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April 08, 2005

Peckinpah Moment

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Bloody Sam

I just noticed that we're in the middle of a Sam Peckinpah moment. A new DVD of his much-maligned "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" has just been issued; it features commentary from the very classy Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons.

When it came out in 1974, "Alfredo" struck me as an unredeemable disaster. It felt flatfooted, dead, and obvious. All Peckinpah's moviemaking magic -- his touch, his instinct -- seemed to have deserted him. But, while the film never did find an audience, it has also had its defenders, who make it out to be a modern film maudit -- filmbuffspeak for, more or less, "a movie the general audience hated when it was released, but we who know better think it's hot stuff and won't let go of it."

I'm curious to check "Alfredo" out again. Is the film as much of a stinker as I remember it to be? I've certainly goofed on first viewings before, most notably with Jonathan Demme's almost-perfect "Melvin and Howard." The first time I saw "Melvin and Howard," it seemed like nothing at all; it just went right past me. Friends shamed me into seeing it again, and when I did I woke up to its wonders. Ever since, "Melvin and Howard" been one my very favorite movies. (I've also felt more modest about the infallibility of my first judgments.) Maybe I was wrong about "Alfredo" too. Perhaps it's something bitter, twisted, and brilliant, like a movie equivalent of one of Jim Thompson's novels.

Meanwhile, New York City's Film Forum is currently showing a semi-restored version of Peckinpah's legendary "Major Dundee." The film -- a corrosive and epic cavalry Western starring Charlton Heston -- is famous for its many brilliant scenes and sequences, and for having been taken away from Peckinpah during editing. The version showing at Film Forum is said to restore all but a few minutes of what had been hacked from the film back in 1965.

Back for seconds

Even butchered, "Major Dundee" was one of my favorite Peckinpahs. Ferociously lyrical yet also absurdist, full of hilarious yet moving juxtapositions and dissonances, it put me in mind of one of Charles Ives' symphonies. It's interesting to read that Heston -- who has a reputation as a terrible square -- was, so far as the production of "Major Dundee" went, a good guy. He stood up for Peckinpah; he volunteered to forfeit his salary when the film went over budget; and -- when the studio took the film away from Peckinpah -- he tried to buy it back with his own money. Heston once said something about how he had no idea what Peckinpah was up to, but it felt exciting and worthwhile -- talk about being willing to go with your instincts and your feelings! And Heston is in fact amazing in the movie: grand, commanding, more than a little mad.

Non-Manhattanites needn't despair: Sony will release a DVD of the restored "Major Dundee" sometime this summer. Here's a good J. Hoberman piece about "Major Dundee" -- its sad production history as well as its new moment in the sun.

I wonder if today's kids know much about Sam Peckinpah, who died in 1984 at the age of 59. Few American filmmakers were as iconic in the '60s and '70s as Peckinpah was, and few inspired such hatred and devotion.

Few have been as influential either, for better and for worse. Peckinpah was notorious for the violence of some of films, such as "The Wild Bunch" and "Straw Dogs." He was just as famous for his wild-ass, self-destructive persona. In his work, he combined tenderness and brutality, emotionalism and macho bravado in a way that seemed to either hook people on a deep level or drive them away shrieking. Film history-wise, he threw open the door to a kind of extreme expressiveness -- notably slow-motion violence -- that has both had its glories and been a curse ever since.

In retrospect, it seems to me that Peckinpah may have been as important as a symbol as he was for his films. In the minds of many film buffs and film critics, he stood for the embattled, tortured (and self-torturing) genius working feverishly for the Artistic Good in an insane commercial setting. (Needless to say, one of Peckinpah's talents was for promoting this image of himself.) Passion for the art of film was his cause -- and Peckinpah was nothing if not a compulsive mythmaker, both in his movies as well as in his life.

These days, films are often kinetic and violent in ways that would have shocked people in 1970. But they're often emotion-free zones too; they're nothing but kinetic boom-pow experiences. Peckinpah would have hated that. His goal was always to stir, rouse, reach deep into your guts, and leave you shaken and upset. He wanted to hit not just your nerves and reflexes. He wanted to hit you where you live. As for sorting it all out? That could be done later.

Despite the lightness of my tone here, I confess that I'm quite able to share in some of the Peckinpah nuttiness. Some passages in his films make me loony with excitement, while others get to me in hard-to-control ways. I'm nothing like the "Wild Bunch" fan many of my '70s-style buff and critic friends are, but it's indisputably a landmark film, full of passages and moments that are both beautiful and appalling.

Of Peckinpah's violent movies, my faves are his sex-and-revenge melodrama "Straw Dogs," (1971) and his WWII fighting-your-way-out-from -behind-enemy-lines war drama "Cross of Iron" (1977).

