Monday, March 24, 2014

Sam Peckinpah: Top to Bottom (A Humble Ranking of the Master's Filmography by Yours Truly)

Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984).

"Bloody Sam," they called him. The patron saint of modern screen violence. Boozy poet of man's headlong charge into the grave. Balladeer in mourning for a West that possibly never existed. Champion of men without a place in a newfangled world presided over by bloodless businessmen who seal fates not with conviction or even passion, but with a pen and a plastic smile. Supposed misogynist. The greatest director of the nineteenth century — to detractors and admirers alike.

To the producers and studio heads who frequently butchered his films, Sam Peckinpah was an irresponsible hellion; a self-made misfit with a six-shooter in his hand and a bulls-eye painted on his foot. Chicken or the egg: did his alcoholic's thirst for self-annihilation fuel his genius for making mortal enemies of the money men who always retained final cut — or was it the other way around?

Sam Peckinpah's films are — to varying degrees of caliber and accuracy — bullets fired into that pristine Hollywood mirror reflecting Our Better Selves and the Great American Way. Here's your reflection in the spider web:

1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

A vile, grungy, tequila-soaked desert dirge for every scruffy little gutter rat who got the notion — if even for a fleeting moment — that he might come out on top, that he might actually get away with the loot, that he might somehow make it to the other end in one piece. Life's response, of course, is a mocking laugh and a "not fucking likely." Meanwhile, Peckinpah's right there to watch us Bennies writhing in a pit of our own making, his white suit naturally soiled from his own climb out of the muck, as he raises his Scotch to toast us and our impotent gun blasts of rage against the steel jackboot of the inevitable. Have a drink, Al.

It does my heart good to see Alfredo go from being this semi-forgotten '70s curio and supposed Worst Film of All Time candidate to near-universal admiration as the pure artistic statement and underrated black comedy that it always was. I have my issues with Roger Ebert but Peckinpah fans must never forget that Ebert was virtually a lone voice in the mid-'70s wilderness when he gave Alfredo a four-star review and talked about all the sadness and poetry — and outrage at the way of the world — buried beneath its scuzz-ball, crab-infested surface.

Oh, and if anyone's in doubt: Warren Oates fucking owns your bitch ass, plain and simple.

2. Straw Dogs (1971)

Most Easily Misunderstood Film of All Time. A litmus test for a viewer's intelligence and ability to read subtext. A blistering slow-burn meditation on the disintegration of a marriage. More ugly truth about women's latent sexual desires than any feminist or Prius-driving, mangina bitch-boy will ever be comfortable with. Greatest/most hypnotic rape scene (scenes?) ever filmed. A straitrazor slashing mercilessly away at the distended white underbelly of ineffectual college-liberal manhood. An explosion that couldn't help but happen — that could only have happened in this era, under these circumstances. The coldest, most unsparing essay on man's territorial imperative and savage nature ever to masquerade as a home-invasion flick.

Certainly, one isn't meant to "like" Dogs — it's Peckinpah saying some very uncomfortable shit about the nature of men and of women; about the pull that the alpha-male caveman has (and always will have) on women; about the inevitability of certain kinds of conflict, especially when passive-aggressiveness and faux-intellectualism rule the day. It's a behavioral thesis dressed up as a home-invasion flick, and the spirit of the thing is as bleak and as gray and sunless as John Coquillon's cinematography would indicate. There's none of the moments of camaraderie that one finds in Peckinpah's Westerns here, no room for the possibility of acceptance or of peace of mind that one finds in his Steve McQueen films, none of the knowing black humor of Alfredo Garcia or The Osterman Weekend.

Per Pauline Kael, in her essay "Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah — The Killer Elite" —
...there is a total, physical elation in his work and in his own relation to it that makes me feel closer to him than I do to any other director except Jean Renoir
— I'd say that the explosion of violence in Dogs lacks even the "total, physical elation" that one finds in the release of The Wild Bunch or in the moral cleansing of Bennie's rage against the machine in Alfredo Garcia. Which is certainly the point.

In short: the truth, the way and the light.

