Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Getaway (1972)

We Can Work It Out

directed by Sam Peckinpah
starring Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw,
Ben Johnson, Al Lettieri, Sally Struthers

To witness Steve McQueen in his prime, kicking ass like it's personal — and God help you if it ever was — is to experience nothing less than the action-movie equivalent of Monica Bellucci's tits: it's a quickener of pulses, a builder of throbbing film-nerd chubbies, enough racing blood to ready your eighty year-old grandpa for a ten-girl gangbang after downing shots of Wild Turkey all night. Just the chik-chik of McQueen's shotgun in The Getaway, and Pavlov's dogs are off to toss their boxers in the wash before he even gets to the boom.

Granted, The Getaway is, at heart, nothing more than a B-movie whore stuffed inside a sequined big-studio evening gown and doused in French perfume. It’s not quite Sam Peckinpah directing "in imitation of Sam Peckinpah," as Pauline Kael opined, but no one who's seen Straw Dogs or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (or, hell, even The Osterman Weekend) would call The Getaway top-tier Bloody Sam. For one thing, Ali MacGraw ("suggested" to Sam due to her post-Love Story bankability) imbues her line readings with about as much warmth as a shell-shocked hostage forced at gunpoint to look into a video camera and convey a message from his captors. Then, there's the supporting characters — low-life marionettes jerking on strings tugged by pure action-plot necessity, despite all the shading and nuance that Peckinpah and his actors attempt to slip in around the edges.

To hear Hollywood tell it, the words "bank heist" have never not been followed by "gone awry," so you'll find the mechanics of said plot as committed to the cultural memory bank as the Beatles songs you learned in grade school. Superstar thief Doc McCoy (McQueen) is sprung from prison to mastermind bank heist for corrupt political boss. Double-crosses and "unexpected" violence ensue. Doc and his wife Carol (MacGraw) head for the border with their ill-gotten loot, fighting off disgruntled co-heisters, the political boss's henchmen, and good old inconvenient cops along the way. Big shootout before happy ending. ("After all," one could imagine McQueen reasoning, "the thing is called The Getaway, is it not?")

And yet, call me a Peckinpah apologist (a Peckinpologist?) if you must, but I don't rate this one as a sleepwalk just because the Rembrandt behind The Wild Bunch had one eye on his bank account when he signed on. All you high-minded aesthetes out there mean to tell me the man couldn't take a breather after vivisecting male identity and John Wayne's beloved frontier and then putting them back together in ways we'd never seen before? He couldn't pause to think about his market value after making the greatest contributions to the Western genre since John Ford, after pulling out a bigger dick than Arthur Penn's and, with a single jerk, wiping the slo-mo carnage of Bonnie & Clyde right off the fucking table? What, he shouldn't have considered a nice, fat piece of summer-action-blockbuster booty, with one of the biggest stars of the era, so that he might raise his cachet and buy a little bargaining power for future projects? (Not that it worked: see the following year's mangled theatrical release of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.)

The shriveled black heart of The Getaway beats inside that tattered genre frame. It's in the way that Peckinpah — like the Coppola of the Godfather films, like Huston and Ford and Hitchcock and Hawks before him — uses his wizardry in service of genre, rather than painting it day-glo orange and stapling it to his film's forehead like some Sundance-lauded whiz-kid of the double-oughts. Under and around and behind his sadistic Terminator-like villain and the obligatory car chases and the kind of ridiculously elaborate bank heist that only happens in the movies, Peckinpah still manages to stuff the chapped orifices of the standard action-flick playbook with quiet innovation worthy of the auteur theory.

Check that opening prison montage as it slow-boils to its matter-of-fact climax: Doc on the day-to-day grind of manual labor, solitude and barked orders; his interminable present intruded upon by jagged flashes of the life — and wife — he had on the outside, a life that now mocks him with its God-like remove from the shambles of his present state. Check that sequence of Doc and Carol at the lake — the way that Peckinpah and his editors use their documentary-of-the-mind technique to put us inside Doc McCoy, to lay bare his longing for the simple pleasures he thought he'd never again enjoy; to lift the hard-bitten career thief of Jim Thompson's source novel a foot or two out of the pulp-fiction muck and show us the humanity he's all but killed for the sake of his career, the humanity he'd rather kill than directly express. Take a look at the humorous, tense sequence wherein Doc retrieves their money from the train-station thief who's absconded with it. And certainly, there's the boner-inducing hotel shootout that splatters us with the film's climactic juices. Just as certainly, said climax is Peckinpah having it two ways at once: it's both another of his increasingly cynical post-Wild Bunch tossings of slo-mo red meat to violence-hungry lions drawn in by his early '70s media hype and a refinement — perhaps, even a perfection — of his technique. Make no mistake about it: fat payday or not, Nixon was still in office, Vietnam was still raging, and The Getaway is still Peckinpah at the top of his game, eliciting the second of Steve McQueen's two greatest performances (the first being Peckinpah's own Junior Bonner, from earlier in the year).

Thing is, for such a blockbuster-action-film-of-its-time — and all the eschewing of complexity that would seem to imply — there's a remarkable amount of tension in The Getaway between what a mainstream audience expects of its hero and the hero that McQueen and Peckinpah actually give them. Step right up, folks, get'cher popcorn, grab yer seats! See Doc McCoy drop a shrieking Sally Struthers with a single punch! See Doc smack his dutiful wife around over the deal her vagina made with a corrupt official to spring him from the hoosegow! See Doc unable to get it up when finally alone again with the woman who's been haunting his daily thoughts for the last several years! And yet, there again is that struggling with humanity: Doc's all bottled up from prison life, he can't open up, he can't let go, he doesn't know how to show warmth and tenderness anymore. And to compare the likes of McQueen to what passes for an emblem of manhood in the Age of Oprah, one only need ask: what modern star is there who would allow themselves to be portrayed in such a light, in the context of an ostensible crowd-pleaser like this?

That's pure 100-proof Peckinpah1 and, no matter how much the box office-minded McQueen tried to sand off the film's rough edges — firing novelist Thompson for hewing too closely to the book's cynical nobody-gets-away-clean ending, tossing out the score by Peckinpah regular Jerry Fielding and substituting a more "accessible" one by Quincy Jones, making Doc McCoy unable to kill in cold blood when the Doc of Thompson's genesis would rearrange your innards for looking at him sideways — The Getaway is essentially the same slimy, unforgiving, Doberman-chewed cunt of a world that Peckinpah's other films brought into crystal-clear 35mm focus. The difference, of course, is the degree to which Peckinpah pushes his camera in to study the pus-filled boils adorning the labia. Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia take you close enough to see the camera's reflection; in The Getaway, said boils are merely wallpaper — yet, present and accounted for in every scene, nonetheless.

Doubters are referred to Al Lettieri's portrayal of Rudy, the remorseless, double-crossing psychopath who drew first on Doc but couldn't pull the trigger quick enough. (Great line: "He didn't make it... and neither did you.") Rudy's a guy who'd leave Lettieri's Sollozzo from The Godfather (released the same year) lying in the gutter with a piss-streaked face. A guy who kidnaps a veterinarian and his buxom-slut wife, then seduces the wife repeatedly in front of the helpless mook, for no other reason than to torture him and show who's got the bigger dick. Once Hubby's finally hanged himself in the shower of their motel room, Rudy emits barely a sigh before sitting down to take a morning dump and thumb through a magazine next to the body. In a nutshell: pure '70s gangsta. The kind of prick you want on your heroes' asses. And exactly the kind of urgency you need to spice up your criminal-lovers-on-the-run-in-the-heartland yarn.

Who needs a housewife to cook your meals, though, when you've got a loyal partner-in-crime and ace getaway driver all rolled into one? Carol McCoy is woman par excellence as only Sam Peckinpah could give us: right up in the shit where it stinks most, elbow-to-elbow with her man, as tough as her man and tougher in many ways. Plug a few shots in a bad guy? Carol got that, boo. Sleep with a corrupt politico to help spring your ass from jail? Carol's got'cha back. Help with your decoy explosions and your money-stashing and waiting for you all night in a decrepit train station while you take off after some half-ass con artist? Carol's your girl. Not plugging a bullet in your back when she was supposed to, all because she actually loves your hardened criminal ass? Carol's got you. Carol McCoy, the Last Good Woman on a cruel, scorched-black Earth once known as God's own, is the real treasure for Doc McCoy, the real loot that — if he can just avoid the flying buckshot and get over that border — will enable him to live happily ever after. Forget Jim Thompson's original ending; forget, for that matter, the lighthearted lyricism of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. It's The Getaway that represents Peckinpah at his sunniest and most optimistic; it's where a black hole of mistrust and gaping emotional wounds prevails for a change in the eternal WrestleMania against his personal demons regarding women, for once viewing the possibility of fidelity and long-term happiness as something more than the punchline to a cruel joke.

