spaghetti westerns Django substitutes a succession of “one thing after another,” peppered with eccentric and attention-grabbing violence. But the exploitation and depravity of the spaghettis, their moral shoddiness, are really not for the viewer. Scenes of human target practice, the whipping of prostitutes, or the bludgeoning of hands into raw pulp are in a sense enacted for the Hollywood archetype itself. The mechanized violence of Django machine-gunning his enemies gives the lie to the heroic individualism of America’s “greatest generation.” It is as though these movies were shoving their grotesqueness directly in the face of John Wayne, demanding, “You like this, don’t you?” The stomach-churning elements in these movies are less titillation and more ritual sacrifice, where the “one who enjoys” the violence is really not the community of onlookers but the abstract other seen as demanding this or that degradation. Spaghetti westerns offer themselves up to the falsely righteous cinematic myth of Hollywood’s West, whose true rancorous bloodlust is here appeased. As Anatole France would have it, “Les dieux ont soif”—the gods are athirst.

This procedure allows Django to disown its nihilism—you see, it is really our nihilism, as Americans—and to smuggle in a moralism not any more complex than what you would find in Stagecoach (1939). Predictably, subsequent films in this vein often devolved into cynical, unstructured decadence, as exemplified in the self-parody My Name Is Nobody (1973) and the eclectic Sabata (1969). As the genre progressed, the better films tended toward explicitly leftist positions—most notably, A Bullet for the General (1966). One exception, however, is Leone’s unwatchable Fistful of Dynamite (1971, screening at Film Forum as Duck, You Sucker!). Despite being the most caustically political film here—James Coburn plays an IRA explosives expert caught up in the Mexican Revolution—it’s an exceptionally distasteful work, almost baroque in its ingenuity of unpleasant, even pornographic one-upmanship. Even composer Ennio Morricone, the true genius behind Leone’s films, is off his game here. There is nothing uglier than cynicism, and the genre’s implosion is a carnival of meaningless spectacle tossed at the viewer like so many bloody scraps. What was initially the target of critique—the ruthless inhumanity (personified in the frequent casting of Klaus Kinski) of American mastery—became an end in itself. The only way to watch these garish late-cycle spaghetti westerns might be as cultural analogues to “End of the 1960s” phenomena like Altamont: a decadence obscurely closing in upon itself.

Ben Parker

“Spaghetti Westerns” runs June 1–21 at Film Forum in New York.