This page as PDF

Sam Peckinpah

Reactionary Dialectics                   

 

The heroic struggle of Sam Peckinpah is usually seen as more despairing than that of most auteurist filmmakers; perhaps because he worked in genres not given to selfhood and introspection. An artist who makes films, and particularly American ones, is often seen as compromising himself, but for Peckinpah the expectation of compromise was still more apparent due to his gift for action films and for the western. (Peckinpah wanted to make the gentle Play it as it Lays but the money men rejected him; believing he was unsuitable for the material.) Generic expectation is one thing; personal vision another, and though this has been a pressing question throughout the history of cinema concerning certain filmmakers, whether for those who managed to express a personal vision within a range of genres, like Howard Hawks, without damaging their career, or for others, like Orson Welles, who constantly fought against those expectations, no filmmaker seems to have caught himself in such a bind and gone out of his way both to publicise the tension and at the same time to make it central to his thematic. As Pauline Kael proposed in The New Yorker, by the time of The Killer Elite in the mid-seventies Peckinpah may have seen himself as a whore who goes wherever he is kicked, but Kael claimed he was a pretty hopeless whore, incapable of giving the customer what they wanted, and turning out personal visions. Indeed with films like The Killer Elite she proposed he wasn’t making personal films anymore, but private ones – films that become an “almost abstract fantasy on the subject of selling yourself yet trying to hang on to a piece of yourself”.

The way Kael describes it, the solid action film doesn’t give space for the projection of the private; it doesn’t give the filmmaker the sort of private space Wead and Lellis believe they see in their chapter on personal film in Film: Form and Function. Here Personal Cinema, as opposed to the Hollywood Narrative Tradition, Realist cinema and Persuasive cinema, is where the artist proves to be autobiographical, hyper-subjective or to “possess a philosophical bias toward subjectivity and individualism.” As they include anyone from Bergman to Dreyer, Truffaut to Fellini, Maya Deren to Jean Cocteau, we may notice how difficult it would be to place Peckinpah into this category. Yet with his fascination towards subjectivity and individualism, Peckinpah would seem to have as much in common with Personal Cinema as the Hollywood Narrative Tradition. Partly what made him such a bad whore, as Kael would say, lay in his desire to make personal films out of potentially impersonal projects. Yet this tension is partly what makes Peckinpah’s work so fascinating. Unlike the autobiographical films of Truffaut, the hyper-subjective and no less autobiographical worlds of Fellini, the abstractly personal work of Antonioni, Peckinpah could not assume the same freedom of psychology. In the western and the action film selfhood is rarely a neurotic compulsion superimposed on reality (as is so often the case in hyper-subjective cinema); instead these genres’ characters are identified by what they do and how they do it. Selfhood is instinctive action, and the action and western film, with quick cuts and intuitive perception in the former and sudden gunfights in the latter, leave little time for the characters to ponder over the meaning of what they do. But Peckinpah, who as we’ll see, did more than most to work with both quick cuts and sudden gunfights, nevertheless expected them to serve the meditative, or at least the thematic

Action scriptwriter Larry Gross, talking of Natural Born Killers in Sight and Sound has said “all of us…can identify with some of the self-hatred at work in N.B.K.” He adds that what he admired about Oliver Stone’s film was how he took “£40m of Warner Bros’ money, and insulted everyone’s basic assumptions about movies.” This is close to what Peckinpah was doing throughout his career, and anybody interested in the director would do well to look at his films as an expression of self-hatred in the face of Hollywood predictability. The film writer David Thomson, in his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, has said, “Throughout Peckinpah’s work there is the theme of violently talented men hired for a job that is loaded with compromise and double-cross.” Thomson adds, “they strive to perform with honor, before recognising the inevitable logic of self-destruction”.

One of the pressing questions is how close to the surface should such a theme be, and whether Peckinpah’s films are at their best un-dilutedly exploring this theme, or sublimating it into a subject equal to theme? If Kael is right that Peckinpah had moved beyond the personal to the private, does the theme become too hermetic? Thomson’s above comment is probably most accurately applied to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but is it really a more interesting film than The Wild Bunch and especially Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid? To what degree was Peckinpah a filmmaker not so much with a personal vision, but with a dialectical perspective, and does his best work bring out this dialectical aspect in various ways? What we want to explore here in form and content is how much of Peckinpah’s genius came out of contrary forces at work: whether that was through collisions with studio heads, the contrary perspectives of his leading characters in films like Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, or through an editing style that worked with slow motion against normal speed camerawork, askew multi-camera set-ups that disoriented the viewer’s sense of screen space, or decelerated montages that brought out the singularity and at the same time parallel aspect of character.