3. The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch isn't a Western.

It's the fucking Western; a farewell to a moribund genre — the last true gasp of broad-canvas Old Hollywood myth-making sandwiched in between breathtaking, hypnotic, machine-gun-edited paroxysms of death and destruction that lobbed grenades at the parameters of the up-to-then American action-film narrative, and dotted the silver screen with exit wounds and ejaculatory spurts of blood in a way that sent preview audiences scurrying for the aisles and had a chorus of furrowed-brow, ostensibly concerned-about-violence cultural guardians howling for the director's head on a stick. In the process, Peckinpah gave a rising band of new-wave cineastes and 'Nam-era malcontents a Western they could call their own. In time, this daringly reconstituted last gasp of Old Hollywood would pave the way for the New — auteurist rabble-rousers who'd pick up the stick that Peckinpah dropped and continue poking at the bloodied but still-wheezing corpus of traditional masculinity. (Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, John Woo, Walter Hill, De Palma with his remake of Scarface, Tarantino, et al.)

What it also paved the way for was a thousand limp-dicked imitations that apparently studied Bunch's chaotic bookends like the Dead Sea Scrolls, but missed all that boring stuff in between about recognizing the failure to live up to a self-imposed code of honor in oneself; about having outlived your time; about marching to the beat of an increasingly outmoded way of life when the world around you is singing a new tune called Civilization; about living with the festering wounds of regret until you can't fucking take it any more, until you can scarcely stand to face your own reflection.

More pain and poetry packed into a Panavision frame than the world was ready for in 1969. Over twenty-five years later, the re-release of Peckinpah's original Director's Cut garnered an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Poetry never fades.

4. Cross of Iron (1977)

As woozy and muddled in its own way as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid but in a way that I find works to the film’s benefit. (Plus, Orson Welles loved it.) What it feels like to fight a losing war, to have tethered yourself to a sinking ship — and to carry on with it, anyway, because you’re a professional, dammit, and that’s what professionals do. In other words: another Peckinpah treatise on his film career. The ending is its own complete commentary on the madness of war, and how insanity is often the only sane response to it.

5. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

A notoriously butchered work in its original incarnation (thank you, MGM), but a 1988 restoration and a further 2005 re-cut got people reasonably close to what Peckinpah intended.

Also, this is where Peckinpah's infamous alcoholism starts to make its presence felt in the work itself. Retains a suitably appropriate, druggy '70s vibe, though. The evil twin to The Wild Bunch. No rousingly-scored elation or catharsis in the gunslinging here, just the slow, inevitable death of the West in muted shades of muddy gray-brown. Final fifteen to twenty minutes probably the best/saddest final fifteen to twenty minutes of any Western, ever.

Bye-bye, West. Say hello to the modern world.

6. Ride the High Country (1962)

One of the last of the old-school studio Westerns. A graceful film in its own shambling, quiet little way. It won't make sense to you at twenty but it ripens and matures as you get older, and you suddenly find yourself knowing just what Joel McCrea means when he utters the immortal line, "All I want is to enter my house justified." Ain’t a man alive — a man who's taken a few knocks, who's fallen on his ass a few times, who's gotten a few knots on either his head or his dick — who can't understand that, on some level. It resonates all throughout the film, all the way to its justifiably well-regarded — and utterly fucking beautiful — final shot.

7. The Getaway (1972)

A near B-movie, to be sure, but then Jim Thompson's book was a B-novel. Ali MacGraw's nostrils do an admirable acting job and Sollozzo from The Godfather kidnaps Archie Bunker's little goil and makes a helluva B-movie villain. Originally, I came to this one after Peckinpah's acknowledged masterpieces so I couldn't appreciate it. He did it for the $$$ but he still did it the artist's way: if there's a better treatise on repairing a frayed marriage within the framework of a down-and-dirty '70s action flick, somebody let me know. The hotel shootout toward the end gives me a boner. Doc McCoy can't get one when he first comes home to his wife, but he takes a pump-action shotgun and still shows us what a man looks like. I like it. Plus, there's Slim Pickens.