It's commonly asserted that Peckinpah only knew how to depict love's failures, not its endurance. And yet, The Getaway stands as likely the only truly happy ending in the Peckinpah canon — the story of a successful marriage and how a couple's love for each other perseveres, despite the bullets whizzing about, despite the double-crosses and the doubts and the fights and insecurities and side-of-the-road bitchslaps. It's only on the wings of a renewed faith in Doc's commitment to Carol — and his decision to grow the hell up and realize what it meant for her to have stayed by his side — that they're even able to get to the end of that rainbow in Old Mex. And in the parlance of the testosterone-coated take-no-prisoners-ism in which Peckinpah's films were so fluent, that ain't the slut you butt-fuck on sweat-caked motel sheets before trudging home to the little lady, it's the kind of woman you grab a hold of and hang onto for all your rotten life is worth.

If Carol McCoy is the pure white vessel for Peckinpah's dewy-eyed fantasies of that Matrimonial Castle in the Sky — What Could Be — then, Sally Struthers' Fran is, of course, our funky black representative of What Actually Is. She's probably the cleanest carry-over from Jim Thompson's noir nihilism plus Peckinpah's own worst fears regarding women, all rolled into one bouncy little ball of hot air; a walking, jiggling, giggling justification not just for woman-hate but for the Hillside Strangler and O.J., as well. Not only is Fran's craven violence-loving whoriness the flip side to Carol's selfless devotion, but it's perfect kindling for the bonfire of secret suspicion that rages inside any man's head: here's a woman — excuse me, broad — with no sense of loyalty, who's never even heard of devotion, who abandons her own husband without the slightest thought given to anything besides her own validation and selfish desires. And for what? For the very unreconstructed, hairy-knuckled, alpha-male, Neanderthal bad-boyism we've always known they wanted — despite decades of lip service paid to noble concepts like The Sensitive Male. It's a hideously, defiantly ugly portrait of women — hip-hop-crude, in fact — but it's likely the quickest way Peckinpah had to connect his own ambivalence about relationships to the matter-of-fact criminality of the book, and it's where the bread nibbled by all great filmmakers gets buttered. It's no different in spirit from how Coppola used personal family issues to relate to the dynamics of the Corleone clan or the way that Scorsese reached down into the sewage of his own coke-laced self-abuse to pull out Raging Bull.

Fran's every pinched, shrill little tart that encourages the worst in men. She's the ninny in the dive bar who strikes up conversations with men behind her boyfriend's back, then prods her boyfriend to defend her honor by kicking the poor bastards' faces in. She's the reason for half the guys sitting in penitentiaries on manslaughter and second-degree murder charges, and if the King of Screen Violence refrains from sending her off in her own slo-mo death spiral framed by ejaculatory spurts of cherry-red stage paint, she's still saddled with the worst fate of anyone in the film: left with a rotting corpse of a husband whose suicide she all but encouraged, discarded by the thug who merely used her as a tool to assert primacy over another male, meeting the business end of a Steve McQueen cold-cock and folding like Michael Spinks in the first round against Mike Tyson. One needn't a crystal ball to envision Fran's life after the screen's gone black and the last Toots Thielemans harmonica riff has faded out — squint hard enough into the distance and you'll see a leathery, time-ravaged old hag still wandering the dusty byways of the American Southwest, still crying out for "Ru-deeee!" and thoroughly ignored; nothing to do in her closing years of sexual viability but throw herself at truckers and watch her tits sag from under a dingy waitress' uniform.

No, no need to make her sternum leak from entry wounds. As George Clinton once told us that the funk is its own reward, so being a treacherous cunt like Fran is — in the pitiless world painted by Sam Peckinpah's brush — its own worst punishment.
  1. On top of that, Peckinpah once again sentimentalizes his own helplessness at the calloused hands of Hollywood. It's nigh-on impossible not to imagine Ol' Bloody Sam seeing himself in Doc's shoes as the thief (read: artist) of unparalleled talent sprung from the pen (read: his forced exile from the movie biz) by a shady son-of-a-bitch of a politico (read: producer) who promises him all will be okay as long as he pulls off the job and brings back that money, but is really plotting behind his back to have him killed off (fired/blackballed/shunned into pariahdom yet again). But instead, Doc Peckinpah perseveres and makes off for good to his beloved May-hee-co with his hide and his reputation intact.
©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Friday, July 30, 2010

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

One in a Million, Babe

written and directed by David Lynch
starring Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring,
Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Justin Theroux

Hollywood has a penchant for supposed self-deflation, like a Warren Beatty who bumbles and snorts and self-deprecates his way to getting killed off every other movie, as if to convince wife-beating rubes in Alsip, Illinois that Being Incredibly Rich and Handsome and Catered To ain't all it's cracked up to be. Occasionally, the industry gives us a Sunset Boulevard or an All About Eve, laying bare the peculiarities of that strange, delicate species known as The Actress. Sometimes, we get a Swimming With Sharks or The Player, if a fucked-over screenwriter or director's got a voodoo doll bearing the likeness of a certain executive on his bedside table.

Usually, though, it's more along the lines of an Entourage or that short-lived TV show with Jay Mohr: a genial self-roasting (which is to say, self-tribute) that takes those dim-bulb actors and barbed-wire power agents into a headlock merely to give 'em a noogie and set 'em loose. Your average film-world power player is far too in love with the line of supplicants he has to step over just to cross the studio lot — daily ego balm for a nerdy schmuck who's likely spent half his life thoroughly ignored. Hand him the satirical blade behind yet another "exposé" of the princess that changed him from a lowly frog and gave him that cushy corner office, and he won't do much more than administer paper cuts.

David Lynch, however, is an outsider even within Hollywood. Foreign finance consistently provides the building materials for his Little Houses of Horrors and, despite the cachet of his name in certain quarters, his fractured narratives filled with backwards-talking midgets, circular endings and weird Americana don't exactly inspire hosannahs in the boardrooms of Culver City and Burbank. "David Lynch" is a name to be dropped, a signifier of personal hipness, proof of one's occasional wading through cinema's artier waters; but certainly no one expanded their swimming pools or bought their BMW's off of Wild at Heart or Fire Walk With Me.

Yet, the ABC network signed the check for about three-quarters of Mulholland Dr. — that is, the fairly PG-rated chunk that concerns perky-beyond-belief aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) as she arrives in Hollywood to stay at her aunt's and discovers "Rita" (Laura Elena Harring), a mysterious, amnesia-afflicted beauty huddling in the shower. Probably, ABC looked at the script Lynch submitted — the quest to uncover a beautiful woman's identity! shadowy gangsters on their trail! a cocky young director having his film taken away from him by possibly the same gangsters! a pair of Dragnet-talking detectives who we'd better hope get to "Rita" before the gangsters do! the friendship between Betty and "Rita" tinged with a blossoming-yet-safely-unspoken sapphic affection! — and thought they'd be getting another prime-time phenomenon on the order of Twin Peaks. Except that Peaks was only a phenomenon until Lynch the Storyteller decided to take permanent residence up his own rectum, at which point the show was consigned to the spirit realm to cavort with Leland Palmer and Killer Bob. Perhaps ABC execs suffered from short-term memory loss. Perhaps Lynch was getting some sort of private revenge with this take-the-money-and-run style of funding for what turned out to be his next theatrical release. Certainly, he couldn't have been shocked when the network took a pass on the pilot he'd shot, using the excuse that Watts and Harring were "too old" to be television stars.

What he did next was figure out a way to tie up the loose ends from the pilot — at least, as much as being David Lynch would allow him to. Then, he decided to drag ashore the clam-licking undertow of melding-feminine-personality dissertations like Persona or 3 Women (Mulholland's clearest influences in that vein) — and, unlike Messrs. Bergman and Altman, Lynch gets my penis' vote for Best Director. Once the narrative was fleshed out to feature length, he released it as his next feature. Which turned out to be both the quintessential David Lynch film and, thus far, cinema's definitive treatise on How The Hollywood Factory Chews Women Up and Shits Them Out.

But David Lynch films don't make any goddamn sense, you say. The majority of Blue Velvet aside, his style is far too self-consciously "weird," its logic too internal and too impenetrable for audiences unaccustomed to fugue states and radiator ladies and B-movie dialogue delivered with heartfelt sincerity and a catalogue of tics and eccentricities we're meant to be entertained by, for their own sake — you say. You took a chance on Mulholland Dr., as the unsuspecting casual moviegoer sucked in by its Best Director nomination and possibly the biggest ad campaign ever attached to a David Lynch film. And you were left racking your Law & Order-fed brain to try and figure out just what the malevolent mystery midget had to do with the mob-connected brothers threatening the callow young film director, and just what all of that had to do with the homeless man-thing living behind the dumpster or Naomi Watts and Laura Harring at the film's center. And, well, those of us who knew better just looked at you with a sort of affectionate mocking tinged with condescension. "Silly rabbit," we grinned as if watching a child finally take to the potty all by herself. "You don't go into a David Lynch film expecting logical story development and clear-cut plot resolutions."

