Goodwill in ’60s Epic Genre Cinema

Welcome to dot Game’s first Optional Sidequest – extra information about the topic that might not be of interest to all of my readers. The side quest relates to the main quest of Goodwill

Contrast two films with notoriously slow pacing: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Both are likely masterpieces of late-’60s cinema. Both used a deliberate pace, an extremely wide aspect ratio, and static framing to set the tones for their narratives and settings. Both are famous for having little dialogue and extended scenes of deathly silence interspersed with intense, iconic music. At 177 minutes, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly top2001‘s 144-minute theatrical runtime by over half an hour. At time of writing, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly sits at #5 on IMDb’s top 250, which rankings are calculated from average user (read: audience) reviews; 2001 sits at 93. Also at time of writing, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly rakes in a 97% critical rating at score aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, just a hair above 2001′96% Fresh rating. But here again the audience shows a disparity in favor of Il Buonu, il Brutto, il Cattivo: 93% against 86%. Where does this disparity come from? If critics agree (as they seem to) that both are masterpieces, why does Leone’s film enjoy more popular acclaim? While discussing why one film ranks more highly than another can be tricky (and arguing that one is better than another, in such a case is this, is bound only for controversy), I aim here to demonstrate that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly succeeds where 2001 crucially fails: Leone respects, and does not squander, the viewer’s goodwill.

First impressions are lasting impressions, and the opening scenes of a movie will often serve to set the tone for the film to follow.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly opens with an extreme close-up of a dirty cowboy, baked with Southwestern sweat, looking with steely determination behind the camera. As the subsequent cuts set the scene, many questions are raised: who are these three men? Are they the eponymous good, bad, and ugly? What is their mission? The suspense is allowed to build for a short while (this scene is less than three minutes long) as questions are slowly raised and answered. The men seem to be walking towards each other. Are they about to face off at high noon? What is their quarrel? We try to read their inscrutable faces as increasingly tighter angles demonstrate that they are drawing ever nearer together. Finally, they come together in a single wide shot. They converge outside a door, and one goes for his gun — finally, the shootout! But in few exhilarating seconds, all is revealed. They don’t shoot each other, but rush in to the building; shots are fired, and any ambiguity about whether those men were our title characters is erased as Tuco bursts through the window, and his identity is literally written on the screen. Those men who meant to kill him (probably bounty hunters) are now dead. Our appetites are whetted for what is to come. Our opening scene has masterfully engaged us and satisfied (partially) that engagement.

2001 begins promisingly (the bulk of the opening is here; I could not find the entire segment). We are treated to a grand shot of the earth set to Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a scene so stirring (and brilliantly recalled at the film’s denouement) it irrevocably tied the piece to the film. We then find ourselves on prehistoric earth, with the mysterious title THE DAWN OF MAN. Unfortunately, while this sequence is rich with the film’s symbolism, and a fantastic, haunting display of the use of music to build tension, it fails to engage on a narrative level. Our initial vignettes serve to establish a sort-of routine for our proto-man characters, but unfortunately these do not answer our only question currently, Why are we at the dawn of man in a science fiction space movie? Nor is a new question raised until the appearance of the monolith, almost halfway through this nearly ten-minute segment. This new question of the monolith, however, is still never addressed in the sequence. It is hinted that the monolith introduced proto-men to the use of tools; but this does not explain much about the monolith’s origin or purpose. Don’t get me wrong; it would be disastrous to try to answer the question of the monolith at this time. However, in the absence of any other questions, the audience will tend to dwell on this unanswerable one. They will become frustrated and bored. In order to move on and enjoy the sequence for its own artistry, they will have to trust that the filmmaker implicitly will answer their questions, or that the answers are unimportant. Never ask your audience for their trust. Earn it, the way The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly did.

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7 Responses to Goodwill in ’60s Epic Genre Cinema

  1. Pingback: Goodwill » chris dale dot game

  2. Alex C. says:

    Paying special attention to what video games offer a subject, you can see how in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly would serve those expectations. Video games require you to interact with the medium (not to say that film doesn’t, but often in a very different way). When a movie like TGTB&TU starts off with a gun battle, it is not only demanding your attention, but it is also reassuring you that what you are about to sit through (like you said, long drawn out sequences) will eventually pay off, if even in a slow burning fashion (much of the impact of the film owes itself to that). Not squandering the goodwill of a subject is valuable advice to work by, and letting your audience see they will not be squandered is a good way to assure they will stick with you, now that you’ve won them over.

    2001 on the other hand, offers a very different product. Kubrick understands cinema in a very deep way, and he uses this knowledge to manipulate the audience (this is what I think art is all about, the artist offering you something to alter you as the subject, and not necessarily just for the sake of your goodwill). Audiences should be challenged to think outside their normal mode of viewing (in terms of cinema). Looking at the beginning of 2001; Kubrick offers a completely visual narrative for almost 20 (I believe) minutes, and in the process he introduces the antagonist (human intuition), and he introduces a grand mystery (the monolith). Though the styles between 2001 and Leone’s film are drastically different, I would say that Kubrick is challenging the audience on a level that they are not used to being on, which in turn will turn certain viewers away.

    Leone uses silence and drawn out sequences to build tension, playing on the desperation of a desert wasteland setting. Kubrick does much the same, but he does so to immerse the viewer in space, equating the emptiness between here and there, and he achieves an anxious environment, much like the tension of Leone.

    So I would say that Leone is demanding your attention by locking you into the story with his (amazing) introduction, and Kubrick is offering his narrative, rather than demanding you pay attention.

    • [Chris] Dale says:

      I agree that Leone’s intro is arresting — probably excessively more exciting than Kubrick’s, but there are two or three ideas I want to hit on again. First, you mentioned that Leone’s opening is “reassuring”, which is near the heart of the argument. Leone’s film knows it will have to win the audience over if it wants to play the kind of pacing games that it does. This reassurance is exactly the goodwill I am aiming at here.

      You also say that Kubrick, instead of demanding attention as did Leone’s intro, is merely offering his narrative — another point on which you are quite correct, but in this matter I say it is even more important for the audience to feel invited. If the narrative is challenging, rather than inviting, from the beginning, most people will simply decline the challenge. Whether Kubrick might have made the film more inviting without compromising the film is another matter; whether it would have been worth it (from certain points of view) is a third matter again.

      I also want to say I don’t think the idea of challenging the audience is entirely inhospitable to the idea of keeping their goodwill. Many films with challenging presentation can be met with no little popular success (for instance, Memento).

      But I do not mean to argue here that that one film or the other is better. They are in many ways resistant to comparison. But I do think it meaningful to say that a) a slow narrative can easily alienate a popular audience and b) the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly succeeded in keeping the popular audience and having its slow narrative as well. Whether 2001 took the better path is beyond the scope of this conversation; suffice it to say I believe the degree to which each film meets its audience half-way, so to speak, accounts for the discrepancies between their comparable critical success and their disparate popular success.

      • Alex C. says:

        I think that is why I respect 2001, because it isn’t trying to win the audience over from the get go. It is more interested in preserving its particular sentiment toward cinema (especially because the cinema is an underlying part of 2001 that seems to go unnoticed by many). I believe that 2001 breaks the typical conventions of cinema as a statement. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Kubrick, it’s that nothing is left to chance, and everything has its purpose. The film starts with very static and basic shots, much like those used in the early years of cinema. The editing and filming style begins to change when the apes encounter the monolith (which sparks the evolution of human intelligence). When the ape begins to use the bone as a tool, the editing immediately changes and becomes more complex. It’s no coincidence that the monolith resembles a blank cinema screen, in the same super wide format in which the movie is filmed. In part, 2001 represent a change in human intelligence due to our interaction with cinema, which then jumps forward into the future, and thus demonstrating some of the most advanced filmic techniques and special effects up to that point.

  3. Alex C. says:

    I know I’m kind of straying from the point, but only in defense of the majesty of 2001, and why I think it plays out the way it does.

    • [Chris] Dale says:

      Those are all perfectly valid reasons! I’d never heard the 2001-as-cinema arguments before. That is quite interesting. And like I said, I don’t mean to imply that 2001 was made the wrong way (although one can certainly infer it wouldn’t be how I would make it); just that the decisions had consequences. I’m sure Kubrick was just as aware of them as anyone — it all has to do with what you want to accomplish!

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