8. The Osterman Weekend (1983)

Bug-fuck insane? Muddled? Convoluted? Sure, sure, and sure. But worthwhile? You bet. Funny how — for such an unheralded "last gasp of a once-great director" — it's utterly spot-on in predicting the Big Brother-esque camcorder/webcam/phone-cam surveillance society we now take for granted. Not to mention, the pre-packaged phoniness of our Sean Hannitys and Keith Olbermanns and other things that pass for "bold" televised political commentary. John Hurt doing his improvised weather report is fucking hilarious. The big action set-piece at the end shows Peckinpah still on top of his game. Meg Foster with a crossbow is arguably his best use of slo-mo since The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah even finds the room for a little surrealism — check those bullets whirring into the pool over our heroes' heads or Helen Shaver's little coked-out children's song just before meeting her doom.

The little surveillance video that John Hurt shows Rutger Hauer of Dennis Hopper's meeting in the park? Check the boom-box that some guy is holding in the background. If you've noticed that there's no music coming out of said boom-box, then buy yourself a shot of Maker's: you've picked up on a subtle early clue that Hurt's character may not be all he seems. Devil's in the details, you know.

9. Major Dundee (1965)

Flawed, obviously, what with Columbia snatching the film from Peckinpah and re-cutting it, adding a horrid score, etc. The fault doesn't just lie with the suits, though: I look at this as sort of a dry run for The Wild Bunch, since the ideas he pulled off beautifully there, he's not quite able to realize here. The ending, in particular, is a bit of a rushed muddle. Fascinating as hell, though. One of Heston's best performances. And Senta Berger circa '65 is quite a sight to behold. More meat on this "failure's" bones than on ten certified "classics."

10. Junior Bonner (1972)

Unchanged men in a changing land and, this time, not a single bullet is fired. Accepting the ne'er-do-well that is your father, and learning to love him, anyway. Accepting that you can lose in a situation and still know that you've won, on some level. Learning how to pick yourself up after a mean bull (a.k.a. life itself) has dumped you flat on your ass. Steve McQueen in a cowboy hat. Nixon's small-town America in an age of crisis.

11. The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

Amiable, shaggy-dog tale saluting the men who built up the old West (and thus, America) from little more than a hole in the ground — and then, got wiped from the history books. Interesting to see Peckinpah give in to his sentimental, cornball side for once.

Plus, there's Stella Stevens and that damn cleavage of hers.

12. The Killer Elite (1975)

Part of me says: turn it off after the James Caan character gets out of physical therapy, about twenty minutes in. 'Cause you'll have seen all that's worthwhile here. Ninjas in slo-mo. Chinese virgins. Jeez, Sam. Cocaine's a helluva drug.

Then, the other part of me re-reads that brilliant Pauline Kael essay on how the film represented Peckinpah's battles with studio heads and his determination to show Hollywood that — like Caan's double-crossed character — he might have been down, but he certainly wasn't out. Or I remember what I've read about how Peckinpah slipped all these tongue-in-cheek Brechtian distancing devices into what he realized was essentially a cynical, by-the-numbers genre exercise meant to capitalize on the whole slo-mo-barrage-of-gunfire action market that he himself had helped to create. And then, I start to appreciate parts of it anew.

It'll be awhile before it replaces Alfredo Garcia as my Having A New Chick Over For The First Time movie, though.

13. The Deadly Companions (1961)

Said co-lead Maureen O'Hara, "Peckinpah later reached icon status as a great director of Westerns, but I thought he was just awful. I found him to be one of the strangest and most objectionable people I had ever worked with."

And I'm sure that producer Charles Fitzsimons — O'Hara's brother — foisting O'Hara upon Peckinpah, then essentially telling his first-time director how to direct while steadfastly denying him a crack at the screenplay or the editing, had nothing to do with Peckinpah's attitude on the set.

It might, however, have something to do with the fact that this isn't much of an actual Peckinpah film.

14. Convoy (1978)

Truckers. Kris Kristofferson. Ali MacGraw's nostrils. Ernest Borgnine's evil hick sheriff. Inspired by a one-hit wonder on country radio. The rumors that Peckinpah was too busy holing up in his trailer with Peruvian marching dust to do some of the actual directing. If you squint real hard, you can see a little bit of occasional magic in here. Or just take it as a corny '70s road movie and put it on a double bill with Smokey and the Bandit. You'll probably like it even more.