Dustin Hoffman can't give Susan George what she needs

"Straw Dogs" was loathed and adored for the way it spoke to something deep in the male psyche. It was most notorious for the rape scene that ends the movie's second act. Part of what infuriated many people was that the scene seemed to suggest not just that the heroine (Susan George) had asked for it, but that in getting raped she was finally getting what she'd always really wanted. Another thing that angered many (but fascinated others) was the fact that the scene was intensely erotic -- and this in the early days of the '70s feminist movement ...

I both loathe and adore "Straw Dogs," which may be one of the reasons this film has fascinated me for three decades. Its messages and meanings don't speak to me -- well, except maybe for the general "At a certain point you just gotta stand up and be a man" thing, which (to my surprise) I'm semi-susceptible to. But the film's atmosphere -- stark, menacing, a smallscale landscape of enacted myths and dreams -- casts a hypnotic spell on me.

And Susan George's performance ... Or maybe just the image of her ... Whatever it is, Susan George in "Straw Dogs" is just about the most erotic thing I've ever seen in my life: taunting, infantile, bruised, resentful, sulky, proud. "That's what sex looks like," I mutter to myself fervently, not knowing exactly what point I'm trying to make but adamant about it anyway. I'm addicted to the film, really. My unconscious is still reeling from its initial encounter with "Straw Dogs," and my monkey brain needs to claw its way back for regular fixes too.

"Cross of Iron" speaks to me differently but just as directly. It dramatizes an idea of professionalism, loyalty to your buds, and expertise as a defiant personal ethic in a way that stirs me and rouses my generally-reluctant masculine pride. Passages and moments -- Peckinpah is all about passages and moments -- kick me into the kind of heightened state you sometimes find yourself in during emergencies: time shifts, things become super-spacious, you're taking it all in ... Watching the film, I sometimes feel like I've turned into Keanu Reeves in one of his "Matrix" moments, alert and reacting to every micro-shift in his enviroment. "Cross of Iron" is also one of the few films ever made starring James Coburn that matches the caustic, sardonic grandeur Coburn could sometimes bring to the screen. Caution: some of the Amazon viewer-reviewers write that the film's DVD is of awful quality.

I don't stand by any of these statements as critical judgments, by the way. I'm just reporting how the films hit me.

But I like some of Peckinpah's delicate movies just as much as his violent ones. My favorites are the 1962 "Ride the High Country" and the 1972 "Junior Bonner." Given his hissing-rattlesnake reputation, it's surprising to learn that Peckinpah had a sweet side too, but by all accounts he did. As well as being a confrontational, hard-drinking, coke-snorting beast, he was also an intuitive, charming guy in love with art. Although he was the offspring of an old family of Western lawmakers, he was the family's sensitive kid. His real dream, apparently, was to ditch the Westerns and the gunplay, and to direct Tennessee Williams on stage.

"Ride the High Country" is a Western for which the terms "classic" and "autumnal" might have been invented. It isn't on DVD, but it shows up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies; the next showing of it will be on Wednesday, May 18. The rodeo film "Junior Bonner" is a tone-poem in praise of real women, real men, real horses, and quiet pride, and it features gorgeous visuals and beautiful, lowkey performances by Steve McQueen, Ida Lupino, and Robert Preston.

These are both respectful, loving works of art. Peckinpah was sometimes said to be doing his best to deep-six the Western -- to deconstruct it, to take it down once and for all. Not as far as he was concerned. I remember an interview where he was asked about this. With considerable annoyance, he answered that that portrayal was the opposite of the truth. In fact, he loved Westerns, he loved movies, and he was doing what he could to endow them both with a little life again. Like much of what he said -- and like many moments in his films -- that statement was a combo of the moving ,the startlingly insightful, and the most amazing bullshit.

There's no shortage of good reading material out there about Peckinpah. Pauline Kael's reviews and essays about Peckinpah's work are among her best pieces. Paul Seydor's book about Peckinpah's Westerns is first-rate, and biographies by both David Weddle and Garner Simmons are as good as can be. As hateful as Peckinpah often was, and as dicey as his ideas about masculinity and manliness were, there was something about Sam Peckinpah that many people, despite their better judgment, found inspiring.

I notice that Susan George, who made an immortal impact in "Straw Dogs," is now selling natural therapies for horses.

Did you ever go gaga for Sam Peckinpah's movies?



posted by Michael at April 8, 2005


Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia ... saw it years ago, and one thing I remember is how the cloth bag containing the noggin started to get bloody, even though by that point poor Alfredo had been taking a dirt nap for at least a week :)

Posted by: Peter on April 8, 2005 11:54 PM

My lasting memory of "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" (great title, BTW) is of the hero jamming on the brakes in his car and the head rocketing into the passenger foot well. Sick but very funny.