Agreed: Lynch's status as the King of Weird Americana can make his films feel like a glossy new museum of abstract expressionism that's closed to the public, even for fans old enough to have scarfed down cherry pie and coffee at Twin Peaks parties back in the day. Rather like an Alice Cooper concert in the early Seventies, at this point, a David Lynch film simply has to provide the mind-bending freakshow that paying customers have come to associate with his name. In fact, the very David Lynch-ness of a picture like Lost Highway or Inland Empire often strikes me as a test that cineastes feel they have to endure, as if it were an annual renewal date stamped on their own fading coolness — sort of like when you're twelve years old and you tackle that new rollercoaster ride that all your friends are daring you to try, lest you end up the "big fat wuss" of your childhood social circle.

And yet, sometimes music is more than just the same five Zeppelin and Deep Purple cuts on the classic-rock station. You also need a little Throbbing Gristle. You need Krautrock. You need Sun Ra and Primus and David Thomas of Pere Ubu. With Mulholland Dr., Lynch slid from being Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask Replica to David Byrne during the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense phase — "weirdness" as a startlingly tangible metaphor for the inscrutability of the world, as the distorted prism through which the specters that hover over your life's frustration begin, at last, to take on recognizable shapes. Besides which, there's no longer any "straight," linear way to take on the spirit-dampening, compromise-inducing, insanity-fostering assembly line of the Hollywood grind without regurgitating truths that the likes of Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz ate at Chasen's before your parents were born.

Lynch's fever-dream Hollywood is cinema's truest Hollywood, simply because — forget a David Lynch film — Hollywood itself is a world where nothing makes sense, where fantasy is reality for so many of the clueless hopeful just off the bus from Anywheresville, U.S.A., where the ghosts of shattered dreams haunting Gower and Ivar like the smog that once afflicted this town are as quintessential a local experience as couches on sidewalks, pedestrians who refuse to acknowledge crosswalks during rush-hour traffic, and airhead skanks who yammer on about spiritual enlightenment before repairing to a stall in the ladies' room to do a couple of lines and blow the bartender.

"I swear to God, it’s like somebody took America by the East Coast, and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on."*

Identities slip and change and merge and never seem to be fully grounded because that's L.A. Specifically, that's the way of people constantly trying on different masks as they strive to be what they believe each person wants them to be; of people who try on identities like shirts in a Macy's fitting room because they aspire to make a living being different people, because they need different things from different people with different temperaments, as they glad-hand and ass-kiss and schmooze and gently pester and fuck their way up the rear fire escape of the Hollywood food chain. It's a town of bottom feeders all convinced they're the next Brando or Meryl Streep or (God help us) the next Orlando Bloom, and they're fully prepared to kill — be it relationships or friendships or their own dignity — to keep the shards of their increasingly cracked illusions from hitting the floor around them.

When people admit to having thoughts about going back home (quite common chatter in these parts), it's generally not out of a sense of failure, i.e. "oh, I couldn't hack it in L.A." Rather, it's that every transplanted Angeleno comes to weigh the kinds of interactions and relationships that one could have here versus ones that one could have elsewhere — and here, it would largely be based on one's status, on a kind of starfucking, on what people feel they might be able to get for themselves out of being your friend or bedmate. And the question you have to ask yourself is: how fulfilling would that be for me?

Or, to put it the Mulholland Dr. way:

You moved to L.A. to follow your dreams. About five, six years ago. Your Aunt Gladys always told you you should be in movies, and everyone concurred. And you're gonna prove Aunt Gladys right — you're gonna be a big, big star. But lately, it's been tough going. You've been out on audition after audition and you're just not getting the callbacks the way you used to. Sure, you were in soft-focus in the background of a couple of shows on the WB for a few seconds and you were once thisclose to life as the perky new intern on that earnest hospital drama. But by now, your headshot's been passed around more than that "private" video that the guy at the "modeling" agency swore was just for his personal evaluation. Maybe you're not considered a fresh face anymore. Maybe — to the gatekeepers of stardom enthroned in casting offices all over town — you're even damaged goods, at this point.

And so, it's a year and a half to two years now that you've logged as a waitress at Fred 62 or Mel's on Sunset. You're really getting behind on all your student loan payments and credit card bills, and that twelve hundred-a-month studio on Franklin that you're sharing with the two hippie girls you met on Craigslist isn't quite the blast you first imagined it to be. It's not terribly hard to find some spiky-haired indie-band reject or future reality-show candidate down at The Liquid Kitty or The Woods to throw some Stoli-and-Viagra-fueled dick in you and quit returning your texts, but that sweet guy you left back home — the one who took you to meet his parents and paid your Visa and Mastercard bills and hadn't already fucked twelve girls who look just like you — well, his kind's like the American Bison in these parts.

Well, hell, at least, you have a good friend to commiserate and wallow in shared La La Land misfortune with, right? Actually, she's your best friend, your oasis of sanity, your port in the storm, the only person you really feel you know in this crazy town. You met her on — oh, what was it, was it that audition for Real World Huntington Beach? Was it that one NBC pilot? Well, anyway, you've known her for a good portion of your time in town, and truth be told, you sort of bask in her glow every time you're around her — she's that vibrant, that talented, that comforting. That sexy.

Oh, sure, she's had far more success than you have — some medium-profile TV work, a couple of supporting roles in hip indie films — but you don't hold that against her. She's your friend. Oh, sure, she's started seeing that cocky asshole of a director, the guy who thinks he's the next Tarantino or whoever, but you believe her when she tells you that it won't change a thing between the two of you.

And then, she tells you that things have gotten serious between her and Mr. Genius-on-the-Rise, and you can't deny that it hurts. Being cast aside for monetary considerations, for the sake of career — and here, you thought that what you had together meant something. You thought that you meant something. Hell, kid, no one means anything in this town, not when it comes to career aspirations. Surely, you already knew that, right?

Well, now you’re thinking of doing something drastic about it — something to her, that is. Even if your pain and humiliation are the last goddamn things she ever feels in her life. You're gonna make her regret ever recasting your former role in her life. And now, you find yourself in a diner on Sunset, meeting with some shady guy who takes her headshot from you and gives you a key and tells you where it will be. When it's "all done." After which, you find yourself suicidal with regret and you end up recasting your unpleasant reality as a cinematic fever dream in which you're a star on the rise, in which anyone who ever held dominion over you in your waking hours is now the picture of powerlessness, in which you and your Sapphic beau embark upon a quest to discover her hidden identity and fall madly in love — forever and ever and ever and ever. Just like people in the movies. Except that — guess what — the movies lied to you. Hollywood lied to you. This is real life, hon'. And real life tends to gyp you on the happy endings.

Bang. Silencio.

(*Courtesy of the great Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.)

©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Monday, May 17, 2010

Straw Dogs (1971), Part Deux: Or, Shit I Left Out of the First Review

I've wandered high and I've wandered low. Sailed over peaks and scraped the bottoms of valleys. Consulted both oracles and fools. And yet, closure eludes me. Something still eats away at my soul, gnaws away at my very being even as I type these words. It’s the first post I did on Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. You see, as epic as it was, I still feel as though I left the tale unfinished. Perhaps, I was a tad defensive in my thesis on Dogs' wince-making brilliance. "Hey," I figured. "If no one since 1971 has seen fit to address the way that Bloody Sam's scabrous cinematic essay has been blamed for everything from global warming to an uptick in the numbers of schoolchildren with head lice, well, let me just don my cape and tights here and take to the sky." And yet, nothing dries out spastic fanboy ardor like a Film Techniques 101 lecture; what's more, the "why should I put this on my Netflix queue?" crowd might still be in the dark in regards to the film's sheer visceral jolt.

A friend of mine recently popped her Straw Dogs cherry and, after about a week of soreness and bleeding, she was finally able to sort through whatever it was the film had shot up inside of her. Her verdict? Pass. Despite its undeniable technical brilliance, despite her admiration of the film's eagerness to shine a flashlight on all those cockroaches scurrying around under the kitchen sink of Civilized Society, she took umbrage at the film's suffocatingly bleak view of humanity. "I felt a million miles away from every character in Straw Dogs," quoth my friend. "I don't think Peckinpah gave a shit about any one of them, and so neither did I."

"But what about Taxi Driver?" I asked her, tearing off a sizable hunk of our mutual cinephile shrine and tossing it on the table for argument's sake. "Pauline Kael said that Scorsese got something out of his asthma; he knows how to make us experience the terror of suffocation. And under the weight of Paul Schrader's Calvinist-in-Hollywood sense of alienation, filtered through Scorsese's neo-Expressionist take on the hookers and junkies and Scary Street Negroes and porno houses of Gerald Ford-era Times Square, we're pretty much gasping for air by the halfway mark. Bleak view of humanity? It drips from Taxi Driver like a clapped-out john after a session in the back of Travis' cab; not even his self-appointed mission to save Iris keeps Travis Bickle from being one of the most repulsive sons-of-bitches we've ever laid eyes on. We look at his life the way we'd look directly into the sun. So why does Marty 'You ever see what a .44 Magnum can do to a woman's pussy?' Scorsese get the automatic wave-through while Bloody Sam's held back for the full cavity search? Is it that Taxi Driver's world is seen through the jaundiced eyes of its unstable protagonist whereas Straw Dogs feels like a love letter straight from the heart of its director? Are directors not allowed to examine unfashionable thought or express their own flawed humanity unless they maintain the proper distance from it and fob it off on characters we can all safely condemn and keep at arm's length?"

