Monday, October 17, 2005

“There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground or the man that’s in it. Or you. Or me.”

Many Sam Peckinpah cultists remember Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) as the director’s greatest, most personal modern-day western. He made a few such westerns in modern dress: The Getaway (1972) could just as easily have been staged on the 19th century American frontier. Straw Dogs (1971) was a siege picture in the style of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, only with a very ‘70s hero, a cowering mathematician. Even Peckinpah's career low, Convoy (1978), was an outlaws-on-the-run adventure that replaced The Wild Bunch’s horses with 18-wheelers. But Alfredo Garcia only reads like a western; it plays like the saddest, strangest ‘hood movie ever made. It’s Peckinpah’s unintentional time capsule full of lessons for future generations of genre-loving, nihilism-baiting underclass auteurs.

While so many hip-hop artists and young minority filmmakers are quick to cite Scarface as a touchstone, Brian DePalma’s drug lord saga hasn’t a tenth as much to say about the festering (North) American Dream as Alfredo Garcia. The ice-cold dope dealer in the cult classic Superfly may reflect a certain urban cynicism and determination, but his triumph over The Man is pure, desperate fantasy. And the Goodfellas have only taught rappers how to strut in slo-mo while making casual sociopathy a cornerstone of the new hip-hop. What the anti-heroes of these blood-soaked classics are really up against rarely shows its face. In Alfredo Garcia, no amount of swagger, ruthlessness or cool can overcome The Man. As no one in the White House has yet learned, violence intended as a means of clearing the path for a better tomorrow is a dream that invites a thousand nightmares. Peckinpah’s cult classic gives us the dream, the violence and the nightmares.

Although set in contemporary times, Alfredo Garcia surveys the funereal Mexico Graham Greene wrote about in his 1940 novel The Power and the Glory. This is the kind of place where buzzards circle more frequently than airplanes, and Catholic iconography of peasant torture and sacrifice on the church facades is easily confused with local color. Warren Oates plays Bennie, a down-and-out gringo earning a meager wage as a piano player in a Mexican bar. Middle-aged and miserable, he seems resigned to drink himself into oblivion. But a visit from two gringo detectives rouses him from his stupor. The men have been sent by El Jefe, a powerful industrialist who wants the head of Alfredo Garcia, the man who impregnated his young daughter. After learning from his beautiful girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) that, unbeknownst to the hunters, he is already dead, Bennie decides to find the body, sever the head, and collect thousands in bounty from El Jefe. Trouble is, Garcia is also Elita’s former lover—the man she cheated on Bennie with just days before his death.

Furious, Bennie drags Elita on the road trip to Garcia’s grave, and the pair begins a very tortured reconciliation. It seems her subterranean self-esteem matches Bennie’s, which makes their lovemaking as torturous as it is ecstatic. She is a celebrated whore, he is a faceless loser: They need each other. On the road, tequila and song are their only solace—allowing Peckinpah to indulge his gift for sorrowful lyric interludes. (During the slow dissolves in this early sequence, scenes virtually bleed into each other.) Soon enough, though, their reverie comes to an end. During a run-in with marauding bikers (led by a young but mangy Kris Kristofferson) Elita tries to save Bennie’s life by consenting to have sex with the men. The ensuing shame and bloodshed are downright Shakespearean.

By the time Bennie reaches Garcia’s grave, his dignity is deader than his quarry. In a blindside of a twist, bounty hunters who have been trailing Bennie knock him unconscious and steal the precious head. When Bennie awakens inside Garcia’s freshly unearthed grave, he finds Elita lying dead between them. Of course, the film is only at the halfway mark at this point.In its examination of machismo at society’s top and bottom, Alfredo Garcia is, unmistakably, a tragedy of the slums. It is a vision of the world as a teeming ghetto, overrun with bastard children (the same kind of grimy kids seen on the margins of The Wild Bunch) and desperate men, ruled by murderous profiteers. This sentiment resonates with most underclass, marginalized males. Though Bennie is ostensibly white, he is, in the film’s social order, a nigger. He would commiserate easily with the broken, drunken, virtually castrated black father in Robert M. Young and Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964). These are working-class American losers, stripped of every attribute their worlds use to define a man as a man. In the film’s claustrophobic Mexico-as-cruel-world microcosm, wealthy thugs call the shots, and stooped, beaten men like Bennie serve only as their stooges, dupes or random victims. In true ‘hood movie fashion, Bennie tries to fight his way out of his circumstances to become something, anything better.

What Peckinpah dramatizes so piercingly is how doomed and fraught with humiliation his protagonist’s quest is, virtually from the start. Few ‘hood films by American minority directors have gotten as dark and existential as Peckinpah does here. Extending the mournful poetry of Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw’s existential walk, hand-in-hand, through a vast landfill in The Getaway, Peckinpah drags Bennie and his faded beauty through even more debasing trials.

