Saturday, October 15, 2011

Straw Dogs actually corresponds to its reputation

OK, if Straw Dogs (1971) is the basis of your argument that Sam Peckinpah was a poet of violence, I'll buy it. I've been hearing that for years about Peckinpah, and have been exploring his oeuvre in the hope of seeing some poetry, but instead there was mostly cheap titillation. Most repugnant of all is the endless, pointless and phony ketchup-fest at the end of The Wild Bunch which demonstrated nothing except that a 72-frame-per-second camera must never fall into the wrong hands. Such a sequence doesn't say anything about violence, except that it is just as boring as anything else when it goes on too long. (It doesn't help when it doesn't look or feel anything like real violence, which comes quickly and is shocking, not balletic.)

As advertised, Straw Dogs is truly about the horribly corrosive effect violence has on the human psyche. It is not a veiled soft-porn advertisement for violence, tut-tutting while showing even more (shocking!) examples. The violence in Straw Dogs is really awful and awfully real.

Some surprises. Straw Dogs is best example of a theatrical use of mise en scene outside the work of Sidney Lumet. At least half of the film takes place in the living room (or parlor) space seen in the clip above, yet without one repeated angle, and throughout a clear sense of how stifling and confining that space is. In addition to the brittle, virtually non-sequitur dialogue between the Dustin Hoffman character and his wife, played by Susan George, Peckinpah shoots and cuts the scenes so as to emphasize the awkwardness, the sense of disconnect between them. Like most really good dialogue cutters, Peckinpah spends more time on the listeners than the speakers. (Is there anything more amateurish than a scene made of alternating one-shots of people talking?)

It is easy to see today that audiences were misled by the casting of Dustin Hoffman in 1971, who was not only the best-known name in the cast (he still is, but he is no longer a superstar, and seems relieved about that), but had a profile as a loveable schlep. Even Ratso Rizzo, greasy and whiny as he is, is non-threatening and is capable of earning deep affection. But he is the villain of Straw Dogs, more than the local bullies who threaten him. Narcisstic and casually cruel, the story pushes him past his everyday psychological sadism into actual physical cruelty, revealing his true nature. Critics in the past thought Peckinpah was advocating this liberation of the male psyche through violence, whereas he is simply stating an unpleasant fact. Absent all other factors, men seek conflict, and do not feel the conflict is satisfied except through violent action.

This is hardly a radical formulation. John Ford, the great Classicist of American film built most of his Westerns, including My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on this idea, and his great romantic comedy The Quiet Man is about a man learning, with some difficulty, that there is another approach to life. Yet no one accuses Ford of glorying in violence.

It's true that Peckinpah is never as clear about this in his other films as he is in Straw Dogs. Many others, including The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett could, looked at superficially, be accused of violence porn. But I don't know how Peckinpah could be any clearer about his point than he is in Straw Dogs, other than to have Alexander Scourby come out at the end and say, "You see, folks, violence is very bad. Don't settle your troubles with violence, lest you reveal the hollowness in the center of your blasted, benighted souls, you bottom-feeding scum." But then, the people who seemed to be confused 40 years ago were professional critics, and as William Goldman said, with cruelty and truth, criticism could not occupy a first-rate mind for ten minutes.

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