Of course, that's Peckinpah's problem right there: his David Sumner is no pallid, mohawked weirdo in an Army surplus jacket; he’s College-Educated America in the Age of Aquarius, a walking oil painting of upward mobility and middle-class respectability. He's half the men that must have seen the film at the time of its release — especially in the sophisticated urban capitals of President Nixon's beloved Eastern Establishment. He's the Roger Eberts and Vincent Canbys who — apparently — could sit and applaud the aesthetic dissection of every group of human beings on the planet except the one to which they belonged. He's all the Variety and New York Times critics who'd never seen themselves reflected in a mirror this large. Forty years on, he's the Rod Luries and the rest of the "Straw Dogs is macho trash!" brigade whose antennae still quiver at the basso profondo of Peckinpah’s clearly stated "fuck you." The way David reaches for his hanky when having to touch anything soiled by the yahoo classes (the kind who'd flock to a film like this) must have smelled awfully familiar. His cozy denial of those animal instincts which he all too readily imputes to the Great Unwashed Them must have made them sink down in their seats a little. One look at David's pathetic stumbles in the arena of self-assertion — those festering boils of masculine insecurity papered over with mathematical equations and hallowed philosophers — and an entire social class read the message loud and clear; a social class who watched from behind books as the Sam Peckinpahs of the world got out and settled the frontiers and policed the streets and fought the wars that they only read about.

Worst of all, Peckinpah — via Amy Sumner — touched upon their long-held fears of forever losing out when it came to women. That sinking feeling, the one that said their fiercest shouts would be forever drowned out by the primal call of "bad boys" who never even had to try; living out their lives unable to command the respect that nature so cruelly bestows upon pumped-up alpha males unable to quote hallowed philosophers and argue the merits of Kant versus Kierkegaard — that’s the bulls-eye that Straw Dogs puts a hole in, Annie Oakley-style. They looked at David Sumner's tenuous grip on his baby-doll wife and saw their own failures — their worst nightmares, in fact — writ large. And it felt good when Dustin Hoffman threw that boiling oil in the faces of his blue-collar tormentors. It felt good when he took those cock-of-the-walk assholes down with pokers and shotguns and his superior ingenuity, when he met 'em with bare hands on their own Neanderthal turf and still emerged victorious, when he took 'em for a ride on a rollercoaster named Righteous Fury and gave 'em the souvenir of a man-trap around the head for their trouble.

"Jesus, I got 'em all": that's Peckinpah's mirror thrown up to the elation they felt right there in that darkened movie theater as they watched their kind scale a hill made of the piled bodies of Nabokov's kissy-faced brutes, and plant a flag inscribed with a quote from Oscar Wilde at the top of it. The revenge of David Sumner was the original Revenge of the Nerds, the fantasy of the high-school loser who takes on the team quarterback — in front of the cheerleading squad, no less — and sails through the rest of the semester on a cloud of desirous glances and congratulatory back-slaps, head held aloft. Peckinpah called them loud and clear on their secret wet-dream bullshit — indeed, made it all ring hollow in the process — and they resented the hell out of him for it.

Of course, men have to "learn to be men" as Straw Dogs testifies — no Susan George on Earth respects a Dustin Hoffman who can't summon the scrotal mass to assert himself, or who fails to respond to his wife's needs. But that's Relations Between the Sexes 101, not the bellicose raving of a fascist revenge flick that seeks to turn its audience into poker-wielding apes — and it's certainly not any justification for the corpse-strewn path Hoffman's mathematician takes toward "finding himself." Again, Susan George's Amy is one of the truest portraits of a woman ever committed to celluloid but, despite the hell she endures over the course of the film, she's actually the closest thing to a "hero" in the damn thing, the character that drunken old misogynist Peckinpah actually feels the most sympathy for, the character upon whom everything in the story turns.

Just look at the way those POV shots during Amy's rape thrust you into what she's feeling, encouraging audience empathy — then, compare it to the way Kubrick handles the rape of the writer's wife during the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence in A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick's full of shit: his voyeuristic distance not only discourages empathy with the victims but emphasizes the physical details of the act — the way her jumpsuit is snipped off to let her tits get some air, the contours of her lithe body, her writhing, wriggling helplessness. I watch the rape scene in Clockwork Orange and I'm not thinking about lawlessness run amok and human capacity for evil and the necessity of free will, or any of the other pseudo-professorial, mock-intellectual horseshit Kubrick undoubtedly claimed as his raison d'être — I'm too busy ogling Adrienne Corri's pert little pink nipples. And that's Kubrick's fault — that's what he wanted. There's no horror in his rape, only sadistic elation at the victory of the lawless over the stuffed-shirt privileged. (As if he somehow weren't a member of the Rich People Walled Off From Society Club.)

And yet, the same critics who applauded Kubrick's "daring" damned Peckinpah to an eternity of having his balls roasted over an open flame by she-devils. Why? You look at the two scenes, and you tell me which sequence contains more abject horror, which sequence actually lacerates you with the shattered remains of a woman's humanity — and which one simply shows you a bit of horseplay from the thoroughly aroused vantage point of its foxy, charismatic assailant. Other directors learned from Kubrick. They either maintain his distance from what they're showing us or infuse their stories with so much irony and behind-the-camera commentary that a certain distance becomes inevitable. (See Robert Altman, the O.G. of modern-day hipsters, with Elliot Gould's ineffably with-it, above-it-all, quip-ready Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye as his patron saint.) They maintain a wall between us and their characters, and they're drowned in hosannahs for it. Peckinpah puts his characters right in your face — nay, up your ass. You smell their shit, their sweat flies off onto you — you feel their timeworn fears and petty hatreds, even though you don't want to. It's everything films are supposed to do. Yet, Peckinpah's thanks was to die an industry pariah, then spend the next twenty-or-so years trying to regain a mere fraction of the public notoriety he was once able to take for granted.

I've been showing people Peckinpah films since about the age of twenty. Lives were changed. Joe Six-Packs were left pondering the ambiguities of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Getaway; young ladies not particularly known for their refined cinematic palettes stood teary-eyed at the conclusion of The Wild Bunch. In particular, a close film-nerd buddy of mine emerged from the jungle of my apostolic zeal virtually sporting a Pike Bishop cowboy hat and an "If they move, kill 'em" T-shirt. His sole reservation, though, happened to be with Peckinpah's depiction of his female characters. Of course, given his near-daily screaming matches with his own girlfriend, perhaps he didn't like the mirror Ol' Bloody Sam held up to the demons racing around his own head.

And that's the way it goes. We tell our artists we expect unflinching honesty from them, ceaseless probings of the cobwebbed, murky little corners of the American Psyche, a grand statement on Us and The Way We're Living Today. Except that when they serve it up to us — and in a manner that cuts no sides any slack — we accuse them of embodying the very darkness they're exploring. Consequently, we downgrade them, we belittle them, we write them off, consign them to the bargain bins of the culture at large. Roger Ebert has an anecdote, in his Great Movies piece on Alfredo, about Peckinpah on a press junket during the film's release, sozzled and hiding behind the kind of shades (indoors!) that Warren Oates sports throughout much of the film. Maybe he was just living up to his cowboy-out-of-his-time press image, as he was so fond of doing. Or maybe those shades just made it that much easier to ignore the disapproving scowls and shaking heads of the critical community — at least, those that bothered to stick around past the film's halfway mark — as they gathered in one place to hurl raw meat at him and ask why he had to drag humanity through the gutter once more. Irony of ironies: by '83, some of these very same critics would adopt a "hey, where'd ya go?" mentality in regard to his career, and were rooting for The Osterman Weekend to be the genius comeback that it kinda was, and kinda wasn't.

Was Peckinpah a misogynist? Sure — in some ways. All men are, to some degree — part of us can't stand you bitches. It's called being an adult, getting out and growing up and interacting with real flesh-and-blood human beings, not the archetypes of sheer womanly perfection that little boys are taught to kneel before as the New Gods of our "progressive," post-religious Brave New World. (Or, as an uncle of mine once put it: "if you're not a misogynist by the time you're thirty, then you haven't been with enough women.") Peckinpah was just more nakedly honest about it than virtually any other filmmaker on the planet. His only real parallel at this time was in the literary realm — Norman Mailer, perhaps Bukowski — and contrary to what Pauline Kael asserted, Peckinpah not only wrestled with his misogyny, he boxed it, he raced it, he fenced with it, he fucking grabbed it in a headlock and piledrived it and gave it a flying legdrop from off the top fucking turnbuckle. Consequently, in Alfredo, it's Isela Vega's Elita who's the voice of reason, of morality, of sanity, as she tries to convince Bennie that his quest for dinero can do no good, that no amount of crime-boss money is worth the moral poison he's all too willing to self-administer. Like most men, he disregards his woman and ends up with a severed head in place of his sweetie. Does this sound like a commercial for machismo, some "Be All You can Be"-style advert exhorting the strapping young men of the world to raise a toast to the glories of bourbon-swilling, bitch-slapping and a bit of forced entry on a sun-baked Mexican roadside?

For all the focus on Peckinpah's misogyny, at least he had the bulging sack matter to point the finger at himself, first and foremost — to offer himself up, arms stretched out Christ-like, just as his Billy the Kid offered himself up to Sheriff Garrett, for our slings and arrows and judgmental under-the-breath mutterings. There's not a single moment in any of his films that one could read as a celebration of femininity-eschewing go-it-alone-ness. Peckinpah's males are torn apart by their inability to trust women — lessened by their doubt, their uncertainty, their petty jealousies and reluctance to let go of the transgressions and thoroughly human weakness they're holding against their women. For Bennie, for Pike Bishop, for Cable Hogue, for Pat Garrett, for Doc McCoy, what sticks in the craw is the anger at realizing just how badly they need their women. It's the realization of how incomplete and utterly alone you are without them. It's the realization that women are a stone fucking drug: a man spends his whole life trying to recapture that high he once had with the one or two truly special ones, knowing it takes more and more of 'em — more sex, more careless whispers, more promises written in pencil — to come anywhere near recapturing it. If Peckinpah's men could ever truly walk away from women, then — guess what? — they would. But they can't. We can't. We're stuck with you maddening little cunts, and you're stuck with us, and the best we can all hope for is a little understanding and some decent head before the whole proverbial shithouse goes up in flames.

To publicly answer my friend: no, Straw Dogs is not a pleasant film — currency that couldn't buy a stick of gum in the economy of true cinephiles, anyway. Of course, it's confrontational and calculated to wound. Yes, it's as grim and barren as its remote Cornish setting; as ominous as the fog that watches on, like a God suddenly gone derelict, while the drunken barbarians gather at the Sumners' gate. Thing is, I doubt Peckinpah himself would disagree with her assessment. After all, he shows more feeling for the killers in any of his Westerns than he does for most of the characters here. Surely, it's the umpteenth telltale trace of his reservations regarding that bad old modern world that killed off his beloved frontier, turned noble women into strumpets and rendered its men sniveling eunuchs unfit to tongue-wash Pike Bishop's spurs.

Of course, I also seriously doubt Peckinpah would give a shit whether or not you liked the film. Straw Dogs ain't some nice fuckin' fella out to hold your hand and waltz you down the promenade, Señorita: it wants to rip open your chest cavity and hold a mirror up to your inner ape. It's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? updated for the action set by way of anthropologist Robert Ardrey's African Genesis. It's a ten-inch black cock up the tender white ass of your resistance to open endings and "troubling" interpretations; the gob of spit in the face of your middlebrow taste that Henry Miller wanted me to paraphrase him on. It's filled with enough ambiguity to muffle the cheers of the Scutts and Cawseys in the audience and enough brilliantly filmed action to keep the David Sumners on the edges of their seats. It's nothing less than the best English-language film of 1971 and, if I have to ready my Charlie Venner pimp hand and pay a personal visit to each and every Straw Dogs detractor out there, just to get some minds changed — well, hey, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

No One Here Gets Out Alive

directed by Sam Peckinpah
starring Warren Oates, Isela Vega,
Robert Webber, Gig Young, Helmut Dantine

After being screwed in the ass by various producers and powers-that-were for thirteen-odd years, Sam Peckinpah simply made lubing up a part of his morning routine. So along comes producer Martin Baum, with the backing of United Artists, to give him free rein on the making of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. And Peckinpah thanked them by squeezing out an utterly repulsive, rancid piece of shit that, pacing-wise, lurches on rubber legs like an accident victim in his first week of physical therapy, and displays shocking dips both in quality and in consistency of mise-en-scène and lighting (at least in its first half). Even once the action promised on the back of the video box kicks in, we're still dealing with a crab-ridden would-be graverobber for a hero, a severed head in a sack as our title character, plus an indescribably bizarre near-rape scene that makes its victim the aggressor. If that's not enough enjoyment for the whole family, tell Grandpa about the killer gays who mow down a family of Mexican peasants as calmly as they'd file their nails, or the father who has his pregnant daughter stripped and tortured in front of him and half the village.

And the sour little cherry atop this perversity sundae? Scenes of such casual, vicious South-of-the-border misogyny that even your little brother who owns the deluxe double-disc version of Cannibal Holocaust, and sports T-shirts from the kind of mail-order outfit that hawks rebel flags and Iron Cross rings, might mutter a "Jesus" or three. All of which is to say, God bless Sam Peckinpah's eternal soul and God bless this squalid, grubby, unflinching little masterpiece.

Bennie (Warren Oates) is an American dirtbag down in Old Mex, playing piano in a shithole dive behind a pair of shades and a fog of tequila breath. (Trust me, you can smell it.) "Get me out of this fucking place" is tattooed across his forehead when two dapper gents saunter into the joint and ask where they might be able to locate their old friend Alfredo. Dead or alive. Turns out Bennie's former-whore-with-heart-of-gold girlfriend Elita used to shack up with Alfredo. Then, his lady love reveals: Alfredo's already in the ground, thanks to a recent car wreck. Naturally, the dapper gents are emissaries of a Don Corleone-like crime lord whose daughter Alfredo knocked up. How hard can it be, Bennie wonders, to get proof of death from an already-dead man and deliver it up when the cash bounty for said proof looks a hell of a lot like the fastest train out of Shitsville?

Of course, one look at Warren Oates in that rumpled suit and you know the poor son-of-a-bitch ain't gonna make it. For one thing, this is 1974 — Era of the Downbeat Hollywood Ending, a year when people lined up around the block to see Michael Corleone put a hit on his own brother, a year when not even Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway lived to see the end credits. To make it worse for Bennie, this is a Sam Peckinpah film from 1974. You want an idea of what lies in store for our fair hero? Take all that de rigueur Watergate-era cynicism, soak it in mescal and tequila, and pump it full of the decayed myths of the Old West and the macho rituals of gunplay and go-it-aloneness. Then, stick it in a filthy, fly-ridden convertible driven by a fatalistic despair, with a twenty-pound brick of sheer you-want-violence-I'll-give-you-assholes-violence tied to the accelerator for good measure. Now, send that fucker hurtling through all comers on a mission from a vengeful God — and just before the shit hits the fan, don't forget to laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing as you lock eyes with the nearest unsmiling pistolero and kill the last of your whiskey. If Beatty's death in The Parallax View takes place in a glass case at the Failure of Heroism exhibit, shit, Warren Oates isn't even in the fucking museum; he gets knifed during a lousy ten-dollar card game over a taquería on 6th Street, and his only witnesses are the guys who dump his body in the alley afterward.

In '74, Peckinpah was just coming off of MGM's epic cutting-room butchery of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a move that took the rightful heir to The Wild Bunch's throne and reduced it to a scrawny, underfed runt playing dress-up in Daddy's suits. MGM balked at the tone poem Peckinpah shot about killing the ghost of your youthful past; what they released to theaters was a gallery of the world's greatest Western character actors popping up with little introduction to either get blasted in slo-mo, or stand around looking grizzled while James Coburn takes solemn sips of whiskey and adjusts his hat. On The Deadly Companions, his first feature, Peckinpah went ten rounds with the producer, who barred him from tinkering with the script, then barred him from the editing. He'd tangled with the producer of Major Dundee, his 1965 cavalry epic starring Charlton Heston; Heston offered up his salary just to keep Columbia from giving Peckinpah the boot, so Columbia got its revenge in (where else?) the editing room and released a truncated version of what Sam intended. He got fired from The Cincinnati Kid for supposedly shooting an unauthorized nude scene; when the smoke from that dust-up cleared, Peckinpah found himself blackballed for having a "difficult personality." About three years crawled by with his name on the Pay No Mind list posted at the security gate of every studio in town. Even The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs were released to theaters in slightly castrated versions; and when Sam did the kind of elegiac, reflective, non-bloodbath-oriented stories that might counter the Monty Python parodies and the clucking tongues of Reader's Digest critics, the studios repaid his efforts by dumping these films onto the bottom half of double-bills and giving them the kind of proud promotional push a married businessman might give to his bastard offspring from a one-eyed underage prostitute with a cleft palate.