Of course, Straw Dogs was also about masculinity put to the ultimate test, but it has more in common with Steven Spielberg’s Duel and John Boorman’s Deliverance (both from 1972) for its concentration on a soft middle-class American’s trial-by-fire at the hands of shadowy, almost primal, underclass sadists. In Alfredo Garcia, the grizzled lowlife is not menacing but doggedly menaced. He faces a terror far greater and more metaphysical than a wolf pack of goons: his own insignificance. This is the distinctly American specter that slithered from behind a dumpster in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. That film probes the dreams and nightmares of a failed, suicidal actress in Hollywood. Her crushed ambition takes the form of a back alley derelict so deformed and blackened by filth, he appears inhuman, demonic. Although Peckinpah was no Lynch-like surrealist, the same atmosphere of addled mortification surging through Mulholland Drive settles over the first act of Alfredo Garcia, accumulating enough force to propel Bennie on his quixotic journey.

Typically in ghetto dramas, if anyone escapes the urban quagmire, it’s youth, while the adults remain entrenched, settled, doomed. In Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999), a rare exception, a whole family eventually leaves its Glasgow ghetto for an entry-level middle-class existence in a pre-fab settlement. In any case, flight from the ghetto is usually a third-act event. It’s as if filmmakers have an easier time imagining the confrontations inherent in urban scenes than the arguably subtler tensions that arise when “hood rat” leaves hood. Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995) (from a Richard Price novel) ends with its teen protagonist, a model train hobbyist/drug dealer, taking off on a train. After spending the bulk of the movie in the cramped space of Brooklyn bodegas, public housing courtyards, police squad rooms and back alleys, the rolling panorama of plains and mountains seen outside the train window is a disorienting relief. It puts the entire film into sad perspective. (Also see the end of Hype Williams’ stunningly photographed and art directed but otherwise empty Belly (1998) for a similar “black flight” ending gone global.)

But as Bennie takes to the road in Alfredo Garcia, there is little sense of escape, as in, say, the ‘hood reverie Poetic Justice (1993). John Singleton’s film stages a small exodus from the ruins of post-Rodney King South Central Los Angeles. Four black twenty-somethings take a road trip from their stifling lives to contemplate what’s next in soothing pastoral settings. Despite undercurrents of violence (the L.A. riots and gang wars haunt the film’s margins) their prospects are bleak but not without hope. A romance blossoms between Lucky (Tupac Shakur) and Justice (Janet Jackson)—each still grappling with a chaotic, violent past. For young ghetto men and women, Singleton sees hope of transcendence in true intimacy. He also sees how a predatory, narcissistic youth culture founded upon a sabotaged and bullet-riddled Civil Rights legacy makes such intimacy so hard to muster. From Boyz N the Hood (1991) to Four Brothers (2005), Singleton has shown increasing nuance and maturity in expressing these observations.

Ironically, only in genre territory—Peckinpah’s natural domain—does Singleton succumb to commercial cinema’s mechanical rhythms and casual violence. Shaft (2000), 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) Rosewood (1997) and even the intermittently stirring Four Brothers serve up stock set pieces of revenge, choreographed mayhem and cynical comedy at the precise moments when Singleton’s humanist tendencies could subvert or wring poetry from them. (Peckinpah’s stylish but cold The Killer Elite is a similar example of an auteur using his craftsmanship to pose as a hack for the sake of box office clout. But in the maverick (and fiscally desperate) Hollywood of the 1970’s, such attempts at pandering often backfired with audiences suddenly accustomed to personal filmmaking like The Godfather (1972); in today’s mainstream movie culture, lapses in taste, subtlety and overall vision are hard to discern when even Hollywood’s prestige films are edited for a toddler’s attention span.)

Singleton is not alone: Few filmmakers have explored action genres with Peckinpah’s seriousness. Peckinpah is, of course, an aesthetic father of John Woo and Walter Hill, to name just two auteur-craftsmen whose set pieces often remind us of the last reel of The Wild Bunch. But one must look to the 1950’s for a proper precursor to Alfredo Garcia. In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), a crew of European Bennies, stranded in a Third World hellhole, seek escape in a potentially lucrative job. They must haul truckloads of nitroglycerin over the mountains without getting blown up. The losers in The Wages of Fear face absurd stakes that arguably outdo Bennie’s in their Faustian cruelty. But Peckinpah trumps Clouzot simply by delving deeper into the personal anguish that makes his protagonist accept the mission whereas Clouzot’s emphasis was on tightly choreographed suspense, with socio-political metaphors (alluding to race, Third World industrial exploitation and male sexuality) arranged neatly on the side.

The second half of Alfredo Garcia slips from deep depression into psychosis. His cream suit covered in grave dirt, Bennie goes after the “stolen” head. He guns down the bounty hunters and puts the head on ice. Here, Alfredo Garcia briefly becomes a deranged buddy movie, as Bennie bonds and argues with the head, which he refers to as “Al.”

After a roadside showdown with Garcia’s vengeful family and El Jefe’s men (the same duo who hired Bennie), Bennie finds himself the last man standing. He continues his rampage to a hotel room full of El Jefe’s agents and, finally, to the palatial estate of the man himself. Although El Jefe offers him a suitcase full of cash for the head, Bennie growls, “No. Sixteen people are dead because of him… and you… and me. And one of them was a damn good friend of mine.” He then proceeds to kill everybody in the room but El Jefe’s daughter, her child and a servant.

Peckinpah ends Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia the way he began The Wild Bunch, with a bloodbath, a freeze frame and a director’s credit. But there is none of the nihilistic charge that William Holden’s “If they move, kill ‘em” brought to The Wild Bunch. Instead of a shiver of action-flick anticipation and genre upheaval, the last image in Alfredo Garcia provokes a fretful shudder. Bennie barely escapes El Jefe’s fortress when henchmen riddle his car with bullets from all sides. He dies in a trademark Peckinpah slo-mo/flash cut. But the final image is of a gun barrel, firing at us. The action freezes and the sound fades to nothing as “Directed by Sam Peckinpah” cradles the side of the gun muzzle. The sense of loss and pointless slaughter rises along with a sobbing Jerry Fielding music cue. Peckinpah’s credit punctuates the dramatic moment as if to underline the whole film—as if to say, this is not some action flick, this is my vision of the world. And in Peckinpah’s vision, the world is a ghetto where only the wealthy and treacherous roam free, but weapons have the last word.

Peckinpah shows how even a lowly drive-in genre like the revenge potboiler, if harnessed with artistry and intimacy, can shame both allegedly hard-hitting urban realist dramas and pedigreed literary efforts. Alfredo Garcia compresses into single shots the kind of tragic historical narrative that some ghetto films strain to express in prologues (Menace II Society (1993)), extended first acts (Boyz n the Hood), monologues (Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991)) or recurrent flashbacks (The Corner (2000)). As for the aimless street children mentioned above, they share the frame with the types of criminals, dropouts, derelicts and henchmen they presumably will grow up to be. Peckinpah evokes a timeless inheritance of male violence far more succinctly and elegantly than the whole of, say, Russell Banks’ book (or Paul Schrader’s film adaptation of) Affliction (1997). El Jefe’s fortress is almost a living museum of violent Mexican history; his servants and guards dress as if they just stepped out of The Wild Bunch set and even patrol the grounds on horseback.

Note, too, the way women are cowed, silent second-class citizens in Alfredo Garcia. Aside from Elita, most women on view in the film are either getting slapped around, bowing their heads in shame or kneeling in fearful prayer. Peckinpah’s closet feminism is evident in these ghostly, empathetic compositions.

Like Suzan Lori-Parks’ stage play Top Dog/Underdog, Alfredo Garcia also shows how the choices for underclass men are so stark that gaining even an inch in the uphill slog is to kill, debase or demoralize one’s brother in the struggle. The screenplay often alludes that Bennie and Al are just such doomed “brothers.” When, just before his demise, Bennie says to Garcia’s head, “Come on, Al, let’s go home,” he is acknowledging this bloody brotherhood. Earlier, Bennie tells Elita, “Al’s been trying to beat this rap all his life,” just before going off to claim his head. Choking on the truth of the words, he adds, “So have I, so have you.”

Speaking of brotherhood: Given Peckinpah’s undeniable fixation with Mexico, it is no surprise that so many Latin American directors offer the shanty-town grandeur Peckinpah seemed to crave. Although Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Amores Perros and Fernando Meirelles’ City of God are strictly ensemble dramas and not revenge odysseys, they do evoke the kind of Third World sprawl that rolls past Bennie’s filth-splattered windows. Fruit stands and barefoot women, bandits and balladeers. It’s easy enough to imagine a Bennie ambling through Innaritu’s feast-or-famine Mexico City, or Meirelles’ Rio, in his rumpled cream suit.

Why should any of these fine, esoteric observations matter to young filmmakers weaned on hip-hop, video games and the internet? Why is it so important that a cult film from 1974 reach a handful of black and brown craftsmen in today’s globalized culture mill?Well, because genre matters to their audience. What is no more than pop detritus to some is literature to others. Much of the young audience for “urban” programming sits in juvenile detention centers, boot camps, jails and “academies” for difficult students, wondering how they got there. These kids consciously view the junk they ingest—whether food, drug or media—as harmless diversion. But subconsciously, they look to these items for some sort of nutrition. Their filmmakers, like their local food and alcohol vendors, often fail them.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia offers young urban filmmakers torn between exhilarating Scarface /Grand Theft Auto-style genre nihilism and Boyz N the Hood sentimentality a different way to approach the reality of the streets, the housing project, the jailhouse. The Peckinpah road map avoids boredom and pretension without sacrificing humanism and true feeling. Call him the deadbeat dad of a hybrid pulp/art ghetto cinema that never was, or has yet to be.

Photos swiped from (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), British Council (Ratcatcher), Paramount Pictures (Four Brothers) and Universal Pictures (Scarface).