But let’s say first a few words about Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. This is a film that exemplifies a regular Peckinpah theme of a man involving himself in a mission that would seem to remove much of his self-respect in the process of doing it. He’s been hired by an organization employed by a Mexican gang-lord whose daughter has become impregnated by a womanizer. Warren Oates’ Bennie has some viable reasons for showing an interest in the contract: the money is good and he can now settle down with his woman, no matter if she also happens to have been one of Alfredo Garcia’s numerous mistresses. What is interesting here is that Peckinpah creates a double motive for Bennie, yet within that double motive resides a double contempt. Certainly he could do with the money instead of scraping by playing piano in low-grade Mexican bars, and certainly he wants to be with the Mexican looker he’s so far been unable to possess. But the mission is about as degrading as an undertaking can be, with Bennie expected to return not with the body but merely the head as if in some Jacobean nightmare; and at the same time the dream life is contained by an awareness that the woman he is doing all this for would be happier to be with Alfredo. How much space for self-regard can there be in a mission where the man makes a few bucks over another man’s head, and the woman who is with him would prefer to be with the man who will lose his head over losing her head with the man she is presently accompanying? And if it weren’t enough that Bennie is expected to kill Alfredo, the mission becomes still more degrading as Bennie finds out that Alfredo is dead already, and that he needs simply but horrifically to dig up the corpse.

In such a description, the film seems consistent with Kael’s comments in relation to The Killer Elite, the film he made immediately after Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. In each instance it seems Peckinpah isn’t only the very bad whore non-diegetically, but also narrativises the theme to show up the whorishness of human behaviour. By this stage in his career, 1974, Peckinpah’s famous stylistic device of slow motion and normal motion death would seem to be about the only dignity a human being can expect to be bestowed upon him by a Peckinpah film. At the conclusion, Bennie returns to the Mexican ganglord’s house with the head of Alfredo, but decides not to take the money and run, but to kill the ganglord, realizing that his chances of getting out alive are close to zero. As Bennie takes out numerous henchmen in the process of dying a noble death, we notice how in at least two ways Peckinpah undermines the action film. First of all Bennie acts less out of justifiable indignation and more out of redemptive need. Secondly, Bennie creates a situation where the odds are so stacked against him that we have to accept he cannot get out of the hacienda alive, or that if he does it will be to the detriment of any narrative plausibility Peckinpah has set up in the first place. From the action-oriented point of view there would not be enough logistical suspense in the scene to draw us into the action. Peckinpah does not lay out the scene in such a way that we believe he can kill the ganglord, kill a few henchmen and escape with the money. In this instance his multi-camera set up offers no suspense within the logistics, no editing procedure that would show us the options available to him, but shows us simply the inevitability of death. There are four men with guns at the gate, and another three at the house, so when he kills the ganglord he, and we, must accept that he is also killing himself. If we knew as he went in that there was an easy escape route, that he would only need to kill the ganglord and a couple of henchmen, then Peckinpah could have laid out the cinematic space in such a way that we wouldn’t be thinking of Bennie’s suicidal gesture, but  scheming ahead in relation to his means of escape. This would be the logistics of suspense, but Peckinpah by this stage in his career seemed preoccupied more with a logistical nihilism, a laying out of the scene in such a way that death rather than escape seems inevitable. When Kael proposes Peckinpah was a very bad whore, then perhaps central to it is the logistical nihilism his work increasingly incorporated. Even in the other key action sequences in the film – the moment where Bennie takes out the middlemen after they’ve killed Alfredo Garcia’s family, the scene with Bennie returning to the hotel where some of the other middle-men are located – the purpose resides in a gesture that incorporates the suicidal but does not guarantee it. Yet by the end of the film Bennie creates a situation where the chances of escape are so slim that death becomes not possible or probable, as in the earlier scenes, but almost unavoidable.

This suicidal gesture is present even in films where characters do get out of a situation alive, as in Straw Dog and The Killer Elite – there is a suicidal dimension to their activities exemplified in a statement by a Japanese character near the end of the latter film. It is not living or dying that counts, but how one dies. If one happens to live, then that it almost irrelevant next to the dignity with which one is willing, even expecting, to die. This is not so much the heroism of the action hero, but the nihilism of the Peckinpah anti-hero. Somebody may well escape from the situation, but it’s as if Peckinpah doesn’t entirely care if the audience is engaged in the suspense of his action sequences; what matters is no more and no less than the inner dignity of man. The action is the external means with which to reflect this inner conflict.

