Sunday, August 25, 2002

Some slightly rewritten notes on Peckinpah from 1999:

Mere Anarchy: Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs

Things lived on each other -- that was it. Lobsters lived on squids and other things. What lived on lobsters? Men, of course! Sure, that was it! And what lived on men? he asked himself. Was it other men?
-- Theodore Dreiser, The Financier

I watched Straw Dogs this weekend for the first time in a decade, and I was stunned.

I don't know what I was thinking on that first viewing, and why it didn't leave my brain and blood as charged-up as this one did. The film reminded me of two things about Peckinpah. First, he is American cinema's purest modern equivalent of Hardy or Dreiser or Norris; a naturalist who views human society as little different from the world of animals and insects, where every species is prey for another.

Second, the sheer skill of this film shows how so many Peckinpah wannabes are just lazy hacks. John Woo may have learned how to angle a slo-mo shot of a body being blown away from shotgun fire, but could he have paced a film like this, where tension builds at such an unhurried and careful pace, before exploding in the last half-hour? Not bloody likely.

David Sumner (perfectly played by Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered mathmatician who, thanks to a research grant, has briefly retired to the hometown of his fetching wife, Amy (Susan George) in the English countryside. Their home, though not a castle, is as impenetrable as one, a fortress-like fixer-upper with walls of stone, which Amy decorates with medieval antiques.

David and Amy think themselves a happy young couple, but they're dreaming. They have nothing in common: he spends all day burrowed in his study, working some impossible numeric riddle on a blackboard, while she keeps trying to get his attention. All they have going for them is sex, which amounts to a nightcap for David and the only enjoyable part of the day for Amy. When David, at Amy's suggestion, hires her old flame Charlie Venner to fix a roof, the marital tension is stoked even higher.

David is out of his element in his wife's town, and he's trying to survive without demeaning himself. He wants to be a member of the community without being middle-class -- one of the boys without, God forbid, actually being one of the boys. He doesn't just avoid violence but confrontation of any kind. He later acknowledges that he took no role in the problems that -- in 1970, the year the film was made -- were rending apart American society and American universities, namely Kent State.

If David is abstract, Amy is concrete. She seems aware that her chief assets are her tits and ass; they got her married to a brilliant American mathmatician who offered her a chance to escape people like Charlie. She's silly and juvenile, and yet she knows and respects the provincial code of this community; the kind of code her husband views with contempt. She was bred in the values of a small-town world, where the mating traditions are marbleized, and passed on from generation to generation. In the first scene of the movie, the young village girl Jenny consciously tries to attract men's eyes by imitating Amy's sensual gait.

Amy is a somewhat dualistic character. She may represent Peckinpah's Neanderthal view of women -- horny, dumb, respecter of male dominance -- but she also seems like his representative: someone who understands and respects certain codes of honor, who knows that civility will only take you so far, and who can only respect people who act on real problems rather than pursue imaginary ones.Amy doesn't really respect a man who can't take control of her. Charlie and the boys on the roof -- huddled like vultures -- know this, and are anxious to swoop in. Amy recognizes the threat when the family cat winds up dead; David just blows it off.

While she is more aware of danger than her husband, she also brings it on, as if to urge on a battle which she knows, at some subconscious level, must be fought. When she starts casually flashing the roofers, things take a nasty turn. David is lured into an idiotic hunting expedition, a ruse for Charlie to visit Amy, whom he promptly rapes. She is not an exactly unwilling partner, as her face shows just how thin the line between love and hate can be. Her feelings are a bit less murky when Charlie's co-hort shows up, gun in hand, to take his turn.

After charitably taking in Niles, a feebleminded outcast he accidentally hit with his car, David is faced with protecting his home against a howling mob. Niles accidentally killed Jenny, the local Lolita who tried to seduce him; her father, along with Charlie and his crew, all besiege David's house for a lynching party. Although the girl's father has an at least plausible motive, the crew see this as their own cruel and gleeful hour of triumph, when the strong will destroy the weak.

There's a King Lear-like quality to this last half-hour, of a world that seems to have gone completely out of balance because its codes have been violated: Jenny is dead, Amy has been raped, and David is a prisoner in a home that seems destined not to remain his. It's the melee from The Wild Bunch on a smaller, more intimate, and more affecting scale; mere anarchy loosed on the home. The hooligans throw rats in the window, shout obscenities, giggle like maniacs, ride tricycles around the house, and take great delight in destroying the greenhouse. With whatever tools are at his disposal, David is forced to act; to use the words of Marcellus Pierce in Pulp Fiction, he gets downright medieval on their ass.

Straw Dogs was strong medicine for its time, and still is. Pauline Kael, a longtime Peckinpah supporter, famously dubbed the film "fascist." Feminists hated its portrayal of a wife who seemed to want to be raped. Peckinpah -- as a director who had already pushed the envelope of violence with The Wild Bunch -- found himself inheriting the Norman Mailer Chair for the Advancement of Macho Piggishness; the old controversialist couldn't have been happier.

Granted, Peckinpah had a somewhat troglodyte sensibility in this film, but it served him well: the story gets to something basic in human life -- the question of whether a civilized man can survive outside of his neat little abstract world, whether he's lost some degree of will in his upward social climb. Peckinpah presents his answer with artistry that is provocative and merciless.

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