So quite understandably then, Alfredo Garcia is where Peckinpah finally said "fuck it" and resigned himself to going down with middle fingers in the air. That "fuck it," followed by another glug of Campari, is certainly audible when you're looking at close-ups that don't quite match during the sitting-under-a-tree scene between Bennie and Elita, or when you're seeing day-for-night that isn't particularly convincing and lighting that varies from shot to shot in some sequences. Ultimately, it's not even a technical issue. Sure, the woozy, uncertain tone of some of the early scenes brings front-and-center the alcoholic haze we saw seeping into the cracks around Pat Garrett. Sure, during Alfredo's first inning, the Peckinpah genius at montage and tension-building seems to have been confiscated by Customs during his drive into Mexico. But it's the undisguised weariness that Peckinpah's captured here — that's the "fuck it." It's countless tequila-sodden nights spent wallowing alone in loss and recriminations. It's the litany of broken films and broken marriages — years of his life devoted to something, and for what? It's the betrayals by producers who swore to protect his vision. The way he was used by star-fuckers during his Bunch-era heyday, then tossed aside. The way he was written off by critics and disdained by the boys up in Burbank as the drunken bum at the party that no one invited. It's the air of disillusionment, the acceptance of failure, the embrace of the futility of trying to buck the system, the understanding of the Cain-slays-Abel-then-fucks-his-wife nature of a world run by bloodless businessmen in gaudy penthouse suites that Peckinpah assays here — that's the "fuck it."

Chinatown and Godfather II (as well as Peckinpah's own Westerns) keep their darkness safely confined to the Mythic American Past; Alfredo Garcia wants us to know that's all horseshit. "That Old World dragon's never been slain," Alfredo laughs. "You just kicked it under a rug before the party began." And there it is — a writhing lump on the floor of our post-sixties soiree, the one that everyone keeps stepping over and ignoring, even as its muffled grunts cut through another smiley-faced anecdote or another round of back-slapping regarding Nixon's resignation or Bush leaving office. "Nein!" shrieked the cultural guardians like the German advisor in The Wild Bunch, "Veef left all zaht behind now! Vee haff Vimmin's Lib! Zhere iss und Black Man in office! Vee haff purged all ze throwbacks und malcontents from zociety und vee are marching forward into the glorious sunset of our thoroughly modern future! Vhutt iss ziss Peckinpah talking about?!" Indeed, how dare Peckinpah dump all this ancient savagery in the lap of our sophisticated modern world? How dare he insist that Yesteryear is still there in our closets and under our collective floorboards, its little black heart beating just as steadily as ever? Peckinpah removes his shades for a clear-eyed look at a world where the big guys doom the little guys to horrible deaths from behind polished oak desks, and never have to smell the bodies. (Pure coincidence, those Dick Nixon "cameos," right?) He looks around the dirt pit he's in and sees us clawing each other's throats for a mere piece of cigar tossed down by those with dominion. And I'll be damned to an eternity of Sandra Bullock flicks if he doesn't have a good laugh over it.

Look, I know we're all a bunch of too-cool-for-school, totally with-it hipsters drowning in our postmodernism, who hoot at The Exorcist and snicker at Kim Novak dropping like a cheap dummy past the mission window in Vertigo. With the right pinch of ironic detachment, everything's "funny" now. But I mean it when I call Alfredo Garcia a warped black-comic fantasia that beat Lynch and Tarantino to the punch. I'm talking the fuck-it-all humor of the utterly desperate; the kind of stranded-in-a-shitty-part-of-town-with-a-dead-cell-phone-at-2-in-the-morning, $12-left-in-your-bank-account-and-your-girlfriend-just-announced-she's-pregnant laughter that emanates from people too far along in their fucked-upness not to laugh.

I'm talking about a bus full of American tourists passing through a potential roadside massacre, and the way everyone puts the standoff on hold to be Picturesque Mexican Peasants and wave at their gawkers. I'm talking about Bennie's thoroughly '70s way with wardrobe coordination and the way his clip-on tie comes off just as he's trying to show what a cool operator he is. I'm talking about the competition Bennie feels with his girlfriend's dead lover, and the way that desecrating Alfredo's grave becomes a final ritual he has to undergo so that the two of them can be happy. I'm talking about Bennie's ensuing friendship with the severed head as he confides in it, consoles it, bonds with it; the way he calls it "Al" and picks it up with tender loving care mere seconds after slaughtering everyone in the room. I'm talking about Robert Webber surveying the handy annihilation of an entire family with glowing professional satisfaction, about the creepy-old-people-in-Mulholland-Dr. grin that Gig Young wears as he mows them all down as calmly as he'd file his nails after a nice hot bath. I'm talking about the payoff in the way that Bennie retrieves a business card with some crucial information. I'm talking about Peckinpah's emphasis on the details of fighting putrefaction and keeping the flies off your best damn friend in the whole damn world.

Critics circa '74 treated it like the perfect date film — that is, if your date was a degenerate whore or a tranny streetwalker you'd picked up in front of a taco truck at 2 a.m. Regular people were no better. My mom, a woman who introduced me to Blue Velvet and laughed her ass off at Dennis Hopper's helplessness while brutalizing Isabella Rossellini, couldn't sit through it. In my old video store days, I recommended this to a co-worker — a fan of Italian gore flicks who could chomp popcorn through monkey torture in Faces of Death. He had to turn it off after the first ten minutes; from then on, my hours spent working with him consisted of what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-this-guy looks that not even convicted child molesters have had to endure. Yet, large portions of the film aren't just "funny"; goddamn it, they're funny. And it's taken a thirty-year shift in audience perception — post-Twin Peaks, post-Pulp Fiction, post-any manner of "shocking" Asian cinema — to swat away the flies and grime and filth and see what was there all along.

Critics said Oates was a mere character actor who wore the occasional lead role like an ill-fitting suit. Pauline Kael described him as a "man used to not being noticed." If that isn't the perfect physicality for playing Bennie, I don't know what is: used to life as a schmuck at whom people toss five-dollar bills and ignore (hence, the shades), suddenly thrust by circumstance into a role as avenging angel in service of a morality the little swamp rat never knew he had in him. Isela Vega is likewise perfect as Elita. Watch her as he cracks the lid on Alfredo's cheap coffin and readies that machete in his tentative grip. She's nothing less than the very specter of Bennie's conscience staring him down (those "damn eyes" becoming a motif in his deranged rants), nothing less than his tattered remnant of a conscience retreating from him in horror, and finally abandoning him altogether. It's that look of hers — that mirror of horrified morality reflecting just how low he's willing to crawl to salvage even a crumb of the American Dream from a shit-filled gutter — that fuels the entire second half of the film.

Bennie might as well have expired at the midway point, and the rest of the film could simply be a dying man's fever dream of redemption as he withers away in the Mexican sun. (How else to explain his imperviousness to bullets, or the suddenly crackshot marksmanship of a whorehouse piano player?) No matter. By the law of a jungle filled with killers vying for their shot at the Golden Fleece, Bennie becomes The Lion. And at last, The Lion faces down his malevolent God: the rich pig whose title command set this whole wretched saga in motion. "Here's the merchandise you bought" is exactly right: it's what reveals this erstwhile exercise in cheap nihilism for what it really is — a moralist treatise that might have made Will Hays proud. Nobody gets away clean in Bennie's world; everybody pays for their hubris, their greed, their careless flouting of the laws of human decency. Crime pays but the fortune you're staring at means nothing when you've destroyed everything you were — everything you might have been — just to obtain it.

For such a mindless celebrator of violence, Peckinpah sure couldn't stop underscoring the sheer meaninglessness of all those deaths: the civilians caught in the crossfire just so Pike Bishop and his boys could make off with bags of steel washers, the shattering of Amy Sumner's psyche just so her husband can finally feel like a man, twenty-odd people ground underfoot in a battle royale for Alfredo's rotting noggin like ghetto children struck by stray bullets during jump-rope — casualties of a rage that'll never meet its intended target. Alfredo Garcia is the real ending to The Getaway. It's what happens when Nixon's America infects the Mexican countryside with its greed and savagery and violence; when the modern world of corporate murder in three-piece suits blithely waves its suitcases full of dinero, its ladies-in-waiting and its Coca-Cola chairs in the face of a land where tenement shacks, beat-to-shit family cars and little boys who wipe the gringoes' windows for a couple of pesos define a way of life.

Maybe Peckinpah's characters lived out such a headlong rush to the grave because Peckinpah did himself. But his rage at the shit we've made of the world — our enemies, our elected leaders, us with our middle-class apathy and willingness to live with corruption and gimme-moreism — that's a rage riper than the head on Bennie's passenger seat. It's a rage whose stench fairly coats Peckinpah's body of work dealing with the twentieth century — a rage which grows only stronger, the faster Alfredo Garcia makes the suicidal running leap toward its inevitable conclusion. Be it an endless war abroad or the gradual decaying of our ability to face ourselves in the mirror — sooner or later, we all have to face the "merchandise" we've bought.

And no one gets away clean.