Peckinpah was born in Fresno, California in 1925. His grandfather worked as Superior Court Judge and was also a congressman. His father was a lawyer who defended the rights of cowboys, and other members of the family also belonged to the bench.  The family motto, used in Peckinpah’s debut, Ride the High Country, was “I want to enter my own house justified”, and we could say it is almost a statement that provides the backbone of Peckinpah’s work if we tweak it a little and include not just the house but the grave, and propose that there always lies ambivalence in the notion of justification. This is central to the problem in at least three of his films, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and if Pat Garrett is his masterpiece it may reside in the significance of this idea given not so much cinematic technique (The Wild Bunch is more innovative and has proved hugely more influential, as Stephen Prince notes in an essay in Screening Violence), but cinematic style, or more especially form.

Of course these are often interchangeable terms but here we can usefully separate them to understand an aspect of Peckinpah’s approach and how he deepens his theme by attenuating the form. Now when Prince astutely analyses Peckinpah’s work he talks of the influences of Eisenstein, Kurosawa and Penn, and we can see the signs of such influence in filmmakers like Coppola, De Palma and Mann. For example there seems a lineage from The Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, to Kurosawa’s samurai battle scenes, to an early heist in Bonnie and Clyde, to the shoot out in the town square at the beginning of The Wild Bunch, to the christening/killing cross-cutting in The Godfather, the staircase station scene in The Untouchables and the LA street shoot-out in Heat. These are stylistically quite similar scenes in that they capture a situational chaos where the spatial logistic are simultaneously moral and aesthetic. It as though we simultaneously admire the aesthetics and feel the texture of the ethics and this is partly why we so often use the term ‘stylish’ as short-hand explanation of what is going on in the sequences. Indeed part of the pleasure of The Untouchables lies in the playing of one against the other as an open homage to The Battleship Potemkin while at the same time a blatant manipulation of our ethical faculties with the baby in the pram going slow-mo down the stairs as Eliot Ness lets go of the pram and starts shooting at the gangsters. It plays on our sense of stylistic astuteness and ethical indecisiveness: Ness certainly needs to take out the baddies, but the only way he can do so is by letting go of the pram.

When talking of his use of violence, Prince says that “Peckinpah used the montage aesthetic to break with realism in order to substitute a stylized rendition of violence” as he insists that many critics have been wrong-headed in believing that Peckinpah brought realist violence to American cinema. But this is obviously an issue of degrees, and if we compare Peckinpah’s early scene in The Wild Bunch to De Palma’s The Untouchables, we notice in Peckinpah’s case that he is interested in the milieu out of which his scenes come; where De Palma is interested more in the style he can apply. Both are clearly what would be called set-pieces, but where Peckinpah lays out the milieu to bring out the theme of chaos in a world caught between burgeoning urbanism and residual outlaw behaviour, De Palma looks for a location that can bring out the intricate details of the set piece. The train station sequence quoted above works less with complexity of milieu than complexity of variables. We sense less the reality of the situation, than the ingenuity of the filmmaker laying out of the cinematic space so that Eliot Ness can take out the baddies, and his buddy can save the baby in the pram just before it reaches the bottom of the steps.

When we proposed that in Bring Me the Head of Alfred Garcia the film eschews logistical suspense, we can see that De Palma works from that very place. He creates the spatial coordinates to give the viewer an understanding of what Ness needs to do both to survive and take out the gangsters. As Prince acknowledges, there are various ways in which Peckinpah doesn’t work so coherently with space. “The angularity of Peckinpah’s cutting exhibits none of the rectilinear “normality” of Kurosawa’s 90-degree angle shifts. Peckinpah’s angularity is totally acute or oblique, always off-center, and, as a result, it imposes a much higher degree of fragmentation upon the space that it carves up.” If we believe that Peckinpah is more of a realist than De Palma, it lies partly in the incoherence of cinematic space to show a problem of milieu; De Palma articulates the space clearly and makes his film more stylized but less ‘realistic’ – realist in the sense of a world existent than a world created. For The Wild Bunch to work, one needs to believe in the times changing but the outlaws being reluctant to do so; we need to sense both the historical shift, and the social chaos. The ‘style’ serves ‘reality’; where in De Palma style often serves style, and his film gets caught in a tautological vacuum: the station sequence echoes numerous other key cinematic set-pieces, but lacks a ‘reality’ that could allow it to escape the tautological, the sort of tautologies that leave much violence in action cinema as no more than ‘style’.

