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The Couchman Cometh: Peckinpah Triple Feature

Please excuse the irregularity of my posting recently. I hope to get back on my mostly weekly schedule here again...
This week I thought I'd take a look some movies by one of my favorite directors, Sam Peckinpah. My recent reconnecting with Peckinpah, I think, is related to my current obsession with John Huston. I think the case can be made that Peckinpah is the direct successor to Huston in terms of making uncompromising, harsh, and sometimes uncomfortable films often starring doomed losers. The movies of both, while often not taking place in America, echo deeply American sensibilities and use foreign lands as a foil to bring out the American-ness of the characters, for better or worse.
THE WILD BUNCH

The Wild Bunch holds a special place in my heart for a couple of reasons. It's my dad's favorite movie of all time, and I have watched it with him numerous times over the years from about the time I was in middle school. It's also one of the first movies where I began to be conscious and cognizant of different filmic techniques and symbolism. The opening credit sequence shows scenes from a small western town intercut with freeze-framed title cards and Jerry Fielding's haunting score juxtaposed with the traditional hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River,” combined to create more tension than I could handle at the time. Now it is probably my favorite opening credit sequence. The shot where the children place a scorpion upside down on a swarm of angry ants is as perfect a symbol for the ruthlessness of the characters in this movie as well as being indicative of the brutal experience of watching The Wild Bunch.

As far as westerns go, I'd argue that The Wild Bunch not only redefined what the western was for modern audiences but effectively reconciled that classic bit of American culture with the tumultuous sensibilities of the late 1960's and the increasing exposure to violence that entered the average household via the Vietnam War. This was the first widely released western with “realistic” violence and gore courtesy of Peckinpah's fatalistic lens and the gratuitous use of squibs. It's also a movie without good guys and bad guys. Instead we have the bad guys and the worse guys. Eastwood reconciled the easy morality of John Wayne with the moral complexities of Peckinpah in his better 1970's film and ultimately with utter precision in Unforgiven.
In many ways, this is the evil twin of the Magnificent Seven. A group of old desperadoes run south of the border. This time, they are on the wrong side of the law and get mixed up running guns for a corrupt Mexican government while fate closes in on them. From the start, the Wild Bunch has an aura of doom hanging over their heads. The movie itself takes place not in the golden days of the old west, but in the early 1900s, somewhere between 1909 and about 1914. William Holden's character, Pike, doesn't even carry a six-gun. In the end, the bunch meets their maker at the hand of a fully automatic machine gun, a perfect symbol of the changing times. The Bunch has a certain outdated honor among thieves as they maintain a hard unlikable edge. If this were a different movie, we'd be cheering as John Wayne filled these guys with lead. Peckinpah invokes sympathy for them by having their pursuers be even more unlikeable as they relish killing civilians needlessly during the bank heist and loot everyone they can for boots and other spoils. There is also a homophobic subtext with two of the posse members that for better or worse serves to make Pike and co. seem even more macho while living, and even more shocking when they finally die.
Magic Moment: There's a scene just before the climax where William Holden was originally supposed to deliver a heartfelt monologue and instead just sneers and says, “Let's go.” This moment more than any other defines Peckinpah against his predecessors and followers.
STRAW DOGS

Straw Dogs is probably the most controversial of Peckinpah's movies. It follows Dustin Hoffman as a mathematics professor who moves to the English countryside with his beautiful wife, Amy, to work on his next book. The town they moved to is where Amy grew up, and consequently, she knows many of the miscreants around town as old friends and lovers. Said miscreants are hired as contractors to work on their house as they bully Hoffman to exert their superior masculinity. Ultimately, Amy is raped and this finally forces Hoffman to take a stand. However, everything goes horribly wrong in the end.
The way that violence towards women is portrayed in this movie is extremely difficult to watch and overcome. This movie has a reputation for that very reason, but this speaks in particular to Peckinpah's ability as a filmmaker. The point I want to make here is that the rape scene is central to the movie and development to the characters. Rape as a story telling device is extremely overused now and frankly usually does not carry the gravitas that Peckinpah used it for here. The key difference between how Peckinpah uses the rape is that it is something that is emotionally complex for the victims, the perpetrator, and Hoffman's character. It is not simply a way to show how bad the bad guys are as you root for them to be killed by Walker or Seagal or Schwarzenegger. Instead, Peckinpah takes a horrible horrible thing that happens way too often in our society and shows how it actually affects people.
Thematically the movie deals with Peckinpah's belief that man must come to terms with and accept his own ability to use violence or strength in order to truly be a man. Yeah, it's macho, but that's Peckinpah. The cautionary note in this movie is about what we would use violence for and to what end. It must be tempered with good judgment and not taken lightly. The movie is very interesting and affecting. The noted rape scene is important to see in the context of the movie for being more than a plot device, but a time bomb that deeply and humanly affects both the characters in the movie as well as the viewer in a profound and important way.
Magic Moment: the climax of the movie with it's “new” spin on a classic theme.
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA

I just very recently saw this movie for the first time. First off, it is not as traditionally good as The Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs, but it is totally fucking crazy. I can't believe this movie got made. It's probably the most grindhouse movie I've ever seen by someone who is widely recognized as an auteur with an important vision. Take a minute and watch this trailer:

This movie looks like it takes place in the same universe as The Beastie Boys' “Sabotage.” So the premise is simple, Alfredo Garcia pisses off a wealthy Mexican industrialist and consequently a one million dollar bounty is placed on his head. The main character, Bennie, played by Warren Oates, sets out to claim the money. He starts out about half crazy and ends about 120% crazy. Making matters more interesting, I read that Oates based his performance on Peckinpah himself, going as far as to borrow Peckinpah's sunglasses. Now, I don't know a ton about Peckinpah's personality apart from his movies, but it that's true, that's totally ridiculous.
What may be more telling than looking at Warren Oates' acting as a proxy for Peckinpah is looking at what Garcia's head may symbolize. Without giving too much away, in the movie, Bennie tracks down Garcia to find him already dead and being buried. That night, Bennie goes back to the cemetery and removes Garcia's head to take back to claim his reward. From there things start going horribly wrong.
I think that the head symbolizes Peckinpah's relationship to his art. By the time he's ready to actually start filming a project, it has lost all life, and Peckinpah must carry the festering thing on a death march back to his financiers at great cost to his mental stability and his family. Maybe that's over thinking it though.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a movie unlike any made before or since. It's absolutely bonkers, and if you get the chance to watch it, I'd highly recommend it with the caveat that it might actually not be a very good movie. That said, I totally love it in spite of its many glaring shortcomings and eccentricities.

Magic Moment: “... the cross happens right here.”
-Justin

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The Couchman Cometh: Peckinpah Triple Feature + hope