©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Straw Dogs (1971)

I Am Just a Monkey Man and I'm Glad You Are a Monkey Woman, Too, Babe

directed by Sam Peckinpah
starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George,
Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna

Unruly child that it was, the "New Hollywood" movement of the Vietnam-to-Watergate era thought it could spend eternity tear-assing through the lobby of staid Mainstream Cinema, overturning plants and setting off cherry bombs without so much as a spanking. Instead, it wound up with its picture on milk cartons by the time Ronald Reagan took office. Chief among its crimes against banality was the zits-and-all candor with which it served up women. It’s as if directors used the era of the ERA and Germaine Greer to level the playing field, in the truest sense of the term: "Fair enough, ladies. You want women depicted as flawed, realistic human beings? Female characters afforded the same complexity and sophistication that balding screenwriters grant their male characters? Everyday women who reflect your woes and concerns, who sometimes go without bras and forget to take their birth control, rather than the impeccably coiffed, gossamer queens of yore? Fine. Have a bite of Jane Fonda's hooker in Klute — she sees a shrink and makes it clear that her life doesn’t revolve around her faceless clientele! How ’bout Faye Dunaway’s corporate boss swinging her dick better than any of the men in Network? Oh, here's adulterous wives Susan Clark in Night Moves and Lily Tomlin in Nashville, fumbling their way through the post-Sexual Revolution landscape just like you!" Fittingly, shopping-mall feminists across America roundly rejected the fully-faceted humanity — the equality — they claimed to have wanted, retreating from the Fondas and the Ellen Burstyns and the Jill Clayburghs, and diving headlong into the arms of the Meg Ryans and Sandra Bullocks waiting just around the corner. Fonda starred in Klute; Julia Roberts gave us Pretty Woman. Sold!

Which brings us to a nebbish named David Sumner unsheathing his inner Neanderthal to become a one-man army against a gang of bloodthirsty home invaders in Straw Dogs. Had the Schraders of Grand Rapids, Michigan never had a son named Paul, then Sam Peckinpah's second greatest film just might stand as the best film of that early to mid-'70s golden age; not to mention, the Citizen Kane of what I like to call Powder-Keg Cinema: the explosive-elements-which-can-only-lead-to-violent-climax type of film best exemplified by Taxi Driver (and encompassing everything from James Toback's Fingers to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing).

Ask around about this here Straw Dogs, though. Ask Pauline Kael ("fascist") and Roger Ebert. Ask the British censors responsible for the film's twenty-year status as porno-sadism unfit for home video release. Ask director Rod Lurie, who helmed the remake. You might even check with Dustin Hoffman, who reportedly only took the role of David for the dough and seems to hold Straw Dogs apart from the rest of his filmography, like some shitty diaper that threatens to contaminate the likes of Ishtar and Family Business with its toxic stink-waves. Poll the lot of 'em, you’ll learn two things: one, all Peckinpah's treatise on man’s territorial nature adds up to is "crack some skulls and you’re finally a real man"; two (and most importantly), its Infamous Rape Sequence featuring the delectable Mrs. Sumner stands as Exhibit A in the prosecution of Sam Peckinpah's hatred of women. Christ, Martha, it's as if Bloody Sam himself stumbled out of his grave just to piss 100 proof whiskey down our pants legs and crow in our faces about how every little cunt secretly craves a little forced entry to keep her ass in line!

Like many an actual rape, the violation of Amy Sumner (played by Susan George) is perpetrated by a man she knows — her former lover, in this case — and as such, the entire sequence is shot through with fragments of the tenderness and the me-Tarzan-you-Jane domination she once enjoyed with him. He knew/knows his role and didn't/doesn't hesitate to embody it: simple acts of male decisiveness essential to attaining both respect and pussy, something only bitter lesbians and men who lack experience with actual women would deny. Granted, maintaining a direct line to one's inner simian is quite the double-edged sword; here, the blade damn near cuts a smile in her throat. Still, it has fuck-all to do with her being a bratty little tease who leads men on and gets "what’s coming to her" — which is all the professional hand-wringers and self-righteous hacks like Rod Lurie assume we unevolved life forms will take from it.

George insisted to Peckinpah that her eyes alone would convey all the turmoil and confusion he wanted here; she wasn't lying. We're barely a couple minutes into the maelstrom before her face opens up a novel's worth of messy, conflicting little human details. Yes, Amy's repulsed and frightened by the savagery of this man she once invited to ravish her. Yes, she's horrified at feeling like she's betrayed her marriage. But her brutish ex puts his finger on a pulse that Hubby has yet to even find. She's frantic as she tries to gauge just how much her mixed-signal attention-seeking could have nudged this moment into existence, yet she's so desperate to feel desired that she finds solace in the grip of a man willing to risk prison (to say nothing of his own humanity) just to have her once more. Add to this the condescension bordering on scorn and lack of warmth that she endures from her husband, stir in a bit of the primal attraction that every woman harbors toward the Unrefined Male Beast, and — voilà! — you now have the culprit for the film's perpetual bête noire status among the Defenders of Feminine Virtue (whose most worrisome members these days are, of course, men).

Pesky details, however, only get in the way of a good moral outrage. So do your sense of civic duty a favor and forget that the brutality, the sense of invasion, the sheer this-can't-be-happening-to-me horror of rape are all fully present and accounted for. (Doubting Thomases need only watch Amy trying to levitate out of her own skin as the second rapist shows up to take his "turn.") Never mind that Peckinpah refuses for one second to soft-pedal or trivialize her ordeal, that Amy is actually the character for whom the drunken old misogynist seems to show something closest to sympathy. Never mind that facets of this sequence combine to form what is arguably the most complex flesh-and-blood mosaic of female sexuality to ever burn a hole through a movie screen. For that matter, never mind the countless real-life women with rape fantasies, for whom even a little mid-coitus choking is a welcome break from metrosexual nancy-boys afraid to spank their asses too hard during doggy-style.

And while you're at it, simply ignore my personal observation that, of the various women I’ve shown Straw Dogs to (and at this point, it's just about my When I Start to Get Serious About a Girl Movie), nary a one of them has seen fit to react with the proper clenched-fist apoplexy. Just tell yourself that the rape of Amy Sumner is an attack on Womanhood Itself and close your sphincter 'round a toothpick in service of a feminist orthodoxy for which precious few women in the real world seem to have much actual use. After all, it's not your fault that Peckinpah upchucks a huge mess in our laps and leaves it to us to sort the corn from the meat; apparently, he had this bizarre notion of cinema as an art form that reflects the gray areas and troubling ambiguities of Real Life. Of course, he happened to do so with subject matter that the erstwhile champions of "subtlety" and "complexity" demand to see portrayed only in the starkest black-and-white. Naturally, it caused the Ms. Magazine crowd to shit a brick; reviews and op-ed pieces have reeked of the stench ever since.

"Sure, Amy's enjoying it. At least with the first hombre who takes her. The second one is a bit more than she bargained for, but that's one of the prices she pays for playing her little game. There's always a price to pay, doctor."

— Peckinpah, in an interview with Playboy,
Aug. 1972 issue

Like any true artist worth a damn, Sam Peckinpah maintained a side career in self-destructiveness, and to say that his statements to the press may have colored people's reactions is to suggest that when having a large steel rod jammed up one's ass, one may feel a slight pinch. Yet, why should Peckinpah have cut down on the macho bluster and spilled his innermost secrets and fears — the Real Him — for the whole world to pick through? (When you trudge in to your shit, dull office job every morning, do you stop by the desk of Fat Cathy the Receptionist to analyze the argument you had with your fuck-buddy the night before?)

All artists are solid bullshit merchants. The greater the talent, the higher the wall of dung placed between us and them; and with Peckinpah, the finest American filmmaker of the Nixon years, one often needed to be helicoptered in just to reach the other side of it. It's a test of our own critical faculties: do we accept what’s on the surface or do we have the ability to dig beneath layers, to question our own assumptions and prejudices, to pry off masks and find the human heart throbbing somewhere within? The harder they make it for us — whether via inscrutable personas or ridiculous, off-putting comments in interviews — the easier it is to separate the true passengers from the bandwagon-of-the-moment jumpers, the real critics from the lazy jackasses content to label Straw Dogs "justification for the manliness of rape and killing" after a single viewing. To my mind, Peckinpah's goading of the press, be it a Playboy interviewer or some yo-yo from the Wallahatchee Beacon, isn't terribly different from Spike Jonze stating with a straight face that location scouts for Being John Malkovich found an honest-to-goodness 7 1/2 Floor: both lit a match to the snarling Rottweiler of accepted critical authority and neither was surprised to see the pooch go up in flames.

Spike Jonze, though, is a wacky kid playing with his Tonka trucks in the sandbox of indie-hued postmodernism (whatever the fuck that means); Peckinpah was a hard-drinking son of the open plains with both World War II and several marriages under his belt. And he knew women. Oh, how he knew women. He knew the spoiled-silly, self-centered, childish little girls who half-heartedly milk the tit of "independence" while still expecting to have their bills and dinner tabs paid at the flutter of an eyelash. He knew the girls who look to society (which is to say, men) to provide their happiness (which is to say, financial security), only to limp into their still-single thirties-and-beyond as bitter, unfulfilled, coiled-up little balls of sarcasm-posing-as-humor with poison darts aimed at any less-than-alpha male foolish enough to attempt flattery — and this, despite said females' basic wardrobe consisting of B-cup tits push-bra'ed up through an attention-craving neckline like a fucking alien bursting out of John Hurt's stomach. (Hard to soapbox about "objectification," ladies, when your chins are resting on your cleavage.)

