Thursday, March 09, 2006

Placing Peckinpah

There are very few pre-1990 filmmakers whose entire body of work can be seen by the average viewer. Studio rights, individual rights, bad prints (or lost prints)… these are just a few of the cinematic potholes that sink into our restoration and release process. DVD is a big proponent of the new fashion of multi-work releases and deluxe edition boxsets. In early January, Warner Brothers released the "legendary westerns" boxset which included "The Wild Bunch", "Ride the High Country", "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue". With those four titles released, the entire canon of director Sam Peckinpah can be viewed and enjoyed within the comfort of your home. That's exactly what I did, and what follows is a small appreciation of the filmmaker's body of work.

So much is said about the violence of Peckinpah's films. That doesn't make any sense. I assume this is coming from people and pundits who were only privileged to see "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "Straw Dogs" (1972), certainly two of his more polarizing films. and the ones that have been available on home video release the longest. While "The Wild Bunch" does belong in the halls of fantastic (and groundbreaking) movie-making, "Straw Dogs" was his follow-up to that masterpiece. "Straw Dogs" is a film in which Dustin Hoffman and his wife, Susan George, are continually assaulted both physically and mentally by the local community of the remote village they've settled in. In fact, "Straw Dogs" is still banned in the UK due to it's portrayal of a rape scene in which actress George eventually gives in and 'appears' to be enjoying the moment. Peckinpah dials down the physical violence just a bit, but he cranks up the psychological malaise. It's difficult to place "Straw Dogs" after "The Wild Bunch", and if the film doesn't succeed quite as well, it's because the performances of Hoffman and George are a little stilted. But what is clear from these two efforts is that Peckinpah finally found a stylistic voice. The success of "The Wild Bunch" gave him the levity to create a more interior work like "Straw Dogs". It charted a straight line within Hollywood in which he had the freedom to disappear in Mexico and take his time piecing together the melancholy haze that graces the visuals and mood of "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia". And they certainly gave him the chutzpah to barrel ahead and churn out nihilistic works like "Cross of Iron" and "The Osterman Weekend", films a little shoddy on look and tempo but striking in texture and creative authenticity. But, through all of this, are "The Wild Bunch" and "Straw Dogs" the reason there's not a more consistent and widespread demand for the works of Peckinpah to explode on modern viewers? Is he saddled with the monikor of "violent" because, as a culture, we're insatiable about pigeonholing our artists with one word? If one takes both of these dynamic and unsettling films out of his oeuvre, I wager that Peckinpah becomes more respected within the confines of the average viewer. Everyone understands the greatness of both these works on the industry in the late 60's and early 70's, but I think these two films also cast a shadow of distrust over the remainder of Peckinpah's career. It's easy to overlook the humor in many of his films, like in "The Killer Elite". It's easy to disregard the sensitive and congenial spirit pulsing through every look and gesture of Steve McQueen in "Junior Bonner". And it's irresponsible to view "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" as anything but a filmmaker coasting on pure delight in morphing the well-worn tropes of the western genre into a comedy of epic proportions. To so many, Peckinpah is forever remembered as the violent masochist who drank himself to death and focused on the dark corners of the human psyche. That is very unfair. Watch any other film besides "The Wild Bunch" and "Straw Dogs" and one will see a director enamored with humor, redemption, affection and trust. And at times, Peckinpah is much more satisfied with the playful listlessness of his characters on the screen rather than gun fire and rape.

But one cannot debate Peckinpah without bringing up his numerous forays into the western genre. It's the western that defines him. In fact, seven of his first nine films are westerns. And couple those with the wild streak of "Convoy" in 1977- in which eighteen wheelers could be seamlessly substituted for horses, and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" in which Warren Oates tramples around Mexico with a human head, dodging hired hitman- and you begin to see that these two works could also easily fall under the graces of the wild western tradition. It's not that the western is such an easy genre to tackle, but it gives filmmakers such a wide canvas to work with- both in look and allegorical character development. His first two films, "Ride the High Country" and "The Deadly Companions", are great westerns not because of what they present, but because of what they infer- the dying vestiges of a landscape concerned not with fighting Indians and shoot outs at the OK Corral, but with men fighting something inside themselves. Both films feature lead actors (Randolph Scott and Joel Mcrea, Brian Keith) as worn out figures in a land that slowly passing them by. The latest and best filmmaker to conduct this sort of redemptive strike at man-versus-the-western-landscape-as-savior is Tommy Lee Jones with his "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada". That film certainly wouldn't have been quite as pungent without the slow-to-burn moral compass guiding Brian Keith in "The Deadly Companions" and Warren Oates in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" as both Peckinpah characters pay their dues across the western vistas, wrangling their sins (a head and a child's body) in the form of a journey. Redemption, like revenge, is a common theme in all of Peckinpah's works, but he doesn't pull at the core quite as evocative as he does in "The Deadly Companions". In "Ride the High Country", Scott and Mcrea are brokeback (sorry, couldn’t resist) gunslingers who begin escorting gold to a small mining town, and end up violently protecting the virginal figure of Mariette Hartley. Again, like the best of the genre, Peckinpah circumvents the values and norms of the western, slowly turning the story inward, and in the case of his first two films, creates a rigid sense of individualism and timelessness that ends with his characters bowing out in poetic and humane fashion.

As far as style, that came about with "The Wild Bunch". Peckinpah's fascination with dragging out the images of bodies falling, cross-cutting amongst a single violent incident and prolonging the final blow started in 1968. There wasn't a hint of it in 1966 when he polished off "Major Dundee". And while this became a minor distraction in later efforts (especially in one fantastically designed bar room brawl in 1972's "Junior Bonner"), Peckinpah coalesced his editing trickery with "The Wild Bunch" and used it as a trope throughout the remainder of his work (as well as the recurring images of children bearing witness to various acts of violence and bloodshed). In fact, Peckinpah's claim to visual auterism is his manner of cross-cutting and frenetically inserting images against each other. That, above all else, is what aligns Peckinpah with so many peers of his generation. He was not the author of very many of his works. The few writing credits affixed to his name come from a partnership with another writer. Peckinpah was a visualist… a filmmaker who adapted the writings of others and marginally surfaced his sensibilities. He became a chameleon to a vast array of genres and styles, yet another characteristic of a director less concerned with vanity and more interested in telling as many stories as possible. Can you imagine the shock that must have followed the cathartic bloodletting of "The Wild Bunch" in 1968 when he released the playfully subdued "Ballad of Cable Hogue" two years later, giving Jason Robards one of his most charismatic and unpretentious roles? Or the sledgehammer see-saw effect that "Junior Bonner" must've had when it was released in 1972, sandwiched between "The Getaway" and "Straw Dogs". Or, as judging by a lot of critics reactions to his final film, "The Osterman Weekend", the release of an aggressively paranoid 70's thriller ten long years after that genre had run its gamut? That's why I love cinema; the ability to be constantly poked, prodded and challenged by my expectations of a filmmaker. I can think of no higher praise for Peckinpah than that.
So, with all that said… the purpose of this short writing is to explain that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the dynamic career of Sam Peckinpah. All of these titles are available on DVD. Check them out.

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