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Peckinpah Roughs it Again

Straw Dogs, at the Pi Alley

By Michael Sragow

People have been saying some silly things about Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Some have rated it the man's best work. The united British critical front--including a Variety correspondent who had a fatal heart attack three days after viewing it--wondered why the film was not stopped by the censors for its violence.

Well, Peckinpah always has received extreme reactions. Actually, his new film is not great, not hideous, but unrealized. The violence in the film is excessive and grotesque, but not wholly gratuitous. And, if it's not Peckinpah's best, and pretty far from it, it does show that he's growing. Only God and Sam can tell in exactly what direction--and that's unfortunate.

The story is basically melodrama, but contains the seeds of something more complex. Dustin Hoffman plays David Sumner, an American mathematician who marries a stunning Cornwall lass (Susan George) and moves back to a farm in her hometown. It's primitive, this Cornwall; all the girls seem to have married out, and the only workers we see are farmhands and local craftsmen--aside from the minister, the sheriff, and the bartender.

David hires four locals to roof a cottage on his farm and rid it of rats. They think he's strange (a justified opinion), and grow to hate him. And they try to get back at him by flirting with his wife; two of them hunger for Army on her own, considerable, merits. The Sumners' pastorale closes with a squelch when a cat is hung in their closet, which Amy sees as a test of David: "They want to show you they can get into your bedroom."

But David does nothing. When he is decoyed by a hunting invitation, two workmen rape his wife. She is so ambivalent by now that she half-enjoys old-lover Charley, if not friend Tom. And she doesn't tell David of the gang-bang.

The next night is the town's church social. It is, all in all, a pretty languid afair...until the chippy daughter of the working clan takes the village idiot for a seductive little walk. He kills her by accident: ignorant of the crime, Sumner harbors him. The father and family of the group, including the ratman and the rapists, come to take vengeance on the idiot. David won't give up his man. And, in his defense, and in defense of the sanctity of his own home, he kills them all: with a poker, a rifle, a poacher-trap on the neck.

The obvious themes are built into the plot, and you can't ignore them. Peckinpah has put a rational, wishy-washy liberal under stress, simply so that he may understand man's violence: that it is inherent in his nature, that sometimes the violent solutions are the only valid ones. But the situations Peckinpah presents are really more involved, if not to any greater extent developed.

If you remember a couple of films called Shame and The Passion of Anna, and how their director, Ingmar Bergman, viewed cowardly intellectuals set into primitive and violent surroundings, you can't help but think they're what Peckinpah schooled on for Straw Dogs. Bergman, developing his stories in narrative fragments and bursts of character self-analysis, built up a case for a tragic vision of man: isolated by nature from his fellow man, and by society from his better interests--those unions which can only be achieved through love, no matter how evanescent.

Peckinpah, in his previous films, has emphasized something quite different: a Thoreauvian belief in a one-to-one accounting of man to man and to his territory. But love, and all personal relationships, are just as tragic as they are in Bergman--if in more idealized ways, and in ways which echo a deeper social disillusionment. Love comes at the purgative ending of The Wild Bunch, when gunslinger Pike Bishop tries to save Mexican rebel Angel from the torture of the Federales--only to be slaughtered in a suicidal attack both epic and glorious. It becomes muted, perhaps sadder, in The Ballad of Cable Hogue: Hogue's woman leaves him and his desert home, and returns too late to share his life. She brings back San Francisco finery, and the circa 1910 auto that kills him.

Love is nigh-impossible in the "modern" Cornish village of Straw Dogs, a place certainly as tortured as Bergman's islands. The complexity of modern life is what obscures man's basic, irrational problems, and there is no way a man can test himself now on all levels--as Peckinpah feels necessary for any man's development. So Peckinpah looks at his modern characters cynically, finding them passionless and without realidentity, not liking their size or their traumas. But he keeps his romantic ideals in the background, revealing them in sudden peaceful moments, in the manner David shelters a queasy Amy at Church. He believes in something beyond the squabbling--which gives the film its prime tension.

Peckinpah could have made a great film if he worked as broad a canvas as he's used to. He clearly feels that both the church and an amorphous state represent attempts only at making problems more palatable. Their representatives here are a noxious minister and an ineffectual sheriff, both of whom accomodate violent types into their closed systems, without giving them any alternatives to their conduct but supernatural imagery and good manners. But this point of view doesn't hold water by itself, even in a film whose director only films what he believes. We must know more of the mechanics of the town, and the contours of the lives of its inhabitants.

Since Peckinpah fails to give setting and plot sufficient weight, he must rely on characterization to a greater extent than he ever has before. Sadly, despite some embarassing attempts at suggestively hole-filling dialogue (we learn that Amy thought David uncommitted in the States, and that's that), we don't know Peckinpah's characters one-fifth as well as we do Bergman's at their most obscure.

Peckinpah has still captured the feel of the Cornish coast, its lowering weather and muddy roads and cobbled walks. And his examination of violence is no more dishonest than the tensions of the characters that commit it. I don't think he's pandering to or bullying his audiences, that he wants to terrify the virtuous, make the thugs feel good, and give everyone else a charge. For, if you force yourself to look at that bursting foot, or Amy's bloodied face, or the battle shots of a fagged-out David taking one final swipe with a poker--cold sweat is the appropriate response.

Peckinpah has also successfully planted intriguing questions which make the mind consider the narrative while the action lunges forward--something else new for him. Who really killed the cat, for example? That question may color the way you look at the entire film. But Peckinpah hasn't resolved anything enough to make us understand how Amy. David and the mob finally measure up in his eyes.

One local objection has been raised against the "politics" of the film, as revealed by the portrait of the workers. An accusing cry of crypto-fascism, to be exact. Peckinpah, of course, probably couldn't care less about what passes for political discussion in Cambridge. (It is unfortunate that few good grumbles about "chicken-shit radicals and jack-ass judges" were clipped by ABC Pictures). He knows, as few political acceptables do, that when you hit rock-bottom in certain societies the only thing that cheers you up is someone else's funeral.

Peckinpah is honest with his working-men. He even suggests that the final bloodbath would not have come about had they been integrated into a satisfying town-life: When the sheriff is accidentally murdered, triggering off the final slaughter, even the more intelligent of the group feel, well, that's it, we're all goners, accomplices to the drunk who killed the sheriff. Law to them is something incomprehensible, to be avoided at all costs. And they are cut off from any unifying social impulse which would make them answer to something beyond the law of the jungle.

Aside from all that, two of the men are simply moronic: a state which can't yet be explained politically.

Straw Dogs won't gratify those who've looked to Peckinpah in the past for the gnaried experience and hard-headed appraisal of American life which so rarely make it to the movies. It displays more skill, in all technical departments, than the subject matter deserves: The fact that Peckinpah can manipulate photography, cutting, setting, staging, acting like the Bergman of Shame and Anna matters not, if, in the final analysis, he can't fully express his soul. If Peckinpah wants to stick with his violent obsessions, he should light into the institutions most permeated. He should also be "cruel" enough to show developed characters in the throes of the forces he lets loose.

Otherwise, he might just become another man with talent and without judgement, slumming for the fun and the money of it.

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