Likewise, Peckinpah knew what his generation of men had been, for better or for worse. And peeking over the brow of the hill, he saw tomorrow's hordes taking their sweet time as they shuffled their way toward a generational seat already growing cold: a bunch of boys whose daddies didn't stick around, raised by women and molded in an increasingly feminized society hellbent on taking the idea of righting yesterday's wrongs and making a new Christianity out of it. He saw dickless douchebags who don't know how to take care of a woman, who shy away from the male imperative because they deem it to be a club wielded by "the patriarchy," ready to deny the very blood coursing through their veins in some misguided stab at social corrective. What it all added up to: the coming of the Me Generation '70s, the retreat from genuine social engagement and risking one's neck for change; a self-satisfied, well-fed America ensconced in its comfy living rooms, patting its bellies, and cranking up the volume on Archie Bunker and the Fonz, rolling its eyes at Walter Cronkite talking about yet another development in the prolonging of Vietnam, or yet another crime committed somewhere over on the black side of town.

With Straw Dogs, Peckinpah takes the ancient nature of Woman and marries it to the neutered spectacle of the Modern Male on the altar of a savage animal kingdom devoid of grace or beauty; or at least, it's a world where such things are revealed as mere pretense soon enough. You can quibble with the airlessness of his vision here but it's his prerogative as an artist — no more offensive on its own merits than a candy-colored musical or whimsical rom-com or cloying indie smash where even the barista at Starbucks is full of pre-fab "quirk." Besides, Peckinpah makes it all resonate. His England is no England, but the hostile, strange land that America itself resembled for many middle-class David Sumners by 1971. Men shoot birds with aplomb because it's what men do. It's only a matter of time before they turn the guns on each other.

Never mind the workers-turned-Goliaths, though; Peckinpah considered David the true "heavy" of the piece. (And he is.) If NOW members got their tits in a wringer because Amy’s rape scene called 'em on all those nights they donned flavored lingerie and played Sexy Burglar Ravishes the Lady of the House, well, the men of the world weren’t exactly writing Bloody Sam any thank-you letters. David Sumner is no underdog hero who "finally learns to stand up for himself" (à la the film’s trailer and promotional materials), he’s a bitter, seething, socially inept coward whose wormy little smile scarcely bothers to mask his sense of superiority and impatience with all those who aren't "astro-mathematicians" given grants to retire to the English countryside and piece together great academic tomes. He’s a high-handed, supercilious turd whose idea of rational communication with his wife is, "I love you, but I want you to leave me alone" or "you know, you’re not so dumb"; whose idea of entertaining a visit from the village vicar is to argue about religion before putting on a bagpipe record full-blast; whose idea of connubial passion includes pausing to set the bedside alarm clock. His method of engaging with the world around him is to either take no stand at all (fleeing the States at the height of 'Nam-era unrest because he's "never claimed to be one of the involved") or to take one far too late in the game, and without conviction (his plan to confront the workers about their cat ends with him abandoned on the moor and thoroughly cuckolded). Class and education form the paper-thin parchment that separates him from the low-rung yokels he’s hired to work on the farmhouse. Class and education — his constant reminder of the social status and good old American green he thinks the natives will bow to in worship — are what he whips out, like a monogrammed silk hanky, at the slightest invitation.

Make no mistake about it, though: David shares the same brutality as his tormentors, and (because he is more intelligent, more calculating) there's a cruelty to him that all but perhaps Amy's second rapist lack. Like any man who has to "prove himself," David is massively insecure; we're ever aware that his degree-waving and, later, needless escalation of the conflict are fueled by the fact that the men around him have bigger dicks. (Or, more likely, it's impotence that we're getting at — after all, Peckinpah contrasts Amy’s seduction-by-rape with duck-hunting David who fumbles at proper discharge then stands there while his dead little birdy goes completely limp.)

These coarse men of action who make their livings with their hands, who don't need to hire others to do their menial labor, are the kinds of men he secretly envies — the ones with the sand to act out what intellectualizers like himself can only kick around in the sanctuary of their own heads. Thus, his casual, passive-aggressive torture of Amy's cat is completed by the (unseen) assailant who hangs it in the closet. His inability to focus and get his life's great work finished is contrasted with the simple blue-collar tasks performed by the workers just outside his window. (Amy to David: "If you could hammer a nail…") His inadequacy at fulfilling Amy's need for attention prods her into a topless walk past a window, where the stares of the workers (including her soon-to-be rapists) provide a quick fix. His ineptitude at subduing Amy and getting her to do as he wants (his man-of-the-house initiative) is mocked by her rapists who have no such trouble accomplishing the same. Finally, his failure to provide Amy with even the smallest sense of protection during the climactic siege is only highlighted by her ex. She can't believe David insists on keeping her in close quarters with the town pervert, whom David has hit with their car and is shepherding until "help arrives"; meanwhile, her ex (who aims to slay the dragon) appears as the only safe port in the storm — one to which she immediately runs, only to have David slap the shit out of her and nearly break her wrist before banishing her from the room. So much for pacifism.

At last, David will do something "a man should do" — i.e. protect his home, his castle — at any cost, for even the flimsiest of reasons. That he does so in "defense" of a known child molester who's just inadvertently murdered a girl, while the violation of his own wife remains completely unknown to him is Peckinpah's ultimate joke (and comment) on the character. As well as those who maintain that he attempts to justify the corpse-strewn path David takes to "finding himself." One smarmy little pussy decides to finally — belatedly — prove who's got the biggest dick after all, and six men end up dead, his wife ends up emotionally scarred for life, and his marriage lies in ruins along with his tranquil little Cornish farmhouse. (Kids, can you say "Pyrrhic victory"?) That Amy's two rapists are among the dead is, again, pure coincidence. Had she tearfully confessed to David, he'd likely have done nothing more than stare into space uncomprehendingly while muttering about notifying the police, and offering her a pat on the back and a cup of tea for good measure.

Sure, the plot mechanics that the film employs in order to bring us Dustin Hoffman with a can of whoop-ass and a can opener may cry out for a little WD-40 at the hinges. From the first act, you know something dreadful's going to happen to that goddamn cat, and certainly, it would take an IQ lower than Henry Niles' to look at that man-trap over the Sumner mantle and not know that a gun's gonna go pop by Act Three. Your hipster friends might even titter at the perfect timing of the phone line getting cut, or the good ol' Bad-Guy-Who's-Still-Alive-and-Pops-Up-at-the-Last-Minute standby. Except that a) these weren't good ol' standbys when Peckinpah did them and b) they work even now, long after Straw Dogs shot its tainted chromosomes into the cinematic gene pool and sired a hundred Downie-baby knockoffs that bludgeoned these moments into the old tropes we now know them as.

It's the overall impact that counts, and said impact is one of such ruthless momentum that to nitpick in the face of it would be to resemble a woman I once showed Apocalypse Now — a woman who complained, after 153 acid-trip minutes of purple smoke, blue tigers, Mount Brando meditating on Evil, and Dennis Hopper being Dennis Hopper, that the film was "unrealistic" because Coppola never showed them getting fuel for the boat. ("It’s probably in the original cut," I muttered over the audible hiss of her oral sex privileges deflating like a Goodyear under the blade of a psychotic ex.) Besides, David's obstinacy in the face of mounting danger is no less a creaky plot construction on his part; it sparks the confrontation for which he's clearly been salivating. (Note how calmly he announces to Amy that they stand to be killed if the men get inside.) He may be smiling like a man born anew when the smoke clears, but he hasn't learned a damn thing, hasn't learned to acknowledge his own hostility, his own violence. He'd have likely told anyone who asked that he was left no choice but to defend home and hearth, that these savage thugs encroached upon his civilized world and all but placed the shotgun, the poker, the knife, the pots full of boiling cleaning solution, and the gigantic bear-trap in his hands. "It's those men who are the violent savages," he'd say. "I only did what I had to do." He'd probably even believe it.

And so David Sumner remains. Ever the clueless solipsist managing to piss off people wherever he goes. Ever the white knight in a land of dirt and grime, unsullied atop his sports car chariot as he waves his peace signs and American cigarettes at the grubby natives below. Ever the American. (Some right-wing masterpiece this is.) No wonder it's the village idiot David rides off into the fog with — a perfect sunset for this agoraphobic, inverted Western. That poor nitwit was the Pearl Harbor that enabled David to Stand Up For What's Right, asserting both his moral primacy and that old frontier imperative to crack a few heads when trod upon.

He'll need him again.

©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .