Thursday, July 08, 2010

SAM PECKINPAH and "The Wild Bunch"

The only Sam Peckinpah movie I’ve ever seen until now was “Junior Bonner,” the rodeo movie, which I didn’t even remember was a Peckinpah, probably because he’s been labeled so synonymous with violence. “Junior Bonner” is one of his gentle, nostalgic movies. (So long as you don’t think of rodeos as violent.) It’s much more about trying to restore a broken family and its connection to the land. Now I’ve seen “The Wild Bunch” plus watching all the related stuff (classroom on a disc) that comes with movies these days.

One of these auxiliary movies was about going back to the location of the movie and finding the exact spots where events “happened” (i.e. were staged). They took Peckinpah’s daughter by his second/third/fourth wife. (They divorced and remarried three times.) She is Mexican, hardly spoke English and hardly knew her father. But this collection of men, self-assembled, were true believers on a pilgrimage. True enough, the ruin that served as a set is as close as Americans can get to the big Euro ruins, with its Roman-style stone aqueduct supported by graceful arches. Pretty hard to resist that! And it’s always intriguing to see how set dressers do their work, how the action is layered to produce the illusion of actuality, and how convenience meshed with fantasy.

One of my fav little tales about point of view comes from two ethologists sent out to the African veldt to watch a small herd of antelope all day. One observer was male and the other was female. At the end of the day when they went to compare notes, the male said that the whole key to the group was male challenge and defense behavior. The woman claimed that the whole key to the day was the nurturing of the fawns. This philosophical filter has caused Peckinpah to have been labeled sexist, misogynist, by the women and a man capable of enormous intimacy and generosity by the men. You can find evidence for both, even if you only concentrate on breasts. Sam likes ‘em very much, shows a lot of very pretty ones, and also shows mothers nursing their babies.

Take another angle. Sam (it’s too much trouble to type Peckinpah) -- as far as I know -- never shows the cliched howling Indian warrior bareback on a paint horse that is typical of some Westerns. Some would say he never portrays Indians at all, but he does. What do you think Mexicans in these little villages are? More than that, when I read his bio I realized that as a young impressionable Marine in 1943 he’d been sent to China to disarm the Japanese. He fell in love there with an indigenous woman but was sent home, which broke the relationship. This is the place he learned to drink, possibly even was introduced to drugs, grief and violence. So what I see in “The Wild Bunch” is Marines going into a place where the Japanese-type Mexicans were oppressing the Chinese-type Mexicans, and the deep wish of those Marines for both violence and peace. The old man in the village actually looks a bit Asian, not surprising since the Americas were originally populated from Asia. Was there ever a better pattern for a movie based on Afghanistan? The only way you’d have to modernize it would be by replacing that shocking orange motorcar (equipped with a rifle scabbard) and that Gatling gun with an unmanned rocket drone. The resulting devastation would be the same, except less personal.

By now, of course, the choreographed famous violence has been imitated and distorted so much that Sam himself became sickened over the public failure to see that it was a protest. On the other hand, these guys in the commenting films point out that the screen-filling detail of people acting out small stories (which is very hard to see on a television screen) can’t be duplicated by CGI explosions of flying body parts. The fleeting glimpses, the actual-time movement, the darting complexity, are just too much for CGI. Another distortion -- introduced by shooting for TV -- is that the middle distance has been lost: everything is faces as big as the screen or long panoramas. Complex interactions among a group are lost. And another comment was that the bright white hot light of direct sun in arid country is pretty much lost now. With more sensitive film and more love of the rosy light of early and late day, no one plans for the sharp shadow and dazzle of this cinematography.

But that’s all pretty technical and beside the point for most people. What Sam achieved -- maybe because it was the only way for him to survive given his temperament and alcoholism -- was a double-layered experience. One was the actual lives of the cast and crew on the set, many of them repeating members, and the other was the screen story through which the real relationships shone. I would argue that this was a movable village, this nomadic troupe not unlike the medieval troupes who roamed Europe in wagons that would convert to stages, putting on morality tales. Quite lurid and supernatural when it came to depicting the punishment of the wicked. One of Sam’s influences was an over-wrought religious mother.

These men who acted for Peckinpah were rarely in Montana, but they did overlap a bit with the Cowboy Hall of Fame and the National Rodeo crowd. My fav was Ben Johnson and I shook his hand once behind the chutes at a National Rodeo. He was the most decent and competent of men. Joel McCrea was there as well. These men (Ernest Borgnine, Randolph Scott, William Holden, Warren Oates, Chris Christopherson and a host of beloved character actors with a bit of overlap into John Huston and Howard Hawkes country) either got fired off the set almost immediately or settled into lifelong friendships with Sam.

The types that they were and the types that they depicted were not uncommon around here in the Sixties. Some were WWII veterans, struggling with trauma and alcohol and taking refuge on the reservation. Some were rodeo regulars, broken but hopeful and self-medicating. They came looking for a village, like Valier or Browning, and hoping that in such a setting they could rest and grow old. Some managed a marriage and kids before they died. That’s something sophisticated city folks know nothing about. I think Sam, who was a ranch kid, saw it in China first. The Chinese know a thing or two about violence.

1 comment:

Whisky Prajer said...

I first saw The Wild Bunch on the big screen when it was re-released in the 90s, the way Peckinpah originally cut it. It felt like an extended nervous breakdown -- I was a little wobbly on my feet leaving the theatre. I have to say that after seeing that, every western that's been produced since feels to this viewer like a vanity project.