Now what we want to propose here is that Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is Peckinpah’s most interesting film partly because it moves farther away from style and moves closer to ‘reality’, and that the dialectical aspect is at its most pronounced bringing out this reality, not suppressing it. Where The Wild Bunch utilises a cross-cutting narrative approach chiefly for tension as it extends the early cross-cutting in the robbery scene at the beginning of the film to show the two main characters, and former friends, at odds with each other, with Deke Thornton chasing Pike and his gang, Pat Garrett’s on-going parallel editing is closer to decelerated montage.

The aspect of chase that is still pertinent to the pace of The Wild Bunch, in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid becomes closer to a mutual hovering. Pat desultorily follows Billy as a lawful figure tracking down an outlaw physically; Billy is the conscience that haunts Pat metaphysically. If Deke seems to have sold his soul by going after his old buddy, then we’re aware his choices are few: he’ll be back in prison if he doesn’t catch him. Pat’s prison is a palatial home, one of the perks of being the local sheriff, but when he returns to it early in the film after visiting the barber, he hesitantly opens the gate before deciding whether or not to enter. Can he enter his own house justified we may wonder? Later in the film, as the commentators on the restored version of the DVD have noted, the same gesture is repeated, but this time Pat is entering the gate of the house that Billy is in as he prepares to kill him. After this deed will he even be able to enter even his own mind justified? Peckinpah may have used the line about one’s own house justified in Ride the High Country, but it is explored most deeply here by the dialectical nature of a friendship that has been torn apart by history: as Time Out says, “it both records and condemns the passage of time and the advent of progress.” Billy says after Pat insists that times have changed, “times maybe, but not me”. Peckinpah decelerates so that he can instead of adrenalising the pursuit, meditate upon it, enquire into the nature of a friendship that history impacts upon. One of the ironies here is that Billy can walk into any house with nonchalant justification, but Pat hovers over the altar of houses or haciendas despite his status. Indeed one of the tropes of the film, taking into account that key Peckinpah motto, is Pat’s inability to enter any house justified: when he turns up at the governor’s place, the first thing somebody says to him is that he is late, as if he has been dawdling rather longer than usual before stepping over the threshold.

The preceding scene is indeed of dawdling, as the film gives us a series of montage shots first of Billy on horseback having escaped from jail and heading South to Mexico, and then of Garrett travelling to see the governor. Once again we have dialectics, but once again Peckinpah has no interest in the pace of collision. This is meditative comparison as we muse over the opposite fates of these two former friends, and thus as far away from the Eisensteinian collision of images which, Prince notes, proves so vital to the set-pieces in The Wild Bunch and, generally, the three principle types of montage that Prince observes. These are “the relatively simple, slow-motion insert cross-cut into the body of a normal-tempo sequence; the synthetic superimposition of multiple lines of action with radical time-space distortions in a montage set-piece; and montages approaching Eisenstein’s notion of intellectual editing wherein the viewer is moved to cognitively grasp psychological or sociological  truths”.

However the moments of Billy and Garrett crossing the landscape is a decelerated montage that leads to the meditative, and even the key montage sequence in the film, the opening scenes where the film cross-cuts between Pat Garrett being shot dead in 1909 in sepia, and Billy and his gang shooting at the hens in 1881, while absolutely consistent with Eisenstein’s notion of intellectual montage, contains within its dynamism not thought, so much as meditation. Eisenstein was we should recall a revolutionary filmmaker; Peckinpah more obviously a reactionary and consequently an elegiac artist. It is as though it was with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that the director married the reflective with the edited, that he found the appropriate pace for reflection without moving towards a long take strategy. Indeed the scene of Billy and then Pat crossing the landscape takes up on only two minutes of screen time, and even a sequence that is leisurely paced in terms of information – the early conversation in the bar between Pat and Billy – utilises some twenty plus cuts between the two minutes of them entering the bar and the directorial credit coming up.

What is useful here is to find a general principle within Peckinpah’s preoccupations that would help us to understand editing as a means to an end on the one hand, and a principle beyond the editing on the other. Frequently Peckinpah’s work concentrates on conflict, but this isn’t only the outer conflict that leads to parallel montage, it is also the dramatic conflict of self and other, and the inner conflict with self and self. This is evident in much of his work: the spats between the eponymous Major Dundee and Captain Tyreen, the broken friendship of Deke Thornton and Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch as the former goes after the latter, the distance created by historical and personal change in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the revenge Mike seeks after his colleague and friend, George Hanson shoots him at the beginning of The Killer Elite, the conflict between Steiner and Stransky in Cross of Iron. These are all examples of what would be called parallelism, where narratively and perhaps also symbolically Peckinpah creates structural oppositions. But what counts is how these parallelisms link up to Peckinpah’s editing structure and releases the dialectical. For example, in the films we’ve mentioned, we can see at least three modes of emotional conflict: the immediate spats of Dundee and Tyreen, Steiner and Stransky; the spatially dislocated conflict of Thornton and Bishop, Pat and Billy, Mike and George, and the inner conflicts of Pat Garrett and Deke Thornton. The deeper the conflict and the more spatially dislocated, the more Peckinpah has to find an editing correlative to capture the emotional parallelism.

In The Wild Bunch and in Cross of Iron this can sometimes be openly internalised and yet this is not where his genius lies. Peckinpah may sometimes offers brief flashbacks that reflect this interior problem, as in The Wild Bunch where there is one scene after Deke has been told by the man employing him that Deke is his Judas goat, and there is a dissolve showing Deke being whipped in jail as he reflects on his past in prison and his future chasing his old buddies. In Cross of Iron there is the moment where Steiner decides whether to shoot someone as Peckinpah gives us momentary flashbacks to the faces of those the man was responsible for killing. But such an editing approach seems too heavy; and not too far removed from the externalised editing of immediate conflict in Major Dundee or Cross of Iron, scenes where the leading characters are constantly at cross purposes with each other. However, Peckinpah’s and his editors’ genius for montage doesn’t come from the predictability of shot/counter shot to indicate conflict, nor flashback to indicate psychological depth, but rather in accelerated and decelerated forms of montage through the problem of spatial dislocation but emotional immediacy. Herein lies the dialectical importance of Peckinpah’s work.

This is true of both The Wild Bunch, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but in very different ways. In The Wild Bunch there is a moment during the early set-piece shoot-out where it looks as though Deke chooses not to shoot Bishop, despite having a clear opportunity, and Peckinpah chooses to allow the moment to get lost in the carnage as we might assume that as Deke kills someone next to Bishop, and Bishop kills someone next to Deke, that it is less letting someone live, than just shooting anyone you can in the mayhem. But afterwards Deke’s employer asks Thornton why he didn’t kill Bishop when he had the chance, and Thornton looks down and doesn’t answer as the film cuts elsewhere. This is closer to the originality of Peckinpah’s dialectical approach as complex feelings get lost in the complex, accelerated montage event. At the other end is the decelerated dialectical approach in Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, where the films opens in 1909 and flashes back to 1881, as Garrett is killed, and cross-cuts with the hens being shot. This is decelerated in the sense there is no montage-event, or set-piece that we have spatially to locate ourselves within, but closer to Eisensteinian intellectual montage: editing that is working out the film’s theme, not its immediate narrative dimension and nor its spatiality.

But whether accelerating or decelerating, the point remains the same. How does Peckinpah pursue a reactionary dialectic, a sense not of future political glories, à la Eisenstein, but future compromises? Peckinpah seemed to need to believe in pasts where freedom was a viable option against the slow death of the self in the present. “The woods were full of killers, all sizes, all colors…a director has to deal with a world absolutely teeming with medicocrities, jackals, hangers on, or just plain killers. I’ve had them eating on me while I was still walking around.” Peckinpah’s comment brings to mind of course the famous image of the scorpion and the ants at the beginning of The Wild Bunch, but also makes one think of a Robinson Jeffers poem, where he says “but for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening centre, corruption” – and Peckinpah’s work is full of cutaways to children witnessing acts of violence: in The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett…, The Killer Elite, Cross of Iron.

Yet what is interesting about Peckinpah’s stylistic approach is that he utilises parallel editing not to extend point of view but to narrow it. Peckinpah’s complicated montages do not clarify the world, and this is consistent with Prince’s observations on Peckinpah’s style, a style that creates oblique cinematic spaces, and also returns us to our observation that generally Peckinpah is not a logistically precise filmmaker. If we take for example the complex montages of The French Connection, a film that shares with The Wild Bunch’s opening scene an interest in the chaos of social space, William Friedkin and his editor nevertheless lay out the coordinates for a kind of rational complication. The viewer is aware at all times of the problem: that Popeye Doyle needs to take out the sniper who’s escaped onto a subway train. Both Popeye’s motivations and Friedkin’s laying out of the space locate us clearly in a messy urban situation. There is in Friedkin’s film a liberal dimension – a sense that urban space is being disturbed by outmoded violence, by a puncturing of the social. In The Wild Bunch the reactionary position is one where the social gets in the way of the violent norms that society replaces. We are less in the society than we are in the minds and actions of the men for whom violence is a way of life. As Peckinpah constantly switches between the townsfolk, Deke and his men on the rooftop, and the gang going into the bank, so we notice it is isn’t just the social space that is being worked out, but the logistics of impending threat. Peckinpah’s purpose isn’t only to lay out space but lay into America: if Eisenstein wanted to indicate an intellectual montage that could praise the new Soviet Union; Peckinpah’s reactionary editing wants to indicate the ever thickening rot at the heart of the US, or rather the rot in any society where one isn’t given the chance to defend one’s own interests, but where society undermines one’s power.

This is consistent with Peckinpah’s work in the rather more contemporary and English-set Straw Dogs, where his cross-cutting approach early in the film nevertheless resembles the tension more immediately generated in The Wild Bunch. Here Dustin Hoffman’s mild-mannered American mathematician David arrives in an English village with his young wife Amy who is from the area, and Peckinpah doesn’t so much set the scene as redistribute the space. From its opening bird’s eye view shot of the village, to shots of miscellaneous villagers who may or not be of significance to the film, Peckinpah creates a distrustful space, even a paranoiac one. Where in The Wild Bunch, which opens with almost a worm’s eye view as we see insects crawling all over the scorpion, the cross-cutting seems quite clearly motivated by the nature of the situation, in Straw Dogs the motivation is harder to locate. What sort of dialectic is Peckinpah interested in pursuing as he carves up a sleepy village with bird’s eye shots of the small town, low angle shots of Amy walking along the street in a braless jumper, telephoto shots of David crossing the road, and what turns out to be an ex-lover coming out of a telephone box. Though in one of the overhead shots we can make out some of the characters moving through the village (we can make out Amy walking along the street), generally the space is dislocating rather than locating, as Peckinpah pushes the dialectical oppositions in The Wild Bunch into the vaguely uncanny – this seems closer to the Roeg of Don’t Look Now than the Peckinpah of The Wild Bunch. But the purpose remains the same: to meditate on the inevitability of aggression in a society increasingly repressing it.

For of course in many ways Straw Dogs is also a western, and Chris Petit astutely noted in his Time Out review that the film absorbs aspects of both the American western and the British horror movie. It is as though the dialectic that interests Peckinpah here is the primitive village and the primitive urges that mathematician David would seem to be as far removed from as anyone – there is the suggestion that he’s actually escaped the tensions building up in his own country. But Peckinpah is a director of tension in many forms, and if Straw Dogs works so well it isn’t especially for the last fifteen to twenty minutes of violence done to various characters, but the violence done to the viewer throughout the film. When Prince mentions the off-centre cutting in the director’s work, this spatially dislocating terrorism is taken further in the Straw Dogs than in perhaps any of his other films. The immediate problem of violence both geographically and temporally in The Wild Bunch (in terms of both the stand off between outlaws and those determined to catch them, and the period in which it is set) leads to a sort of canny understanding of the genre, as though Peckinpah reckoned so many other western directors before him had ignored the inevitability of such violence. But in Straw Dogs the violence become uncanny by its apparent irrelevance in a small English town.

This may be the logistical off-centredeness that uneasily locates us in The Wild Bunch becoming the logistical dislocation in Straw Dogs. But it as the same time an uncanny locating, as though Peckinpah wants to probe not currents of violence that his western and actions films work with, but undercurrents. This requires a still further dislocating editing approach than usual, and we are not merely playing with words to talk of undercurrents and cross-cutting to propose a kind of cross-current editing approach at work in the film.

One of the reasons why we reckoned Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was Peckinpah’s most interesting film lay in the decelerated montage that utilised editing strategies not for action but meditation, and if we can regard Straw Dogs as an important work it lies in how the editing brings to the surface feelings of violence sitting within people, places and situations. This was central to the problem Pauline Kael had with the film where she talked in the New Yorker of “the stupidity and moral corruption of Straw Dogs. It may be necessary to be violent in order to defend your home and your principles, but Peckinpah-Patton thinks that’s what makes a man a man.” Now this is especially a problem because Peckinpah “is so passionate and sensual a film artist that you may experience his romantic perversity kinaesthetically, and get quite giddy from feeling trapped and yet liberated.” He takes us into spaces the viewer wouldn’t usually wish to go, and yet we might say it isn’t that Peckinpah wants to show what makes a man a man, but what is within man in certain situations. The situation Peckinpah creates is, as in most of his films, an essentially homo-social environment, but this time with a male character who refuses homo-social camaraderie, and a woman who generates in the homo-social world a heterosexual rabidity.

While women frequently show up in Peckinpah’s work they usually do so without affecting the dynamic of the film – in Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Killer Elite and Cross of Iron they have no function: as David Thomson once proposed, Senta Berger’s character in Major Dundee could have been excised without much loss, and we might note that the beauty Steve McQueen asks to dance in Junior Bonner might be partly responsible for the film’s big punch-up, but has no impact at all on the leading character’s life. Even in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the film could still have worked if Bennie had searched out the head of Alfredo alone – the lover is along for the ride, little more, and while Bennie may be mourning her before the end of the film, Bennie’s dignity in death hardly lies in avenging hers.

