Saturday, August 27, 2011

Summer of Sam

Having embarked upon a mission to view every one of director Sam Peckinpah's films this summer, including a number of them that I've never seen before, my undertaking seemed a natural subject for my newly-christened blog. The problem is that volumes have been written about Peckinpah's life and films by a small army of respected scholars, including David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor, Stephen Prince and the estimable Neil Fulwood, whose erudite and entertaining blog, The Agitation of the Mind, can be found here. I would not presume to hold myself in the company of these esteemed gentlemen by thinking I could add much of anything to the conversation, but I'm going to give it a go anyway. After all, isn't that why I'm here? I'll talk a little bit about the films themselves and then discuss their digital presentations, some of which I'm finding to be sorely lacking. With that being said, when it comes to DVDs and Blu-rays, I'm far from an expert on the technical side of things, so you won't be hearing me use such menacing phrases as "macroblocking," "edge enhancement" or "DNR" all that much. I'm no video guru; I just know what looks good to me and what looks like crap.

Peckinpah himself as a coffin maker in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid

Obviously, the summer is almost over, and I've alre
ady watched many of these films, so many in fact that my wife pleaded with me the other day to watch something without "dust and guns." At this point, with only a few weeks left, I'm uncertain if my objective will be reached. Nevertheless, I do plan to comment on what I've seen so far. I'll break my observations up into periodic installments to avoid posts that are too lengthy. This first post is mainly concerned with Peckinpah as a director and how I feel about his films in general. To begin, an introduction to the maestro would seem to be in order.

Sam Peckinpah was a legendary figure, infamous
not only for his films, some of which pushed the level of screen violence far beyond what had previously been seen, but also for his volatile personal life. He directed a relatively small number of films in his career, which was tragically cut short by heart failure at age 59. Undoubtedly, his near-constant boozing and, later, cocaine use, contributed to his early demise, but it's not hard to imagine that his legendary, volcanic battles with producers and film studios who sought to sanitize his output for public consumption also took their toll on his well-being. Despite this interference, almost all of his films are recognizable as his work in some way, due to their technical and thematic elements. Peckinpah was one of the first American directors to be recognized as an auteur. His involvement in his films, when not sabotaged by clueless higher-ups, usually began with a script rewrite and extended all the way through the final editing process (unless he found himself summarily kicked out of the editing bay by vengeful producers), and because of this total involvement, his filmic signature is distinct and indelible.

William Holden dies an ugly death in The Wild Bunch

More often than not, Peckinpah's name is invoked within the context of a discussion on film violence. A number of his films, beginning with 1969's monumental western, The Wild Bunch, do indeed depict scenes of savage brutality, the likes of which were completely foreign to movie audiences at the time. Viewed out of context now, they would likely elicit a yawn from many younger viewers who've been weaned on graphically violent movies and video games. Indeed, the quantity of blood spilled in most of Peckinpah's violent films is routinely surpassed by today's average "family-friendly" PG-13 action movie. But with Peckinpah, context is everything. The violence in his films still shocks and disturbs because it's not neat and tidy. When the titular members of The Wild Bunch meet their end at the film's climax, we feel it, despite the fact that they're less than savory characters whose self-serving actions ultimately precipitate their collective demise. In stark contrast to the thoughtless exhilaration we're meant to experience when one of today's action heroes empties their automatic weapon into an advancing horde of faceless villains (and please don't think that I'm condemning those types of films out of hand, because I'm not), Peckinpah unflinchingly demonstrates to us the agonizing pain of being ripped apart by a hail of bullets, the despair of watching friends die and above all, the utter senselessness of violence and the resounding void it creates. These upsetting images and themes would recur throughout Peckinpah's oeuvre, though many critics were unable to see past the blood. Small-minded individuals sometimes cling to the warped notion that showing something on screen is tantamount to condoning it; in Peckinpah's case, this could not be further from the truth. He was truly a cinematic maverick, and he remains one of the most revered - or reviled - filmmakers in motion picture history, depending on who you're talking to. As far as I'm concerned, his genius will probably never be surpassed.

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