Thursday, November 18, 2010
Nobody Loses All The Time
It’s a very common thing to understand what a movie is while you see it, whether it’s a tearjerker or an action movie, whether it’s something you love completely or hate absolutely. When you’re watching it you can say to yourself “This movie is X,” knowing what the film is and what it’s meant to do to you, whether the end result is successful at that or not. I say this because after multiple viewings of Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA part of me is still trying to figure out just what exactly the damn thing is. And I don’t mean this in a bad way—the film, as grimy as it could possibly be, is such a piece of art unto itself that it ultimately feels more than a little like opening up the director’s brain and looking inside at to actually see whatever insanity is going on in there. I hesitate to say that the film presents some kind of ultimate world view of Peckinpah’s if only because there are several films of his you could say that about, whether we’re talking about the elegiac reverie of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, the phenomenal ferocity of THE WILD BUNCH, the truly life-affirming nature of JUNIOR BONNER or even the whimsy of THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, with each of those films expressing a certain take on the way life could be and how this particular brain perceives those things.
But BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA feels considerably more personal than any of those, of any of his films, as if it really is Peckinpah Unplugged. Notably it’s also very much a drunk movie through and through but it’s not even the only one of his films you could say that about—I love PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, which came immediately before this, and it could also be considered a drunk movie (not to mention being a film that was never cut to the director’s satisfaction) but that one has a more resigned feeling to it, as if made by a heavy drinker at a stage where he feels there’s no point to go on, just sitting down in the nearest chair and giving up. This one is considerably angrier, more feverish, as if the drunk in question is getting right in your face and screaming “What the fuck are you looking at?” for two hours at varying degrees. The extent that PAT GARRETT was famously taken away from Peckinpah in the editing may very well have informed the extremeness of his approach on this one to some extent but instead of retreating back to something safer—along the lines of his commercial success THE GETAWAY from two years earlier, I suppose—BRING ME THE HEAD dives further into murky waters as if Peckinpah is daring someone, anyone, to even try to put a stop to this wretched madness he’s putting onscreen. Even the rhythm of the piece feels odd, as if it was not just shot but also edited while heavily intoxicated, and maybe some of it doesn’t quite cohere as a result. But as the insanity of the story goes on, the end result achieves the feel of a person doing the drinking who gradually somehow pulls themselves together to accomplish something truly remarkable even while still under the influence. What this results in is one of the most undeniably ferocious as well as personal films ever made. Even if I still barely know quite what it is.
When a powerful Mexican crime lord only referred to as El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez) learns the identity of the father of his pregnant daughter’s child, he issues a command to have the man’s head brought to him at a hefty price. Those involved in the search for Alfredo Garcia include a pair of conservatively dressed hitmen (Robert Webber and Gig Young) who begin to comb Mexico City, showing the man’s photo wherever they can and eventually wander into a bar where they encounter a piano player named Bennie (Warren Oates) who thinks he might be able to help them. Bennie knows more than he’s saying of course and has to go no further than prostitute girlfriend Elita (Isela Vega) who had an affair with Alfredo Garcia and knows full well that he’s already dead, killed just days before in a drunken car crash. Intending to find the body, Bennie makes a deal with the hitmen that he will deliver the head without revealing what he knows and sets off on a road trip with Elita through Mexico in search of where Alfredo Garcia is buried that definitely doesn’t go as planned.
