PRINT Summer 1992



Rattling along the backroads of Mexico in a scrap-heap convertible, Warren Oates is taunting his passenger. Sodden and borderline incoherent, he’s full of bile and paranoia and woozy sentiment: a drunk on a terminal bender, spewing out the poisoned remains of an undigested life. Strangely, the top is up, and the car is permeated with flies and stench. This may have something to do with Oates’ silent companion, who impassively receives his stream of verbal abuse. However, as the actor’s friend is a severed head in a bloody burlap sack, the conversation is an easy one to dominate.

We’re in Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, probably the most disreputable and unnerving autobiographical film ever made by a Hollywood director. This is a fever dream of hard-boiled pulp, a massive sick joke on the genre, as well as on Peckinpah’s entire chaotic career, life, and obsessions. Most nakedly, it’s a coked-out, convulsive send-up of the cult of machismo, which the director had come to personify. Yet Peckinpah overloads the parody with the most intimate, revelatory shades of regret, shame, futility: the picture glows with the dying light by which failure sees its true reflection.

If there’s a cinema of guilty pleasures, this picture takes it to a wanton new dimension. Oozing masochism and dread, Alfredo Garcia is an almost tactile ode to the erotics of folly, but without the safety net of esthetic distance. The rich, mythic compositions of The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country are here dissolved by rancor and spite. Even the sadistic professionalism of The Getaway and Straw Dogs is turned into lurching slapstick. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia rubs the viewer’s nose in the despair that film violence typically elides. Having previously pushed violence to its most cathartic and ambivalent extremes, Peckinpah has nowhere left to go but down into the pit where the bloodbath’s spent bodies repose.

Our unwitting guide is Benny, Peckinpah’s miserable alter ego, a washed-up piano player doing “Guantanamera” for tourists in a Mexican dive. It’s a self-projection worthy of Peckinpah’s oft-repeated motto, “I’m a good whore, I go where I’m kicked.” As played by a peerlessly dissolute Oates, Benny’s sunken face is a road-map to that Joycean region “where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.” They’ve taken up housekeeping behind the cheap sunglasses he wears like a beaten hipster clown, and the aftermath of every senseless killing to come is already etched in the lines around his thirsty mouth.

The movie begins, as it will end, at the ranch of a brutal patriarch, a Mexican Godfather (Emilio Fernandez) who rules his domain like a feudal lord. As his assembled clan and serfs look on, he has his unwed but pregnant daughter’s arm broken to extract the name of the baby’s father. (He presides over this torture as though performing a mass.) Lamenting that Garcia “was like a son to me,” the Don offers a million dollars for his head: an act of symbolic castration that picks up morbid implications with each new turn of the search. Soon after, a couple of gringo henchmen wander into the bar Benny’s working in. Passing a photo of Garcia around, they flash money. Benny smells a score and acts coy, waiting till they leave before he gets a line on Al. Which leads right into his own backyard—the man was last seen with Benny’s girlfriend Eleta (Isela Vega).

Mortified, enraged, Benny confronts Eleta. What he learns is that his rival died in a car accident after their last night together. So he gets Eleta to lead him to her lover’s rural grave. Benny intends to avenge his sexual honor and in the process make a tidy dowry with which to marry his beloved—appeasing his own acute sense of mutilation through crazed, profitable ritual.

“Loser,” one of the hoods sneers as a sweating Benny tries to cut himself in on a piece of the action that’s been out of reach all his life. “Nobody loses all the time,” he spits back, the venom more real for the transparency of his bluff. Moment to moment, the tone of Peckinpah’s self-mockery shifts without warning, passing from benevolence to laceration. The loving details of lowlife excess—like Benny dousing his privates with whiskey to treat a case of crabs—give way to a grimmer, vaudeville rictus. (Sick of waiting, the tramps locate and decapitate Godot.) The hit men Benny deals with are faceless money-men: every producer who ever treated Peckinpah like a hired hand or worse. But there’s no satisfaction when eventually Benny guns the lot down. His spite has already drowned in the shamed knowledge of its impotence. The unsmiling laughter behind the parody says that while these bastards are expendable, once they’ve gotten their hooks in you you’re fish bait for life.

In Alfredo Garcia, Peckinpah pushes the masculine mystique to the outer limits of confusion, guilt, and pain. It’s a vision of self-exile brought forth in layers of allusion. Bound up with the in-jokes and automatic, disinterested violence is a subtext of phantom maleness—literary and cinematic touchstones, modes of identification—drawn not only from Peckinpah’s voluptuously messy life and oeuvre, but also from Hemingway and Bogart and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “I didn’t catch your name, mister,” Warren Oates will say to Gig Young’s tired-eyed hood. “Dobbs,” he answers in the voice of a man who can taste his own liver, “Fred C. Dobbs.” It’s impossible to capture the contempt and resignation of that almost subliminal exchange—a simple movie reference loaded with irrational intensity, as though the process of memory and association itself had become a curse. Alfredo Garcia interrogates the impulses and affinities behind Peckinpah’s work: both homage and negation, it is a concrete realization of the unmade movies concealed within the ones we see.

Perhaps this is most apparent in the vivid, halting scenes between Oates and Vega. This long interlude as they drive to Alfredo’s grave takes over the movie and slows it to a crawl—the rhythms have a half-paralyzed quality, as if the characters’ tongues were swollen with their unresolved feelings and half-recognized needs. It’s a beautifully acted digression that deliberately forces the movie out of whack: Peckinpah’s compassion and sadness go beyond what the action/adventure story can support. When the actors are returned to the plot, the story seems to collapse on itself.

Reaching their goal, the couple are ambushed. Benny is left for dead in the grave with the beheaded Garcia: the shot of Oates’ arm forlornly rising out of the earth is indelible. Finding her—their—lover’s body, he goes over the edge into waiting madness.

The movie keeps going, though next to nothing registers when Benny finds and shoots the hit men, or as he kills his way up the chain of command. Yet this lack of conviction is an effective vehicle for Peckinpah’s revulsion: the bits with Oates crazily haranguing his formerly human cargo (it requires ice—lots of ice) are closely observed. They’re riffs on self-destruction that are also prime examples of it, elaborate and heartfelt gestures of artistic suicide. Oates’ concentration holds the movie in its grip of scorn as it lurches into the final gun down. Presenting the head to the grateful patriarch, Benny decides that all he can do to salvage his honor is shoot it out, in a quick, antiseptic restaging of the apocalyptic finale of The Wild Bunch. “Come on. Al, we’re going home,” he mutters as he totes him off into the sunset, or rather a hail of bullets. The last shot, in every sense, is of a machine gun firing in slow motion straight into the camera. “Directed by Sam Peckinpah,” reads the superimposed credit, to underline both the loathing in that image and the strange dance of suffering and expiation that preceded it.

Howard Hampton is a writer who lives in Apple Valley, California. He contributes frequently to Artforum.