Further reading:

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: No One Here Gets Out Alive

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

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

The Getaway: We Can Work It Out

©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic


Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

The Wild Bunch is clearly tops.

Straw Dogs is next.

Followed by Ride the High Country and Major Dundee.

Just below are Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Getaway is a killer action film.
Killer Elite and Osterman Weekend are terrific paranoid fantasies.

Deadly Companions certainly deserves another look.

Convoy and Junior Bonner are nice but not much.

Cross of Iron is very ambitious but muddled and confused.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia... great idea for a film but what a terrible mess.

Overlooked is his TV film Noon Wine.

Scott Is NOT A Professional said...

And here, I thought the only female Peckinpah fans out there were the girls I personally sat down and showed Straw Dogs and Alfredo Garcia to. (This is assuming, of course, that you're an honest-to-God owner of breasts and ovaries here.)

Certainly, from a historical influence perspective, The Wild Bunch towers over the rest of Peckinpah's filmography. It is — to use a musical analogy — his Sgt. Pepper's, his Dark Side of the Moon, his untitled fourth Zeppelin album. Bunch, to my mind, neatly cleaves the history of the Western in half and marks the dividing line between what we now think of as traditional Westerns (pre-Wild Bunch) and revisionist Westerns or neo-Westerns. It embodied all that the Western represented up to that time while injecting it with a shot of Vietnam-era social consciousness and moral doubt. In effect, it dragged the Western, kicking and screaming, into the then-modern era and made it impossible for Westerns to ever go back to what they were and still remain a vital piece of the American narrative. (I've read somewhere that John Wayne didn't like The Wild Bunch — obviously, he recognized a throwing down of the gauntlet when he saw one.)

But Peckinpah's Westerns — as galvanizing as they are — are also, by extension, period pieces. Which means that Peckinpah's disquieting treatises on the nature of men, and on the eternal conflict between the lone individual and the society that seeks to either tame or discard him, are neatly confined to the Mythic American Past.

Straw Dogs and Alfredo Garcia and Osterman Weekend bring all that ugliness and timeless conflict right into the safe, "civilized" modern world; as such, his non-Westerns stand out to me as the purest distillations of the Peckinpah sensibility. What he's saying in these films can't be shrugged off with soothing fallacies about how "far" we've come since the bad old days. What he's saying in these films must be confronted head-on by the viewer. Their implications demand to be considered and refuse to dissolve into the ether of forgotten thoughts once the end credits roll.

Scott Is NOT A Professional said...

(Part 2)

"Convoy and Junior Bonner are nice but not much."

Agreed on Convoy but Junior Bonner contains essential truths about manhood, and about men coming to grips with the abdication of leadership roles by their fathers and learning how to live with this void while pushing forward. While it's far from essential Peckinpah, it can't be tossed onto the reject pile either. You lack a penis; perhaps Junior Bonner is a film that requires one in order to be properly understood.

"Cross of Iron is very ambitious but muddled and confused."

Certainly, one could say the same about Pat Garrett. Perhaps it's a testimony to how much I've internalized the Peckinpah sensibility, but I find that the "muddled, confused" qualities of these films work to their advantage. Their druggy, booze-soaked-at-3-a.m. vibe communicates to the viewer the "muddled, confused" world in which the characters find themselves. You feel a part of their environments; no mere spectator but an extension of the soul-shaking lunacy and the impossibility of neat, clean resolution faced by their protagonists.

"Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia... great idea for a film but what a terrible mess."

I felt this way at one time. But the film grew in stature in my mind, and what it's become for me is a virtually unparalleled fusion of form and content — that hazy, wobbly tone that leaps out at one during stretches of the film stains your mind and renders the film a bizarre, half-forgotten daydream; a tequila-soaked odyssey into the black void of one's own greed that no manner of conventional cinematography and linear storytelling could do justice to. It is my personal favorite film (tied with Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver) and the most purely Peckinpah of all Peckinpah films. It's the spirit of the man burned onto celluloid — all of his personal hangups and paranoias and bone weariness writ large for the eyes of the world.

"Overlooked is his TV film Noon Wine."

I still need to see this.

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