The gentle sounds of the voice of the forever amazing Isela Vega as she quietly plays her guitar waft out of the screen on occasion, giving the momentary impression of a gentle romance between these two damaged lovers, sometimes interrupted by the slow-mo nastiness of the bad guys following them trying to keep from colliding with a bus and eventually any form of gentleness that comes from the scenic Mexican countryside just washes away, impossible to find even when it’s right in the center of frame. Along with the deceptively calm and serene feel in the opening frames are points when Oates and Vega are just ambling down the road in his beat up red Chevy Impala there is a carefree feel in the air, two people both considerably damaged yet content for a little while to do nothing but just toss back a few more hits of booze but that feel never lasts for very long and the slightly dirty sheen to the film stock it seems to be shot on permeates everything. Even the day for night process used for several scenes is strangely effective in this context, lending a feel that isn’t quite dreamlike but not any sort of reality either, maybe just a haze of booze that the characters are trying to see through. Much of BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, screenplay by Gordon Dawson and Peckinpah from a story by Frank Kowalski and Peckinpah, is a road movie just like THE GETAWAY was, but when this one begins we’re already over the border and the two stars feel considerably more lived in than McQueen and MacGraw ever do in their film, much more actually a part of this landscape. They feel already worn, used up, almost ready to resign themselves to their booze-filled future. Even the handful of familiar faces that turn up throughout feel more an organic part of this bizarre world than the well-known supporting players in the earlier film. The film is nasty. It’s dirty. It’s unpleasant and it’s not even always good.
From the very beginning BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is undeniably compelling, but at times somewhat ramshackle in its pacing and staging as it becomes hard to figure out just why this guy playing piano in a bar is suddenly the film’s lead character or just what the deal is with these Nixon-era gangsters in tailored suits looking down their nose at Bennie—the pairing of “Special Guest Stars” Robert Webber and Gig Young come off as the more vicious, businessman-like and oddly more human Peckinpah version of Mr. Kidd & Mr. Wint in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. The film picks up considerably as the narrative zeros in on the damaged pairing of Bennie and Elita drifting down the road as Peckinapah’s camera continually pauses to take in the surroundings, two people who don’t know how to make this relationship come together in a rational way even if they knew how to try but there’s a connection between the two of them regardless—there’s a scene with them relaxing off the road by a tree where she asks him why he hasn’t asked her to get married that is pretty goddamn amazing—with this section of the film finally culminating in a sequence involving a pair of bikers, one memorably played by Kris Kristofferson, that is difficult to pin down in what it seems to be saying about possible male-female relationships on any level and would probably cause a disconnect with almost anyone watching it. At the least, I’m never pulling this film out on a first date. I can’t defend this scene. I don’t even understand it and I’m not sure I want to understand it though I have a feeling Peckinpah, for right or wrong, did. You can complain about his gender politics but based on this film you can never say that his women are passive in the way that any number of female characters in any number of other action films are, something which probably hasn’t been noted enough. It’s clear that in his own way he loved the women in his films. He was fascinated by them. And he probably wished that he could somehow figure them out.
The Kristofferson scene in question is problematic, and also strangely apart from everything else, but instead of destroying the film it acts as a splash of cold water on its own face. The pacing gets sharper after this point, the intent gets deadlier, almost as if it mirrors Bennie’s growing determination at digging up that head, damn it, and the relationship between the two becomes that much more affecting—there’s one scene following where Bennie tells Elita, “I love you” that frankly is fucking beautiful and I feel like I have to phrase it that way to get the point across. The imagery becomes deadlier (passing a funeral with a small child’s coffin has to be a symbol for all sorts of things, none of them good) through the existential vibe of how as far as Bennie is concerned this excursion in search of Alfredo Garcia’s head and desecration of his grave is really his last chance, there’s not going to be any more slick money guys wandering into the bar where he’s playing piano anymore and maybe Peckinpah didn’t see many more chances to make the films he wanted to make either which may be what this quest for a dead man’s head may be about as much as anything. At times like a drunken fever dream filtered through the haunting beauty of Jerry Fielding’s score, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA seems to put itself together as it goes on, becoming increasingly more coherent in every bit of its primal nature that by a certain point cannot be stopped. There is no relief and almost no redemption with the possible exception of an appearance by a boy played by Ahui Camacho who Oates deals with in one scene late in the film—the boy displays such sad innocence in the middle of all this nastiness that I find myself feeling enormously sorry for him, wishing he didn’t have to wander into this film however briefly, and feel a little relieved that even Bennie seems to know to keep him away from what’s really going on.