But in Straw Dogs Amy is clearly the pivotal element, the film’s problem. If David had hired a cottage alone, then his homo-social reluctance would probably have been irrelevant, but with a beautiful young wife it becomes an affront, as though the men cannot quite understand a desire for a woman that is not calibrated in relation to the homo-social environment that appraises a woman’s qualities. In fact what happens is that David’s confidence is constantly undermined, as his reluctance to become one of the boys leaves him feeling inadequate in the face of his wife’s sexiness, not aggrandized by it. Is this really Peckinpah’s point: that David does not acknowledge that he has a gorgeous wife, and paradoxically must do so not by passing through the homosocial rites, but in his ignorance of certain rituals ends up becoming a man of immense violence instead? The question we may ask, in relation to Kael’s point, is does Peckinpah admire what David has become, or is he more interested in the irony that David proves so socially inept in the world he finds himself occupying – namely the small Cornish village – that he must become violent to make amends? By the conclusion not only are the leering villagers dead, but also the local magistrate, and Amy has been earlier in the film sodomized while David was out hunting – something he remains ignorant of even at the end of the film. It would seem to be a stretch to assume that a man would happily accept that his wife’s rape would justify the opportunity to take out the various baddies. One of the film’s indeterminate ironies is that actually David isn’t so much protecting his wife’s honour – he doesn’t know of his wife’s rape – but ironically protecting a mentally disabled molester who seeks sanctuary in his house. David takes out the locals protecting a man who has molested others, whilst not knowing that others have molested his wife. A typical revenge logic would consist of a man’s wife brutally raped and the husband getting revenge for that rape. But as if in a narrative echo of his complicating montage style, Peckinpah has a husband whose flirty wife ends up being raped by various locals including her own ex (with whom there is a degree of pleasure), and who ends up not taking revenge for this crime, but kills the locals whilst protecting a man who hides out in his home who is himself someone who has committed the very deeds that David does not know the people he is killing have committed. Again we notice how Peckinpah is a bad whore, as the cause and effect coordinates of the action film or the revenge thriller are removed. Thus the opening sequence that creates a complex sense of space as Peckinpah offers perspectives on the village that generates an incoherent milieu, is matched by the unhinging of cause and effect in the narrative. One might not like Peckinpah’s sexual politics, but that is not quite the same thing as assuming he has made a hack work.

We still may ask why this dislocation of form and content. The final scene in the film shows David and the man he’s been protecting driving back to the man’s house. “I don’t know my way home”, he says. “That’s okay. I don’t either”, David replies, as a smile crosses his face. If we’ve talked of the importance of a man entering his own house justified, in this instance has David left his with a sense of paradoxical justification: that the house he has busily protected is a house that he can exit rather than enter with honour. But even if we accept Kael’s Peckinpah-Patton reading of the film where she believes the director shows David proving his manly instincts as a worm that turns, this would still leave troubling subtexts. Are we supposed to assume that David wouldn’t care whether his wife was raped or not, and that his defence of the village half-wit and sexual molester was no more than a precursor to justifying his own blood-letting? One suspects this is and isn’t the case; that the film deals less with the assertion of masculinity than its confusion. In an interview Peckinpah once proposed that “outlaws lived not only by violence, but for it. And the whole underside of our culture has always been violence – it will be and still is. It’s a reflection of the society itself.” What we’ve argued for here though is less the violence as a given than the dialectical nature of man as Peckinpah conceives him, and that he finds its formal correlative in his editing procedures. If Peckinpah were simply saying that David releases his real self by the end of the film, then that may be not only socio-politically problematic, but more especially aesthetically and psychologically simplistic. But Straw Dogs one feels is not a simplistic film in form; nor even in terms of psychology. It is instead a film that allows for a sort of excavatory montage, where Peckinpah’s askew editing approach captures the contrary layers of social existence.

This may appear as though we’re saying that David is releasing his real self, but the film seems to end troublingly rather than triumphally. For one, the final intruder killed is shot by Amy rather than David, and there is a moment after David has left to drive the half-wit home, showing Amy sitting on the stairs, with a look far from admiration for her husband. Not that she looks dismissive either; more crumpled by the awfulness of what has happened. Peckinpah may insist that our culture is one of violence and that we are in denial to pretend otherwise, but that is not quite the same thing as saying he relishes it. As Susan George, who plays Amy, says on the DVD extras, she found Peckinpah very combative, but at the same time very warm and caring. Straw Dogs might have a reputation for violence not exactly undermined by Peckinpah comments like “they want to see brains flying out? I’ll give them brains flying out”, but if this bolsters the violent reading, George talks of the pre-production work where Peckinpah insisted that Hoffman and George stayed for a couple of weeks in the same hotel together, hung out together constantly so they could create a plausibly married couple. Peckinpah’s comment and George’s anecdotes capture well the contrary elements at work in the film, a work where the dialectical takes many forms.

