Bring me the films of SAM PECKINPAH at Cinematheque (Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West), from Friday (March 17) to April 9. For details, see Indie & Rep Film listings, page 94. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Sam Peckinpah never won an oscar. The closest he got was an original-screenplay nomination for The Wild Bunch (March 26, 3 pm).
But his films can be viewed again and again, giving fresh insights and pleasures, and a handful The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner (March 27, 6:30 pm), Straw Dogs (March 24, 8:45 pm) are recognized classics. So Cinematheque's Peckinpah series, screening 12 of the director's 13 features (Convoy, the missing one, isn't one of his best anyway) is a welcome event.
The slate features a rare uncut print of Cross Of Iron (April 1, 8:30 pm), a savage anti-war drama about German soldiers on the Russian front, an archival print of thieves-on-the-run thriller The Getaway (April 8, 8:30 pm) and a restored print of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (April 7, 8:30 pm)
These are movies for grown-ups. They present a complex world where morality, ethics, loyalty, trust and truth are shifting, uncertain values whose collapse is always immanent and whose worth is often questioned. They're the work of a mature artist whose compositions, editing rhythms and use of actors reveal a love of cinema for its own sake.
But first you have to get past Peckinpah's reputation as a panderer of violence and misogyny. The violence is powerful, bloody and extended. The climactic shootout in The Wild Bunch lasts only five minutes, but trademark slow motion, spurts of blood and close-up agony make it feel like forever. One of the cowboys shoots a woman trying to flee. Another gets shot by a small boy. There's no music. This is violence as suffering.
For violence as fun, check out the barroom brawl about 80 minutes into Junior Bonner. It's Peckinpah's most realistic film, a quiet, elegiac story of an almost over-the-hill rodeo cowboy (Steve McQueen at his finest) who spends a few days in his hometown to fight with his developer brother and bond with his wayward father before hitting the road again. The brawl is a cowboy-movie classic: fists, bottles, excited squeals from the women, twangy music and no damage done.
Both scenes are remarkable for their editing rhythms, but they also display Peckinpah's great handling of crowd scenes. He provides telling details in the long shots even as he's orchestrating frantic mass motion.
The Wild Bunch has no significant women, but Ida Lupino, as Junior Bonner's mother, is a well-rounded character who plainly has a life apart from her wayward husband and son. Though she loves both of them, she's not blind to their faults and she's not about to let them exploit her.
Unquestionably the most unsavoury female character in Peckinpah's films is Straw Dogs' Amy Sumner (Susan George), the bored, manipulative, horny wife of Dustin Hoffman's nerdy mathematician. He's brought her to a remote cottage so he can work on his book. She teases the local louts, who respond by raping her and beating him. He goes methodically berserk and kills them all.
Is she looking for a piece on the side or is she a flirt who doesn't realize what she's getting into? Or maybe she's driven to distraction by living with someone who lives exclusively in his head. We never really know. But this is more a moral tale than a psychologically realistic drama. We root for Hoffman's character when his worm finally turns. But is he doing the manly thing, or has he gone off the deep end? Hoffman's smug smile at the end suggests the former, but the final line, "I don't know my way home," spoken by David Warner as the village idiot, suggests the latter.
Peckinpah refuses us the easy answer. He likes complexity. There's a moment in Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (March 17, 8:45 pm) when a vicious hit man dies by the side of the road and his gay lover dissolves in grief. This was made in 1974. Gay characters didn't show up much in movies, and when they did they were played for comedy or freakishness. To give that wholly sympathetic moment to that character suggests that Peckinpah, under the macho stance, is all heart.
He's also very playful. Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia is by turns a spaghetti western, a road movie, a film noir, a romance and a horror movie. And throughout, it's a black comedy, as venal musician Bennie (a remarkable performance by Warren Oates) sets out to claim the reward on the titular head. Along the way, he becomes quite chummy with it and achieves a kind of nobility as he sinks ever deeper into despair.
In the end, it's that nobility in despair and not violence or misogyny that defines this complex director's work.