Straw Dogs (1971), Part Deux: Or, Shit I Left Out of the First Review
(My original review of Straw Dogs can be found here.)
I’ve wandered high and I’ve wandered low. Sailed over peaks and scraped 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,” 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 God-knows-what from a clapped-out john 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 one looks into the midday 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?” I continued. “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 express unfashionable thought or examine their own flawed natures unless they maintain the proper distance from them and fob them 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 to them. 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 across time 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 told them their fiercest shouts would be forever drowned out by the primal call of “bad boys” who never even had to try; that primal fear of living out their lives unable to command the respect that nature so cruelly bestows upon pumped-up alpha males unable to argue the merits of Kant versus Kierkegaard — that’s the bulls-eye that Straw Dogs puts a hole in, Annie Oakley-style. These men 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 to them when Dustin Hoffman as their screen double 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 emerged victorious.
“Jesus, I got ’em all”: the revenge of David Sumner was the original Revenge of the Nerds, the fantasy of every high-school loser who never learned to “Walk This Way” — that private fancy by which the self-styled keepers of civilization’s flame scaled a hill made of the piled bodies of an eternity’s worth of locker-room jocks and planted a flag inscribed with an Oscar Wilde quote at the top of it. Peckinpah not only called them on it, he held their inner simian to the light — 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 — and it certainly isn’t Peckinpah’s justification for the corpse-strewn path David Sumner takes toward “finding himself.” Again (as I wrote earlier), 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 Stanley 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 but emphasizes the titillating — his Alex snipping off the wife’s jumpsuit to let her tits peek out at us; the contours of actress Adrienne Corri’s lithe body; her writhing, wriggling helplessness as porn-domination scenario. I watch rape à la Kubrick and I’m not thinking about lawlessness run amok and human capacity for evil and the necessity of free will, or any of the pseudo-professorial, mock-intellectual horseshit Kubrick claimed as his film’s raison d’être — I’m too busy ogling redhead Adrienne Corri’s pert little pink nipples. And that’s Kubrick’s doing — it’s what he wanted. There’s no horror in his assault, only glee at the dehumanization of 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 actually lacerates the air with shards of a woman’s sense of self — and which one nudges you to get off in tandem with its foxy, charismatic antihero. Other directors learned from Kubrick. They either mimic his remove from what they’re showing us or they infuse their tales with so much irony and behind-the-camera commentary that a certain distance becomes inevitable. They build a wall between us and their characters, and they’re drowned in hosannas 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 as your own. 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.
And yet, 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 human psyche; a grand statement on Us and The Way We’re Living Today. Except that when they serve that up to us — and in a manner that cuts no sides any slack — we accuse them of embodying the very darkness of which they’re warning us. Consequently, we downgrade them, we belittle them, we write them off, we consign them to the cultural bargain bins.
Curiously, despite his reaction to Straw Dogs, Roger Ebert was an early champion of Peckinpah’s later Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia — awarding it four stars upon release and correctly hailing it as “some kind of bizarre masterpiece.” He has an anecdote, in his Great Movies piece on Alfredo, about Peckinpah during a press junket, sozzled and hiding behind the kind of shades (indoors!) that Warren Oates sports throughout much of the film. I’ve pondered this mental image from time to time. Maybe Peckinpah was just living up to his cowboy-out-of-his-time image, as he was so fond of doing. Or maybe those shades made it easier to ignore the scowls and shaking heads of the critics— at least, those that bothered to stick around past Alfredo’s halfway mark — as they gathered to hurl raw meat at him and ask why he had to drag humanity through the gutter once more.
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. Of course, it’s as grim and barren as its remote Cornish setting; as ominous as the fog that watches on like a God gone derelict while the drunken barbarians gather at the Sumners’ gate. Hell, Peckinpah himself would have seconded her assessment — he shows more feeling for the killers in any of his Westerns than he does for the characters here. Surely, Dogs makes for 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.
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 cock up the tender white ass of your resistance to open endings and “troubling” interpretations. It’s the gob of spit in the face of your middlebrow taste that Henry Miller wanted me to paraphrase him on. It’s also nothing less than the best English-language film of 1971.
Was Peckinpah a misogynist? Sure, to some degree. All men are, to some degree — it’s called reckoning with the vagaries of the most coddled human beings in God’s sphere after realizing that the models of blameless perfection for which boys are taught to prostrate themselves were a bill of goods all along. (Or, as an old-timer once put it to me: “Kid, if you aren’t a misogynist by the time you’re thirty, you haven’t been with enough women.”) Peckinpah was just more nakedly honest about this disillusionment than any other filmmaker. His only real parallels at this time were literary — Norman Mailer, Bukowski — and, contrary to Pauline Kael’s assertion (by way of comparison with Mailer) that Peckinpah left his machismo unexamined, 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 piledrove it and gave it a flying legdrop from off the top fucking turnbuckle.
There’s not a single instance in the Peckinpah canon of a cavalier or celebratory attitude toward the violence his women face. Straw Dogs’ final look at Amy — a quivering sacrificial lamb left behind in a house full of corpses — is a mourning portrait of her young sanity. In Alfredo Garcia, it’s Isela Vega’s Elita who’s the voice of conscience 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 womanly admonishments; he ends up with a severed head in place of his fiancée. Does this sound like a toast to the glories of bitch-slapping in the Mexican sun?
Peckinpah’s men are torn apart by their inability to trust women — they’re lessened by their doubt, by their uncertainty, by their petty jealousies and inability to let go of the transgressions and the human weaknesses 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 realizing just how badly they need their women. It’s realizing how incomplete and utterly alone you are without them. It’s realizing that women are a stone fucking drug: a man spends his 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 close to it.
If Peckinpah’s men could ever walk away from women, 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.
©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
(This piece was originally posted May 17, 2010 to the now-defunct blog Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic. Some content has been altered for this re-posting.)
*When I wrote of the link between David Sumner and critics such as Ebert, even I had no idea just how hilariously spot-on I was. Ebert would include this personal confession in his review of Rod Lurie’s 2011 Straw Dogs remake: “I fear the story’s hero represents me and finds me lacking machismo. Not since grade school have I ever willingly been in a fistfight. I have never fired a rifle, except in ROTC classes, and never touched a handgun. I avoid physical confrontation. When somebody tries to cut me off on an expressway, I let them…. I depend on society to protect me.”