Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

USA  Mexico  (113 mi)  1974  d:  Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah grew up in Fresno, California in a family with a legal background, where generations of lawyers, including judges and Congressmen went back something like a hundred years, where early on he developed a disdain for the subject, instead joining the Marine Corps during World War II, but saw no action in combat.  However he did witness atrocities in China between the Japanese and Chinese soldiers where the American forces were not allowed to intervene.  Additionally, he applied for a discharge while in Peking (Beijing) to marry a Chinese woman, but his request was denied, an incident that mirrors his troubles with authority throughout his lifetime.  After his discharge, he became a theater major, receiving his Masters degree in theater at USC, working as an assistant to director Don Seigel, but he got his first real start in the film business in the late 50’s by submitting scripts for many of the popular Western TV shows, one of which was rejected on Gunsmoke (1955 – 1975) due to the violent content but was developed into its own series, The Rifleman (1958 – 1963), where he directed four episodes.  Peckinpah’s insistence upon violent realism put him at odds against the show’s producers, but it was here that he met actor Warren Oates, who would become a lifelong friend, drinking and working companion, also one of his neighbors, living with an eclectic group of writers and artists in and around Livingston, Montana, including Richard Brautigan, Thomas McGuane, Peter Fonda, and Margot Kidder.  When Peckinpah directed his first film THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (1961), he quickly learned how easily studios could re-edit films to their liking, a practice that would haunt him to his grave, as few things in life irked him more.  Of his fourteeen feature films, only four were released the way he wanted, Ride the High Country (1962), THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970), JUNIOR BONNER (1972), and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974).  His quarrels with studio heads are legendary, where in the 60’s he was one of the few directors who went public with his growing discontent with the studio system, as he felt they were ruining his films.  Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) is a case in point, where the studios arbitrarily cut 15 minutes, even eliminated certain actors, releasing a truncated version disowned by the cast and crew, later restored fifteen years later in 1988, four years after Peckinpah’s death, to some of the best critical acclaim of any Peckinpah film.   

This is notable for being the last film Peckinpah directed that he wrote himself, giving him personal sway with the subject matter, where Oates rather brilliantly plays an ordinary character who is pushed beyond his limits, where he single-handedly takes on all the smug power brokers who think they control the world, but they’re little more than small time operators with hired guns, making them appear to be big shots.  The film can be seen as a nihilistic expression of Peckinpah’s feelings towards the movie industry, where he’d like to annihilate many of the controlling interests, who are seen as petty and vindictive, with very little separating their mindset from that of the mafia.  It should also be pointed out that those who serve in the military see a world on the battlefront of ruthless horror, where chaos turns to madness, and next to nothing makes sense.  Peckinpah brings this moral abyss into his films, where characters are hard-pressed not to cross that line into an interior wasteland where life has no meaning.  Much of the film was inspired by John Huston’s obsessive journey of greed and self destruction in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRE MADRE (1948), as both were shot on location in Mexico, significant portions of the dialogue are in unsubtitled Spanish, and one of the characters in the film, Gig Young as Quill, a local gangster, amusingly introduces himself, when asked, as Fred C. Dobbs, the name of Bogart's character in the movie.  Much like Tabu (2012), the film has two halves, opening with an idealized vision of innocence, love, and Paradise, but concluding with Paradise Lost in an ever more escalating series of violent and bloody confrontations, where Oates becomes unhinged, losing all sense of rationality, acting instead on pure instinct, where what was a trail of vengeance against Mexican outlaws becomes an interior journey of personal anguish and despair, guided by his own self-loathing and contempt, mostly with himself, setting a dour interior mood for what is easily one of the grimmest Peckinpah pictures. 

This is on the list of often overlooked films, and rightly so, as it was critically condemned upon release, called ugly and repugnant, among the worst films ever made, it was a huge box office failure, yet others recognized the ingenious originality of the work, becoming a modernist expression plunging into the absurdist wasteland of a man’s soul, perhaps an American Western as Samuel Beckett might have imagined it.  A sloppy and rough-around-the-edges movie, it has a peculiar power to both disgust and enthrall, given a highly realistic yet seedy Mexican setting where heroes and outlaws all share many of the same traits, where at times it’s difficult to tell any difference between them, where humanity is a blend of good and evil, but the lines are too often blurred during the journey into the heart of darkness, obsessively driven to find the mythical Golden Fleece from Greek tragedy at the sacrifice of everything else, where choices often don’t make sense in the thralls of a magical quest that has life-changing implications.  This is a story of contradictions, given a near mythical opening of unspoiled innocence, yet in the next instant the mood couldn’t be more brutally shocking, where a young pregnant girl is stripped to the waist by her own father demanding to know the name of the man who dishonored his family, offering a million dollar reward for the man’s head.  Oates is a small-time American piano player and part owner of a tiny Mexican bar where women and drink are both cheap commodities, where Peckinpah distinguished himself from the John Ford westerns by offering seedy bars, cheap women, and men driven by self-interest, not any glamorized view of heroism.  While Peckinpah is known as one of the undisputed poets of alcoholic cinema, this film has B-movie written all over it, never missing an opportunity to show men behaving badly, often mistreating women who are involuntarily forced to bare their breasts, but rather than inducing any sexual appetite, the only thirst these men have is for the bottle and a lust for money and power. 

When a couple of local thugs offer Oates $10,000 to kill Alfredo Garcia (keeping a tidy $990,000 profit for themselves), needing his head for proof, he dreams of getting out of this dirty and rotgut world, taking his prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) along with him, getting a fresh start somewhere else.  When she informs him Garcia is already dead, Oates thinks it’s a walk in the park, but to her, taking his head from the grave is an unthinkable moral transgression.  While the film is admittedly gritty and overly downbeat, it also reveals the most tender and affectionate relationship in any Peckinpah film, beautifully expressed in a picnic sequence where Elita even brings a guitar and quietly sings to him.  As they dream of building a new life together, the scene as written ends, but the cameras continue to roll as Vega surprises Oates by asking him why he never asked her to marry him?  Completely perplexed by the utter surprise, Oates has no way out but to gently propose, becoming a completely improvised dramatic center of the film, giving a romanticized quality that is rapturously dreamy before their little party is quickly interrupted by a couple of gun-toting bikers, one being Kris Kristofferson, who takes Elita and a bottle into the high grass, stripping her naked to the waist, but rather than be intimidated, she shows no fear, which has a way of unnerving the man, where the balance of power shifts, as she’s suddenly in control, displaying some of the more complicated sexual dynamics as she freely offers herself as part of a Faustian bargain in hopes no one will get killed and they will come out of this alive.  Oates, meanwhile, overpowers the partner, grabs his gun and comes after what he presumes to be a rapist.  When he discovers the sex is consensual, hardly what he expected, he shoots both men anyway, not out of any moral duty to her, but simply as an act of vengeance, like something Travis Bickle might be inclined to do in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), made just two years later, washing the “scum off the streets.”  Despite his professed love for Elita, Oates ignores her wishes and desecrates the gravesite, which sends him on a doomed whirlwind adventure well past the point of no return, growing increasingly existentialist, containing as much complexity and depth as anything Peckinpah ever created, extending into this no man’s land of psychic confusion where reality remains elusive, becoming an absurdist descent into one’s own personal Hell, a horrifyingly violent and bloody escapade that leads to a lonely man’s showdown with his grievously damaged and deranged soul. 

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