There’s humor sprinkled throughout like the bit with the passing tour bus but the whole film is in many ways the darkest of dark comedies, a defiant spit in the eye of convention, a point of absurdity every time I think about how Warren Oates, resembling Peckinpah considerably, barely ever seems to remove his giant sunglasses, a touch that I seriously wonder if it might be something the characterization of The Blues Brothers was inspired by (Incidentally—if I’m ever involved in a shootout indoors I’m taking my sunglasses off. It just seems like common sense). The main goal of the film’s protagonist is totally ludicrous when you come right down to it, with Bennie’s obsession eventually going far beyond the money he’s owed, but the film seems to accept it as no more so than anything else in life. And besides, by a certain point in life when you’ve had enough letdowns, what sort of goal isn’t ludicrous? “I’ve never been to any place I’d want to go back to, that’s for sure,” he says at one point and the film seems to be about pressing on in this world regardless of all the madness that’s going on and all the flies that are circling ominously around Alfredo Garcia’s head to the point that it feels like the stench of death, of doom, that will never fully leave. As if to go against what the lead character has to say, the final sequence of the film takes us back to where we began. Bennie hasn’t been there yet but we have and this return brings us back to the roots of the madness of it all, a place that there is no exit from and all that remains to be done is to keep crashing your way through for as long as possible, even if you know all along how it has to end. The last five minutes are about as true to itself as any movie ever made. It’s alive like few other films ever are in a genuinely defiant way.
I know that I’ll never be as cool as some people. I’ll never be Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Harrison Ford, you name it. If I’m lucky, I’ll be Eddie Bracken. And I also know that I’ll never be Warren Oates who, even as a total loser in playing Bennie is cool in a way that I’ll never reach, playing what has to have been the greatest role the actor ever had in a life that was cut way too short and it truly seems like a performance by a man who is never acting. It’s like he’s truly become this guy down to his very core and at the same time would do anything possible to not be him. It’s truly unforgettable to watch Warren Oates here and it proves that there was never anyone else like him. Not to mention that he looks damn great in those sunglasses, too. Playing against him, Isela Vega is rather extraordinary in a way that I almost can’t put into words, bringing a level of dignity and true lifeforce to a sort of role that in any other hands might just be a cardboard stereotype. She never feels like she’s acting--at any given moment it feels as if there are a hundred thoughts going through her mind that she’ll never put into words for anyone else so instead she just presents herself as she is, with every bit of serenity and humiliation that she displays. There are memorable moments by other actors throughout—Gig Young removes the shell off a hard-boiled egg like no other man—but it’s the two of them that matter here more than anything, a romantic coupling that is unlike any other.
The film has become a slight pop culture punchline (a reference in FLETCH, the TV movie BRING ME THE HEAD OF DOBIE GILLIS) and by this point the title is probably known by people who have no idea what the reference point actually is. As trashed as it was by various critics when it was released the film did have its defenders—Roger Ebert gave it four stars and called it, “some kind of bizarre masterpiece.” Adding to this bizarreness is how, as far as I can tell, the credit font used is the exact same kind as on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (why do I notice these things?)—what the line between Alfredo Garcia and Laura Ingalls could possibly be I have no idea. And as the cult of Peckinpah lives on in whatever form it does these days the reputation of the film has grown as it becomes clear of the unremittingly ugly portrayal of the world that’s presented here along with the beauty that can be found in that ugliness, not to mention just how flat out cool Warren Oates is, even if it sometimes seems like he won’t be able to cross to the other side of the room. The Hail Mary feel of what Bennie finally does feels like a culmination of everything the director would want to express in his entire directing career and indeed he apparently stated that this film was as close to “pure Peckinpah” as he ever got to make, proving true Bennie’s offhand comment, “Nobody loses all the time.” At this point in my life, where I almost couldn’t feel more lost, I’m starting to hope that statement is true and I could honestly use that sort of optimism. Now that I think about it, what does it matter whether I fully understand the film or not? Where is it written that we have to understand everything we see? One of the problems with offering opinions on movies is that people have perceptions of them, what they should be, what they are, how similar they are to other films we might prefer, other movies that are more normal. BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA isn’t really like anything. And there never will be anything like it again.