I've wandered high and I've wandered low. Sailed over peaks and scraped the bottoms of valleys. Consulted both oracles and fools. And yet, closure eludes me. Something still eats away at my soul, gnaws away at my very being even as I type these words.
It’s the first post I did on Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. You see, as epic as it was, I still feel as though I left the tale unfinished. Perhaps, I was a tad defensive in my thesis on Dogs' wince-making brilliance. "Hey," I figured. "If no one since 1971 has seen fit to address the way that Bloody Sam's scabrous cinematic essay has been blamed for everything from global warming to an uptick in the numbers of schoolchildren with head lice, well, let me just don my cape and tights here and take to the sky." And yet, nothing dries out spastic fanboy ardor like a Film Techniques 101 lecture; what's more, the "why should I put this on my Netflix queue?" crowd might still be in the dark in regards to the film's sheer visceral jolt.
A friend of mine recently popped her Straw Dogs cherry and, after about a week of soreness and bleeding, she was finally able to sort through whatever it was the film had shot up inside of her. Her verdict? Pass. Despite its undeniable technical brilliance, despite her admiration of the film's eagerness to shine a flashlight on all those cockroaches scurrying around under the kitchen sink of Civilized Society, she took umbrage at the film's suffocatingly bleak view of humanity. "I felt a million miles away from every character in Straw Dogs," quoth my friend. "I don't think Peckinpah gave a shit about any one of them, and so neither did I."
"But what about Taxi Driver?" I asked her, tearing off a sizable hunk of our mutual cinephile shrine and tossing it on the table for argument's sake. "Pauline Kael said that Scorsese got something out of his asthma; he knows how to make us experience the terror of suffocation. And under the weight of Paul Schrader's Calvinist-in-Hollywood sense of alienation, filtered through Scorsese's neo-Expressionist take on the hookers and junkies and Scary Street Negroes and porno houses of Gerald Ford-era Times Square, we're pretty much gasping for air by the halfway mark. Bleak view of humanity? It drips from Taxi Driver like a clapped-out john after a session in the back of Travis' cab; not even his self-appointed mission to save Iris keeps Travis Bickle from being one of the most repulsive sons-of-bitches we've ever laid eyes on. We look at his life the way we'd look directly into the sun. So why does Marty 'You ever see what a .44 Magnum can do to a woman's pussy?' Scorsese get the automatic wave-through while Bloody Sam's held back for the full cavity search? Is it that Taxi Driver's world is seen through the jaundiced eyes of its unstable protagonist whereas Straw Dogs feels like a love letter straight from the heart of its director? Are directors not allowed to examine unfashionable thought or express their own flawed humanity unless they maintain the proper distance from it and fob it off on characters we can all safely condemn and keep at arm's length?"
Of course, that's Peckinpah's problem right there: his David Sumner is no pallid, mohawked weirdo in an Army surplus jacket; he’s College-Educated America in the Age of Aquarius, a walking oil painting of upward mobility and middle-class respectability. He's half the men that must have seen the film at the time of its release — especially in the sophisticated urban capitals of President Nixon's beloved Eastern Establishment. He's the Roger Eberts and Vincent Canbys who — apparently — could sit and applaud the aesthetic dissection of every group of human beings on the planet except the one to which they belonged. He's all the Variety and New York Times critics who'd never seen themselves reflected in a mirror this large. Forty years on, he's the Rod Luries and the rest of the "Straw Dogs is macho trash!" brigade whose antennae still quiver at the basso profondo of Peckinpah's clearly stated "fuck you." The way David reaches for his hanky when having to touch anything soiled by the yahoo classes (the kind who'd flock to a film like this) must have smelled awfully familiar. His cozy denial of those animal instincts which he all too readily imputes to the Great Unwashed Them must have made them sink down in their seats a little. One look at David's pathetic stumbles in the arena of self-assertion — those festering boils of masculine insecurity papered over with mathematical equations and hallowed philosophers — and an entire social class read the message loud and clear; a social class who watched from behind books as the Sam Peckinpahs of the world got out and settled the frontiers and policed the streets and fought the wars that they only read about.
Worst of all, Peckinpah — via Amy Sumner — touched upon their long-held fears of forever losing out when it came to women. That sinking feeling, the one that said their fiercest shouts would be forever drowned out by the primal call of "bad boys" who never even had to try; living out their lives unable to command the respect that nature so cruelly bestows upon pumped-up alpha males unable to quote hallowed philosophers and argue the merits of Kant versus Kierkegaard — that's the bulls-eye that Straw Dogs puts a hole in, Annie Oakley-style. They looked at David Sumner's tenuous grip on his baby-doll wife and saw their own failures — their worst nightmares, in fact — writ large. And it felt good when Dustin Hoffman threw that boiling oil in the faces of his blue-collar tormentors. It felt good when he took those cock-of-the-walk assholes down with pokers and shotguns and his superior ingenuity, when he met 'em with bare hands on their own Neanderthal turf and still emerged victorious, when he took 'em for a ride on a rollercoaster named Righteous Fury and gave 'em the souvenir of a man-trap around the head for their trouble.
"Jesus, I got 'em all": that's Peckinpah's mirror thrown up to the elation they felt right there in that darkened movie theater as they watched their kind scale a hill made of the piled bodies of Nabokov's kissy-faced brutes, and plant a flag inscribed with a quote from Oscar Wilde at the top of it. The revenge of David Sumner was the original Revenge of the Nerds, the fantasy of the high-school loser who takes on the team quarterback — in front of the cheerleading squad, no less — and sails through the rest of the semester on a cloud of desirous glances and congratulatory back-slaps, head held aloft. Peckinpah called them loud and clear on their secret wet-dream bullshit — indeed, made it all ring hollow in the process — and they resented the hell out of him for it.
Of course, men have to "learn to be men" as Straw Dogs testifies — no Susan George on Earth respects a Dustin Hoffman who can't summon the scrotal mass to assert himself, or who fails to respond to his wife's needs. But that's Relations Between the Sexes 101, not the bellicose raving of a fascist revenge flick that seeks to turn its audience into poker-wielding apes — and it's certainly not any justification for the corpse-strewn path Hoffman's mathematician takes toward "finding himself." Again, Susan George's Amy is one of the truest portraits of a woman ever committed to celluloid but, despite the hell she endures over the course of the film, she's actually the closest thing to a "hero" in the damn thing, the character that drunken old misogynist Peckinpah actually feels the most sympathy for, the character upon whom everything in the story turns.
Just look at the way those POV shots during Amy's rape thrust you into what she's feeling, encouraging audience empathy — then, compare it to the way Kubrick handles the rape of the writer's wife during the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence in A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick's full of shit: his voyeuristic distance not only discourages empathy with the victims but emphasizes the physical details of the act — the way her jumpsuit is snipped off to let her tits get some air, the contours of her lithe body; her writhing, wriggling helplessness. I watch the rape scene in Clockwork Orange and I'm not thinking about lawlessness run amok and human capacity for evil and the necessity of free will, or any of the other pseudo-professorial, mock-intellectual horseshit Kubrick undoubtedly claimed as his raison d'être — I'm too busy ogling Adrienne Corri's pert little pink nipples. And that's Kubrick's fault — that's what he wanted. There's no horror in his rape, only sadistic elation at the victory of the lawless over the stuffed-shirt privileged. (As if he somehow weren't a member of the Rich People Walled Off From Society Club.)
And yet, the same critics who applauded Kubrick's "daring" damned Peckinpah to an eternity of having his balls roasted over an open flame by she-devils. Why? You look at the two scenes, and you tell me which sequence contains more abject horror, which sequence actually lacerates you with the shattered remains of a woman's humanity — and which one simply shows you a bit of horseplay from the thoroughly aroused vantage point of its foxy, charismatic assailant. Other directors learned from Kubrick. They either maintain his distance from what they're showing us or infuse their stories with so much irony and behind-the-camera commentary that a certain distance becomes inevitable. (See Robert Altman, the O.G. of modern-day hipsters, with Elliot Gould's ineffably with-it, above-it-all, quip-ready Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye as his patron saint.) They maintain a wall between us and their characters, and they're drowned in hosannahs for it. Peckinpah puts his characters right in your face — nay, up your ass. You smell their shit, their sweat flies off onto you — you feel their timeworn fears and petty hatreds, even though you don't want to. It's everything films are supposed to do. Yet, Peckinpah's thanks was to die an industry pariah, then spend the next twenty-or-so years trying to regain a mere fraction of the public notoriety he was once able to take for granted.
I've been showing people Peckinpah films since about the age of twenty. Lives were changed. Joe Six-Packs were left pondering the ambiguities of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and The Getaway; young ladies not particularly known for their refined cinematic palettes stood teary-eyed at the conclusion of The Wild Bunch. In particular, a close film-nerd buddy of mine emerged from the jungle of my apostolic zeal virtually sporting a Pike Bishop cowboy hat and an "If they move, kill 'em" T-shirt. His sole reservation, though, happened to be with Peckinpah's depiction of his female characters. Of course, given his near-daily screaming matches with his own girlfriend, perhaps he didn't like the mirror Ol' Bloody Sam held up to the demons racing around his own head.
And that's the way it goes. We tell our artists we expect unflinching honesty from them, ceaseless probings of the cobwebbed, murky little corners of the American Psyche, a grand statement on Us and The Way We're Living Today. Except that when they serve it up to us — and in a manner that cuts no sides any slack — we accuse them of embodying the very darkness they're exploring. Consequently, we downgrade them, we belittle them, we write them off, consign them to the bargain bins of the culture at large. Roger Ebert has an anecdote, in his Great Movies piece on Alfredo, about Peckinpah on a press junket during the film's release, sozzled and hiding behind the kind of shades (indoors!) that Warren Oates sports throughout much of the film. Maybe he was just living up to his cowboy-out-of-his-time press image, as he was so fond of doing. Or maybe those shades just made it that much easier to ignore the disapproving scowls and shaking heads of the critical community — at least, those that bothered to stick around past the film's halfway mark — as they gathered in one place to hurl raw meat at him and ask why he had to drag humanity through the gutter once more. Irony of ironies: by '83, some of these very same critics would adopt a "hey, where'd ya go?" mentality in regard to his career, and were rooting for The Osterman Weekend to be the genius comeback that it kinda was, and kinda wasn't.
Was Peckinpah a misogynist? Sure — in some ways. All men are, to some degree — part of us can't stand you bitches. It's called being an adult, getting out and growing up and interacting with real flesh-and-blood human beings, not the archetypes of sheer womanly perfection that little boys are taught to kneel before as the New Gods of our "progressive," post-religious Brave New World. (Or, as an uncle of mine once put it: "if you're not a misogynist by the time you're thirty, then you haven't been with enough women.") Peckinpah was just more nakedly honest about it than virtually any other filmmaker on the planet. His only real parallel at this time was in the literary realm — Norman Mailer, perhaps Bukowski — and contrary to what Pauline Kael asserted, Peckinpah not only wrestled with his misogyny, he boxed it, he raced it, he fenced with it, he fucking grabbed it in a headlock and piledrived it and gave it a flying legdrop from off the top fucking turnbuckle. Consequently, in Alfredo, it's Isela Vega's Elita who's the voice of reason, of morality, of sanity, as she tries to convince Bennie that his quest for dinero can do no good, that no amount of crime-boss money is worth the moral poison he's all too willing to self-administer. Like most men, he disregards his woman and ends up with a severed head in place of his sweetie. Does this sound like a commercial for machismo, some "Be All You can Be"-style advert exhorting the strapping young men of the world to raise a toast to the glories of bourbon-swilling, bitch-slapping and a bit of forced entry on a sun-baked Mexican roadside?
For all the focus on Peckinpah's misogyny, at least he had the bulging sack matter to point the finger at himself, first and foremost — to offer himself up, arms stretched out Christ-like, just as his Billy the Kid offered himself up to Sheriff Garrett, for our slings and arrows and judgmental under-the-breath mutterings. There's not a single moment in any of his films that one could read as a celebration of femininity-eschewing go-it-alone-ness. Peckinpah's males are torn apart by their inability to trust women — lessened by their doubt, their uncertainty, their petty jealousies and reluctance to let go of the transgressions and thoroughly human weakness they're holding against their women. For Bennie, for Pike Bishop, for Cable Hogue, for Pat Garrett, for Doc McCoy, what sticks in the craw is the anger at realizing just how badly they need their women. It's the realization of how incomplete and utterly alone you are without them. It's the realization that women are a stone fucking drug: a man spends his whole life trying to recapture that high he once had with the one or two truly special ones, knowing it takes more and more of 'em — more sex, more careless whispers, more promises written in pencil — to come anywhere near recapturing it. If Peckinpah's men could ever truly walk away from women, then — guess what? — they would. But they can't. We can't. We're stuck with you maddening little cunts, and you're stuck with us, and the best we can all hope for is a little understanding and some decent head before the whole proverbial shithouse goes up in flames.
To publicly answer my friend: no, Straw Dogs is not a pleasant film — currency that couldn't buy a stick of gum in the economy of true cinephiles, anyway. Of course, it's confrontational and calculated to wound. Yes, it's as grim and barren as its remote Cornish setting; as ominous as the fog that watches on, like a God suddenly gone derelict, while the drunken barbarians gather at the Sumners' gate. Thing is, I doubt Peckinpah himself would disagree with her assessment. After all, he shows more feeling for the killers in any of his Westerns than he does for most of the characters here. Surely, it's the umpteenth telltale trace of his reservations regarding that bad old modern world that killed off his beloved frontier, turned noble women into strumpets and rendered its men sniveling eunuchs unfit to tongue-wash Pike Bishop's spurs.
Of course, I also seriously doubt Peckinpah would give a shit whether or not you liked the film. Straw Dogs ain't some nice fuckin' fella out to hold your hand and waltz you down the promenade, Señorita: it wants to rip open your chest cavity and hold a mirror up to your inner ape. It's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? updated for the action set by way of anthropologist Robert Ardrey's African Genesis. It's a ten-inch black cock up the tender white ass of your resistance to open endings and "troubling" interpretations; the gob of spit in the face of your middlebrow taste that Henry Miller wanted me to paraphrase him on. It's filled with enough ambiguity to muffle the cheers of the Scutts and Cawseys in the audience and enough brilliantly filmed action to keep the David Sumners on the edges of their seats. It's nothing less than the best English-language film of 1971 and, if I have to ready my Charlie Venner pimp hand and pay a personal visit to each and every Straw Dogs detractor out there, just to get some minds changed — well, hey, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic