Book Review: 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western

by Alex Cox, 2009, kamera Books, 336 pages

Those of you whose primary (and in my case, only) language is English are probably well aware of the dearth of good English-language books about the genre. So, naturally, when one comes out, it's a big deal. In the case of director Alex Cox's 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western, it's a very big deal; as this is a fantastic book.

Some of you may be familiar with a thesis Cox wrote around thirty years ago by the same name (and downloadable for free, here). I read it a while ago, and although an interesting read at times, it's very academic and heady (it's a thesis, why wouldn't it be?). Cox himself has said, “The old one I wrote as a sort of thesis,” he explains. “It’s full of the jargon of the 1970s, words like semiotics and that kind of stuff, but that was the way you had to talk in those days.” It had several thematic analyses, covering a wide array of the genre's films. Interesting, but wouldn't have made for a very good book for general release.

This version, however, a completely different work, is a treat, not just for genre fans, but for fans of cinema in general, for those who like to "get under the hood", so to speak, of the cinematic process. Cox starts off with some personal recollections of his youth and westerns, and then dives right into the subject matter. The chapters are broken down by year, until we get to the seventies, of which the genre was in marked decline and hardly worthy of year by year chapters at that point. Cox covers films of note (both good and bad) with a critical eye and a dry, almost sarcastic wit that I found highly entertaining.

He covers the obvious classics, and although he sees the art to be had in many of them, he is no uncritical fanboy, as he takes down the sacred cows that many fans hold dear. I've often found that writing about these films can be extraordinarily difficult, as I watch a lot of them, and I find that many of them, even some of the favorites, to be utter crap. For every ten I watch, there's one great one, two or three passable ones, one or two mildly entertaining but forgettable films, and it goes downhill from there. I found myself agreeing with Cox on many things, such as the sheer and utter lack of talent of Tony Anthony, or the fact that with all the reverence fans give to Sergio Corbucci, he's only made two exceptional films, Django and The Great Silence, with his others ranging from passable to terrible. And just as often, I'd find myself in disagreement, such as over the quality of Django the Bastard, or Price of Power. But it's often said that a good book challenges the reader's perspective, and Cox most certainly delivers the goods in that regard. He also looks at some of the films from a political perspective, differentiating the ones that do it with a great degree of substance (such as Damiani's ¿Quién Sabe?) and those with a certain inconsistency or shallowness (such as a few of Corbucci's films such as The Specialists).

He really gets into the meat of some of these films, in terms of deconstruction and analysis, putting both his historical and first-hand grasp of the films, as well as his unique perspective as a director, often tying together the connections between films within and without the genre, even providing us a two-and-a-half page chart comparing the similarities between Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. His "director's take" often gives us a clue into the mindset of the filmmakers themselves, as he did when talking about Parolini's Sartana film, which he feels was a big turning point in terms of the declining quality and increasingly formulaic direction the spaghetti was heading for:

Sartana wasn't short of money, judging by its many extras, elaborate costumes, and specially constructed sets. It looks like it was shot in a quarry for the same reason that the Elios Films set looks like a second-rate, recently painted cowboy set: Parolini didn't care.... Parolini didn't give a damn. He threw this heritage of visual beauty and innovation out the window. He wasn't making a Western, he was making a James Bond rip-off, and that meant a change of location every five minutes, brief subplots involving sexy women, and a narrative punctuated by rapid-fire, repetitive action.... I can think of few other westerns in which so much effort was expended to so little purpose."

Even Leone's masterful Once Upon a Time in the West does not escape criticism, although Cox most certainly gives it its due for the high art that it really is. He then closes out the book with a rather unexpected coda, a comparison of the spaghetti western to the Jacobean revenge tragedy, a most unique perspective.

All in all, I can't recommend this book enough, not only for fans of the genre but for those who appreciate a critical eye for films and filmmaking. You can get more information about the book at kamera's page for it, here.

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