No Future

Nick Pinkerton on “Bring Me the Head of Sam Peckinpah” at FSLC

Sam Peckinpah, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 122 minutes.

THERE ARE THE ARTISTS that you admire, and then those who you feel, right in the solar plexus, right between the eyes. When it comes to filmmakers, I couldn’t count every name in the former category, but the tally of the latter probably comes in at less than a dozen. It’s here that a tendency to gush comes in, and as someone who has been known to state when in my cups that the scene of Slim Pickens’s gutshot death in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is enough to justify the whole of the American experiment, it is perhaps irresponsible for me to try to write about Sam Peckinpah.

The complete retrospective of Peckinpah’s theatrical features, which begins this Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and originated at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, is the first since a 1999 series by the Austin Film Society. Without falsely building brand-name “Bloody Sam” into some kind of disdained outsider, I do have a sense that his filmography falls rather awkwardly at the moment—there are aspects of his perceived philosophy, received at its most reductive, that may be odious to the progressive wing of film culture, and perhaps his style is too baroque for the classicists who rally around Clint Eastwood as the last standard-bearer of the Western tradition. And never underestimate the lasting stigma of an endorsement from Pauline Kael, who offered beautiful remarks about Peckinpah toward the end of her life, on the occasion of the series in Texas, dubbing him “the greatest martyr/ham in Hollywood history.”

In a career littered with scuttled projects and chaotic shoots, Peckinpah managed at least a handful of undeniable landmarks: His 1969 The Wild Bunch didn’t reinvent action filmmaking so much as demolish it and make something new out of the debris, and even those who don’t buy into Peckinpah tend to give a pass to his sophomore breakthrough Ride the High Country (1962), a self-conscious eulogy for the classical western—and its sense of justice—starring genre veterans Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, enormously moving when describing his personal credo: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”

Peckinpah felt such sentiments deeply. He was raised in an atmosphere thick with highfalutin ideas about justice and personal integrity, born in 1925, the end of a long line of frontier judges based in California’s High Sierras. The runt of the family litter, he grew up surrounded by strapping brothers—years later, on the set of The Getaway (1972), the writer Grover Lewis described him as a “short, wiry man with metallic blue eyes and iron-gray hair bound up in a blue bandana… [his] physical bearing indicates some clue as to why he’s spent so much of his career working in TV, not working at all, or piss-fighting with producers—he moves like he’s stalking an animal bigger than he is.” Serving in China with the Marines in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Peckinpah did his manly duty, then entered into the somewhat effeminate field of drama, staging The Glass Menagerie at California State University, Fresno. (Tennessee Williams remained a great favorite of Peckinpah’s, and anyone who thinks there is nothing more to his filmography than macho death drive is advised to see 1972’s Junior Bonner, a devastating family drama containing Ida Lupino’s last great performance, and a trove of beautifully sculpted scenes.) Like Eastwood, he was an understudy of the incomparable Don Siegel, and from assisting Siegel went to cut his teeth as a writer and director of television westerns, developing both The Rifleman and The Westerner.

Sam Peckinpah, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974, 35 mm, color, sound, 112 minutes.

Unfortunately, Peckinpah’s TV work isn’t represented in FSLC’s “Bring Me the Head of Sam Peckinpah” series—his 1966 TV movie of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine, included on Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of The Killer Elite (1975), is a crucial work—but those who know Peckinpah only as the director of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs (1971) have many revelations awaiting them. Major Dundee (1965), one of Peckinpah’s several mutilated projects to be reconstructed over the years, is a sprawling, desperate, ragtag epic with a shrewd grasp of military psychology, and features Charlton Heston ordering “I want every man in this command drunker than a fiddler’s bitch by nightfall.” The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) is a cranky-tender cracker-barrel fable starring Jason Robards at the peak of his powers, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is simply one of the greatest American films, a protracted, pained scream directed at a society where all values have been supplanted by price tags, in which Warren Oates’s increasingly unhinged cantina piano man, rendered seemingly God-mode invulnerable by his reckless suicidal grief, tries repeatedly to ascertain the cost of a human life from behind the barrel of a blazing pistol. Cross of Iron (1977), an artillery-hammered WWII combat drama from the perspective of the German enlisted man at the end of the hopeless war, pushes Peckinpah’s style of filming action—parallel editing, slo-mo punctuation, unblinking brutality—to the very limits of intelligibility, with regally disdainful James Coburn leading the excellent ensemble cast. Even Convoy (1978), a project that Peckinpah himself was said to disown when finished, based on a novelty song by C. W. McCall and Chip Davis, is a moving utopian fantasy of a trucker-led grassroots revolution. Scattered throughout the filmography we find an ensemble of recurring players that has never been bettered: Robards and Oates and Pickens and Kris Kristofferson and Strother Martin and Ben Johnson and L. Q. Jones and R. G. Armstrong and Emilio Fernández and David Warner, who memorably exits Cross of Iron with a wan salute that looks as though he’s contemptuously tossing something in the garbage. (Behind the camera, the contributions of frequent DP Lucien Ballard can’t be overestimated.) As for The Killer Elite—well, nobody’s perfect.

Peckinpah’s own unraveling is central to his legend. His preferred working method was a kind of controlled chaos, but his ingestion of booze and coke increased as he arrived at middle age, and as he kept snorting rails, his career subsequently went off them. Worsening substance-abuse issues hindered his employability, and he was only able to complete one more feature in his life, The Osterman Weekend (1982). He did finally clean himself up, but sobriety proved a greater shock to the system than accustomed debauchery, and he died of heart failure two months shy of his sixtieth birthday, having just completed two music videos for Julian Lennon. (There is something at least slightly apt in this, for when critics used to complain about “MTV-style editing,” they were often talking about something that Peckinpah helped to create.)

The songwriter Townes Van Zandt once said “I think my life will run out before my work does; I’ve designed it that way”—and for all of Peckinpah’s efforts to put himself back together in his last years, it is hard to imagine a peaceful ending for this artist whose worldview usually offered two options: self-loathing “adult” compromise or fatal, adolescent integrity, Deke Thornton or Pike Bishop, Pat Garrett or Billy the Kid. “He was determined to be doomed,” said Kael. “Toward the end, on a Saturday morning before the screening of a restored Wild Bunch, he drank straight booze for breakfast and, grinning like an imp, snapped the heart device that was on the surface of his chest.” A while back I sat over drinks with a friend whose love for Peckinpah’s movies might even exceed my own, and we wondered over the troubling implications of this love, for isn’t part of loving these movies buying into a romance of failure, believing that one’s own failure is almost preordained? Like Van Zandt’s music, Peckinpah’s films belong to an alternative American folk tradition that runs counter to the far better-publicized affirmative tradition. He is one of our great poets of deterioration, breakdown, and bankruptcy, and taken altogether his films constitute a most glorious catastrophe.

“Bring Me the Head of Sam Peckinpah” runs through Thursday, April 7 at the Film Society at Lincoln Center.