That I remember this may not be an accident. As for many artists whose sensibilities are not exactly on my main line, I relate best to Peckinpah's humor. There are some hilarious bits in the epic fight scene at the end of "Straw Dogs." I still fondly remember Dustin Hoffman doing in some bad guy with a golf club and a very nice swing.

As for Pauline Kael's writing on Peckinpah, I remember them mostly for their sense of excitement and enjoyment, but not so much for their intellectual analysis. The phrase "sexual fascism" to describe "Straw Dogs" is vivid but falls apart the second you think about it. But I guess Pauline was more of a performance artist on film and not so much of a theoretician of film.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 9, 2005 10:04 AM

I went gaga for the Wild Bunch a long time ago and wrote about it here. I had the half-insane thought the other day that one of Sam Peckinpah's most atrocious movies, the Killer Elite, should be remade by Quentin Tarantino. He could do justice to it. I have long pined to see Junior Bonner. Steve McQueen is the epitome of cool, and that is one of his I have not yet seen. The remixed Major Dundee sounds like it is worth seeing.

Posted by: Lexington Green on April 10, 2005 12:38 AM

I went gaga for the Wild Bunch a long time ago and wrote about it here. I had the half-insane thought the other day that one of Sam Peckinpah's most atrocious movies, the Killer Elite, should be remade by Quentin Tarantino. He could do justice to it. I have long pined to see Junior Bonner. Steve McQueen is the epitome of cool, and that is one of his I have not yet seen. The remixed Major Dundee sounds like it is worth seeing.

Posted by: Lexington Green on April 10, 2005 12:38 AM

Did Sam Peckinpah do Junior Bonner? Huh. It's actually somewhat angst-filled, a bit like Hud, as I recall, unless I don't recall.

All I knew, as a girl, was that Peckinpah was supposed to be super violent. If Nora Ephron comes up with chick flicks, then Peckinpah did guy flicks. And I think it's jarring to hear M Blowhard describe a rape scene as "how sex should look like"---and I'm not trying to be super-feminist here or anything. I haven't seen "Straw Dogs"---but anything that's violent enough to be rape isn't...what sex should look like. Or maybe, I should say, BE like.

Posted by: annette on April 11, 2005 12:30 PM

Congratualtions, you made it through a long post on Peckinpah without even mentioning the hilarious Monty Python send-up "Salad Days". That's some will power!

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on April 11, 2005 1:17 PM

Annette -- Eeek, I don't think I said that's what sex "should" look like, and I wasn't referring to the rape scene. I just found that Susan George in the movie generally looks like what I (on some archetypal level) seem convinced that sex does (not should) look like. And part of my fascination with the movie is that it's indisuputably morally iffy. Peckinpah kind of specialized in that, in that real '70s way -- it gets to you, yet it makes you queasy, yet it gets you to, yet it makes you queasy. ("She's your mother! Slap! She's your sister! Slap! She's your mother ...") I don't even mean that as an endorsement. On the other hand, part of what I find fascinating about some art is the way it elicits conflicting responses in us. White marble allegorical 19 century nudes, for instance -- hypocritical? Maybe. Sexy? Sure. Virtuous? That too. Push/pull. Keeps me coming back for more -- I gotta grant 'em that.

Todd -- I was never a big Monty Python freak, and don't know their Peckinpah parody. I'd love to catch it, though. Is it in one of their movies? Some compilation video?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2005 2:30 PM

Sam Packinpah's Salad Days is from Episode 33.

My personal favorite film parody of theirs was a French arthouse film - "La Fromage Grande", which mercilessly exposes the violence underlying our society - from director Jean Kenneth Longueur. Episode 23.

Where these episodes ended up on the various DVD and video releases is beyond my ability to discover at the moment.

The scripts are online, but most of the gags are visual so don't read 'em.

Posted by: Brian on April 12, 2005 2:54 AM

I have a strong liking for "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid". Many scenes remain in the memory, especially the - now busked to death - "Knockin at Heaven's Door" death scene of Slim Pickens (a great moniker, no?); Billy (Kris Kristofferson) chanting a song as he escapes from jail. Despite the harsh aridity of the landscape, the pas de deux of Garrett and Bonney attains an elegiac quality, puncuated by jettiing gouts of blood.

Posted by: Dave F on April 12, 2005 7:56 AM

My personal favorite of Sam's is "Ride the High Country", a minor masterpiece. I think you can get some idea, somehow, of how good Sam was with action by watching the remake of The Getaway, which falls completely flat. I don't think the original one is ranked for highly, but I've found it entertaining. Speaking of not getting a movie the first time, I had to see The Third Man twice before it hit me just how briliant it was.

Posted by: pw on April 13, 2005 8:08 PM

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