This has hardly been an exhaustive examination of Peckinpah’s work; merely an attempt to understand an aspect of it through a dialectical relationship that doesn’t only lie in the sort of formal analysis Stephen Prince does so well, but dialectics as the basis of Peckinpah’s directorial personality. Peckinpah is one of the great directors of what is often called ‘central conflict’, the oppositional relationship prevalent in dominant filmmaking and that can create dramatic suspense. Peckinpah we feel is certainly true to central conflict, but pushes it further and explores it more fully than most filmmakers. It makes sense that Peckinpah would of course work within the expectation of central conflict, but what we’ve been suggesting is that this doesn’t become narrative doxa; more fundamental exploration.

But before concluding it might be useful to say something more about how Peckinpah could not quite make the action films studio bosses so desired, and that there seemed almost to be a bloody-minded need to work his own preoccupations into the material. Kael again: “Peckinpah doesn’t start with a vision; he starts a picture as a job, and then, perversely – in spite of his deal to sell out – he turns into an artist.” There are montage sequences in both Junior Bonner and The Killer Elite that indicate this perversity. An early scene in Junior Bonner shows the titular character returning to his home town and going out to his father’s house and land. He is not around and we watch as the house is bulldozed and the surrounding area is being redeveloped. An action-oriented filmmaker would be likely to place such a scene in the film to create a greater sense of suspense, or even for that matter melancholy. But this is early in the film and Bonner returns home to see his father’s house being destroyed, but our response to the sequence is unlikely to be very enraged, and even Junior’s response is muted: he seems more bewildered than angry. Add to which Peckinpah edits the sequence with multiple perspectives that makes the scene closer to Antonioni than action cinema, as he frames and reframes the house’s destruction. The scene is much more consistent with Peckinpah’s ongoing fascination with times changing, than action sequence exigencies. In one shot Peckinpah shows the bulldozer demolishing Ace Bonner’s post-box in a moment absolutely consistent with Peckinpah’s elegiac pre-occupations and which has very little do with dramatic purpose.

In The Killer Elite, meanwhile, Peckinpah de-dramatizes through having a key action sequence offered initially in the present, and then, with the aid of a flash-forward to a discussion of the event, turned into  a flashback, as key operatives discuss what went wrong at the airport where the scene takes place. This is almost absurdly de-dramatizing as Peckinpah shows more interest in the machinations of motive than in the action aspect that the scene would seem to demand. As the film cuts back and forth between the two rival Japanese groups fighting it out at an American airport, Peckinpah proves himself a very bad whore indeed. It’s a though he wanted to experiment with montage instead of detail the action, and finds the most decelerated means available to him to remove conventional tension.

Central to Prince’s very fine article on Peckinpah is to indicate how important the director was in the evolution of the action sequence, and indeed how often do we hear John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and even The Matrix films admired for their balletic use of screen violence, a la Peckinpah. As Prince says, “violence assumes a myriad of forms in contemporary cinema, but the aesthetic of violence has evolved to emphasize a cluster of predominant and recurring characteristics,” adding, “this style – multi-camera montage with slow-motion – has become the predominant aesthetic form for rendering gun battles in modern cinema.” Prince acknowledges there is a whole lot more to Peckinpah than his montage aesthetic, but even within this loosely dialectical aspect we can see much that negates action cinema and at the same time allows Peckinpah to explore a singular vision. If Eisenstein was the great director of revolutionary montage, Peckinpah became the great director of reactionary montage, but this is sill quite different from becoming merely an action hack glorifying in the possibilities of screen violence. Whether it is Pat dawdling at the door of his own home in Pat Garrett…, David driving who knows where in Straw Dogs, Ace’s post-box getting demolished in Junior Bonner, or a beautiful moment in The Wild Bunch where Deke Thornton sits outside the gates of the town at the end of the film, few action-oriented directors create as much space for reflection. This is the elegiac rather than the adrenalized, and as central to the tone of his work as any action sequence. Peckinpah was a very bad whore indeed, but one with a heart if not of gold, than aware of the difficulties of having a heart at all.

 

©Tony McKibbin